Moses Maimonides, also known as Rambam, was a major medieval Jewish scholar, philosopher, and physician. Much of his writing is still popular and studied as an important contribution to Jewish thought.
Maimonides was born in 1135 in the city of Cordoba, in what is modern Spain. At the time of his birth, Cordoba was under the political rule of the Islamic Almoravid dynasty. Relatively tolerant, the Almoravids allowed their citizens more tolerant religious freedom. Maimonides grew up in this culture for his first thirteen years of life.
His life changed drastically when Cordoba was invaded and captured by the more fanatical Almohads in 1148. The Jewish community of Cordoba was faced with an ultimatum, submit to Islam or be expelled. Many Jews left, but Maimonides and his family decided to remain, outwardly complying with Muslim rules while privately practicing and studying Judaism.
As it became more difficult to keep their Judaism private, the family left Cordoba in 1159 for Fez, Morocco. Still under Almohad rule, Maimonides continued to study, specializing in rabbinics, Greek philosophy, and medicine. In 1165, the family was forced to leave again, this time traveling a long distance to eventually settle down near Cairo in Egypt, where Jews were allowed to publicly practice their faith.
In his youth, Rambam was considered an exceptional student, constantly absorbing both his religious and secular studies. Despite needing to move every few years, his education continued. In particular, young Maimonides excelled at medicine, rabbinics, and Greek philosophy.
Along with early nomadic living conditions based on constant persecution, Rambam had his share of personal problems to deal with. His father passed away shortly after the family arrived in Egypt. His younger brother, David, was a successful merchant who died in a shipwreck. Maimonides remained as the only financial support for the family. With that in mind, he focused on a career in medicine, and excelled as a well known physician. He had a private practice and also taught at a state hospital. But his biggest post was to be assigned as personal court physician to the Muslim sultan Saladin.
Maimonides became a leader among the community, not only in Egypt but throughout the Jewish world. When not practicing medicine, Rambam’s days and evenings were filled with correspondence, answering legal and moral questions put to him. But his two most important works were the composition of the Mishneh Torah and the Guide of the Perplexed.
Comprised of 14 books, the Mishneh Torah was still being edited at Maimonides’ death. The work was a comprehensive code of Jewish law (Halacha). It was well organized and written in Hebrew, meant to be accessible to all. One of the most enduring of his writing was a summary of the teachings of Judaism titled the Thirteen Articles of Faith. The essence of the Thirteen Articles of Faith can be seen today in the Yigdal prayer, found in Jewish prayer books, toward the end of the Shabbat service. The Mishneh Torah had some critics at the time, but was mostly well received, inspiring future scholars to expand on the code.
Guide of the Perplexed was intended for a smaller audience of people well versed in both Judaism and secular philosophy. Written in a Judeo-Arabic dialect, the intent was to bring philosophical reason and the stories of the Torah together. For Maimonides, both were compatible and could be connected. Guide of the Perplexed has had much influence on religious thought and philosophy in general.
Maimonides continued a heavy workload throughout his life. He continued to practice medicine, teach students, and write until his death, in 1204. In accordance with his wishes, Maimonides was buried in Tiberius, Israel. He was considered such a great influence on Jewish life that his tombstone reads “From Moses to Moses there never arose another like Moses.”