Legacy of Maimonides

The Israel Museum’s new exhibition brings the Rambam to life through rare manuscripts and his own signature.

Most of us have heard the name Maimonides. One does not necessarily have to be a Torah scholar or even have spent time in yeshiva to know of the medieval Sephardic philosopher who was one of the most influential rabbis and Jewish writers ever.
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon – aka the Rambam, aka Maimonides – lived in the 12th century in present-day Spain, Morocco, and Egypt. In addition to being a philosopher, astronomer, scientist and physician, he authored some of our most important Jewish works: his commentary on the Mishnah, Mishneh Torah and the Guide for the Perplexed. His multi-faceted careers and interests, as well as his cross-cultural recognition as a Jewish leader, is what makes the Israel Museum’s new exhibition, “A Legacy in Script,” so compelling. The exhibition, presented in partnership with the National Library of Israel and curated by Daisy Raccah-Djivre, Anna Nizza Caplan and Miki Joelson, is an astounding display of manuscripts from diverse geocultural backgrounds that stands as a testament to the depth and duration of Maimonides’ legacy on and off the page.
“A Legacy in Script” features 14 manuscripts in total and boasts something particularly unique: Maimonides’s own signature, alongside a manuscript attributed to his own handwriting of one of his earlier works regarding the connection between Torah and science, and his overarching goal to make Halacha (Jewish law) widely accessible.
“Maimonides was a central personality who was very influential not only in Judaism, but in general,” Caplan says. “We wanted to show him through his manuscripts, which are his legacy. The manuscripts we are showing now are a witness to his influence around the world in his time. It is a legacy that has significant influence even now. We wanted to show the illuminated manuscripts together with a special installation that we had commissioned that includes miniature scenes showing a multi-sensory glimpse into his life. We were inspired by quotations from him to create that.
All together, we want to present Maimonides fully and enable the viewer to feel his presence as much as possible. We think that it’s a very central and relevant subject.”
THE CORNERSTONE of the exhibition is Maimonides’ own signature on a version of the Mishneh Torah that he approved. There are also two commentaries on the Mishneh that are considered autographed copies, as they were his own copies that subsequently stayed in his family for generations. The other 11 manuscripts on display are later copies of the Mishneh Torah, the Guide for the Perplexed and some medical works, made in different places and times (from Northern France in 1295 to Barcelona in 1347, for example). They reflect the times in which they were made and many are beautifully and intricately illustrated. They also come from a wide variety of institutions, such as the Vatican Library and the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen, showcasing the breadth of the Rambam’s influence.
“You can see how Maimonides was accepted and learned in all these different communities throughout time and place,” Caplan shares. “The later manuscripts are illuminated, meaning they were decorated in the highest quality with gold leaf and precious pigments from the best local artists. You can see that the people who commissioned these books held Maimonides in the highest esteem and wanted them to be luxurious. They were expensive, but they also were for learning. Usually we see illuminated books such as siddurim or haggadot. These are unique. There is a richly illuminated medical manuscript that we brought from Paris. We tried to bring the viewer into a cultural encounter, together with a religious and historical one, and we created a narrative through these manuscripts in the exhibition.”
The exhibition is unique in another sense as well. It is bringing people to the museum from all sectors of Israeli society – from ardent students of Maimonides who may not normally frequent the museum to those drawn to the more artistic side of the exhibition. “A Legacy in Print” is effective because it works on several levels at once.
“Our goal with the exhibition was to reach everybody, the way Maimonides himself was able to reach everybody, as much as was possible,” Caplan explains. “He said that everybody should study according to their level. This exhibition is for students of Maimonides as much as it is for those who know nothing about him. We really wanted to make him come alive.”
There is an installation with display windows in the center of the room called “In Maimonides’ Voice.” The viewer can pick up a headphone and listen to specially selected quotes from Maimonides that were recorded in English, Hebrew, and Arabic, which of course was the language he wrote in originally. The museum commissioned the visual scenes from Tom & Hani Animation Studio, adding to the vibrancy of the overall presentation. The idea was to show people how he lived and thought. One quote, taken from later in his life when he was a practicing physician, tells of how he was working so much that he didn’t have time to study Torah during the day. The quote was taken from a letter written to one of his students, describing his day-to-day life after the death of his brother, David, who supported the family before tragically drowning. Maimonides was depressed for a year afterward, which he also wrote about in a letter to a friend.
“The integration between the installation and the manuscripts is very powerful,” Caplan adds. “You feel that it is something special and unique when you step into the exhibition. Luckily, we have a lot of documentation about Maimonides. We don’t have Rashi’s signature, for instance.”
There is another quote about how Maimonides came to write Mishneh Torah and the Guide to the Perplexed. His sense of mission to transmit knowledge to the following generations is palpable. It is reasonable to assume that this was due to the fact that he lived in a time where Jews were vigorously persecuted and felt that if things weren’t written down, they would be forgotten.
“He felt a real responsibility for the whole Jewish nation,” Caplan says. “He was a great leader for that reason. His approach was to know the world according to general knowledge – that also was Torah. That was very modern for his time. He taught how to live correctly and in a healthy way both physically and morally; body and soul. Then we have the fact that he was crucial from the halachic point of view; there was never another book like Mishneh Torah that organized Halacha in such a way.”
“A LEGACY in Script” shines when it showcases Maimonides’ well-known works, but also his lesser-known attributes, such as his dedicated leadership in the Yemenite community, which turned to him when they were being persecuted. He wanted to help them and they, in turn, were extremely encouraged by his support and spiritual guidance. One of the manuscripts on display was from Yemen in the 15th century. Although it is not decorated artistically like the ones from Europe, there is commentary in the margins, showing how much it was studied and cherished. It is also the only manuscript in Arabic.
“This process [of curating the exhibition] has been such a learning experience for me, Caplan shares. “My master’s thesis was on Maimonides, but this exhibition has been an ongoing learning process of this thoughts and his legacy. The past two years have been really enriching for me. On one hand, he is well known, but on the other hand, there are people who still don’t know much about him. Our main challenge was to engage people so that they would walk away having learned something new about him. The exhibition space is small. We have been scheduling groups in order for it to not become too full, so that people can really take it in. That’s the most important thing for us.”
For more information about A Legacy in Script and the complementary exhibition on display at the National Library, please visit: