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Focus On:The Rambam - A Brief Biography by Dr. Fred Rosner
Focus On:The Rambam - A Brief Biography
Volume 4 , Issue 2

Moses, son of Maimon, (Rambam in Hebrew, Abu Imram Musa Ibn Maimun in Arabic and Maimonides in Greek) was born in Cordova, Spain on March 30, 1135 corresponding to Passover eve of the Hebrew year 4895. His mother died in childbirth and consequently his father Dayan (judge) raised him. Persecution by the Almochades (Almoravids), a fanatical Moslem group from North and West Africa, forced the Maimon family to flee Cordova in the year 1148. The family wandered through southern Spain and northern Africa for the next ten years and finally settled in Fez, Morocco.

Little is known of Maimonides's early life and medical education." There are no sources indicating that Maimonides had any formal medical education." In his Medical Aphorisms, he mentions "the elders before whom I have read;" this is the only allusion to some semi-private study of medicine." A few times he mentions the son of Ibn Zuhr from whom he heard teachings of the latter's illustrious father(the great physician Abu Merwan Ibn Zuhr) whom Maimonides held in great esteem.

Maimonides must have been an avid reader since his medical writings show a profound knowledge of ancient Greek authors in Arabic translations, and Moslem medical works. Hippocrates, Galen and Aristotle were his Greek medical inspirations and Rhazes of Persia, Al Farabi, and Ibn Zuhr the Spanish-Arabic physician, are Moslem authors frequently quoted by Maimonides.

The Maimon family left Morocco in 1165, traveled to Palestine, landing in Acco, and from there to Egypt where they settled in Fostat (old Cairo). Maimonides turned to medicine as a livelihood only after the death of his father in 1166 and the death of his brother in a shipwreck shortly thereafter. Maimonides was left with his brother's wife and children to support and, after a year's illness following his father's death, entered into the practice of medicine.In 1174, at age 39, he was appointed Court Physician to Visier Al-Fadhil, Regent of Egypt during the absence of the Sultan, Saladin the Great, who was fighting in the Crusades in Palestine. It was at this time that Richard the Lion-Hearted, also fighting in the Crusades, is reported to have invited Maimonides to become his personal physician, an offer which Maimonides declined. His reputation as a physician grew in Egypt and neighboring countries, and his fame as a theologian and philosopher became widespread.

In 1193, Saladin died and his eldest son, Al Afdal Nur ad Din Ali, a playboy, succeeded him. As a result, Maimonides's medical duties became even heavier, as described in the famous letter he wrote to his friend, disciple and translator, French Rabbi Samuel Ibn Tibbon, in the year 1199.

"I live in Fostat and the Sultan resides in Cairo; these two places are two Sabbath limits [marked off areas around a town" within which it is permitted to move on the Sabbath; approximately one and one-half miles] distant from each other. My duties to the Sultan are heavy. I am obliged to visit him every day, early in the morning, and when he or any of his children or concubines are indisposed, I cannot leave Cairo, but must stay during most of the day in the palace. It also frequently happens that one or two of the officers fall sick and I must attend to their healing. Hence, as a rule, every day, early in the morning, I go to Cairo and, even if nothing unusual happens there, I do not return to Fostat until the afternoon. Then I am famished, but I find the antechambers filled with people, both Jews and Gentiles, nobles and common people, Judges and policemen, friends and enemies, 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 light refreshment, the only meal I eat in twenty-four hours. Then I go to attend to my patients and write prescriptions and directions for their ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall and sometimes, even as the Torah is my faith, until two hours and more into the night. I converse with them and prescribe for them even while lying down from sheer fatigue. When night falls, I am so exhausted that I can hardly speak.

In consequence of this, no Israelite can converse with me or befriend me [on religious or community matters] except on the Sabbath. On that day, the whole congregation, or at least, the majority, comes 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 services until evening prayer. In this manner, I spend the days. I have here related to you only a part of what you would see if you would visit me."

Maimonides was also the spiritual leader of the Jewish community of Egypt.

At age 33, in the year 1168, shortly after settling in Fostat (Old Cairo), he completed his first major work, the Commentary on the Mishnah. In 1178, ten years later, he finished his magnum opus the Mishneh Torah. This monumental work is a 14-book compilation of all Biblical and Talmudic law and remains a classic to this day. In 1190, Maimonides completed his great philosophical masterpiece, the Guide for the Perplexed.

Maimonides died on December 14, 1204 (Teveth 20, 4965 in the Hebrew calendar) and was buried in Tiberias. Legend relates that Maimonides's body was placed upon a donkey and the animal set loose. The donkey wandered and wandered and finally stopped in Tiberias.

Dr. Fred Rosner is Director of Department of Medicine, Queens Hospital Center and Assistant Dean and Professor of Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. He has written extensively on the medical writings of Maimonides and recently published a book entitled Existence and Unity of God: Three Treatises Attributed to Moses Maimonides. The Jewish Review is grateful for being given permission to excerpt this biography from an article written for the New York Medical Society.



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