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Thursday, February 20, 2020

I decided to continue with the Maimonides’ letters topic for another week. This time I will write about my third-favorite letter of Maimonides, a letter to the rabbis of Lunel (a city in southern France). This letter was composed in the year 1200, four years before Maimonides passed away. Maimonides had been living in Egypt since about 1166.

The background to this letter is as follows. In 1194, the rabbis of Lunel wrote to Maimonides for the first time, asking about the validity of astrology. Maimonides replied that it is not a science and is foolishness. Thereafter, the rabbis of Lunel sent him a few other letters. For example, they asked him some respectful questions on his Mishneh Torah.

The scholar Joel Kraemer writes: “It was uplifting for [Maimonides] to receive letters from scholars who appreciated what he had done and asked friendly and constructive questions, although Abraham ben David of Posquières, who wrote animadversions on the Mishneh Torah, belonged to this circle… After Maimonides had worked for 10 years on the Mishneh Torah, learned colleagues found it wanting, accused him of self-aggrandizement, and tried to destroy his reputation. Now in southern France he found scholars who valued his work, who were sincerely puzzled by some passages, and addressed him with veneration. The Spanish origin of many Provencal scholars surely pleased him. His hopes for a continuation of learning were centered in southern France...” See J. Kraemer, “Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds” (2008), p. 432.

As further background, Maimonides completed his “Guide to the Perplexed” around 1191. But it was composed in Arabic. The rabbis of Lunel could not read Arabic and asked that Maimonides translate it into Hebrew, along with some of his other works.

Here is the main part of the interesting letter that Maimonides wrote to the rabbis of Lunel in the year 1200:

“ …I am forwarding to you now the third part of the Guide…in the Arabic language. However, with regard to your request that I may translate the text into the holy tongue for you, I myself could wish that I were young enough to be able to fulfill your wish concerning this and the other works that I have composed in the language of Ishmael…But I must blame the unfavorable times for preventing me from doing so. I have not even time to work out and to improve my commentaries and other works composed in the rabbinic language, which contain various obscurities, in order to arrange new editions—to say nothing of making translations from one language into another…

But you have in your midst the learned and well-instructed R. Samuel ben Judah (Ibn Tibbon), on whom the Lord has bestowed the necessary insight and excellent penmanship for performing the translation you have asked for. I have already written to him about this subject.

To you, my honored friends, may you remain confident and strong, I have now to tell the truth: You, members of the congregation of Lunel, and of the neighboring towns, stand alone in raising the banner of Moses. You apply yourselves to the study of the Talmud and also cherish wisdom. The study of Torah in our communities has ceased; most of the bigger congregations are dead to spiritual aims; the remaining communities are facing the end. In the whole of Palestine there are three or four places only, and even these are weak, and in the whole of Syria none but a few in Aleppo occupy themselves with the Torah according to the truth, but they have it not much at heart. In the Babylonian Diaspora there are only two or three groups in Yemen, and in the rest of Arabia they know little of the Talmud and are merely acquainted with aggadic exposition.

Only lately some well-to-do men came forward and purchased three copies of my code that they distributed through messengers in these countries, one copy for each country. Thus the horizon of these Jews was widened and the religious life in all communities as far as India revived. The Jews of India know nothing of the Torah and of the laws, save the Sabbath and circumcision. In the towns of Berbery which belong to the realm of Islam, the Jews read the Torah and observe it according to its literal meaning. What was inflicted upon the Jews of Maghreb as punishment for their sins you know.

Therefore, be firm and courageous for the sake of our people and our God; make up your minds to remain brave men. Everything depends on you; the decision is in your hands. Do not rely upon my support, because I am an old man with gray hair. And know that for this not my age but my weak body is responsible…”

(The above translation of this Hebrew letter is taken from “A Maimonides Reader” by I. Twersky. A slightly different text is printed in Y. Shailat, Iggerot Ha-Rambam, vol. 2. There are two surviving manuscripts of this letter. They differ slightly.)

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1. This letter is interesting because of the broad survey of the Jewish communities that Maimonides undertakes. He describes Torah learning as dying or deteriorating everywhere and believes that the future of Judaism depends on the community of Lunel. (Maimonides says this earlier in the letter as well, in a portion of the letter not included by Twersky: “ha-Torah…lahem levadam hi hayom le-morashah, adat Lunel.”)

Another thing I always found interesting about this letter is Maimonides’ failure to mention the communities of northern France and Germany, where there was much Torah learning going on in the year 1200. Today we can name dozens of cities and many learned Rishonim from this broad region from this time.

When I first observed this omission, I thought it reflected some type of implicit criticism by Maimonides of the method of learning in northern France and Germany. But then Rabbi Kanarfogel pointed out to me that I was reading too much into the omission. Maimonides had been living in Egypt for about 34 years when he wrote this letter. By that time, the communities of northern France and Germany were probably just not on his radar. As noted in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (11:757), we have evidence of Maimonides corresponding with every part of the Jewish world, except for the area of northern France and Germany.

That what was going on in northern France and Germany was off Maimonides’ radar is hard for us moderns to imagine. Every Shabbat I turn the pages of a certain weekly Jewish newspaper and without even trying I am informed of the happenings in far-off Jewish communities such as Ireland, Australia and India, just to name a few examples.

The letter did refer to “members of the congregation of Lunel, and of the neighboring towns.” Perhaps the latter phrase (“ve-chol he-arim asher sevivoteichem”) was meant to include the towns of northern France and Germany, but a fair reading of the entire letter makes this interpretation unlikely.

2. The text of the letter printed by Shailat adds an additional phrase. Maimonides tells the rabbis of Lunel: “ve-aleichem mitzvat yibum, o chalotz o yabem.” Here Maimonides is comparing the Torah, now being abandoned in most communities, to a widow. He is encouraging the rabbis of Lunel to do the proper thing and “marry it,” rather than let it remain abandoned.

3. I always enjoy Maimonides’ comment about being proud of one Mishneh Torah being sent to each of three countries. If one make an assumption of two boys in each Teaneck family, with each getting three sets of Mishneh Torah as bar-mitzvah presents (as is often the case!), plus the sets of Mishneh Torah owned by their fathers, we may have 10,000 sets in Teaneck alone!

By Mitchell First


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] Like Maimonides, he hopes to have his books sent to faraway venues to revive Jewish learning. Unlike Samuel ibn Tibbon, his handwriting has always been horrendous.

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.