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Moses Maimonides


by Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) was born in Córdoba, Spain, as the first son of Rabbi Maimon ben Joseph, a highly respected, eighth-generation dayyan -- a judge of the rabbinical court. His mother's name is unknown, and very likely she died at birth.

By the standards of the age, Maimonides lived a long life, despite circumstances that were often extremely difficult. For much of his childhood he wandered over Andalusia, where fanatic invaders, the Almohades, destroyed every Jewish community they found on their way. Throughout this time, he studied and wrote books of Talmudic scholarship. Eventually, he moved from Spain to Morocco, where he had to hide his religion and was nearly put to death by the authorities. Escaping from Morocco, he tried, unsuccessfully, to settle in Israel, then emigrated to Egypt, first to stay in Alexandria, and finally to settle in Fustat, near Cairo. Despite tragedy and loss, his fortune finally turned and he became the chief physician at the court of Saladin. He reached the pinnacle of success by becoming the Nagid, or the Supreme Head of the Jews. While fulfilling his numerous responsibilities, Maimonides produced a magnificent body of written works on Talmudic scholarship, Jewish Law, medicine, and philosophy.

Few individuals left so strong a mark on Jewish history as Maimonides. Many consider him to be the greatest Jewish philosopher of all times, and eight hundred years after his death his work is still studied and debated. Its clarity, elegance, and modernity of style continuously amaze new generations of readers. He influenced Jewish and non-Jewish philosophers alike, with such diverse individuals as Spinoza, Leibniz, and Thomas Aquinas freely acknowledging their debt to him in their works.

A true rationalist in all his pursuits, be it medical, philosophical or legal, Moses Maimonides disliked any flight of fancy. He dismissed witchcraft, mysticism, and astrology as unworthy of attention. For example, there is a documented story where he denied that anyone could be possessed by demons, a very common belief during his time. The story tells that a woman, not very well educated, suddenly started to speak in languages and showed herself able to recite whole passages in Greek. Everyone was convinced that she was possessed by demons, but Maimonides calmly dismissed the issue by showing that at some point in her life she worked as a housekeeper for a noted Priest and Scholar, and very likely heard him often read aloud and speak in this language. In Maimonides's opinion, she acquired the language skill without realizing it. He didn't even allow a supernatural element to be featured in the Coming of the Messiah, and claimed that the Messiah will be a strong king who will lead his people to their own promised land.

Therefore, it is ironic that a huge collection of mystical and magical tales was constructed around Maimonides. It is not, however, unusual; many noted individuals had myths surround them after their death. This area of the Encyclopedia contains some of these legends, arranged according to their subject matter. They will include legends of miraculous birth, travel miracles, professional miracles, raising people from the dead, miracles surrounding his own death and burial, and many other varied themes. Stories will be added periodically.

Ilil Arbel. Maimonides: A Spiritual Biography. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company. (To be published September 2001).
Yitzhak Avishur. Shivhe ha-Rambam. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University. 1998.