April 12, 2024
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A Letter by Rambam to a Simple Jew

I have previously written about several other letters of the Rambam: 1) his letter to the learned translator Samuel Ibn Tibbon, 2) his letter to a dayan named Pinchas and 3) his letter to the Sages of Lunel. But Rambam also occasionally wrote to common people. Here I will present a letter that Rambam wrote to a simple Jew in Baghdad named Joseph Ibn Gabir. Joseph, not knowing any Hebrew, was unable to read the Mishneh Torah and asked Rambam to respond in his own hand and give him some encouragement.

(The letter starts out with Rambam respectfully addressing Joseph in the third person.)

“I gather from the letter of the esteemed Mar Joseph called Ibn Gabir that he regrets being an am-haaretz because he knows Arabic only but not Hebrew and that he, therefore, while studying our commentary on the Mishnah with great zeal, is unable to read our code Mishneh Torah. He reports further in that letter that some scholars in Baghdad reject some of my decisions…

“First of all, I must tell you, may the Lord keep and increase your welfare, that you are not justified in regarding yourself as an am ha-aretz. You are our beloved pupil; so is everybody who is desirous of studying even one verse or a single halachah. It makes also no difference whether you study in the holy language, or in Arabic, or in Aramaic; it matters only whether it is done with understanding… But of the man who neglects the development of his spirit it is said “He has despised the word of the Lord” (Num. 15:31); this applies also to a man who fails to continue his studies even if he has become a great scholar, for the advancement of learning is the highest command. I say, therefore, in general, that you must not belittle yourself nor give up the intention of improving. There are great scholars who did not begin their studies until an advanced age, and who became scholars of distinction in spite of this.

“If you want to study my work [=Mishneh Torah], you will have to learn Hebrew little by little. It is not so difficult, as the book is written in an easy style, and if you master one part you will soon be able to understand the whole work. I do not intend, however, to produce an Arabic edition, as you suggest; the work would lose its specific color. How could I do this, when I should like to translate my Arabic writings into the holy language!…

“The statement you have heard, namely, that I deny in my work the resurrection of the dead, is nothing more than a malicious calumny. He who asserted this is either a wicked man who misrepresents my words, or an ignorant one who does not understand my views on olam haba. In order to make impossible any further mistake or doubt, I have composed in the meantime a special treatise on this subject… [Here Rambam is referring to his Treatise on Resurrection, written in the year 1191.]

I have been informed—although I do not know whether it is true—that there is in your city somebody who speaks evil against me and tries to gain honor by misrepresentation of my teaching. I have heard also that you protested against this and reprimanded the slanderer. Do not act in this way! I forgive everybody who is opposed to me because of his lack of intelligence, even when he, by opposing, seeks his personal advantage. He does no harm to me…While he is pleased, I do not lose anything…You trouble yourself with useless quarrels, as I do not need the help of other men…”

The above translation is taken from “A Maimonides Reader” by I. Twersky. Twersky only included about one-third of the letter. The full letter in Arabic and a Hebrew translation are found in Y. Shailat, Iggerot Ha-Rambam, pp. 402-418.

A few comments:

  1. 1. Even though Rambam calls Joseph a “beloved pupil,” it seems that they never met.
  2. 2. Aside from what I printed above, the letter includes brief discussions on the following topics (and a few others as well): mitzvot that were kept by the Avot (this section was printed by Twersky), the issue of traveling on a boat on Shabbat, a certain leniency that Rambam gave in the laws of nidah, Rambam’s forbidding tzitzit with verses written on them, and Rambam’s unwillingness to allow for more than two aravot on a lulav. There is also a brief discussion about whether we will have bodies in olam haba. Rambam advises Joseph not to think too much about this difficult issue.

Also, Rambam mentions in this letter that individuals are allowed to recite “kedushat yotzer” (the kedushah that precedes the Shema), since we are only narrating what the angels do. But in Hilchot Tefillah 7:17, he had written that individuals should skip “kedushat yotzer.” There are sources that quote Rambam’s son as saying that there was a letter in which Rambam changed his mind. Rambam’s son is probably referring to our letter. See Kesef Mishnah to 7:17, and Shailat, p. 416, n. 17.

  1. 3. The letter refers to criticism of Rambam’s writings in Baghdad. I will provide a little background. The criticism referred to was by Samuel ben Ali. Ali was the head of the Academy at Baghdad from around 1160 to 1200 and was also the recognized leader of the Jewish communities in the neighboring countries. He was the most outspoken detractor of Rambam during Rambam’s lifetime. (Rambam died in 1204.) Rambam had criticized his forceful methods of raising money and opposed the trappings of office of the Geonic Academy. Rambam also rejected the curriculum of the Geonic Academy that left no room for anything except Talmud. The growing influence of the Mishneh Torah was threatening the Gaon’s authority. Accordingly, there was a struggle between them that was “both personal and political, fought on the battlefield of the law.” See Joel L. Kraemer, Maimonides, p. 412.

Rambam’s statements in his commentary to Avot 4:7 are worth quoting: “For as we look into the sayings of the talmudic sages, we do not find that they ask people for money, nor did they collect money for the honorable and cherished academies.” (Translation from Encyclopaedia Judaica, 11:746. Rambam’s comments in Avot here are worth reading in full.)

Samuel ben Ali and his supporters saw in Rambam “the claim of the intellectual to replace an aristocratic hierarchy…combined with an attempt to impose Greek systematic modes of codification in place of the traditional many-voiced flow of Talmudic discussion… Maimonides’ creativity….was found provocative, as well as his attitude to Talmud study and the leadership of established institutions…” See the above entry in the Encyclopaedia Judaica.

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. Unlike Rambam, he does need the help of others and encourages people to defend the views expressed in his books.

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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