“From Moshe to Moshe there was none like Moshe”, are the words you’ll see written on his tombstone in the city of Tverya.
The Rambam , Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon, was born on Erev Pesach which fell on Shabbos in the year 1135 in the city of Cordova, which lies in southern Spain.
He came from a family of great Torah scholars that extended back to Rabbeinu Ha’Kodosh who as we know came from the royal family of Dovid Ha’melech.
He studied under his great father, though he sometimes refers to the Ri Migash as his Rebbe (even though he was only six years old when the Ri Migash passed away).
He lived during a very painful and tragic time for Spanish Jewry. The Almohads, a fanatical group of Moslems, were taking over city after city. They hated all other religions and tried to convert the Jews to accept the Moslem religion. Those who refused to convert were expelled from the land or put to death. While most Jews fled, some unfortunately converted outwardly, but inwardly still kept to their Jewish faith.
The Rambam’s family, as well as thousands of others, fled from Cordova and wandered from place to place seeking a place free from persecution-no easy matter in those difficult times. Finally the family settled in Fez, Morocco which was the ancient capital of North Africa. While even here Jews could not practice their religion in public places, they could at least practice it in their private homes. Certain noted people like the Maimon family were in fact granted the special privilege of being allowed to practice their religion in public.
Despite the many difficulties in life and the constant wandering, nothing could deter him from Torah study. As a young man of only twenty three, he already began writing an explanation on the Shisha Sidrei Mishnah which he called the Sefer Ha’Orah, but which has become known as the Pirush Ha’Mishnah L’Rambam, and it took him seven years to complete. He wrote it in Arabic so that the Jewish masses would be able to understand it. It was only later that it was translated by others into Hebrew. Not only does he explain every mishnah clearly and precisely, but he also tells us the halachah we are to follow.
It was during this time that some Rabbonim strongly criticized those Jews that were forced into accepting the Moslem religion publicly, and demanded that they sacrifice their lives “Al Kiddush Hashem” . They said that they were considered meshumodim (goyim) and would lose their share in the world to come. This only worsened the situation as many now decided to give up Judaism altogether. They felt that they may as well enjoy life in this world if in any case they will not get a share in the world to come.
Even though the Rambam was still a young man, he understood their situation quite differently and came to their defense. He wrote them a lengthy essay called “Iggeres Ha’shmad”, explaining that despite everything they had done they were still considered Jews and must not despair. He strongly condemned those who dared call them meshumodim, since this is a term used for those who convert voluntarily and not for those that do so under force. He, of course, encouraged them to escape as quickly as possible so that they could once again become practicing Jews in public.
In the year 1165, as the situation in Fez became more and more difficult, his family sailed to Eretz Yisroel. On the way a terrible storm broke out and it seemed as if the ship would capsize and all would be doomed. Miraculously, the ship managed to stay afloat and they finally docked in the port city of Acco.
At the time, the country was under Christian rule and had no more than a thousand Jewish families. The Rambam remained there for a very short time and in 1166 he left for Egypt and settled in the city of Forstat, a major center of Torah.
Here, he suffered great personal tragedy as his wife, two children and his father all died within a short period of time. Yet his greatest blow came when he heard that his dear brother Dovid was lost at sea and was presumed dead. The Rambam was devastated by this loss. His brother had been a wealthy diamond dealer and merchant, and had supported his family so that he could spend his entire time immersed in Torah. It was only now that the Rambam had to begin his medical practice in order to support himself as well as his brother’s family. In those times a Rebbe would never accept payment for teaching Torah or practicing the Rabbinate. In fact the Rambam in his pirush on Avos strongly condemns the practice of accepting money to teach Torah.
His great ability as a marvelous doctor soon spread and he was hired to be the personal physician of Saladin, the Egyptian ruler. While this may have solved his financial worries, it left him greatly exhausted with little time for all else. In one of his letters, he describes a day in his life and one wonders where he ever found time to write his many great works. Yet, despite all his personal obligations, he still found time to help everyone.
At the same time, he also fought the battle against a sect called the Karaim. These were a sect of Jewish people that did not accept Chazal’s teachings and adopted their own version of Jewish law based only on the written word, Torah Se’bichsav, something we’re all too familiar with nowadays. (The Karaim are still around today, but are very few in number.) They have a shul in the old city of Yerushalayim.
Yet, despite all his many responsibilities and his difficult schedule, he found the time to write his halachic masterpiece called the Mishnah Torah or the Yad Ha’chazaka. The word Yad, which equals to 14, is the number of main headings into which this work is divided. He started writing it in the year 1171, at the age of 36, and finished it ten years later.
There is a tradition that says that on the night it was completed (8th of Kislev 1181) his father came to him in a dream with another person whose face shone like the sun and told him that this was Moshe Rabbeinu who had come to see his work and give him a yasher koach on the magnificent job done.
The Rambam wrote this work because of the terrible golus the Jews were going through. Their knowledge of Talmud was weakening and people were no longer able to comprehend the gemorah as did past generations. People simply weren’t capable of figuring out what the halachah should be .The dreadful golus had taken its toll in Torah study. They needed a simple guide in practical halachah without the confusion of arguments and deep pilpul.
His work contains no names, arguments or proofs, but simply gives you the halachah to follow in each individual case. He wrote it in clear concise Hebrew and divided it up into different sections so that anyone could easily find the halachah he is looking for. These halochos include not only the halochos that one needs nowadays, but also covers the halochos needed in the time of the Bais Ha’Mikdosh (something the Shulchan Aruch has omitted). It’s all set up in a very logical order. This great work is not just based on the Talmud Bavli but also includes the Talmud Yerushalmi, B’raysos, Toseftos, Sifri, Sifro, and the Mechilta as well as all the important commentaries and geonic teshuvos of previous generations. He relies heavily on the Rif in deciding the final halachah.
When one studies the Talmud, one finds the same topic scattered around in a dozen different places. The Rambam’s genius was to put everything together in a logical and systematic order, and decide which opinion to follow, so that everything makes sense without having to consult the original sources. It was written in a clear, precise and concise Hebrew so that even present day scholars from all over the world study each and every word very carefully and derive important halachos from every word he writes.
Yet, as he later admits, he made a very big mistake by not quoting the sources that he had taken these halachos from. For this he would be strongly criticized. Some felt that one had no right to publish halachic opinions without giving the names of the people who said them and without giving the sources upon which they are based. Others were afraid that this would cause many to stop studying the original sources and only study the h conclusions. This type of study would destroy Torah scholarship and turn people into ignoramuses. Time has proven this argument to be false! The Talmud was never neglected, and in fact it was strengthened.
The debate became very heated and many Torah scholars became involved. The greatest opposition however, was against another one of the Rambam’s works called the Moreh Nevuchim. This was a work that gave the Jewish outlook on many questions in philosophy. It was written in Arabic and later translated into Hebrew. It contained many thoughts that seemed based or resembled Aristotelian philosophy, which was heavily studied during those times. He wrote it for the many people who studied this type of philosophy from non-Jewish sources causing great harm to the reader. This book was not aimed at every reader, but only for those people who studied this type of philosophy.
Yet, this sefer caused great opposition to the Rambam and the controversy raged on with a terrible vengeance. There were great men pro and other great men against. Amongst the strongest opponents were Rabbi Meir Halevi Abulafia (author of Yad Ramah) and the R’aved (Rebbe Avrohom ben Dovid of Posquires, known as R’aved the third) whose critical comments can now be found printed on the Mishna Torah’s side.
After the Rambam’s death (in 1204, at the age of 70), the criticism became more vocal, violent and tragic as some began putting a rabbinical ban (a cherem ) on anyone studying his philosophical works-the Moreh Nevuchim. Of course, bans are a two way street and all it did was add fuel to the fire. As usual, people of lesser stature soon became involved and denounced his works to the monks at the Christian Church. The Dominican monks now confiscated all the Rambam’s seforim and burned them at an auto-da-fe in Mordpilias in the year 1234. Eight years later the French Monks followed in their footsteps and burned all those found in France in the public square of Paris.
Once you can burn Jewish books, then what stops the goyim from doing the same to all other Jewish books? And so, less than forty days later, all copies of the Talmud that existed in France, including many other seforim as well, were burned at the very same public square in Paris.
It was first then that the great Rabbeinu Yonah (the author of many works on mussar such as the Sharei Teshuvah, Sefer Ha’Yirah and many other works) realized the terrible mistake he had made by opposing the Rambam’s writings. He now decided to do t and go from city to city retracting all that he had previously said against him. In every shul he went to , he announced that “I have sinned against the G-d of Israel and against Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon…” etc.
Yet, beside these three major works, the Rambam wrote many other seforim as well as many teshuvos that he sent to those who constantly would seek his opinion on every matter under the sun. One of his most famous teshuvos is referred as “Iggeros Taimon”, the letters he sent to the people of Taimon (Yemen), written in the year 1170.
This was a letter sent to the people of Yemen who were under great duress to either convert or face being burnt at a public auto-de-fe. This was a common problem Jews had to face during the Middle Ages. In the letter, the Rambam tries to lift their spirits and tells them how to cope with the problem. He, of course, advises them to leave at the first possibility. The Rambam also tried to intercede with the highest government officials on their behalf.
Another one of the Rambam’s masterpieces is the Sefer Ha’Mitzvos. While we all know that there are 613 commandments, there is much disagreement as to exactly what they are. In this sefer, the Rambam goes through each and every one of the 613 mitzvos, explaining how and when they apply.
The Rambam also put down 13 basic tenets of Jewish belief called the Yud Gimmel Ikrim (which are printed in most siddurim after the Shacharis prayer). These 13 axioms represent the very foundations of Jewish belief.
In December of 1204 at the age of 70, the mighty Rambam died in Fostat, Egypt. Legend has it that as his coffin was being led on its way to Eretz Yisroel, it was attacked by robbers who tried to remove the valuables but were unsuccessful. When they realized that it contained a very holy man, they let it continue on the way to its final resting place on the shores of the Kinneret in the city of Teverya, just to the side of the gravesite of the holy Tanna, Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakkai and his five students. To his side rests his illustrious father.
Recently, the entire area has been beautifully fixed over. Fourteen marble pillars stand along the pathway leading to his kever-seven on each side. They represent the 14 main headings of the Mishnah Torah. Engraved on each marble column is the topics that it contains. One should note that some of his other works are also subdivided into 14 parts.
Yet, tzadikim never die, for as we study their holy words, their memories live on forever