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Marcheshvan 7, 5774/October 11, 2013

Rambam's Life in Egypt

 

Twelfth century Israel, violently torn between the Christian crusaders and their mortal enemies, the Moslems, was too harsh and hostile an environment for Rambam to remain in, and after his his visit to the Temple Mount and the cave of Machpela in Hevron he continued on his journey southward and westward where he settled in Fostat, a large city of 200,000 inhabitants. In the year 1169, David, the Rambam's younger brother and a successful merchant, was given the family savings to invest in his business venture. When the ship he boarded bound for India floundered at sea, David and the family savings were lost. Of this the Rambam wrote:

"The greatest misfortune that has befallen me during my entire lifeŚworse than anything elseŚwas the demise of the saint, may his memory be blessed, who drowned in the Indian sea, carrying much money belonging to me, him, and to others, and left with me a little daughter and a widow. On the day I received that terrible news I fell ill and remained in bed for about a year, suffering from a sore boil, fever, and depression, and was almost given up. About eight years have passed, but I am still mourning and unable to accept consolation. And how should I console myself? He grew up on my knees, he was my brother, [and] he was my student."

Left virtually penniless, Rambam was compelled to take up medicine, and became a doctor of great renown. He was appointed court physician to the Grand Vezier of Egypt, Alfadil, and then to the Sultan Saladin, Rambam practiced and prescribed treatments that are still studied and used today.

It was in Fostat that Rambam wrote his monumental work, the fourteen volume "Mishneh Torah." He likewise composed here his great philosophical treatise, "The Guide for the Perplexed." Rambam wrote the guide in Arabic, and when Shmuel ibn Tibbon, the Hebrew translator of the work wrote to Rambam asking permission to visit with him and discuss the book, Rambam replied:

"I dwell at Fostat, and the sultan resides at Cairo [about a mile and a half away].... 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 Cairo, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace. It also frequently happens that one of the two royal officers fall sick, and I must attend to their healing. Hence, as a rule, I leave for Cairo very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens, I do not return to Fostat until the afternoon. Then I am almost dying with hunger. . . I find the antechamber 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."

Rambam died in Fostat, on the 20th of Tevet 4965 (December 12, 1204). He was buried there, but shortly after reinterred in the city of Tiberias, the last city where the Great Sanhedrin convened before its demise. He grave receives thousands of visitors every year.

 

Conclusion

 

It can be said that the Rambam is more relevant today than ever before. Unlike other codifiers of Jewish law, who concentrated their efforts on only those commandments that were of immediate relevance to their communities, Rambam, in his work, presented the Torah in its entirety. Rambam made clear in his works that preparing for the building of the Holy Temple by recreating the lost vessels of the Divine service, involves the implementation of Torah commandments that must not be neglected, for, as our sages say, every generation that does not rebuild the Holy Temple, is judged as if it allowed its destruction. In the Rambam's eyes, this is not due to mystical or metaphysical reasons, but for reasons of pragmatism. Performing all of the Torah commandments, even those that pertain to Israel on a national level, even during the era of exile and dispersion, is a necessary prerequisite for the reformation of the dispersed people as a sovereign nation in its own land. This same understanding informed the Rambam concerning the paramount importance of performing the commandment of Mora Mikdash even when the Holy Temple is not standing. It is for this same reason that Rambam concludes his "Mishneh Torah" with the book of the "Laws of Kings," which discusses the reformation of Israel as a sovereign nation and the laws of governance. This was not intended as an appendix or epilogue to the "Mishneh Torah." This was intended as the culmination of a natural redemptive process of a nation that tends to its G-d given responsibilities.

Back to day four.

 

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