Ten Things You Definitely Didn’t Know About Rambam

Here are the notes of a shiur I gave on Rambam two years ago. The shiur relied heavily on the following excellent books that I had read at that time: Maimonides by Moshe Halbertal; Maimonides by Joel Kraemer: Studies in Maimonides by Marc Shapiro. This was a topic that I had a great passion for and really enjoyed sharing my findings with others. I hope these notes inspire others to learn about the great Rambam – today 20th Tevet is his 813th Yahrzeit.


[JRL – what is so unique is the gift of the looking glass into him/his society in great detail that was bequeathed to us via the Cairo Geniza (a storage place of old books and documents kept intact by the dry climate). Compare with Dr Marc Shapiro translated a letter of the Sridei Aish to Samuel Atlas]

  1. Where he lived

[JRL – Rambam travelled a fair distance over his lifetime. Interestingly, he did not remain in Israel (assume to do with parnasa) and in fact finally settled in Egypt. Muslim persecution led to emigration, Q as to why he did not move to safer Christian Spain in the north?]


Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef cites the Ritva (Novella, Yoma 38B), who explains that the prohibition only applies to the geography and infrastructure of biblical Egypt. With the destruction of the Egyptian cities, this was nullified. In other words, the present day cities where Jewish communities were more recently established are not considered the ‘Egypt’ of the prohibition. Rav Yosef thus concluded that one can dwell in Egypt and he himself lived in Egypt for two years (1947-1949).

Rabeinu Bechaya also commentated that this only applied when the people of Egypt were particularly immoral, but it is not a prohibition for all times. Ritva commented that the prohibition was not applicable after the destruction of the temple and the exiles that followed. The Radvaz (Commentary of Rambam, Laws of Kings 5,7,8) says that the actual Torah prohibition would be violated only if a person moved to Egypt with the intention of living there but a person may move there for temporary asylum or while he does some business. Once a person is there, if he decides to stay it is still forbidden but not as severe, as it involves no physical action. Therefore if the economic situation is difficult or the Jews are being persecuted in other lands it is permitted to stay. Rabbi Eliezer of Metz states that the prohibition applies only returning to Egypt from Israel, Rabbi Yosef Shaul Halevi Nathansohn adds that this is only via the same route of the 42 encampments that the Jews followed in the desert.

Despite all of this, there is a tradition that the Rambam signed his letters saying that he is one who ‘transgresses three commandments every single day’ (as the prohibition to live there is mentioned in the three biblical sources)

  1. His Name

Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon HaSefardi

al Ra’is Abu Imran Musa ibn Maymun Ibn Abdallah al Qurtubi al-Andalusi al-Isra’ili

[JRL – Rambam was honoured in Muslim and Jewish circles. When referring to himself in Hebrew, despite his travels always saw himself as HaSefardi, maintaining a strong emotional and intellectual connection to the culture of Spainish Jewry]

  1. Attitude to Islam


Q: whether one should profess the shahada to avoid being slain and having one’s orphaned children become Muslims, or whether should refuse it and be slain, as the Torah requires, since uttering the shahada leads to abandoning all the commandments.

A: whoever attests the mission of Muhammad thereby renounces the Lord God of Israel. One should rather be killed than profess the shahada, even if remaining alive would prevent one’s children from becoming Muslims.  Responsa from a widely circulated unknown halachist – Rambam responded to via his Epistle on Forced Conversion (Igerret hashmad arabic– Morroco c1160-1165, more famous is his epistle to Yemen 1172)

[JRL – Rambam makes three a number of arguments against this responsa. 1) compulsion different to voluntary 2) observing Jewish law secretly has value 3) praying to Allah in mosque and praying at home to God is not idolatry 4) acknowledging Mohamad as prophet doesn’t make you pasul ledut 5) just because Kairites/Christians prefer to die, doesn’t mean we should look to them as examples. Practical halachic ruling 1) accept Islam provisionally (do not die) 2) observe the mitzvot as far as you can 3) emigrate]

Role in the Messianic story

“Nevertheless, the intent of the Creator of the world is not within the power of man to comprehend, for His ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts, our thoughts. Ultimately, all the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and that Ishmaelite who arose after him will only serve to prepare the way for Mashiach’s coming and the improvement of the entire world, motivating the nations to serve God together..” Hilchot Melachim 11:4

[JRL – positive appraisal of both religions in the macro scale of world history – censorship removed these references for many years/versions of MT, now returned to the original. Interestingly the from Rambam’s perspective Islam was monotheistic but rejected the chumash as a forgery, Christianity was idolatrous but respected the veracity of the text. Practically this meant one could teach Torah to a Christian but would suffer a martyrs death if asked to convert and the opposite regarding a Islam.]

Did Rambam Convert?

“…we observe the commandments of the Torah while the edge of the sword is upon us, certainly this forced conversion of ours, may God annul it, when we nevertheless, as is known, engage in study of the Torah. A proof of our assertion is the appearance of the great sage our Master Moses, son of his honour Rabbi Maimon, in Fez, who is without equal in the extent of his knowledge” Joseph Ibn Judah Ibn ‘Aqnin commentary on Shir Hashirim.

“when the order came into force, those with little property departed, while those with much property remained…professing Islam openly while harbouring unbelief. Musa ibn Maymun was one of those who did this, remaining in his country..he also adhered to specific rituals, including study of the Qur’an and prayer” Ibn al-Qifti’s ‘History of the Sages’ , contemporary of Rambam.

[JRL – This appears to be open to scholarly debate. Kramer vs. Halbertal. Based on his halachic ruling, this does not make me uncomfortable]

  1. Controversial rulings

One of the more daring enactments issued by Maimonides was eliminating the worshipers’ silent recitation of the amidah while counting solely on the cantor’s loud recitation of the amidah. This enactment was motivated by the fact that during the loud recitation of the cantor after the silent prayer by each individual member of the synagogue, the community that had already silently recited the amidah behaved in a disrespectful manner, causing desecration of God’s name in the eyes of the Muslim environment. Responsa 256; 258

For every woman is entitled to go to her father’s house to visit him, or to a house of mourning or a wedding feast as an act of kindness to her friends and relatives, in order that they in turn might visit her on similar occasions, for she is not in a prison where she cannot come and go. On the other hand, it is unseemly for a woman to be constantly going out abroad and into the streets, and the husband should prevent his wife from doing this and should not let her go out, except once or twice a month, as the need may arise. Rather, the seemly thing for a woman is to sit in the corner of her house, for so it is written, All glorious is the king’s daughter within the palace. (Ps. 45, 15) Law of Marriage 13, 10

 A wife who refuses to perform any kind of work that she is obligated to do, may be compelled to perform it, even by scourging her with a rod” Laws of Marriage 21, 10.

“I have never heard of afflicting women with rods” Ra’avad ad loc

[JRL – no basis in the Talmud and appears to be influenced by Islamic culture]

…it was taught: If a woman was married to one husband who died, and to a second one who also died, she must not be married to a third…What, however, is the reason in the case of marriage? R. Mordecai answered R. Ashi: Thus said Abimi from Hagronia in the name of R. Huna, ‘The fountain is the cause’.  But R. Ashi stated: ‘The stars are the cause’ BT Yevamot 64b

With regard to marriage, [even if] a man wants to marry a lethal woman and cause harm to himself, we do not enable him to do so, for it is forbidden and within the rubric of bloodshed [that is, suicide]; and the court bans him until he divorces her. And so I have seen as the opinion of [Nahmanides], of blessed memory, who so acted. Novellae of Ritva on Yevamot 64b, s.v. “ nesu ʾ in

“If a woman had been successively married to two husbands and both died, she should not marry for a third time, but if she does so, she need not be divorced. Even if only the betrothal has taken place, the third husband may consummate the marriage” “Laws Concerning Forbidden Intercourse,” 21:31.

The practical halakhah that we have always applied in all the cities of Andalusia is that if a woman is repeatedly widowed, she should not be prevented from remarrying, especially if she is young, for there is concern about the detriments that may result … How can we put the daughters of Israel at risk of going astray? What the God- fearing and pious people among us did was to refrain from arranging a marriage for a multiple widow but to say to her explicitly: if you are able to find someone to marry you, we will not require him to divorce you. Iggerot haRambam

[JRL – a great example of Rambam the rationalist ruling against the Talmud’s superstitious]

  1. Secular writings

  • Maqala fi sina’at al-mantiq – Treatise on the Art of Logic apprx age 16
  • Maamar haIbbur – Primer on the Calendar apprx age 20

The great mathematician and historian Otto E Neugebauer (1899-1990) commented favourably on Rambams’ mastery of astronomy

  • On Hemorrhoids, On Cohabitation, On Asthma, On Poisons and Their Antidotes, Regimen of Health, On the Cause of Symptoms, and (prepared for fellow physicians) Extracts from Galen (The Art of Cure), Medical Aphorisms, Commentary on Hippocrates’ Aphorisms, and Glossary of Drug Names.

Saladin’s nephew, Taqi al-Din al-Malik al-Muzzafar, beset by a bevy of young maidens, desired to have his ardour enhanced, his overexertion having drained him to the point of febrile emaciation. Maimonides wrote a medical work for the prince, On Sexual Intercourse (Fi ’l-jima‘), prescribing aphrodisiac concoctions yet counselling temperance in erotic pursuits.

Maimonides ended his brief treatise with a blessing: “And may the Lord lengthen his days with pleasures, and may those delights be attached to eternal delights for the sake of God’s kindness and goodness.”

[JRL – the last decade of Rambam’s life appears to be filled by his secular/medical writings and research. The works we know him for now, were all completed by the time he was 50]

  1. His family

 “He [David] went abroad to trade that I might remain at home and continue my studies.” Letters of Maimonides

“For almost a year after receiving the sad news I lay on my couch stricken with fever, despair, and on the brink of destruction”  Letters of Maimonides

“Close to eight years have now elapsed and I still mourn for him for there can be no consolation. What can possibly comfort me? He grew up on my knees, he was my brother, my pupil. He went abroad to trade that I might remain at home and continue my studies. He was well versed in Talmud and Bible and an accomplished grammarian. My greatest joy was to see him. Now every joy has been dimmed. He has departed to his eternal life and left me confounded in a strange land. Whenever I come across his handwriting on one of his books my heart turns within me and my grief reawakens.” Letters of Maimonides

[JRL – 48 years old when he has his only son, Abraham. Had a daughter that died when he was young. No mention of wife or mothers names, we know his wife’s family were influential in the court of the Muslim ruler. One of his sisters was married to Uzziel- Abu al –Ma’ali, senior officer in the Sultans court and secretary to the mother of al-Afdal, son of Saladin. David’s trading allowed Rambam the time to write MT over ten years.]

  1. Work-life balance

In interpreting the Mishnaic teaching “make of them neither a crown of which to boast nor a pickaxe with which to dig,” Pirkei Avot

“I had thought to say nothing about this provision, because it is clear but also because I know that what I have to say about it will displease most, if not all, great Torah scholars. But I will have my say and not pay attention to [them]. Know that it says “make not of the Torah a pickaxe with which to dig”; that is, do not consider it a means for earning a living. This means that one who obtains this- worldly benefit from the honour of the Torah has cut off his soul from the life of the world to come…. For when we consider the practice of the sages of blessed memory, we find that none of them raised funds from people or sought contributions for the exalted and distinguished yeshivas or for the Exilarch or for judges or teachers or any appointees or other people.”

In a letter written to his beloved student, Joseph ben Judah:

I tell you that I have become known as a physician among the mighty, such as the chief judge, the emirs, and the house of al- Faḍil and the other princes of the land, those who lack nothing. But as for the masses, I am beyond their reach, and they have no way to approach me. And this causes me to spend the entire day in Cairo, tending to the sick, and when I get back to Fustat, all I can do for the rest of the day and into the night is to examine the medical texts that I need to consult…. As a result, I do not have a moment to study Torah except on the Sabbath, and as for other sciences, I do not have a moment to study any of them, and this harms me greatly.

In a letter to one of his admirers in Egypt who wanted to learn Torah from him:

 “Without doubt he has already seen and heard some of the state I am in, a state of betwixt morning and evening they are shattered [Job 4:20]. And when night comes … I am ill, filled with sighs, unable because of my tiredness to sit up, able only to lie supinely”

The sages of Lunel asked him to translate the Guide into Hebrew:

“Alas, my honoured friends, I do not even have the leisure to write a small chapter and it is only out of respect for your congregation that I have painfully exerted myself to write this epistle with my own hand”

“Compounding my physical condition, I am burdened with a multitude of patients, who exhaust me and give me no respite day and night. Alas, one has to pay a price for a reputation that has spread to even neighbouring countries” (ibid., p. 161).

[JRL – Rambam produced an incredible number of complex, and revolutionary works in his life time. MT taking 10 years of work. Without the help of his brother, we may have never seen the incredible works that are in every Jewish library today. However, true to his word, once this support was gone Rambam engaged in the world and succeeded.]

  1. Scholarly output

  • Commentary on the Mishnah 25-30 years old (Morroco)
  • Sefer HaMitzvot /Mishnah Torah 30-40 years old
  • Guide for the Perplexed 47-53 years old
  • Teshuvot and Epistles
  • 10 Medical works and various earlier compositions
  1. Revisions and Amendments

“What I wrote in the work [Mishneh Torah] is doubtlessly correct, and so I wrote in the Commentary on the Mishnah [in a revision of the first version]. What you have is the first edition, which I published before close scrutiny, following, in this passage, what R. Hafetz wrote in Sefer ha- Mitzvot . The mistake is his, and I followed it without verifying. But when I examined and scrutinized these passages, it became clear that what I wrote in the work is correct, and I revised the commentary. “ Iggerot, pp. 647–649

The original, authorised version of the work, in Maimonides’ own hand, was kept in his home. From that editio princeps , corrected on occasion by Maimonides himself, additional copies were made. Those manuscripts were certified as authoritative by Maimonides’ signed statement that he had examined and approved the copy. These copies were sent to various communities, and, during Maimonides’ lifetime, the treatise reached all parts of the Jewish Diaspora, all the way to India. Maimonides was following carefully and attentively the fate of Mishneh Torah and could provide a detailed account of its dissemination, in times when manuscripts and letters moved in slow motion.


  1. View of science/philosophy

“This honored and awesome God commands that we love Him….  What is the way to love Him?

When a person contemplates His wondrous, great actions and creations, and perceives in them His immeasurable and infinite wisdom, Then he immediately loves and praises and exalts and experiences a great desire to know the great God, as David said: ‘My soul thirsts for the living God….’ As our Sages taught, concerning love: ‘For thus you recognize Him Who spoke and the world came into existence.'” Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:1-2

“When a person considers these things and recognizes all of the creations… and perceives God’s wisdom in all creatures and all creations, he loves God even more and his soul will thirst and his flesh long to love the blessed God.” Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 4:12

[JRL – it is clear from Rambam’s writing that the height of human relationship with God, love of God in this world can only  be fulfilled via learning/studying/meditating on mitzvot, science and philosophy. His philosophy of Halacha strictly through the prism of a legal philosophy and basis for society runs in contradistinction to the yeshiva hashkafa that prevails today. Most of the philosophy of Aristotle, who so impressed Rambam, was learnt via Arabic translations of the major Greek works. Without Rambam’s non-corporeal approach to religion and other rational matters of belief, it is impossible to think or understand how in the past anyone could have thought any differently].




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