"From Moshe to Moshe there was none like Moshe."
"FROM MOSHE RABBENU, (OUR MASTER MOSES), WHO LED US OUT OF EGYPT AND RECEIVED TORAH AT MOUNT SINAI, TO RABBENU MOSHE BEN MAIMON, (OUR MASTER, MOSES THE SON OF MAIMON),THERE WAS NONE OTHER OF COMPARABLE GREATNESS." This is the meaning of the well known statement quoted above, which today can be found engraved upon the Rambam's tomb in the city of Tiberias, and such is the measure of esteem in which the Rambam is held in to this day.
DURING HIS OWN LIFETIME, MAIMONIDES was revered by his coreligionists all across the Jewish diaspora. The Rambam's philosophical works were of such universal importance that he was quoted on a number of occasions by the church theologian Thomas Aquinas in his written works. Aquinas referred to the Rambam as "Rabbi Moses."
A CONTEMPORARY AND FELLOW NATIVE OF CORDOBA, the Moslem philosopher, Averroes, shared with Maimonides a fascination with Aristotelian thought, and together, their writings introduced the followers of all three religions to the ancient Greek masters, thus laying the foundations for the European renaissance that would take shape in the ensuing centuries.
ALTHOUGH CONTROVERSIAL IN HIS DAY, the Rambam's great works of halacha, (Jewish law), the Mishneh Torah, and of philosophy, Moreh Nevuchim, (The Guide for the Perplexed), are considered unparalleled classics of Jewish thought.
BASED ON THE BODY OF WORK THAT HE PRODUCED, and the intellectual influence he exerted upon giants of Islamic and Christian thought, one could easily imagine that the Rambam lived during an idyllic era of peaceful coexistence and mutual appreciation between cultures and religions. One could imagine that the Rambam lived a cloistered and sedentary life, dedicated to study and composing. Neither of these misconceptions could be further from the truth. The twelfth century was a turbulent and violent time. The Rambam found himself constantly in the midst of turmoil and upheaval. He enjoyed neither tranquility nor prosperity. The Rambam produced his body of work and made his indelible mark on history, in spite of the inhospitable and deadly environment that he found himself in throughout the days of his life. Where did it all begin?
The Almohades, a fanatical Moslem dynasty inspired by and established by the North African Berber, Ibn Tumart, have gained control of the city. Under Moslem rule since its initial capture in 711 CE, Cordoba prospered under the relatively moderate rule of the Moslem caliphate. The city flourished, and at its height the Cordovan population may have reached half a million. The Moslem conquerers introduced ancient Greek philosophy, mathematics and science. Cordoba was a cultural center, housing a library that contained as many as 1,000,000 volumes. Cordoba was the capital of the Moslem emirate of al-Andalus, which covered the southern third of modern day Spain. Second class citizens, granted dhimmi status, Jews and Christians were heavily taxed and faced severe restrictions. They were not actively persecuted. This was all about to change. The conquering Almohades immediately granted all non-Moslems two choices, convert or die. The once noble city was in turmoil.
Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, and reverently referred to by Jews as Rambam, (an acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), was thirteen years old when his mother and father, and his younger brother, along with many thousands of other Jews, fled Cordoba. Moshe ben Maimon was born on erev Pesach, (Passover eve), in 1135. As a child he was able to imbibe upon the cosmopolitan atmosphere and culture of Cordoba prior to the Almohade conquest. But whatever peace and quiet the Rambam had been blessed with as a boy growing up in Cordoba, he would never experience such tranquility again in his lifetime. Disguised as Moslems, the Rambam and his family escaped Cordoba, keeping on the move through southern Spain, eventually arriving in Fez, Morocco, which was also under the tyrannical control of the Almohades. The Rambam later described this time in his life: "[The Moslems] persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us... Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase, and hate us as much as they."
Years later, the Rambam would again draw from his earlier experience, in writing his famous 1172 "Epistle to the Jews of Yemen." The Jews of Yemen, facing a renewed wave of persecution and forced conversion, appealed to the Rambam for instruction as to how to conduct themselves. In his epistle the Rambam immediately drew the parallel between his own experience of two decades earlier and what was currently taking place in Yemen: "You write that the rebel leader in Yemen decreed compulsory apostasy for the Jews by forcing the Jewish inhabitants of all the places he had subdued to desert the Jewish religion just as the Berbers had compelled them to do in Maghreb [North Africa]." In detailing the history of persecution against the Jews, Rambam referred to Mohammed as " ...the Madman who... added the further objective of procuring rule and submission."
Fez itself would eventually become the scene of massacre, as tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered by the Almohades rulers. While residing in Fez, the Rambam was able to study at the prestigious University of Al-Karaouine. The institution was established in 859 and exists to this day. It was no doubt here, at Al-Karaouine, that Rambam absorbed much of his knowledge of philosophy, mathematics, and the natural sciences. It was in Fez, during these years that Rambam wrote his Commentary on the Mishnah.
In the year 1165, the situation for Jews living in Fez, constantly one of danger, took a turn for the worse. Rambam and his family decided to leave Fez after nearly two decades, and head toward the east. Their destination was the land of Israel. What awaited Rambam in 12th century Israel?
This we will explore .