July 17, 2024
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A Letter From Rambam About the Death of his Brother David

Aside from our knowledge of his father Maimon, we know very little about the family of Rambam. For example, we know nothing about his mother. As to his wife, we know that he married in Egypt late in life, in 1171 or a bit later, and his son Abraham was born in 1186. We know the name of his wife’s father, but not the name of his wife.

Rambam was born in 1138. Since this marriage was late in his life, while he was in his 30s, biographers often surmise that he must have had a first wife. But there is no evidence for this at present.

In one letter Rambam mentions a daughter who died young. But it is unclear if the reference is to his own daughter or a friend’s daughter. He did have three sisters and there is a bit of information about them.

(I am getting all this information from the exhaustive work “Maimonides,” authored by Joel L. Kraemer in 2008.)

But we do know much about Rambam’s younger brother, David. The most important thing we know about him is that he died in a shipwreck in the Indian Ocean. A letter from Rambam has survived that describes his reaction to the death of his brother. That is the letter I will focus on in this column.

This letter was written in the year 1185 C.E. to a judge named Yefet in Acre. Rambam had become close to Yefet years earlier when Rambam and his father and brother had first arrived in Israel around the year 1166, landing in Acre. The four of them then went on to visit Jerusalem and the Temple area in approximately the same year. (A famous letter from Rambam describes this visit.)

This letter from 1185 C.E. has a very unusual beginning. In his letter, Yefet had complained that Rambam had not written to him to inquire about his welfare since their meeting in Acre decades earlier. But Rambam then turns the tables on him and points out that it was Yefet who had ignored him! Here is the letter from that point on:

“A few months after we departed from [the Land of Israel], my father and master died (may the memory of the righteous be a blessing). Letters of condolences arrived from the furthest west and from the land of Edom…yet you disregarded this. Furthermore, I suffered many well-known calamities in Egypt, including sickness, financial loss and the attempt by informers to have me killed.

The worst disaster that struck me of late, worse than anything I had ever experienced from the time I was born until this day, was the demise of that upright man (may the memory of the righteous be a blessing), who drowned in the Indian Ocean while in possession of much money belonging to me, to him and to others, leaving a young daughter and his widow in my care. For about a year from the day the evil tidings reached me I remained prostrate in bed with a severe inflammation, fever and mental confusion, and well nigh perished.

From then until this day, that is about eight years, I have been in a state of disconsolate mourning. How can I be consoled? For he was my son; he grew up upon my knees; he was my brother, my pupil. It was he who did business in the marketplace, earning a livelihood, while I dwelled in security. He had a ready grasp of Talmud and a superb mastery of grammar. My only joy was to see him. “The sun has set on all joy.” [Isa. 24:11.] For he has gone on to eternal life, leaving me dismayed in a foreign land. Whenever I see his handwriting or one of his books my heart is churned inside me and my sorrow is rekindled… And were it not for the Torah, which is my delight, and for scientific matters, which let me forget my sorrow, “I would have perished in my affliction” [Ps. 119:92].

In spite of this, while I complain not of any sage, disciple, friend or acquaintance, I should complain about you above all others. For…all four of us walked together in God’s house… But you did not seek or inquire. I would be justified in not answering your letter…But my affection is drawn up in full and secured. I shall not forget our wandering together in wastelands and forests after the Lord, and therefore I do not ascribe to you sin and transgression. “Love covers up all faults.” [Prov. 10:12]….[The letter goes on a bit more with some kind words from Rambam.]

(Most of my translation is taken from Kraemer, pp. 255-56. This letter was originally written in Hebrew. The Hebrew text is at Y. Shailat, Iggerot Ha-Rambam, pp. 228-230. If the questioner wrote to Rambam in Hebrew, he would typically respond back in Hebrew, as occurred here.)

A few comments:

1. From one line in the letter that I omitted, it is evident that the purpose of Yefet’s letter was some financial matter, and not simply to renew his personal connection with Rambam.

2. Rambam’s remark that David had on his possession money belonging to Rambam is of interest. Perhaps it indicates that Rambam was a partner in this business venture of David. See Shailat, p. 229. Very likely, Rambam had been a partner in other business ventures of David as well.

Some biographers have written that David’s death caused Rambam to relinquish the life of a scholar and take up medicine as a profession. This is not true. Rambam already attained prominence as a physician in his early days in Egypt. He also seems to have earned money on his own from commerce in precious gems and from teaching sciences (e.g., mathematics, logic and astronomy) to intellectuals. See Kraemer, pp. 161 and 258. Admittedly David’s business trips helped Rambam, as Rambam stated in the letter above: “It was he who did business in the marketplace, earning a livelihood, while I dwelled in security.” See also the letter from David cited by Kraemer, at p. 251. But it is wrong to read these letters as implying that Rambam was not earning money on his own.

3. A letter was found in documents from the Cairo Genizah from David himself, written while he was in the Sudan, talking about his forthcoming continuation of his journey to India. David wrote that in the locale that he was in the Sudan, no imports had arrived recently, so he decided to continue his journey and go by sea to India. There is no date on this letter, but for reasons explained below, it almost certainly came from either 1169, 1170 or 1171.

Kraemer assumes that this letter was referring to David’s imminent journey to India that ended with his passing. In the 1185 letter, Rambam wrote that the evil tidings about David came to him eight years earlier. This would mean that David left for India around 1170 and Rambam did not find out about his passing until 1177. This seems like an inordinate amount of time. Shailat (pp. 72-73 and 198) takes a different approach. He believes that the letter that David wrote in 1169-71 concerned an earlier trip to India, and that in 1176-77 he took another trip to India that resulted in his passing.

How were scholars able to estimate the date of David’s letter to 1169, 1170 or 1171? David dated his letter to the 22nd of Iyyar, and mentioned that the Muslim month of Ramadan was forthcoming. As we have all learned, the Muslims have a lunar calendar without an adjustment. Thus, the beginning of Ramadan moves continually. In 1172 and for the three decades after that, Ramadan preceded the Jewish month of Iyyar. See Kraemer, p. 544, notes 36-37.

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. He does not have any sea voyages to India planned.

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

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