A legacy in script

A fascinating Maimonides exhibit opens at the Israel Museum.

The entrance to the Israel Museum exhibition on Maimonides (photo credit: ELIE POSNER / ISRAEL MUSEUM)
The entrance to the Israel Museum exhibition on Maimonides
For a short four months, visitors to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem have the unique opportunity of seeing 14 rare illuminated original manuscripts highlighting the central role medieval Sephardi Jewish philosopher, physician and Torah scholar Maimonides has played in Jewish thought even up till today.
Born as Moses ben Maimon in Córdoba, Spain, in 1135, Maimonides is also known by the acronym Rambam — Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon — and is considered to be the foremost intellectual figure of medieval Judaism. Besides being the personal physician to the Sultan, he was also an important figure in medieval philosophy, astronomy and medicine.
Brought to the Israel Museum on loan from eight international institutions and one private collection, the manuscripts in the exhibit present one of the most comprehensive collections of Maimonides’ original writings including manuscripts created in diverse locations such as France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Yemen.
“In this exhibit we get to see the Rambam at a depth and breadth that we haven’t seen before,” says Hebrew University Chancellor and history of the Jewish people professor Menahem Ben-Sasson, who was among the scholars consulted by the curators as they prepared the exhibit. “He saw it as [his] mission to the Jewish world to be updated and make [Halacha] relevant to everyone. Here we can see how important and how respected his books were for his students and other generations who copied his works, and the beauty of the manuscripts. Now they have all returned to Jerusalem.”
Though the manuscripts are displayed in a special exhibition hall specifically designed to house ancient manuscripts with its special lighting and temperature-controlled vitrines, they can only be exposed to light for 4.5 months because of conservation norms. The exhibition will be on show from December 11, 2018, through April 28, 2019.
Among the rare manuscripts from Maimonides’ own time on display at the exhibition is the authorized proofread version of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, bearing Maimonides’ signature and containing the inscription written in his own hand, “it has been corrected from my own book,” on loan from the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.
“I can’t exaggerate how important it is that we have the privilege to show this manuscript,” says exhibit associate curator Miki Joelson, describing the extreme precautions that were taken in transferring the manuscript from the special crate in which it arrived and placing it in the vitrine. “These are moments you can’t forget.”
She noted the importance of having the exhibit presented in Hebrew and English, as well as Arabic, including the audio guide, in order to make it accessible to the widest audience possible, which is what Maimonides intended for his works.
The biggest challenge the curators faced was having to choose which of the available manuscripts to include in the exhibit because of the limited number of vitrines, says exhibit curator Anna Nizza Caplan.
At first there was some concern on the part of some of the institutions about moving the valuable manuscripts from the “safety” of Europe to the Middle East, but they were overcome in the end. Special security measures were taken in the transfer of the manuscripts to Israel, and each manuscript was transported on an individual flight to Israel in order to avoid any possibility of theft.
The manuscripts are on loan from various institutions including the British Library, New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the Vatican Apostolic Library, the French National Library in Paris and the Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries.
Another central manuscript featured in the exhibition is Volume II of the Mishneh Torah from northern Italy, thought to be from approximately 1457 and jointly owned by the Israel Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Volume I of the manuscript, which is owned by the Vatican Library, is also on display.
An illuminated medical manuscript on display testifies to Maimonides’ stature as physician to the royal family of Egypt. When his brother, who was the provider for his whole family as a merchant of precious gems died at sea, Maimonides was forced to take on the medical profession at the age of 37 to support the family since he opposed profiting from the teaching or study of Torah.
The exhibit, titled “Maimonides: A Legacy in Script,” is an attempt to shed light on his multifaceted persona, Nizza Caplan says, through illuminated manuscripts such as the Mishneh Torah, a work that standardized and codified Jewish law, making it accessible to all levels of intellectual understanding, and an array of his innovative philosophical treatises that highlight the connection between science, general studies, and Torah, which culminated in his Guide of the Perplexed.
“Maimonides is like a mirror. He speaks to everybody and at all levels from the Haredi and ultra-Orthodox because of the Halacha, to secular Jews because of his philosophical work. He was able to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy with Halacha on a practical level and on the highest level of philosophical understanding of the purpose of the creator and of creation itself,” says Nizza Caplan. “He wanted to reach everyone, even as far as the Yemenite community. Even people who are opposed to his writings are still relating to it. We have a man who was, and is, a central figure not only in the Jewish world but in the world at large. In the exhibition we show the importance of Rambam in all these areas and his legacy to us today.”
Indeed, as Maimonides has a different meaning for different people, the opening of the exhibition welcomed an interesting mix of guests, with members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community mingling with Spanish diplomats and representatives of the Vatican, including the chief archivist who came to Israel especially for the opening.
His approach to combining general studies with Torah studies, of making Jewish law accessible to all, encouraging moderation in all aspects of life and his holistic guidelines on nutrition and preventive medicine were well before his time and are still studied today in diverse academic, rabbinical, and popular circles, she says.
Doctors throughout the Middle Ages continued to study his writings alongside those of the classic physicians, Hippocrates and Galen.
 “He talked about the importance of diet and seeing the patient as a person, not just an illness, something which is very relevant today. People are talking about this approach now, and he was talking about it already 800 years ago,” says Nizza Caplan.
His writings also address basic issues such as the nature of the human soul, faith and the relationship between Man and God, and ethical conduct, she says.
Maimonides and his family fled to Morocco escaping the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition, which forced the conversion of Jews. The family later settled in Egypt. Maimonides wrote his most important works in these two countries.
Aware of the difficult persecutions Jewish communities in both Islamic and Christian countries suffered, Maimonides worried about the physical and spiritual survival of the Jewish communities worldwide and was determined to help ensure their continuity. He produced three groundbreaking works, which, in addition to the Mishneh Torah and The Guide of the Perplexed, include the Commentary on the Mishnah.
In Cairo, Maimonides became the leader of the Jewish community, and also practiced medicine. He died in 1204, and tradition says his remains were transferred to the land of Israel at his request, and he was buried in Tiberias.
The exhibition is the culmination of a two-part collaborative project of the Israel Museum and the National Library of Israel supported by the Maimonides Fund. The Israel Museum exhibit is also sponsored by René and Susanne Braginsky of Zurich, Switzerland. The National Library scanned and digitized all the manuscripts in the Israel Museum exhibit and hosted a sold-out international symposium between December 11 and 13, featuring leading Maimonides scholars from around the world, as well as presenting its own special exhibit, “Maimonides: From Print to Digital.”
“We were struggling to come up with a name for the exhibit and the one word that kept coming up is ‘genius,’” says Joelson. “I compare him to Leonardo da Vinci or Galileo Galilei. He left a mark on the world and changed the way of thinking, especially in the Jewish realm.”