AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Tuesday, 2 May 2017


Some correspondence from Maimonides...

Reading the letters of Maimonides, one ceases to think of the halakhist and philosopher but, instead, becomes aware of the presence of a solicitous guide and a patient spirit. Nowhere do we get such an insight into the vicissitudes of the life of this great sage as in his epistle to Samuel Ibn Tibbon, the offcial translator of his work. Of special interest in the letter is the classic canon Maimonides formulates for his correspondent's guidance in the art of translation, one which may well serve as a model for all translators.

What follows is a translation of a portion of the epistle to Samuel Ibn Tibbon. We have omitted several paragraphs which deal mainy with Maimonides' response to some technical question raised by the translator; these are included in his translation of the Guide for the Perplexed. The last part of the present selection is based on the translation by Israel Abrahams in his Maimonides. The letter was written in September 1199 and opens with a eulogy of Samuel's father, Judah.

Leon D. Stitskin, Tradition

"In accordance with his intellgence is a man praised" (Prov.
12: 8). I received all the correspondence of the esteemed, learned,
and perceptive student who is the crown of disciples, the glory
of the learned, the revered Rabbi Samuel, son of the wise Rabbi
Judah Ibn Tibbon, the Spaniard, of blessed memory. The reputation
of your esteemed and learned father, Rabbi Judah, was
establihed for a long time. We were informed of his prodigious
knowledge and the iucídity of liis language in Arabic and Hebrew
from some of the well k.n o.w st' scholars of Granada, descendants
of Al-Fakhas, among whom was the sage Ibn Moska. Also, a revered
and respected 'scholar of Tudela came here and told us
about your father, of sainted memory. We had similar reports
from the revered scholar Rabbi Meyer, student of Rabbi Abraham
Ibn naud, of blessed memory, spiritual head of Posquières
as well as of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra. He informed us also
about several grammar and science textbooks he had translated.
I did not know, however, that he left a son. When your Arabic
and Hebrew letters reached me, they gave me an insight into your
wide range of interest and beauty of style. When I noted further
your doubts concerning some of the passages in my distinctive
volume Guide for the Perplexed and the errors of the scribe you
perceived therein, I repeated the words of the ancient poet: "if
only they knew his ancestry, they would say the merit of the
father is passed on to the son."
Blessed be He who has granted a recompense to your learned
father, and granted him such a son! - indeed, not to him alone,
but to all wise men. For in truth, "unto us all a child has been
born, unto us all a son has been given." This offspring of the
righteous is a tree of life, a delight of our eyes, and pleasant to
look upon. I have already tasted of his fruit, and lo, it was sweet
in my mouth even as honey.
The questions you raised are all valid, and the omissions you
noted of one or several words in many places are correct. I have
already explained to you all these things in Arabic at the end of
this letter and advised you about all your activities, as well as the
books you should read and those that should be omitted. You are
surely well equipped and qualified to engage in the work of translation,
for the Almighty has endowed you with an understanding
heart to comprehend similes and parables, the epigrams of the
wise and their riddles. I recognized from your correspondence
that you have the capacity to delve into the depth of a subject
and reveal its hidden meaning.
Moreover, I explained to you in Arabic the method to apply
in all translations. "Give [instruction] to the wise and he will
become yet wiser," and the wisdom of my son will gladden my
heart too. Verily, when I saw your correspondence and perceived
the beauty of your diction and probed into the depth of your
conceptions and the wisdom of your speech so clearly enunciated,
I was exceedingly delighted but at the same time amazed at the
existence of such a wise son. I was furthermore astonished and
wondered: how it was possible for one born among the stutterers
to develop thus, to pursue the sciences and display such proficiency
in the Arabic language - which is after all only a corrupt
Hebrew? Then again, how is it possible to master the detailed
grammar of the language and use it skillfully in such profound
subjects? This surely cannot "be as a root out of a dry
land!" May the Blessed Almighty cause you to be illuminated by
the radiance of His Torah until you will become like "those that
love Him and as the rising of the sun in its might." Amen. May
this be God's will!
Likewise, the writings of the exalted, esteemed, and learned
academy reached me. May the Blessed Almighty also perpetuate
its meritorious role, increase forever its welfare, and intensify its
fount of wisdom!
I checked all the doubtful points you raised in the text, examined
all the places where you indicated the scribe erred, and
took note of the introductions and the chapters which you did
not clearly comprehend and on which you sought guidance. I
shall explain to you everything presently, after I shall premise
one rule: the translator who proposes to render each word literally
and adhere slavishly to the order of the words and sentences
in the original, wil meet with much diffculty and the result will
be doubtful and corrupt. This is not the right method. The trans-
lator should first try to grasp the meaning of the subject, and
then state the theme with perfect clarity in the other language.
This, however, cannot be done without changing the order of
words, putting many words for one word, and vice versa, so that
the subject be perfectly intelligible in the language into which he
This is the method Honein ben Ishak followed with the books
of Galen, and his son Ishak with Aristotle's books, and for this
reason their commentaries are clear. We too, therefore, ought to
engage only in the study of these books and omit the others. The
same applies to the exalted academy, in all the interpretations
and copying in which they are involved for their revered
masters and the truth-seeking leaders of the communities. May
the blessed Name of the Lord cause them to bring prestige to
other communities among the learned of Israel and may He help
you and increase your reward. . . .
Now God knows that in order to write this to you I have
escaped to a secluded spot, where people would not thin to find
me, sometimes leaning for support against the wall, sometimes
lying down on account of my excessive weakness, for I have
grown old and feeble.
But with respect to your wish to come here to me, I cannot
but say how greatly your visit would delight me, for I truly long
to commune with you, and would anticipate our meeting with
even greater joy than you. Yet I must advise you not to expose
yourself to the perils of the voyage, for beyond seeing me, and
my doing all I could to honor you, you would not derive any
advantage from your visit. Do not expect to be able to confer
with me on any scientific subject for even one hour either by day
or by night, for the following is my daily occupation: ー
I reside at Misr (Fostat) and the Sultan resides at Kahira
(Cairo) ; these two places are two Sabbaths days' journey [about
one mile and a half] distant from each other. My duties to the
Sultan are very heavy. I am obliged to visit him every day, early
in the morning; and when he or any of his children, or any of the
inmates of his harem, are indisposed, I dare not quit Cairo, but
must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace. It alsd
frequently happens that one or two of the royal offcers fall sick,
and I must attend to their healing. As a rule, I go to Cairo very
early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens, I do not
return to Fostat until the afternoon. Then I am almost dying
with hunger. I fid the ante-chambers fied with people, both
Jews and Gentiles, nobles and common people, judges and
bailiffs, friends and foes - a mixed multitude, who await the
time of my return.
I dismount from my animal, wash my hands, go forth to my
patients, and entreat them to bear with me while I partake of
some slight refreshment, the only meal I take in the twenty-four
hours. Then I attend to my patients, wrte prescriptions and
directions for their various ailments. Patients go in and out until
nightfall, and sometimes even, I solemnly assure you, uritil two
hours and more in the night. I converse with and prescribe for
them while lying down from sheer fatigue, and when night falls
I am so exhausted that I can scarcely speak.
In consequence of this, no Israelite can have any private interview
with me except on the Sabbath. On that day the whole
congregation, or at least the majority of the members, come to
me after the morning service, when I instruct them as to their
proceedings during the whole week; we study together a little
until noon, when they depart. Some of them return, and read
with me after the afternoon servce until evenig prayers. In this
manner I spend that day. I have here related to you only a part
of what you would see if you were to visit me.
Now, when you have completed for our brethren the transla-
tion you have commenced, I beg that you will come to me, but
not with the hope of deriving any advantage from your visit as
regards your studies; for my time is, as I have shown you, excessively
Maimonides Reveals the Real Purpose for Writing His Books


The last two recorded letters of Maimonides were addressed to Rabbi Jonathan Hakohen of Lunel in 1199 and to the leaders of the same community in 1200, four years prior to his death on 13 December 1204, at the age of seventy. The letters were permeated with pathos and a sense of urgency similar to the farewell admonition of Moshe Rabeinu, callng upon his followers to remain firm and of good courage in support of our religion.
"You, the members of the congregation of Lunel, and of neighboring towns, stand alone in raising aloft the banner of Moses," he wrote in desperation to the leaders of the community whom he regarded as "the saving remnant."
The letters were sent by Maimonides in response to twentytwo questions posed by Rabbi Jonathan Hakohen on a variety of subjects arising out of the Mishneh Torah, as well as to a request by the scholars of Lunel for a Hebrew translation of The Guide. Before departing for the Holy Land in 1210, Rabbi Jonathan ben David Hakohen was the head of the Provencal Congregation of Lunel and undauntedly defended Maimonides against the severe attacks of Rabad (Abraham ben David of Posquieres), author of a commentary on Alfasi's work. Rabbi Jonathan Hakohen was best known, however, for the eloquent tribute he paid Maimonides. In that tribute he compared Maimonides' achievements to Moshe Rabeinu – a comparison which later became proverbial: "From Moses unto Moses there are none like Moses."
His tribute to Maimonides is most noteworthy. This is in part what he wrote: "Where is to be found a man like him? A man so full of Divine vision? . . . He is unique-our teacher Rabbi Moses over whose head the sacred ointment is poured out, the son af the venerated saint, Rabbi Maimon . . . He is indeed worthy to bear the name Moses because he drew his people out of the sea of error . . . With the light of his book, Mishneh Torah, he has iluminated the darkness of the world. . . Thou holy man of the Lord, our teacher and master, thou luminary of the exile, grant the request of thy servants who are eager to do Thy wil and let us find nourishment in The Guide of the Perplexed. Thou hast gained fame through the treasure of thy learning everywhere . . . The work of thy hands come to us like the dew of heaven . . . We approach thee, therefore, praying that thou send us also thy other books . . . Our souls are linked with thy books in love. If they are here, everything is here. All is then certain, firm and true, we are not lacking in anything. There is no need for any other elucidation. The fountains of life rise from them."
Maimonides was especially touched by the tribute accorded to his work as constituting an authentically self-suffcient exposition of Halakhah and Jewish thought. "There is no need for any
other elucidation," said his correspondent. This actually reflected his deepest desire and purpose for writing his works. Maimonides expressed these sentiments often inadvertently but unmistakably in response to the scholars of Lunel. After bemoaning the fate of the Jewish communities in all Eastern lands, he recounted gleefully the incident of some philanthropists who had purchased three copies of his Code and distributed them to those countries. This act alone, he maintained, was suffcient to "illuminate their vision, and the religious life. in the communities as far as India, would be revitalized."

It should be noted that it was not until after two or three years upon receiving the letters that he responded to them. These letters may well be regarded as MaImonides's farewell. His health declining by overwork, they were written with the presentiment of the approaching end. My translation of both epistles follow.
Leon D. Stitskin, Tradition

To Rabbi Jonathan ben David Hakohen. Your questions are
very significant and I have answered them all.1  Unfortunately
my response was delayed due to my prolonged illness and unfavorable
times. I was laid up almost a year and even now,
although out of danger, I still have not recovered suffciently
to get out of bed completely. 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 neighboring
I am experiencing all the symptoms of a physical deterioration.
My youthful energy is gone, I am constantly short of
breath, my tongue has lost its elasticity, my fingers are shaky
to the point of finding it hard to write even a short letter. Forgive
me then for asking someone else to write the detailed
answers to your questions. Lately I found it also diffcult to
write my manuscript myself due to the pressure of time, physical
weariness, impatience and the heavy demands of my professional
There is one thing, however, I should like to share with you,
Rabbi Jonathan and all your colleagues who read my works.
Although from my childhood the study and dissemination of
Torah and Talmud have been my major preoccupation to
which, as it were, I was betrothed as the "wife"2 of my youth
in whose love I found constant delight, "strange women" from
Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and Heth whom I first took into
my house to serve as my wife's handmaids3 have become nevertheless
her rivals and take up much of my time. While the
beauty and charm of my "wife" continued to enchant my heart,
I was at the same time distracted by a variety of disciplines
and sciences.
I am sure you realize how I labored day and night for almost
ten years to compose the Code. Men of your scholarly attainments
appreciate the significance of this work. I have gathered
scattered materials from a variety of sources and attempted to
arrange them into a systematized, scholarly Code. Is it any
wonder then that some errors might have crept into such complicated study, especially at my age when one is apt to forget certain references? For these reasons I would admonish every student of my work to investigate scrupulously the text
and check out the content and conclusion reached. Let no one
feel restrained from examining critically every detail of the
book. They have my unqualified permission to do that.
Clearly, you have rendered me a great service with your
critical observations and by the same token, I shall appreciate
the efforts of anyone who will emulate your example and point
out any error he may find in the book. In this manner every
ambiguity and confusion will be removed from the text and
my principal reason for writing the Code will be accomplished:
to clear the path and remove the stuinbling blocks in Order
that students of the Law. should not tire of intricate discussions
requiring long hours of study which may cause one to render an
erroneous judgment.
May the Lord help us to study His Torah and acknowledge
His Unity everlastingly so that in our time we shall behold the
fulfillment of the verse:4 "I place my Torah within them and
upon their heart will 1 write it."5

(FROM CAIRO in 1200)
Who is this that shineth forth like a morning dawn, beautiful
as the moon, bright as the sun, awesome as armies encamped
around their banners?6
This Biblical imagery is reminiscent of the sacred community,
which constitutes the chief cornerstone upon whose heart
the Torah is engraved and whose bows in the battle for Torah
are fashioned out of bronze and whose leaders alone are in our
day its authentic representatives. Alas, it is the community of
Lunel with its esteemed scholars and distinguished leaders, may
the Lord forever take them under His protection and may peace
increasingly reign within their borders.
This comes from Moses, son of Maimon, who prays for your
abiding welfare and the strengthening of the edifice of wisdom
through your efforts.
I received your letters signed by men of such high rank,
all of whom I bless collectively and individually with the ancient
salutation, "The Lord, the God of your fathers, make you
a thousand times so many more as you are and bless you as He
hath promised you. "7 Your words expressed in verse and in the
form of questions disclose a love of Torah, an intense pursuit
of wisdom and an unquenchable desire for knowledge. I am,
of course, aware that the signers of the letters represent our
notables, priests and levites, all of whom are comqiunity lead-
ers, men of distinction and intellectual excellence. May their
fame continue together with other men of high repute in the
My esteemed friends, let not the delay of my answer disturb
you. I have already indicated the reason for this in a letter to
the esteemed scholar, Rabbi Jonathan Hakohen, may his life
be prolonged and God's treasure prosper through him. Amen.
I have already responded to your doubts and I enclose with
this letter the third part of the Moreh Nebukhim written in
Arabic. As for your request that I translate for you the Arabic
text into the holy tongue, would that I were young enough to
be able to comply with your request with regard to this and
other books which I composed in the language of the Kedar.8
Living among the latter casts darkness upon the rays of the
sun.9 Indeed I would have rejoiced to rescue the precious from
the worthless and restore the stolen goods to the proper owner.
But the distressing circumstances of the times prevented me
from doing so. I do not even have the time to examine or
proofread for publication the commentaries and the other works
I composed in the rabbinic language that may contain some
obscurities, to say nothing of translating them from one language
to another. Alas, my honored 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 my-
8elf to write you this epistle with my own hand.
But there is among you the learned, blessed son, esteemed
student R. Samuel ben Judah [ibn Tibbon] whom the Lord
has endowed with understanding, breadth of heart, correct insight
and perfect penmanship necessary for the translation you
requested. I have already communicated with him regarding
this matter.
As for yourselves, my esteemed friends, be confident and
strong of heart! For, alas, I am constrained to inform you that
in our day the people of your community and only a few of
the neighboring communities stand alone in raising the banner
of Moses and engaging in the study of the Talmud and in the
pursuit of wisdom. Your people are preeminent in cherishing
knowledge and wisdom. But in other communities in the East,
the study of the Torah has ceased and especially is this true in
.most of the larger cities where a process of spiritual decay has
set in. In all of Palestine there are only three or four Jewish
places that have survived, and even they are spiritually impoverished.
In Syria, as well, there is only the community of
Aleppo where some people are still engaged in the study of
Torah, although they are not prepared to sacrifice themselves
for it. In the Babylonian Diaspora there are only two or three
grapes [men of learning] in Yemen and the rest of Arabia
they know little of the Talmud save for having some superficial
acquaintance with Aggadic expositions.
Recently, however, some philanthropists, may God bless
them, contributed toward the purchase of copies of my Code
and dispatched messengers to these countries to distribute at
least one copy to each community. This act helped to illuminate
their vision and the religious life in their communities,
as far away as India, would be revitalized. For the people of
India were completely ignorant of the Torah and all religious
observances. They practiced only the laws of the Sabbath and
circumcision. In the towns of Turkey which belong to the realm
of Islam, the Jews pursued only the Written Law and observed
its commandments according to their literal meaning. As for
the Western cities (in North Africa), the punishment inflicted
upon them for their sins [of neglecting the Torah] is well
known.10 Thus there remains no one in support of our Torah
except you, my redeeming brethren.
Be therefore strong and fortify yourself for the sake of our
people and our God. Strive to be courageous men, for everything
depends on you. Upon you devolves the command of fulfillng
the levirite precept. Do not rely upon me to carryon the
battle as I can no longer navigate. I am an old man and grey,
not from aging but from a weak, worn out body. May the Creator
support your efforts and "render you a famous name and
praise you in the midst of the earth."11
1. Maimonides has reference here to the series of twenty-four questions addressed to him by Rabbi Jonathan.
2. Maimonides is inclined to use this kind of a simile which he has drawn from the Book of Proverbs comparing matter to a faithless wife. See The Guide III, 8.
3. Maimonides is referring to his medical profession which became an almost unbearable burden due especially to the many patients that came to him from neighboring countries.
4. Cf. Saadia's similar plea to scholars to read his work critically and in case they discover some errors to make the proper corrections on the basis that "the wise have a tender solicitude for wisdom," (Emunot, Prolegomena, p. 33).
5. Jeremiah 31:32.
6. Song of Songs 6: 10.
7. Deuteronomy 1:2.
8.. Reference here is to the Arabic language - "Kedar" is the name of a nomadic tribe of Arabs. The reason he uses Kedar in this context is because of the simile that follows with reference to darkness.
9. See Guide 111:8 "I have also a reason and cause for callng our language the holy language. . ." There are apparently several reasons he gives for not having written his works in the Hebrew language which he would have preferred as it is the holy tongue. The usual explanation is that he wanted to be understood by the masses. In this letter he seems to indicate -that the hostile environment he was living in was responsible for the choice of language.
10. Maimonides obviously has reference to the persecution of the Almohades.
11. Cf. Zechariah 5:19, 20.
Maimonides and his patients (illustration to Maimonides Letters, 12th century)