Maimonides (1135-1204), or Moses ben Maimon, was the greatest Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages. His commentaries on, and codification of, the rabbinic tradition established him as a major religious authority in Judaism.
Maimonides was born at Cordova, Spain, on March 30, 1135. From his father, Rabbi Maimon ben Joseph, he received his early education in mathematics and astronomy as well as in rabbinic literature, which interpreted the Jewish Scriptures and defined the laws and ritual of the Jewish community. Living in southern Spain, Maimonides also came into contact with Greek and Arabian philosophy, especially the thought of Avicenna.
In 1148, when Maimonides was only 13, the Almohads conquered Cordova and introduced a policy that forced conversion, exile, or death on non-Moslems. After 12 years of wandering from town to town in southern Spain, the family finally settled at Fez in Morocco. During this period of wandering, Maimonides wrote a treatise on the Jewish calendar and began his commentary on the Mishnah, a codification of the Jewish Oral Law arranged according to subjects.
Rather than abandon the Jewish faith or undergo martyrdom, Maimonides and his family left the intolerant rule of the Almohads and sailed to Palestine on April 18, 1165, arriving at Acre a month later. Much of Palestine at this time was under the control of the Christian crusaders, and under their protection Maimonides visited many of the holy places of ancient Jewish history, including Jerusalem and Hebron.
The next year the family settled at al-Fustât (Old Cairo) in Egypt, where Maimonides was to remain for the rest of his life. After the death of the father in 1166, the family was supported for a time by Maimonides's younger brother, David, who engaged in the jewel trade. David died by drowning while on a voyage to the Indies, and the accompanying loss of the family's resources as well as those of other investors forced Maimonides into a career in medicine. Maimonides soon became the personal physician of al-Qadi al-Fadil, the vizier of Saladin. Shortly thereafter, Maimonides was made the head of all the Jewish communities in Egypt, a nonsalaried position which he held until his death.
Settling at al-Fustât allowed Maimonides to complete his commentary on the Mishnah, which appeared in 1168 and soon became popular among the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean world. About 1180 Maimonides completed his code of the Jewish law, which had a similarly favorable reception.
The major work of Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, was completed in 1190 and published in Arabic. In this work Maimonides tried to reconcile faith and reason. It was written for those who possessed a firm knowledge of the Jewish faith, mathematics, and logic but who, having little or no knowledge of physics and metaphysics, believed that religion and philosophy contradicted each other. Maimonides believed that philosophy, properly understood and used, supported rather than destroyed the faith. In order to demonstrate this, he adopted many of the arguments for the existence of God and the nature of the human soul found in such Arabian philosophers as al-Farabi and Avicenna. Where philosophical demonstration is inconclusive, as in establishing the eternity of the world or the doctrine of creation, one must rely on the surer teaching of revelation, the Bible.
Maimonides died at al-Fustât on Dec. 13, 1204, and, after a period of mourning in the Jewish communities in Egypt, his body was transported to Palestine and buried at Tiberias in Galilee. His Guide became the fundamental text for medieval Jewish philosophy.
Further Reading on Maimonides
There are two English translations of Maimonides's Guide. The best is The Guide of the Perplexed, translated with an excellent introduction by Shlomo Pines (1963). Older but still useful is the translation by M. Friedländer (1881; rev. ed. 1962). Of high quality is the work of I. Münz, Maimonides: The Story of His Life and Genius, translated by H. T. Schnittkind (1912; trans. 1935). Two collections of essays on Maimonides that reflect scholarship are I. Epstein, ed., Moses Maimonides: 1135-1204 (1935), and Salo Baron, ed., Essays on Maimonides: An Octocentennial Volume (1941). Also useful is A. Cohen, ed., The Teachings of Maimonides (1927; repr. 1968).