Maimonides, Moses

, or Moses the son of Maimon, a celebrated rabbi, called by the JewsThe eagle of the doctors,” was born of an illustrious family at Cordova in Spain, 1131. He is commonly named Moses Egyptius, because he retired early, as it is supposed, into Egypt, where he spent his whole life in quality of physician to the Soldan. As soon as he arrived there he opened a school, which was presently filled with pupils from all parts, especially from Alexandria and Damascus; who did such credit to their master by the progress they made under him, that they spread his name throughout the world. Maimonides was, indeed, according to all accounts of him, a most uncommon and extraordinary man, skilled in all languages, and versed in all arts and sciences. As to languages, the Hebrew and Arabic were the first he acquired, and what he understood in the most perfect manner; but perceiving that the knowledge of these would distinguish him only among his own people, the Jews, he applied himself also to the Chaldee, Turkish, &c. &c. of all which he became a master in a very few years. It is probable also, that he was not ignorant of the Greek, since in his writings he often quotes Aristotle, Plato, Galen, Themistius, and others; unless we can suppose him to have quoted those authors from Hebrew and Arabic versions, for which, however, as far as we can find, there is no sufficient reason.

He was famous for arts as well as language. In all branches of philosophy, particularly mathematics, he was extremely well skilled; and his experience in the art of healing was so very great, that as we have already intimated, he was called to be physician in ordinary to the king. There is a letter of his extant, to rabbi Samuel Aben Tybbon, in which he has described the nature of this office, and related also what vast incumbrances and labours the practice of physic brought upon him. Of this we shall give a short extract, because nothing can convey a clearer | or a juster idea of the man, and of the esteem and veneration in which he was held in Egypt. Tybbon had consulted him by a letter upon some difficult points, and had told him in the conclusion of it, that as soon as he could find leisure he would wait upon him in person, that they might canvas them more fully in the freedom of conversation. Maimonides replied, that he should be extremely glad to see him, and that nothing could give him higher pleasure than the thoughts of conversing with him; but yet that he must frankly confess to him that he durst not encourage him to undertake so long a voyage, or to think of visiting him with any such views. “1 am,” says he, “so perpetually engaged, that it will be impossible for you to reap any advantage from me, or even to obtain a single hour’s private conversation with me in any part of the four-and-twenty. I live in Egypt, the king in Alkaira; which places lie two sabbath-days journey asunder. My common attendance upon the king is once every morning; but when his majesty, his concubines, or any of the royal family, are the least indisposed, I am not suffered to stir a loot from them; so that my whole time, you see, is almost spent at court. In short, 1 go to Alkaira every morning early, and, if all be well there, return home about noon; where, however, I no sooner arrive, than I find my house surrounded with many different sorts of people, Jews and Gentiles, rich men and poor, magistrates and mechanics, friends as well as enemies, who have all been waiting impatiently for me. As I am generally half famished upon my return from Alkaira, I prevail with this multitude, as well as I can, to suffer me to regale myself with a bit of dinner; and as soon as I have done, attend this crowd of patients, with whom, what with examining into their particular maladies, and what with prescribing for them, I am often detained till it is night, and am always so fatigued at last, that I can scarcely speak, or even keep myself awake. And this is my constant way of life,” &c.

But however eminent Maimorides was as a physician, he was not less so as a divine. The Jews have this saying of him, “A Mose ad Mosen non surrexit sicut Mose;” by which they would insinuate, that of all their nation none ever so nearly approached to the wisdom and learning of their great founder and lawgiver, as Moses, the son of Maim on. He was, says Isaac Casaubon, “a man of | great parts and sound learning; of whom, I think, we may truly say, as Pliny said of old of Diodorurs Siculus, that he was the first of his tribe who ceased to be a trifler.” He was so far from paying an undue regard to absurd fables and traditious, as his nation had always been accustomed to do, that he dissuaded others from it in the most express terms. “Take heed,” says he, “and do not waste your time in attempting to draw sense or meaning out of that which has no meaning in it; I myself have spent a great deal of time in commenting upon, and explaining the Gemara, from which I have reaped nothing but my labour for my pains.

The works of Maimonides are very numerous. Some of them were written in Arabic originally, but are now extant in Hebrew translations only. The most considerable are his Jad, which is likewise called “Mischne Terah,” his “More Nevochim,” and his “Peruschim, or Commentaries upon the Misna.” His “Commentaries upon the Misna” he began at the age of three-and-twenty, and finished in Egypt, when he was about thirty. They were translated from the Arabic by rabbi Samuel Aben Tybbon. His “Jad” was published about twelve years after, written in Hebrew, in a very plain and easy style. This has always been esteemed a great and useful work, being a complete code, or pandect of Jewish law, digested into a clear and regular form, and illustrated throughout with an intelligible commentary of his own. “Those,” says Collier, “that desire to learn the doctrine and the canon law contained in the Talmud, may read Maimonides’s compendium, of it in good Hebrew, in his book entitled Jad; wherein they will find a great part of the fables and impertinences in the Talmud entirely discarded.” But of all his productions, the “More Nevochim” has been thought the most important, and valued the most, not only by others, but also by himself. This was written by him in Arabic, when he was about fifty years old; and afterwards translated into Hebrew, under his own inspection, by rabbi Samuel Aben Tybbon. The design of it was to explain the meaning of several difficult and obscure words, phrases, metaphors, parables, allegories, &c. in scripture which, when interpreted literally, seemed to have no meaning at all, or at least a very absurd and irrational one. Hence the work, as Buxtorf says, took its title of “More Nevochim,” that is, “Doctor perplexorum;” as being written for the use | and benefit of those who were in doubt whether they should interpret such passages according to the letter, or rather figuratively and metaphorically. Jt was asserted by many at that time, but very rashly, that the Mosaic rites and statutes had no foundation in reason, but were the effects of mere will, and ordained by God upon a principle purely arbitrary. Against these Maimonides argues, shews the dispensation in general to be instituted with a wisdom worthy of its divine author, and explains the causes and reasons of each particular branch of it. This procedure, however, gave offence to many of the Jews; those especially who had long been attached to the fables of the Talmud. They could not conceive that the revelations of God were to be explained upon the principles of reason; but thought that every institution must cease to be divine the moment it was discovered to have any thing in it rational. Hence, when the “More Nevochim” was translated into Hebrew, and dispersed among the Jews of every country, great outcries were raised, and great disturbances occasioned about it. They reputed the author to be a heretic of the worst kind, one who had contaminated the religion of the Bible, or rather the religion of the Talmud, with the vile allay of human reason; and would gladly have burnt both him and his book. In the mean time, the wiser part of both Jews and Christians have always considered the work in a very different light, as formed upon a most excellent and noble plan, and calculated in the best manner to procure the reverence due to the Bible, by shewing the dispensation it sets forth to be perfectly conformable to all our notions of the greatest wisdom, justice, and goodness: for, as the learned Spencer, who has pursued Uie same plan, and executed it happily, observes very truly, “nothing contributes more to make men atheists, and unbelievers of the Bible, than their considering the rites and ceremonies of the law as the effects only of caprice and arbitrary humour in the Deity: yet thus they will always be apt to consider them while they remain ignorant of the causes and reasons of their institution.

Besides these three works of Maimonides, a great many pieces are said to have been written by him upon theology, philosophy, logic, medicine, &c. and in various languages, as Arabic, Chaldee, and Greek. It may easily indeed be conceived, that a man of his uncommon abilities might be qualified to write upon almost every subject, as there was | hardly any thing to be found in the republic of letters, which he had not read. He had turned over not only all the Hebrew, but all the Arabian, Turkish, Greek, Egyptian, and Talmudic writers, as appears by the use he has made of them in his works. He tells us in more places than one, that he had perused with great attention, all the ancient authors upon the rise and progress of idolatry, with a view of explaining the reasons of those rites and ordinances in the law, which were instituted to abolish it: and, in the preface to his “Commentary upon the Misna,” he expressly says, that there was no book written in any language, upon the subject of philosophy, which he had not read entirely through.

This wonderful rabbi died in Egypt, in 1204, when he was seventy years of age, and was buried with his nation in the land of Upper Galilee. The Jews and Egyptians bewailed his death for three whole days, and called the year in which he died “Lamentum 1 amen tab ile,” as the highest honour they could confer upon his name. See the preface of John Buxtorf the son, to his Latin translation of the “More Nevochim,” whence this account of the author is chiefly taken. 1


Preface as above. Wolfii Bibl. Hebraea. —Saxii Onomasticon.