A medieval Jew’s Google

Even before he began, Maimonides was confident that Jews would need only two works for religious guidance.

Mishne Torah 311 (photo credit: Ron Peled)
Mishne Torah 311
(photo credit: Ron Peled)
The waters of the Nile continued to flow serenely by but to Maimonides, living on its banks, the view of the world beyond was apocalyptic.
In southern Spain and across most of North Africa, the fanatical Almohads were forcing Jewish communities to convert en masse to Islam. In Yemen, Jews were being forced to choose between death and conversion by Shi’ite rebels who seized power. In the east, the Jewish community of Babylon had lost its once-eminent scholars and communal leaders to inconsequential heirs. Almost everywhere in the Islamic world instability had broken the continuum of Jewish communal life, creating despair so deep that false messiahs were appearing and some community leaders were voluntarily converting to the dominant religion.
Appalled by the wavering of religious conviction that was sapping the vitality of the nation, Maimonides decided on a project breathtaking in scope and audacity – to singlehandedly compile a new code of Jewish law that would provide focus to a faltering belief system. The code would be based on the laws set forth in the Talmud but would avoid the randomness of talmudic exposition. Clarity of organization and style would make his work accessible to all. Even before he began, Maimonides was confident that the only two works Jews would need for religious guidance in the future would be the Bible and his own recasting of the talmudic code. His purpose was to clarify the Talmud, not negate it, but he did permit himself some divergences.
Maimonides had himself been caught up in the turmoil of the times. Born Moshe ben Maimon in Cordoba in 1138, he was uprooted with his family by the Almohads and resided for several years in Fez in modern-day Morocco, where the family had to pretend to be converts to Islam. He clandestinely studied Jewish branches of learning as well as mathematics and astronomy with his father, a distinguished talmudist, while studying medicine, philosophy and science with Islamic scholars.
Making their way eventually to Egypt, the family settled in Fustat, outside Cairo. Moshe – who would come to be known by his Greek name, Maimonides – established himself as a rabbi after a brief period as a businessman. His profound knowledge of Jewish law, his intellect and his strong character won him recognition as both a religious authority and a communal leader. For his livelihood, he practiced medicine and in time became a physician at the court of the sultan, Saladin.
Maimonides completed the legal codification, which he termed the Mishne Torah, in 1180, 10 years after starting. Its impact on the Jewish world, from France to India, was swift and powerful. “In Spain, it was said, everyone copied it for himself,” wrote the eminent 19th-century historian Heinrich Graetz. “The Jewish mind was absorbed by it. Young and old gathered together in order to master its contents.”
About 1457, just after the printing press was invented in Germany but before it had become ubiquitous, one of the last handwritten copies of the Mishne Torah ever composed, and almost certainly the most beautiful, was ordered by a wealthy Jew in northern Italy whose name, according to the inscription at the end of the text, was Moses Anav, son of I(saac?). The name of the scribe is given as Nehemia. Researchers are inclined to believe the manuscript was produced in Lombardy. (Milan, the capital of Lombardy, was an important artistic center at the time.)
The elegant script was illuminated by Renaissance artists who executed six painted panels and set off the beginnings of selected chapters with 41 miniature illustrations. The manuscript was divided into two volumes, the first of which eventually made its way to the Vatican library. In 2005, the Vatican loaned it temporarily to the Israel Museum, which was celebrating its 40th anniversary.
The second volume ended up in the Frankfurt Municipal Library where it survived World War II. In 1950 it was acquired by a Jewish family in Frankfurt, which sold it three years ago to American philanthropist Michael Steinhardt. He and his wife, Judy, presented it to the Israel Museum for restoration and as a long-term loan. It will be put on display on July 26 with completion of the museum’s $100 million refurbishing, which has closed off most of the complex for the past three years.
FEW OF the visitors who pause to admire the manuscript’s paintings and script will be aware of the drama behind the text which was spawned by the unsettled times. Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson, president of the Hebrew University and an authority on medieval Jewry, notes that Jews had moved from place to place in the centuries preceding Maimonides, but they had taken with them their religious traditions and a sense of connection to their past lives. In Maimonides’s time, migration gave way to forcible uprootings and chaos in which tradition and communal adhesion were dissipated. Maimonides’s object was to provide guidance for a generation cut off from its roots by spelling out a clear set of laws and rituals.
By avoiding the often rambling approach of the Talmud and making it easy for laymen as well as scholars to find their way through the thicket of the law, Maimonides was providing a service not unlike that of Google today. Wrote Graetz: “His was a thoroughly logical mind, which had the power of grouping and arranging the greatest and smallest things. Only a mind accustomed to think clearly and systematically and filled with the genius of order, could have planned and built a structure like this.”
Maimonides avoided the dialectical arguments that mark the Talmud. Where the Talmud recorded differences of opinion regarding certain laws, the Mishne Torah pointedly did not. Maimonides believed, wrote Graetz, “that a genuine tradition must never, during its transmission from generation to generation, be exposed to doubt.”
Unlike the Talmud, Maimonides framed his legal code with philosophic overviews. Where the Talmud begins with a response to a practical question – “At what time is the Shema to be said in the evening,” the Mishne Torah begins thus: “The foundation and pillar of all wisdom is to recognize that there is an original being, who called all creatures into existence.”
There were contemporary critics who believed that Maimonides’s scholarly self-assurance carried him much too far, since he did not deign to cite his sources or offer an explanation of how his conclusions were reached. These objections would in time fade before the majesty of his composition and because of the compilation by other scholars of most of the sources used by Maimonides.
Apart from his religious and philosophic writings, his rabbinical role and his duties as a physician, Maimonides was also for many years the head of the Jewish community in Egypt, a role that tapped his political and administrative side. He was the leading Jewish representative to the authorities in Cairo and his advice was sought even by Jewish communities abroad. One of his important roles was to mobilize funds for the ransom of Jews captured by pirates, a frequent event. In one instance, when pirates demanded a ransom higher than the standard rate, Maimonides refused to pay because it could set a dangerous precedent that would make it difficult to ransom hostages in the future.
In one of his letters, he describes an average workday in which hereturns from his medical duties in the king’s palace, including tendingthe ladies of the harem, to find a large crowd of patients, both Jewsand Muslims, waiting for him. “There scarcely remains time for me todismount, wash myself and take some refreshment. Thus it continues[seeing patients] until night and then, worn out, I retire.”
The only time he could find to deal with communal affairs was onShabbat. “I am accustomed on this day to dispose of the affairs of thecommunity for the following week and to hold a discourse.” Individualswith personal requests were encouraged to submit a note rather thanseek an interview. He would generally reply on the back of the noteitself.
In time, Maimonides’s codification of talmudic law would be replaced asa practical legal guide by other works, most notably theShulhan Aruch, drawn up in the 16th century by RabbiYosef Karo in Safed. And Talmud study, which he assumed would beshunted aside by his work, would instead come to flourish. But theMishne Torah, an intellectual achievement which hadpropped up the Jewish world in a period of deep crisis, still carriescanonical authority. Its formulation helped establish Maimonides’sreputation as perhaps the greatest figure in Jewish history since thebiblical period.
“The most learned men,” wrote Graetz, “subordinated themselves to hisjudgment and solicited his judgment in the most humble manner. He wasregarded as chief authority for the whole Jewish world, which reveredhim as its noblest representative.”
What the illuminated manuscript of the Mishne Torahilluminates most tellingly is the extraordinary mind and character ofMoshe ben Maimon.