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Shedding Light on Maimonides’ Letters

Reviewing: “Maimonides’ Grand Epistle to the Scholars of Lunel,” by Charles Sheer. Academic Studies Press. 2019. English. Paperback. 100 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1618119612.

One of the most interesting chapters in the life of Maimonides in Egypt is his correspondence with the sages of southern France. Why did they write to him? And why did Maimonides take the time from his busy schedule to respond to this community in a Christian land? A new book by Rabbi Charles Sheer, “Maimonides’ Grand Epistle to the Scholars of Lunel: Ideology and Rhetoric” (2019), focuses on one of Maimonides’ letters to these sages. It sheds light on these questions and on many other questions regarding Maimonides’ correspondence with them.

Sheer first traces the background to this correspondence. Maimonides completed his Mishneh Torah (MT) around 1177. But it probably did not reach Southern France before 1193.

In an undated letter, scholars from this region (e.g., Montpellier, Lunel and other cities in southern France) asked Maimonides for his opinion regarding the status of astrology in Judaism. They were perplexed by contradictory sources regarding its acceptability.

They had not heard of his MT when they wrote their letter. (The MT had not yet reached southern France.) But they had seen his letter to Yemen (although they were misinformed about the community it was addressed to). They were impressed at the manner in which Maimonides’ letter had handled the several difficult situations that arose at that time, and this inspired them to submit their astrology question to him.

Maimonides did not respond until 1194 or 1195, which was probably a few years later. He advised that thinking that the stars influence human behavior is stupidity. Of course, he makes clear that studying the motion of the stars and the like is a real science. Maimonides’ response is included in I. Twersky, “A Maimonides Reader,” pp. 463-473 (“Letter on Astrology”).

At the end of this letter he explains what moved him to respond: “Were it not for the fact that Rabbi Phinehas had sent a messenger who pressed [me until I was too] embarrassed [to resist], and who didn’t leave me until I wrote the letter, I would not have responded at this time because I do not have free time.” As Sheer explains, Rabbi Phinehas was a rabbi from southern France who had settled in Alexandria and became a judge. Sheer surmises that R. Phinehas had received an appeal from his former compatriots to intercede on their behalf with Maimonides of Cairo. (R. Phinehas could have quoted from the MT itself and responded on his own to his compatriots. But he chose not to. Maimonides discusses the prohibition on astrology in Hilchot Avodat Kochavim.)

Sheer observes that Maimonides’ important correspondences with the Sages of southern France might never have occurred were it not for the presence of this “French agent” in Egypt!

Maimonides also writes in the above letter: “It seems clear that the code which we composed…has not reached you….It seems to me that it will reach you before this responsum since it has already reached the island of Sicily…” (As we know from a later letter of Maimonides to the sages of southern France, when a country received even one copy of his MT, Maimonides was happy.)

When the scholars of southern France finally obtained the MT, they made an exhaustive study of it and found various places where they disagreed with Maimonides’ decisions. They composed 24 questions that they sent to him.

It took three more letters and a few years for the exceptionally busy Maimonides to respond. But he eventually answered their 24 questions, and he prefaced his response with a separate letter. This separate letter is the main focus of Sheer’s book.

This separate letter is intriguing because the first part of it was written in a poetic style, with many quotations and adaptations from Biblical verses. This was not the way that Maimonides typically wrote. In general, Maimonides did not approve of poetical writing. (Sheer devoted a section in his appendix to Maimonides’ attitude toward poetry.)

More substantive is the non-poetic section. (The non-poetic section is included in I. Twersky, “Introduction to the Code of Maimonides,” pp. 39-41.) Here are some excerpts:

—“When your letters and your questions reached me, I was truly overjoyed on account of them…I understood that my words had reached someone who understood their content…All you asked, you asked well…”

—“I am now sending you a response… The reason why the responses were delayed for a few years was due to my anxiety over my illness and from a multitude of disturbances. I was ill for about a year and although I have now recovered, I am like one who is ill but not in danger. I remain in bed much of the day. The yoke of responsibility for the health care of the gentiles that is upon my shoulders has dissipated my strength. They do not leave me one free hour…”

—“I am today not like I was in my youth. My strength has become weak…my speech is slow, my hands tremble…Please do not be offended that I arranged for someone else to transcribe my responses [to the questions]…”

—“I declare…that before I was created in the womb the Torah selected me…[an allusion to Jer. 1:5]. She is… the wife of my youth [Prv. 5:18]…Nonetheless, ‘foreign women’ became her rival-wives…[an allusion to 1 Kings 11:1]…. Initially, they were taken only to be her [assistants]…However, her time…became diminished because my heart was divided into many parts by so many branches of wisdom [=chochmah].”

—“How I labored—day and night—for some 10 consecutive years, putting together this composition [his MT]…Great men like you will understand what I have done since I brought together things that were scattered and dispersed…It is appropriate to search through my words and to check up after me…You scholars have done me a great favor, and so has anyone else who finds something [in error] and informs me…”

What Sheer finds most significant is that aside from his excuses of not responding due to illness, disturbances and taking care of his patients, Maimonides was willing to state that “chochmah” took up much of his time. This term referred to the study of philosophy, the sciences and human knowledge. Maimonides explains that these studies were initially undertaken to advance the appreciation of Torah. But with the passing of time, these “foreign women” became co-wives and competitors for his affection. Ultimately, the love of his life, the study of Torah, had to compete with these branches of wisdom. As Sheer writes, “Maimonides shared with these men his inner torment as he struggled to balance his ideological and scholarly passions…His vivid description of a heart ‘divided into many parts’ by so many fields of knowledge resonates loudly today to anyone so afflicted.”

Sheer’s book makes a significant contribution to the study of Maimonides’ correspondence with the sages of southern France. It is based on up-to-date research and excellent footnotes.

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar and can be reached at [email protected].

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

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