Moses Maimonides Biography



(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Through his classification of Jewish law, life, and observance, as defined in the Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud, and his further interpretation of the philosophical bases of Judaism in the light of Aristotelian thought, Maimonides influenced Jewish and Christian scholarship and trends, an influence which continues to the present. His work combining psychology and medicine may be interpreted as one of the early foundations of psychotherapy.

Early Life

Moses Maimonides was a child of destiny, recognized as such by the family and society into which he was born. His birth as son of the renowned Maimon ben Joseph was regarded as so important that the day, hour, and minute were recorded, as well as the fact that it occurred on the eye of Passover, which fell on the Sabbath. The young Maimonides (sometimes referred to as the “Second Moses”) was extraordinarily sensitive to his religious and intellectual heritage and to an awareness of his destiny—to be a leader of his people. As a result of this precocity, the child spent no time playing or attending to his physical health, lest such activities interfere with his life’s mission.

Although Maimonides’ boyhood and physical characteristics are not recorded, biographical accounts place much emphasis upon his intellectual development. His major teacher was his father, who was a Talmudic scholar, a member of the Rabbinical Council, dayan (judge) of Córdoba (a position held for generations in the family), and an acknowledged scholar and writer in the areas of Bible exposition, Talmudic commentary, astronomy, and mathematics. The young boy’s knowledge expanded from other sources as well: Jewish scholars, his relatively untroubled interactions with the life and scholars of the Spanish and Arab communities of Córdoba, and countless hours reading the manuscripts in his father’s library. In turn, Maimonides, entrusted with the education of his younger brother, David, began to develop his classification skills as he transmitted his own knowledge to the younger boy.

When Maimonides was thirteen, the religiously fanatical Almohad faction captured Córdoba. Jews and Christians were initially forced to choose between apostasy and death but later were allowed the third option of emigration. Historical sources are unclear as to how long Maimonides’ family remained in Córdoba, in what other cities they lived, or whether they formally converted or professed belief in the other monotheistic religion while continuing to practice Judaism. In their writings, both Maimonides and his father addressed the difficulties of living as a Jew and the minimum expectations afforded the still-practicing Jew in a hostile environment. Clearly, between 1148 and 1160, when the family settled in Fez in Morocco, Maimonides, in addition to his other activities, was collecting data for the three great works of his career.

In Fez, Maimonides studied medicine, read extensively, and wrote while his father and brother established a thriving jewelry business. While ostensibly involved with the Arabic community, the family remained faithfully Jewish. This period of accommodation with Muslim leaders and thought was broken by the prominence given to Maimonides’ Iggereth Hashemad (c. 1162; Letter Concerning Apostasy), which reassured the many Jews who were similarly accommodating to their environment. Because this leadership position thrust upon Maimonides threatened the family’s security, they emigrated to Palestine in 1165. After remaining five months in Acre, the family settled in Egypt, living first in Alexandria and then in Cairo.

During the family’s stay in Alexandria, Maimonides’ father died, and his brother David drowned. David’s death was particularly grievous, as Maimonides wrote: “For a full year I lay on my couch, stricken with fever and despair.” At age thirty, Maimonides began to support himself and David’s wife and children financially by putting to use the medical career for which he had prepared during his years in Fez. Embarking upon his dual career of Jewish scholarship and medicine, Maimonides made notable contributions which remain relevant and significant to the present day. His personal life remains obscure, but his letters indicate that his first wife died young. He remarried in 1184 and fathered both a girl and a boy, Abraham, who later followed in his father’s path of scholarship and leadership. In fact, ten generations of the Maimonides family followed as leaders of the Cairo community.

Life’s Work

Maimonides’ twofold scholarly approach throughout his life was to examine existent knowledge in a field through classification followed by integration. In clear and succinct form, he would then publish the results, which had a major impact as each...

(The entire section is 1990 words.)