Mosheh ben Maimon

Mosheh ben Maimon was a scholar, judge and medical doctor, born into an influential Jewish family in Córdoba in 1135. He is known as “Musa Ibn Maymun” in Arabic and as “Moses Maimonides” in Latin. Ben Maimon was trained both in the Jewish and the Arabic intellectual traditions and he wrote in Judeo-Arabic, a classical form of Arabic which used the Hebrew script. Ben Maimon is most famous as the author of the fourteen volume Mishneh Torah, a sprawling collection containing all the laws and regulations that govern Jewish life. The Mishneh Torah is widely read and commented on to this day.

In 1148, when the Almohad rulers of al-Andalus imposed their religious reforms on their subjects, Christians and Jews were required to either convert or be killed. Ben Maimon and his family escaped to Egypt which at the time was run by the Fatimid caliphs, a far more tolerant regime. In Cairo he established himself as an interpreter of the Torah and as a teacher in the Jewish community. This is also when he wrote his most famous philosophical work, Guide for the Perplexed.

We are very knowledgeable about Ben Maimon’s life thanks to the Cairo Geniza, a collection of up to 300,000 fragments of manuscripts discovered in the synagogue in Cairo. Since Jews were afraid to throw away any piece of paper which may have the name of God written on it, they ended up with a very large collection of scraps of papers of various kinds. The texts were preserved to this day in the Geniza and this includes Ben Maimon’s personal notes and correspondence.

Ben Maimon is buried in Tiberias, in what today is Israel. On his death, the story goes, he wanted to be buried in the land of his forefathers. Yet Ben Maimon would no doubt have objected to being made into an Israeli citizen after his death. More than anyone else Ben Maimon symbolized the very tight connection between the Muslim and the Jewish heritage. Meanwhile the Jewish community in Cairo which as recently as in the 1920s comprised some 80,000 people has dwindled to fewer than 200 today. There is a tradition among them that Ben Maimon’s body never was transferred to Tiberias and that he still is buried in Cairo.

External links:

In Our Time, “Maimonides”

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, “Sarah Stroumsa on Maimonides”

15 Minute History, “The Fatimids”