From the Heritage Source Reader
Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 CE) was the dominant cultural figure within the Jewish world of his day and for centuries following his death. Forced to leave Spain as a youth, he wandered through North Africa and Palestine and eventually settled in Cairo where he was appointed house physician to the vizier of Egypt. Maimonides’ writings reflect a three-pronged intellectual commitment that was reflected in his daily life. As a physician, he devoted himself to patient care and authored scientific treatises on various medical problems. As a Jewish legal scholar, he composed a number of major halakhic (legal) works, of which his comprehensive code of Jewish law, called the Mishneh Torah (The Repetition of the Law), was the most important. As a philosopher, his masterpiece, The Guide of the Perplexed, originally written in Arabic, soon achieved a revered status within the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian intellectual worlds.
...Maimonides strove to realize the overall unity of all learning, a unity of the practical and theoretical, of divine law and Aristotelian philosophy. Attacking the simplistic and naive rationalism of earlier philosophers, Maimonides strove for a more honest and sophisticated confrontation between revelation and reason than that of Saadia before him. Judaism could not insulate itself from the larger intellectual community; it needed to project a profile of "a wise and understanding people" (Deut. 4:7). For Maimonides Jewish law was grounded in reason. Striving to comprehend that rationality with the aid of philosophy became for him the supreme religious ideal. Judaism’s spiritual maturation as a religious civilization was dependent, so he argued, on its mutual dialogue and interaction with the outside world.
Maimonides’ extensive correspondence provides another perspective on his personality, concerns, and convictions. The following selection offers rare glimpses of Maimonides the person via a letter to Samuel ibn Tibbon describing his exhausting professional and community responsibilities in Egypt…
Maimonides to Samuel ibn Tibbon
God knows that, in order to write this to you, I have escaped to a secluded spot, where people would not think 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 honour 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:
I dwell at Mizr [Fostat] and the Sultan resides at Kahira [Cairo]; these two places are two Sabbath days’ journey 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 Kahira, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace.
It also frequently happens that one or two royal officers fall sick, and I must attend to their healing. Hence, as a rule, I repair to Kahira very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens. I do not return to Mizr until the afternoon. Then I am almost dying with hunger. . . . I find the antechambers filled 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 go forth to attend to my patients, and write prescriptions and directions for their various ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes even, I solemnly assure you, until two hours or 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 service until evening 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 translation 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 occupied.