Sunday 19 July 2020


Professor Paul B. Fenton from the Sorbonne - an authority on Geniza manuscripts.


It is always fascinating to see how new documents - concerning earlier rabbinic periods we thought we knew - surface from time to time, reminding us that rabbinic personalities, themes and ideas are never stagnant.

This is the story of the discovery of historical documents describing, first hand, events and counter events relating and contemporaneous to Maimonides (1135-1204).

I have drawn extensively from the research[1] of Professor Paul B. Fenton, Co-Director of Hebrew studies at the Université Paris-Sorbonne and an authority on Medieval Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts. He is a graduate of Yeshivat Eitz Chaim and has also taught at Yeshiva University.



Just over a century ago, the German Orientalist[2] Eugen Mittwoch (1876-1942) published a text found in the Cairo Geniza. It was a unique description of Maimonides by an unknown contemporary who lived in Cairo in around 1200. 

Mittwoch had purchased the original text in Cairo during his visit to that city in 1899, just three years after the discovery of Cairo Geniza.

For some reason, at that time the text attracted scant attention from the scholarly world. 

Mittwoch was a professor at Berlin University and despite the Nazi rise to power, he managed to eventually escape to England. During the turmoil, this text was lost.

Almost seventy years later - in 2004 – Professor Paul Fenton was analysing texts from the Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem. These texts were from the little-known Sofer Collection in London, which includes some Geniza fragments.

One text caught his eye. Amazingly, Fenton recognized the distinctive 800-year-old handwriting of R. Chananel ben Shmuel al-Amshati the Judge (circa 1170-1250), from his previous study of other Geniza fragments.

The text that Fenton was reading was a contemporary description of, and testimony about, Maimonides – and Fenton soon realized that he had re-discovered the original lost Mittwoch manuscript which went missing during the Nazi era. It had somehow made its way into the Sofer Collection - only now the author was no longer unknown but identified as R. Chananel al-Amshati.


The Mittwoch manuscript is an important one as it was written by R. Chananel who was in very close contact with Maimonides and it reveals some of his personal details. It also sheds light on the Egyptian origins of what was to become the great Maimonidean Controversies – and particularly on the stirrings of the objections to Maimonides’ interest in Philosophy.

The Mittwoch manuscript was just a part of a larger emerging collection of texts describing the polarization of the Egyptian Jewish community into supporters of Maimonides and fierce opponents. Surprisingly many of the opponents were close members of Maimonides’ own family. From this and other Geniza documents, we get a picture of protest movements beginning to take root in both directions - for and against Maimonides.




A Geniza document[3] describes the formation of a protest movement in favour of Maimonides but against Maimonides’ son, Avraham ben haRambam, and his growing camp which had mystical tendencies and was involved in a form of Jewish Sufism.

Fenton writes:

“Maimonides’ descendants were the champions of this Judaeo-Sufi tendency.”

In this document, we are introduced to the important figure, R. Chananel al-Amshati, mentioned earlier. R. Chananel is described as supporting Avraham ben haRambam and his mystical Sufi circle. Fenton shows how R. Chananel composed his own mystical writings in stark contrast to the rationalist and philosophical teachings of Maimonides. There is no question that R. Chananel was a mystic and an ardent anti-rationalist.

The document also reveals a telling piece of information that both R. Chananel and Avraham ben haRambam together attended the posthumous sale of the personal library of a fellow member of this Egyptian mystical Sufi circle, R. Avraham heChasid who passed away in 1223. This sale (or auction?) took place in the Palestinian Synagogue in Cairo, and was even attended by prospective Muslim buyers, which bespeaks the Sufi connection.


The larger and more formidable protest movements, however, were against Maimonides and were led by Maimonides’ son, Avraham ben haRambam and R. Chananel.


Members of the mystical group of Avraham ben haRambam received the title ‘heChasid’. R. Chananel also received that appellation as he is referred to as R. Chananel heChasid haDayan, clearly indicating he was a prominent member of the mystical group.

R. Chananel was the Chief Judge of Cairo and possibly the father-in-law of Avraham ben haRambam. This would have made him an in-law to Maimonides himself.[4]

Maimonides makes reference to a certain ‘pious judge’ (haDayan heChasid) in three instances in his letters, and it is likely that he was referring to R. Chananel.[5] R. Chananel was very close to Maimonides. Fenton suggests that around 1200, R. Chananel was commissioned to copy part of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed for R. Yosef Ibn Shamun. R. Chananel, also having an Andalusian[6] handwriting style[7] would have been well suited to deciphering Maimonides’ distinctive Andalusian cursive.


R. Chananel, becomes the first commentator on Maimonides’, and the albeit sparse record of his writings are largely concerned with his commentary on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.


But R. Chananel also becomes one of Maimonides’ first outspoken opponents.

Fenton is quick to point out that although R. Chananel copied Maimonides’ writings and commentated on his texts, he was far from a devoted adherent to Maimonides’ thoughts and philosophies. In fact, quite to the contrary, as evidenced by R. Chananel writing his own version of Sefer haMitzvot (originally penned by Maimonides). He also parts ways with Maimonides on a number of issues including the counting of the commandments (i.e., which commandments are officially included within the 613 mitzvot).

It seems that he chose the same title for the work as Maimonides in order to outdo him. 
Fenton explains that whereas Maimonides was often concise, R. Chananel:

“...provides a fully-fledged exposition for each mizvah, involving a definition of the precept, its scriptural source, its rabbinic sources, its sub-categories, and a full halakhic discussion of the topic.”

Additionally, R. Chananel took issue with Maimonides’ reliance on philosophy and rationalism, as Fenton writes:

“...for fear that its study may lead the uninitiated into irreligion and heresy.”

Thus R. Chananel’s ideas were clearly at odds with those of Maimonides on so many levels.
The more we read about R. Chananel, the more we see that he emerges as an outright opponent of Maimonides. 

R. Chananel does not neglect to remind us that Maimonides’ own father - R. Maymun - was also opposed to the study of philosophy and rationalism.

According to a text found in the Cairo Geniza:

“[Maimonides’] father, our master Maymun...had never delved into these [philosophical or rational] disciplines, not even for a day, despite his [having]...beheld the discourse of the compositions of our Master [Maimonides][8].”[9]

This indicates that Maimonides’ father refused to even read the philosophical writings of his own son.


R. Avraham ben haRambam joins in the opposition and writes how he opposes philosophy and how he disagrees with, amongst many other issues, his father’s view on Providence where Maimonides flirts with the idea that G-d does not always actively control everything.

Between Avraham ben haRambam and R. Chananel we now have the rumblings of what was to become a strong anti-Maimonidean movement in Egypt. These were the beginnings of two very distinct movements within Judaism which would shape much of its future debate and scholarship: the mystics versus the rationalists.

R. Chananel unambiguously takes the side of the Judaeo-Sufis and mystics of Egypt. He aligns himself with Avraham ben haRambam who writes:

“God has enabled (the true adherents of the Law who have grasped its secret meaning), to understand by means of His Law what the scientists and philosophers do not understand, and He has established for them, by means of His signs and miracles, proof for what the latter deny apropos His knowledge...of particulars and His regard for the conditions of men and His personal providence for every individual person...just as He provides for every individual species among the species of nature...”[10]

This is a very significant piece of writing because it shows how Maimonides made a distinction between Hashgacha Peratit (where G-d is said to take care of every single individual down to the most minuscule detail) and Hashgacha Kelalit (where G-d is said to take care only of the general species in the broadest of terms).

Some question whether Maimonides applied the principle of Hashgacha Kelalit to humans or only to the non-human species within nature[11]. From Avraham ben haRambam’s writings, it is apparent that he believed his father sometimes applied Hashgacha Kelalit even to humans.

This was obviously a point of great contention because Avraham ben haRambam wrote on the same issue in another work:

“Aristotle [whose teachings influenced Maimonides]...considered...the Creator to be ignorant of particulars and suchlike [in other words Aristotle and by extension Maimonides negated the principle of Hashgacha Peratit][12], and therefore...just as he is mistaken in these beliefs, so is he mistaken in all his statements.”[13]


Fenton also discovered another relevant but anonymous text which harshly criticises Maimonides’ view on prophecy which, again, is typically downplayed by him (Maimonides).

Maimonides believed that:

"[A]ll prophecy is a function of the prophet's divinely inspired imagination. Every appearance of God and His surrogates in Scripture is to be understood as an imaginative construction, not to be taken literally. The events depicted did not occur other than in the prophet's imagination." [19]

The text, from the Firkovic Collection, criticizes that view and states:

“Goodness, how weak is their [the school of Maimonides] statement but how great its harm to the soul! 

Had they just stated that...God transmits his influence to his saints in a manner whose essence we mortals do not know, their claim would have had a more salutary effect upon the soul...

However, they have led men astray...”[14]


Fenton describes the historical influences behind the rise in anti-Maimonidean sentiment:

“The anti-philosophical stand of Maimonides’ close successors must be seen in the light of the change of intellectual climate in the wake of the decline of philosophy in the Muslim world and, in the immediate case of Egypt, the vigorous spread of Sufism in that land, and its hostility towards profane science and philosophy.”


In a profoundly moving letter from Maimonides to R. Yonatan haCohen of Lunel in southern France - which became a bastion of Maimonidean support - he writes:

“My colleagues at this difficult time, you and those that reside in your region are the only ones that hold aloft the banner of Moses[15]. While you study the Talmud, you cultivate the other sciences, whereas here in the East [i.e., Egypt][16], men of wisdom diminish and disappear. Thus salvation will only come to us through you.”[17]


Just nineteen years after Maimonides’ passing, Daniel Ibn al-Mashati haBavli joins the large anti-Maimonidean movement and writes that Maimonides had created an 'alternate Torah'. Daniel Ibn al-Mashati advocated a return to mysticism which he called ‘Chasidut’ and an abandonment of the evils of Maimonidean philosophy.

Daniel al-Mashati writes:

“[Maimonides decided to give] an allegorical interpretation to the words of the Torah so that they would be in keeping with philosophical speculation. Thus he interpreted the biblical and rabbinic texts in an unprecedented manner, expressly stating that he had derived the latter from his own mind and had not learned them from a master. He paid no attention to the beliefs and explanations current among the nation...

Verily the Torah has become as two laws indicating a divergency which goes beyond the gap between each’s beliefs, its negative opinion of the other and its attribution to them of ignorance and heresy.”[18]

This sharp piece of writing underscores the vitriol which was to become the hallmark of the growing Maimonidean Controversies.


Were it not for the discovery of such revealing texts from the Cairo Geniza, we may never have fully understood the genesis of the Maimonidean Controversies in Egypt.

The theological schism which began within the confines of Maimonides’ own family, overflowed to, and was reflected in, the rivalry between the rationalists and Judaeo-Sufis of Egypt. 

It then spread to the West manifesting in a universal controversy between the philosophers and mystics in general. That great theological controversy continues to this day.

As we see particularly in the last text (by Daniel al-Mashati), Maimonides is accused of bringing a foreign, non-Jewish element to Judaism, which had no precedent whatsoever within previous rabbinic thought, and which he did not ‘learn from a (Jewish) master’.

He is accused of ignoring an imagined authoritative mainstream which was determined solely on the basis of ‘current’ Jewish thought and not on the basis of historical investigation. 

[For an example of possible earlier rabbinic precedents for Maimonidean theology, see Two Diverse Midrashic Conceptions of G-d.]

And, most importantly, he is accused of irreconcilably creating ‘two laws’ - or two religions - from what was presented as having been an alleged long continuum of monolithic and homogenous theology but was instead only extrapolated from the then ‘current’ trends.

A student of contemporary Judaism, who understands how these undercurrents continue to play out today, will immediately recognize that not much has changed since them.


For more on the Maimonidean Controversies, see: 

[1] Paul B. Fenton, A Re-Discovered Description of Maimonides by a Contemporary.
[2] An Orientalist is defined as someone from the West who studies the language, culture, history or customs of countries in eastern Asia.
[3] See Goitein as in previous note.
[4] However, in one Geniza document, R. Chananel is referenced as being the father-in-law to Maimonides: S. D, Goitein, New documents from the Cairo Geniza, p. 717. It has also been suggested the R. Chananel may have been a student of Maimonides: M. Friedman, The Family of Ibn al-Amshati, p. 271-297. This is evidenced by details of R. Chananel attending lectures by Maimonides.
[5] However, D. Baneth identifies the ‘pious judge’ with R. Yitzchak ben Sasson, a permanent member of Rambam’s Beit Din.
[6] Andalusia is the historical region of southern Spain.
[7] Even though R. Chananel’s family had been in Egypt for four generations, it is common for Maghrebi (North-Western African) Jews, known as Magrebim, to proudly have held on to their distinctive handwriting style. The Jews of Andalusia adopted the Maghrebi style of handwriting.
[8] Parentheses mine.
[9] London, Collection Soffer, Geniza 29.
[10] Abraham Maimonides, High Ways to Perfection, ed. Rosenblatt, vol. II, 133.
[11] Maimonides’ writings in Mishneh Torah often contradict his writings in his Guide of the Perplexed, so there is some uncertainty in this matter. (See Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ta'anit 1:1-3.)
[12] Parentheses mine.
[13] Abraham Maimonides, Ma’amar al Darshot Chazal, in R. Margulies Milchamot Hashem (Jerusalem 1953), 86.
[14] P. Fenton, Criticism of Maimonides in a Pietist Text from the Genizah, Ginzey Qedem 1 (2005): 158-160.
[15] This may be a reference to the biblical Moses but it is more likely a reference to Moses Maimonides himself.
[16] Parenthesis mine.
[17] Iggerot haRambam, ed. Y. Shailat vol. II (Jerusalem 1987) p. 559.
[18] Taqwim al-adyan. 2nd Firkovic Collection I. 3132, Fols. 76b-77a. Saint Petersburg, Russian National Library.
[19] Alfred L. Ivri, The Weight of Midrash on Rashi and Maimonides, p. 314. 

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