Sunday 17 March 2019


Fragment of a letter from Rambam, as found in the Cairo Geniza.
                                                     MAIMONIDEAN CONFLICT - PART III



If eyes are the window to the soul, then letters are the window to the persona. Maimonides, known as Rambam (1135-1204) was a prolific writer of books - but it is through his letters that we gain a glimpse of his real personality.

In this essay, we will look at one such letter - originally written in Arabic and which also serves as a responsum - to a certain Baghdadi Jew by the name of Josef Ibn Gabir (Jabir).[1]


It’s not easy to put one’s finger on the status of Josef Ibn Gabir because on the one hand he appears to be a simple man, referring to himself as an am ha’aterz - while on the other hand, he appears to be involved in the great ideological controversy between Rambam and the esteemed Gaon of Baghdad, Samuel ben Ali. [See The Maimonidean Controversies.]

Either way, Rambam is most respectful in his letter, as he addresses Mar (Mr) Josef Ibn Gabir in the third person.[2]

Rambam begins by saying that because Josef Ibn Gabir is thirsty for understanding:
“...I must tell you...that you are not justified in regarding yourself as an am ha-aretz.”[3]

The desire to understand a matter in its depth exempts one from the category of a simpleton.


Josef Ibn Gabir cannot read Hebrew. But he can read Arabic and he has read Rambam’s commentary on the Mishna which was written in Arabic.

Now he wants to study Rambam’s magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah - a fourteen-volume summary of the Talmud - which was written in Hebrew.

Josef Ibn Gabir suggests that Rambam translate the Mishneh Torah into Arabic as it would have a wider audience and cater for people like him!

Rambam responds:

“It makes also no difference whether you study in the holy language, or in Arabic, or in Aramaic; it matters only whether it is done with understanding…”

Rambam continues by mentioning that he is, paradoxically, focussing on having all his previous Arabic writings translated into Hebrew. So, instead, Josef Ibn Gabir should try learning the Hebrew of Mishneh Torah, little by little” because:

 “It is not so difficult, as the book is written in an easy style, and if you master one part you will soon be able to understand the whole work.”


Next, Rambam deals with the thorny issue of the anti-Maimonidean rhetoric which emanated from Josef Ibn Gabir’s home city, Baghdad. He referred to the fact “that some scholars in Baghdad reject some of my decisions...” This is a reference to the fierce opposition from the highly respected Samuel ben Ali, Gaon of Baghdad, regarded as one of the most prominent Babylonian scholars of the 12th century, and who was Rambam’s biggest detractor during his lifetime.

Although the Gaonic period had officially ended by 1038, for the next two hundred years, certain prominent rabbis were respectfully referred to by the title Gaon. Ironically, in the case of Samuel ben Ali, he seemed to perpetuate some of the lavish and pretentious practices of both the Gaonim and Exilarchs of the previous era.

Samuel ben Ali was very powerful and influential in the Jewish world. According to an account by the traveller, Pethahiah of Regensburg:

"In the whole of Assyria, in Damascus, in the towns of Persia and Media and in Babylon, they have no dayyan [judge] except one assigned by Samuel, head of the academy, and he appoints judges and teachers in every town."

Samuel ben Ali was not averse to placing family members in positions of power either. He even provided a teaching position for his daughter, said to have been a Talmudic scholar in her own right. She taught “through a window of the building in which she sat, the pupils outside below unable to see her.”[4]

Furthermore, his two sons-in-law, Zechariah and Azariah[5] were also both appointed to positions of power.


Rambam had severely criticised the nepotism and the sometimes forceful means of collection of funding for scholars and academies which was often adopted by the Gaonim and Exilarchs.


In fact, Rambam was even against financial support to scholars in general who did not work but were full time students.

Rambam wrote:

 “For as we look into the [earlier] sayings of the honorable sages, we do not find that they ask people for money, nor did they collect money for the honorable and cherished academies.”[6]


Additionally, Rambam also disagreed with the approach of the Gaonic Yeshivot which had only one subject in their curriculum - namely, Talmud study.


These criticisms were not minor condemnations but were seen as threatening the very essence of Judaism as was known and practised in those communities. It is, therefore, not hard to understand why there was such opposition to Rambam who was regarded as an ideological threat to the mainstream, and who was disrupting the status quo.

It didn’t help matters either when Rambam wrote his Mishneh Torah which - being a summary of the entire Talmud - was seen as rather subversive in that it undermined the ultimate authority of the rabbinic leadership. This was because ordinary people themselves, could now easily consult the Mishneh Torah, written in simple Hebrew, and have no need to confer with expert authorities. It even came with perhaps the first example of an index to a Torah work.


Rambam was well aware of his opposition in Baghdad by Samuel ben Ali and mentions it very politely:

“I have been informed - although I do not know whether it is true - that there is in your city somebody who speaks evil against me and tries to gain honor by misrepresentation of my teaching.”

Rambam also knows how Josef Ibn Gabir had tried to intervene in the controversy and defend him. This was actually the core reason why Josef Ibn Gabir had originally asked Rambam to translate his Mishneh Torah into Arabic – so that he could read it, arm himself with knowledge, and support him:

“I have heard also that you protested against this and reprimanded the slanderer.
Do not act in this way!
I forgive everybody who is opposed to me because of his lack of intelligence, even when he, by opposing, seeks his personal advantage.”

And then Rambam adopts a ‘live and let live’ approach when he writes:

“He [Samuel ben Ali] does no harm to me…While he is pleased, I do not lose anything…

You trouble yourself with useless quarrels, as I do not need the help of other men…”


A commonly held view at that time, and still today, is that after the Messiah comes there will ultimately be a state of Techiyat haMetim where the dead will arise within their bodies.
Rambam adopted a  slightly nuanced approach to that concept. [See What was Rambam’s Real View on ‘The Revival of the Dead’?]

Rambam mentions this in his letter:

“The statement you have heard, namely, that I deny in my work the resurrection of the dead, is nothing more than a malicious calumny.
He who asserted this is either a wicked man who misrepresents my words, or an ignorant one who does not understand my views on olam haba [the World to Come].
In order to make impossible any further mistake or doubt, I have composed in the meantime a special treatise on this subject...[7]


Rambam turns a blind eye to certain irrational follies which are entertained by the masses:

“It will not harm you religiously to think that there are corporeal beings in the world to come until you can establish rationally the authentic nature of their existence.
Even if you think that they eat, drink, propagate in the upper sphere or in the Gan Eden, it will not hurt your faith.
There are other more widespread doctrinal follies to which some cling and yet their basic religious beliefs were not damaged.”

However, for those seeking a deeper understanding:

“ refutation of this notion, it is important to project the authentic interpretation of the rabbinic statement "that there is no eating or drinking in the world to come," from which we may deduce that there are no corporeal beings...”


The letter contains a number of other unrelated issues as well and is regarded as a responsum on some Halachic matters.

This letter is important because it clarifies a previous contradiction within Rambam’s earlier writing.
In Rambam’s Mishneh Torah[8], he writes that a person praying without a minyan should not recite the kedushat yotzer (which is between barechu and shema).

In this letter, he writes that it is permissible to recite it as it only records the kedusha which is said by the angels but is not a kedusha in itself (like the kedusha in the amidah).

Interestingly, Rambam’s son was later to refer to a letter (probably this one) where his father had changed his mind from what he had previously written in Mishneh Torah![9]


The letter contains some interesting terms of endearment for Josef Ibn Gabir as well as for those who follow the rationalist path in general. In one instance Rambam refers to Josef as ‘our brother’ and in another place he writes:

“You are my beloved pupil, and so are all those who are inclined to pursue zealously the study of Torah and attempt to understand even one biblical verse or a single halakhah.”

Thus Rambam - by alluding to a brotherhood - uses terminology generally associated with mystical schools and refers to all those who ‘attempt to understand’, as being part of a fraternity of intellectual searchers.
Those excluded from this brotherhood would be the masses “who do not possess the capacity to reflect and who do not concentrate on the roots of religion but [only] on its branches.”

A Maimonides Reader, by I. Twersky.
A Letter by Rambam to a Simple Jew, by Mitchell First.
A Responsum by Maimonides; Maimonides' Rational Approach to Halakhic Problems, by Leon D. Stitskin.

[1] See Y. Shailat, Iggerot Ha-Rambam, pp. 402-418.
[2] This is omitted from the English translation, which follows, as it is too cumbersome.
[3] Translation from A Maimonides Reader by I. Twersky
[4] Pethahiah, p. 9f; L. Greenhut (1905), 10.
[5] There is some controversy as to whether these names got mixed up with each other in a copyist’s error. Some believe that Samuel’s daughter was engaged to Azariah who passed away before the marriage and then she subsequently married Zechariah. Another view is that Samuel had two daughters who married scholars by both names.
[6] See Rambam’s commentary on Avot 4:7.
[7] This treatise was known as Maamar Techiyat haMeitim and was written in 1191.
[8] Hilchot Tefillah 7:17.
[9] See Kesef Mishnah to 7:17.

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