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Who is Maimonides?

Maimonides, also known as Rambam, was a preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher, astronomer, and physician. His profound impact on Jewish law and ethics resonates to this day through works like "The Guide for the Perplexed." His blend of religious tradition and philosophical inquiry invites us to explore how ancient wisdom can illuminate modern life. What can Maimonides teach us today? Continue reading to discover.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Maimonides, whose full name was Moses ben Maimon, was a rabbi from Spain who lived between approximately 1135 and 1204 CE. He was also known as the RaMBaM, or the Rambam, the acronym of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon. His work has remained extraordinarily important and influential among Jews and non-Jews alike. Maimonides' primary achievements in writing were the Mishneh Torah, The Commentary on the Mishnah, The Book of Commandments, and The Guide for the Perplexed. All but the Mishneh Torah are written in Arabic.

Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah is now considered to be a fundamental text to Orthodox Jews. It establishes the idea that God exists. In it Maimonides also says that God should also be viewed as spiritual, bodiless and eternal, and should be the sole subject of worship. Further, Maimonides argues that God revealed his wisdom through prophets, with Moshe, or Moses, being the first and most important prophet. Maimonides also reinforces the notion that the Torah is God’s law and that God understands human actions before they occur, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior. Lastly, Maimonides establishes in his Commentary that there will be a resurrection of the dead and a coming of the Messiah.

Maimonides created commentary to help interpret the Jewish laws in the Torah.
Maimonides created commentary to help interpret the Jewish laws in the Torah.

The Mishneh Torah is perhaps Maimonides most important work. Normally, Jews consult the Torah in conjunction with the Talmud to determine how to behave in a given situation. The Rambam created the Mishneh Torah as a sort of compendium that Jews could consult for answers on how to act according to Jewish law in any given situation. Initially, other rabbis discounted the work because while it comments on the Torah and Talmud, it does not specifically reference passages. However, the commentary has been widely accepted as a useful tool for interpreting Jewish law.

Maimonides believed that God revealed his wisdom through prophets like Moses.
Maimonides believed that God revealed his wisdom through prophets like Moses.

The Guide for the Perplexed is an intriguing piece of philosophy that draws on Maimonides' philosophy more than the somewhat closely related Platonic and Aristotelian thought. That is, The Guide is an attempt to join Judaic philosophy with the philosophy of Aristotle. It also addresses how Jews should interpret scientific developments.

Maimonides makes one assertion that fuels the debate of basically all bible-based religions. He believes that the truths of science cannot be inconsistent with God’s truths. Thus in a sense, science is the work of God and should not be denied if it is inconsistent with earlier science or medicine practiced in the Torah or when portions of the Talmud were written.

Essentially Maimonides recognizes that life moves forward and that God is behind new science. Thus some old ways can be discarded for new ways without disobeying God’s law. This argument remains controversial, and yet, is one endorsed by various people from various religions.

Even though some of Maimonides’ theories are controversial, he is considered a heroic scholar by most Jews. He wrote during a time when oppression of Jews forced him from his home. As well the controversial nature of his writings makes him a free thinker, something respected by most sects of Judaism. Maimonides accepts paradox in the religious texts on which he comments, and on the nature of God, and this gives his work a modern or post-modern feel. His work remains vibrant and relevant to philosophers of today.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Maimonides and why is he significant in history?

Maimonides, also known as Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, was a preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher, astronomer, and one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. Born in Spain in 1135, he later lived in Morocco and Egypt. His significance lies in his profound contributions to Jewish law and ethics, particularly through his works "Mishneh Torah" and "Guide for the Perplexed." His writings blend Jewish tradition with Aristotelian philosophy, impacting Jewish thought and broader intellectual history.

What are some of Maimonides' most important works?

Maimonides' most important works include the "Mishneh Torah," a comprehensive code of Jewish law, and the "Guide for the Perplexed," a philosophical treatise addressing the conflict between religious tradition and rational philosophy. The "Mishneh Torah" is notable for its systematic codification of all Jewish law, while the "Guide for the Perplexed" is celebrated for its attempt to reconcile biblical theology with Aristotelian philosophy, influencing both Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers.

How did Maimonides impact Jewish law and philosophy?

Maimonides profoundly impacted Jewish law and philosophy by providing a clear and systematic codification of the Talmud in his "Mishneh Torah," which is still used as a basis for legal decisions in Jewish communities. His philosophical work, "Guide for the Perplexed," addressed complex theological and philosophical questions, harmonizing reason with faith. His rationalist approach influenced subsequent Jewish thought and helped shape the intellectual landscape of the Middle Ages.

What is Maimonides' legacy in the modern world?

Maimonides' legacy in the modern world is vast. His legal and philosophical works continue to be studied and revered in Jewish communities worldwide. His rationalist approach to faith and emphasis on ethical living resonate with contemporary values. Maimonides is also recognized in the medical field for his writings on health and medicine, reflecting a holistic approach that combines physical and spiritual well-being. His teachings have transcended time, contributing to various fields including law, philosophy, and medicine.

Did Maimonides contribute to any fields outside of religious studies?

Yes, Maimonides made significant contributions outside of religious studies, particularly in the field of medicine. He wrote numerous medical texts on topics such as asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, and pneumonia, and his work displayed an advanced understanding of health and disease for his time. Maimonides emphasized preventative medicine and the importance of diet and lifestyle for health, principles that are still relevant in modern medical practice.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PublicPeople contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PublicPeople contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon286468

He was a bigot and a megalomaniac. Over time he has caused as much harm to the world as Hitler. Chosen ones? What a load of crap! No group was, is, or ever will be! And if you think this is an anti-semitic rant, the same can be said for the Catholic Church in bringing about the reformation, and all other religions as they move from spiritually driven faith to human controlled organizations.

ysmina

Maimonides is so unique because he is probably the first Jewish philosopher who sought to find rationality in religion and religious works. He based his writings on the Torah, studied different literature at the time and came up with his own philosophy that combined them.

I personally think that more than a Rabbi, he was a philosopher. Because religion doesn't usually require rationality. For example, if we are required to believe that God can do anything at anytime, we cannot question why God does what he does. But Maimonides was a man who could question that. He wanted to see a philosophical explanation for everything, and he looked at religious works through those eyes.

bear78

There was a fantastic radio program about the life of Moses Maimonides the other day. The scholars said that Maimonides was born and lived in Spain but his family fled when a new group of Muslim conquerors came in who were not very tolerant towards Jews and Christians.

He was studying science at this time and his father was both a Rabbi and a Doctor. Maimonides spoke both Hebrew and Arabic but wrote in Judeo-Arabic, which is basically Arabic but written in Hebrew letters. All but one of his works were written in Judeo-Arabic apparently. His family had some traumatic experiences as they moved around in the Middle East.

I guess because of these traumatic experiences, Maimonides and his family felt that it was better to act as Muslims, and that’s what they appear to have done. Many Jews criticized him for acting as a Muslim and even today, some Jews dislike him because of this. Maimonides never felt that this harmed his belief though. He saw Judaism as an internal experience, not based on appearance.

I really admire him for this. I think that we cannot know what people’s beliefs are from how they look or even how they act publicly. Moses Maimonides expressed himself and his beliefs through his works and I prefer to know him through those rather than his public life and the circumstances which he lived under.

serenesurface

@anon26914-- I honestly don't know what the whole truth is. I have heard from many people that Maimonides was influenced by Islamic thinkers of the time and they show many examples in his work which point to this.

As for him being a Muslim or not, there are different claims out there. Some say that he converted to Islam when he was young and then converted back to Judaism. Others say that he did not convert but he appeared to be a Muslim for fear of execution. I think in that period, if you lived under an Islamic authority, there were heavy fees for practicing Jews. So many Jews claimed to have become Muslims to avoid these fees and penalties. Publicly, they may have been known as Muslims, but at home, they still practiced Judaism.

I think this last claim seems more logical to me. Maimonides was a really important Rabbi of his time and his influence on Jews and Jewish law is immense. I doubt that he ever stopped practicing Judaism. He might have studied Islam and hung out with Muslims, which is where he probably learned about the teachings of Muslim thinkers like Abu Nasar Al-Farabi.

This is my opinion anyway. I would love to hear more views on this.

anon26914

I read somewhere that Maimonides lived as a practicing Muslim for some part of his life? Anyone know more about this surprising claim?

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    • Maimonides created commentary to help interpret the Jewish laws in the Torah.
      By: James Steidl
      Maimonides created commentary to help interpret the Jewish laws in the Torah.
    • Maimonides believed that God revealed his wisdom through prophets like Moses.
      By: nickolae
      Maimonides believed that God revealed his wisdom through prophets like Moses.