Sunday 3 December 2023

454) Reconstructing the story of a Maimonidean student:



This article based extensively on the research by Dr Reimund Leicht examines the story of R. Yosef ben Yehuda ibn Shimon, a student of Maimonides (1138-1204).[1] He could not have been an insignificant student because Maimonides chose to dedicate his philosophical work, Moreh Nevuchim (Guide of the Perplexed), to him. Very little is known about Yosef ibn Shimon. However, based on available historical evidence, Leicht reconstructs his life story and shows how he may have played a pivotal role in supporting his teacher during the Maimonidean Controversies that broke out after the passing of Maimonides. We are also presented with a fascinating window into some details about Maimonides the individual, and some of his practical directives about rabbinic independence and not teaching Torah for money. 


Although not much is known about Yosef ibn Shimon, Leicht (2022:2) points out that there exists sufficient biographical material to form a comprehensive picture of this student of Rambam who was active during the early period of the anti-Maimonidean persecutions. 

Yosef ibn Shimon was born in Cueta[2] on the coast of Morocco in around 1160 and passed away in Aleppo, Syria, in 1226. He has often erroneously been associated with another Yosef ben Yehuda ibn ʿAqnin (c.1150-1220). 

Yosef ibn Shimon, the student of Maimonides, is known by many names, including Yūsuf ibn Yaḥyā, as it was common for Jews in medieval Arab countries to adopt Arabic names. He is also sometimes called Yosef haMa’aravi (from the West) as many Jews from Northwest Africa known as the Maghreb   were called Magrebim (מַגּרֶבִּים). He is also called the Ner haMaaravi (the Maghrebi candle).

In recent times, more information about Yosef ibn Shimon has come to light, including some works that he had written. One work (Sayeth Ṭuviyyah ben Ṣidqiyyah) he had sent to his teacher, Maimonides for perusal. Another work was a polemic concerning Techiyat haMeitim, the revival of the dead. (Maimonides had some interesting views on the revival of the dead, so much so that the Gaon of Baghdad, Shmuel ben Ali, accused Maimonides of not believing in the concept. Maimonides was then forced to write his Maamar Techiyat haMeitim, explaining his position on the matter. See here). A third discovered work by Yosef ibn Shimon was a medical treatise. 

We are privy to some important information about Yosef ibn Shimon because the great Arab biographer ibn al-Qiftī (1172–1248) happened to be his personal friend. We are now in a position to know more about Yosef ibn Shimon than ever before because previously unknown biographical details about him surfaced during the twentieth century with the discovery of various other texts; and it was also in the twentieth century that his burial place was discovered, in Aleppo. These details allow us to put together a better picture of this somewhat obscure figure. 

Yosef ibn Shimon’s early days in West Africa

In the report of ibn al-Qiftī, it emerges that Yosef ibn Shimon’s father was occupied with an activity pertaining to the “market (i.e., vulgar?) professions (or: crafts)” and that, initially, his son had also studied “this science” in his homeland (ibn al-Qifṭī, Ta ʾrīḫ al-Ḥukamāʾ, 392.). Later Yosef ibn Shimon moved on to study mathematics and astronomy and began to lecture on those topics. 

It also seems that, like many other Jews,  Yosef ibn Shimon was forced to adopt Islam during the Almohad persecutions. These forced converts to Islam were known as Anusim (Leicht (2022:5). During this time, according to David H. Baneth,[3] Yosef ibn Shimon may have written on Torah topics, surprisingly as an exercise for an Arab Muslim teacher. These early works are known in their Hebrew translations as Siddur haTorah and Siddur haDin. 


Sometime during the 1180s, Yosef ibn Shimon left West Africa and journeyed to Egypt where he met with, and then studied under, Maimonides. Surprisingly, although Maimonides dedicated his Guide for the Perplexed to Yosef ibn Shimon, he did not spend much time in Egypt with his teacher. He may have left West Africa because of religious persecution under the Almohads, although in his own writings, he did say that the reason for his move to Egypt was solely motivated by his desire to study with his future master, Maimonides (Leicht 2023:8). 

Maimonides is impressed with the preparations of his student and writes that he had studied much astronomy and was proficient in the necessary mathematical sciences (Maimonides, Guide, 2.24). 

ibn al-Qifṭī fills in further details recording that both Maimonides and Yoseph ibn Shimon studied and edited a copy of ibn Aflaḥ’s (1100-1160) book on astronomy which the student had brought with him from Ceuta. However, Leicht (2022:10) notes that the teacher and student may have quarreled over some of their interpretations of ibn Aflaḥ’s book on astronomy. Maimonides notes in his Guide that he had met the son of ibn Aflah. This quarrel may have been the reason why Yosef ibn Shimon did not remain in Egypt for long because he left Egypt in around 1187. 


Yosef ibn Shimon leaves Egypt and journeys to Aleppo in Syria. Most of Syria was ruled by the same dynasty that ruled Egypt. It was economically active and had a large Jewish community. He seems to have concentrated on commerce because he also travelled to Iraq and India. He married an Aleppan woman who came from a distinguished Jewish family. 


According to ibn al-Qifṭī, Yosef ibn Shimon visited Baghdad in 1192. There he began to witness anti-Maimonidean and anti-rationalist rhetoric by the mystical rabbinic leadership under the Gaon, Shmuel ben Ali. The latter was the first opponent to voice his objection to Maimonides during his lifetime. The Jews of Baghdad were more mystically inclined and vehemently opposed rationalist or philosophical ideas. Sometimes they burned such philosophical literature because they considered it a threat to the Judaism they knew. While in Baghdad, Yosef ibn Shimon listened to an: 

“anti-philosophical and anti-scientific speech by a certain ʿUbayd Allāh al-Taymī al-Bakrī…who sharply attacked and finally burnt ibn al-Haiṯam’s Kitāb al-Hayʾah” (Leicht 2022:11). 

Around his time in Baghdad, an interesting event takes place. It seems that he didn’t just happen to pass through Baghdad because Maimonides intentionally stationed his student Yosef ibn Shimon in the heart of his opposition in Baghdad. His instruction was apparently to open a Maimonidean school in Baghdad. This strategy was clearly designed to act as a buffer to the profusion of anti-Maimonidean sentiment prevalent in Baghdad. 

The following points are recorded in Maimonides’ Letter on the Dispute with the Head of the Yeshiva: Maimonides approves of Yosef ibn Shimon’s sojourn in Baghdad. He endorses the establishment of a Maimonidean Bet Midrash (house of study) in Baghdad, under the very nose of his fierce opponent, the Gaon Shmuel ben Ali - who had been the head of the Babylonian academy for thirty years. An interesting aside is that Shmuel bel Ali's daughter, known as Bat haLevi was a great Talmud scholar. She used to give lectures in the academy while the students listened from the outside. 

In any event, the main subject to be taught in Yosef ibn Shimon’s proposed new study centre was to be Maimonides’ Halachic work known as Mishneh Torah (or alChibbur – “the composition as it was known in Baghdad). This was because not only was there opposition to Maimonides’s philosophical works but there was even opposition to his Halachic writings, lest anything with provenance in Maimonides is given a chance to become dominant in the Jewish world: 

“[N]ow all of a sudden we encounter a person who seriously intends to open a religious school in Baghdad in which Jewish law would be taught using Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah. Within its concrete historical context, such a plan could have meant no less than the founding of a Maimonidean stronghold in the immediate vicinity of the honourable old institutions of Jewish learning in Babylonia and within the exilarch’s sphere of influence” (Leicht 2022:15). 

However, together with this positive authorisation to Yosef ibn Shimon from Maimonides, comes a simultaneous expression of reticence and hesitation from Maimonides who expresses two concerns for his student. One, Maimonides does not want to subject his student to too much duress considering the negative atmosphere of the prevalent anti-Maimonidean animosity in Baghdad at that time. Two, as a matter of typical Maimonidean principle, he does not want his student to neglect his business affairs. The reason for this last concern is most significant: 

“Maimonides warns him that he might lose his economic and institutional independence, meaning that he would have to teach for money—something Maimonides generally considered inappropriate and forbidden” (Leicht 2022:12-13). 

A rabbi who receives remuneration can never be totally and genuinely independent in his teachings. Independence of thought unmitigated by any temptations of financial pressure or security was a major foundational premise for Maimonides. As long as a rabbi receives a financial reward, he will be bound to the albeit subtle dictates of the employer. Nevertheless, Maimonides wanted his student to first and foremost be totally financially independent and self-sufficient before he embarked on a program of Maimonidean education in Baghdad. 

Along these lines, the same letter also contains Maimonides’ recommendation that his student embark on a professional career in medicine, over and above his already successful business endeavours. This would further contribute to his student’s general independence and, by extension, to his independence of thought and speech which in the Maimonidean scheme, should be a prerequisite for anyone who wants to teach Torah. (For practical reasons, this teaching has become perhaps the most neglected of all Maimonides’ teachings. Some later rabbis even issued rulings that one is duty-bound to reject this approach). 

A rare insight into a personal Maimonides

In the letter, which can probably be dated 21 October 1191, Maimonides shares a fascinating personal and emotional expression with his Yosef ibn Shimon. Almost as an aside, Maimonides informs his student of his personal developments: 

“Maimonides adds a passage in which he informs Joseph ibn Shimʿon about how he himself had meanwhile gained considerable fame as a medical doctor among the leading circles in Egypt (kubarāʾ), especially that of the qāḍī al-Fāḍil. This seems to have been an enormous success in Maimonides’s eyes, although he stresses that his profession leaves him almost no time for studying the Torah and other sciences” (Leicht 2022:13). 

This very human expression of a person proud of his achievements is a far cry from the more sober writings we are used to encountering in the Maimonides of the books. 

Back to Aleppo

Historically speaking, regarding the envisaged Maimonidean school intended to be established in Baghdad: 

“[t]here is no evidence that the idea of installing a Maimonidean schoolhouse in Baghdad ever came to fruition” (Leicht 2022:16). 

However, with the money Yosef ibn Shimon had independently acquired, a Maimonidean school was eventually established, not in Baghdad but in Aleppo. In Aleppo, Yosef ibn Shimon established a: 

“strong citadel for halakhic and philosophical Maimonideanism in Syria under the shadow of Ayyubid protection” (Leicht 2022:37). 

Now Yosef ibn Shimon became known by still another title, this time as Rosh Seder, placing him in the category of Head of the Yeshiva. He bought a large estate just outside Aleppo, “where he assembled students around him from near and far” (Leicht 2022:17). In this sense, he too followed the pattern set by his teacher who also did not settle in a city but chose to live outside the city limits. Yosef ibn Shimon seems to have followed the advice of his teacher and he too became a doctor. According to his historian friend ibn al-Qifṭī,  he was among the “physicians who served the notables of the kingdom of [al-Malik] al-Ẓāhir [Ġāzī].” 

The Maimonidean Controversies are just beginning

What was to become known as the Maimonidean Controversies were just beginning. They continued for at least two centuries and to some extent continue today. Already during the time of Yosef ibn Shimon, we see how the conflict begins to spread. The anti-Maimonidean Gaon of Baghdad, Shmuel ben Ali, had a student, Daniel ben Saadia haBavli. The conflict now began to perpetuate intergenerationally. Maimonides passed away in 1204. Nine years later, in 1213, Daniel ben Saadia haBavli actively sent his critique of Maimonides to Maimonides’ son, Avraham ben haRambam. A few months later, Avraham ben haRambam sent back his response in defence of his father. The Maimonidean controversies were thus passed on to the next generation. 

Daniel ben Saadia haBavli wrote a commentary on Ecclesiastes where he criticised Maimonides, without mentioning his name. Yosef ibn Shimon then asked Avraham ben haRambam to excommunicate Daniel ben Saadia haBavli. He did not do so. Yosef ibn Shimon then contacted the Exilarch (Nasi)[4] David ben Zakai in Mosul. He excommunicated Daniel ben Saadia haBavli, and so the controversy perpetuated. 


The Maimonidean Controversies are usually framed as a conflict between mystical and rational approaches to Judaism. However, I did notice that Leicht does not use either of these terms even once in his article. Instead, he seems to frame the conflict as the result of a Jewish cultural divide between immigrants from West Africa (Maghrebim) and Spain who moved to Europe and the East. These immigrants were often intellectually and financially more secure than the local population into which they merged. Like Yosef ibn Shimon who came from West Africa, Maimonides came from Spain and also spent his youth in Morocco. Both immigrated eastwards and may have upset the cultural balance in their new homes. Thus, instead of (or in addition to) conflicts in the theological approaches of mysticism and rationalism which are usually seen as the basis for the Maimonidean Controversies, Leicht, instead, finds a cultural cause for this great divide that dominated much of future Judaism: 

“Jews from the Maghreb [West Africa] and al-Andalus [Spain][5] …emigrated from their homeland in order to find new homes in new places in the Islamic or Christian world. Wherever these refugees arrived, they brought with them a cultural and intellectual heritage (and possibly also the financial means) that allowed them to aspire to (and often to successfully achieve) statuses of considerable cultural, social, political, and religious influence and prestige. In many cases, this was the case only after they had fought violent conflicts against traditional local élites, which they were often more than willing to carry out with a considerable degree of self-confidence. The self-imposition of Jews from the Western Islamic world upon other Jewish communities both in the East and in Europe was a complicated process of cultural transition that was to change their profiles dramatically” (Leicht 2022:22-3). 

In the final analysis, Leicht has reconstructed a whole new world thriving with its concomitant tensions, fears and dreams behind the generally unknown personality of Yosef ibn Shimon, usually just recognised as the ‘unknown’ (and sometimes misidentified) student to whom Maimonides dedicated his Guide for the Perplexed.


Further reading on the Maimonidean Controversies



Kotzk Blog: 372) R. Yitzchak Arama and the subtle demise of Jewish rationalism



Kotzk Blog: 449) Maimonides on the authority of the rabbis

[1]Leicht, R., 2022, ‘A Maimonidean Life Joseph ben Judah ibn Shimʿon of Ceuta’s Biography Reconstructed’, in Maimonides Review of Philosophy and Religion, Edited by Ze’ev Strauss, vol. 1, Brill, Leiden, 1-48.  

[2] Pronounced Soo-tah.

[3] Moses Maimonides, Epistulae, ed. David Hirsch Baneth (Jerusalem: Mekize Nirdamim, 1946; repr. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1985).

[4] This title was use in Egypt, Baghdad, Damascus, and Mosul, Syria; and in Spain under Muslim rule.

[5] Square brackets are mine.

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