Today may be the birthday Moses ben Maimon, commonly known as Maimonides, and also referred to by the acronym Rambam. His birthday depends what year he was born in because it is recorded that he was born on Passover Eve, but either in 1135 or 1138. So, it could be today or March 30th. Maimonides was a medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher who became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. In his time, he was also a preeminent astronomer and physician. His fourteen-volume Mishneh Torah still carries significant canonical authority as a codification of Talmudic law. He did have contemporary critics in Spain, but he was revered by many Arab and Muslim scholars as well as being influenced by them.
Maimonides was born in Córdoba during the end of the golden age of Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula. At an early age, he developed an interest in sciences and philosophy. He read those Greek philosophers accessible in Arabic translations, and was deeply immersed in the sciences and learning of Islamic culture. Though the Gaonic Talmudic academic tradition, especially in its North African version, formed the basis of his legal thought, Muslim law, including Almohad legal thought, also had a substantial influence. Maimonides was not known as a supporter of mysticism, although a strong intellectual type of mysticism has been discerned in his philosophy. He expressed disapproval of poetry, the best of which he declared to be false, since it was founded on pure invention.
The Almohads conquered Córdoba in 1148, and abolished dhimmi status (i.e., state protection, through payment of a tax, the jizya, of the life and possessions of non-Muslims). The loss of this status left the Jewish and Christian communities with conversion to Islam, death, or exile as their options. Many Jews were forced to convert, but due to suspicion by the authorities of fake conversions, the new converts had to wear identifying clothing that set them apart and made them subject to public scrutiny. Maimonides’ family chose exile. For the next ten years, Maimonides moved about in southern Spain, eventually settling in Fez in Morocco. During this time, he composed his acclaimed commentary on the Mishnah, between 1166 and 1168.
Following this period in Morocco, together with two sons, he journeyed in Palestine before settling in Egypt around 1168. While in Cairo, he studied in a yeshiva attached to a small synagogue (which now bears his name). Maimonides shortly thereafter was instrumental in helping rescue Jews taken captive during the Christian King Amalric’s siege of the Egyptian town of Bilbays. He sent five letters to the Jewish communities of Lower Egypt asking them to pool money together to pay the ransom. The money was collected and then given to two judges sent to Palestine to negotiate with the Crusaders. The captives were eventually released.
Following this triumph, the family, hoping to increase their wealth, gave their savings to Maimonides’ youngest brother, David ben Maimon, a merchant. Maimonides directed his brother to procure goods only at the Sudanese port of ‘Aydhab. After a long arduous trip through the desert, however, David was unimpressed by the goods on offer there. Against his brother’s wishes, David boarded a ship for India, since great wealth was to be found in the East. Before he could reach his destination, David drowned at sea some time between 1169 and 1177.
In a letter (discovered later in the Cairo Geniza), he wrote:
The greatest misfortune that has befallen me during my entire life—worse than anything else—was the demise of the saint, may his memory be blessed, who drowned in the Indian sea, carrying much money belonging to me, to 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.
Around 1171, Maimonides was appointed the Nagid (leader) of the Egyptian Jewish community. With the loss of the family funds tied up in David’s business venture, Maimonides assumed the vocation of physician, for which he was to become famous. He had trained in medicine in both Córdoba and in Fez. Gaining widespread recognition, he was appointed court physician to the Grand Vizier, al Qadi al Fadil, then to Sultan Saladin, after whose death he remained a physician to the royal family.
In his medical writings, Maimonides described many conditions, including asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, and pneumonia, and he emphasized moderation and a healthy lifestyle. His treatises became influential for generations of physicians. He was knowledgeable about Greek and Arabic medicine, and followed the principles of humorism in the tradition of Galen. He did not blindly accept authority, however, but used his own observation and experience. Maimonides displayed in his interactions with patients attributes that today would be called intercultural awareness and respect for the patient’s autonomy. Although he frequently wrote of his longing for solitude in order to come closer to God and to extend his reflections – elements considered essential in his philosophy to the prophetic experience – he gave over most of his time to caring for others. In a famous letter, Maimonides describes his daily routine: After visiting the Sultan’s palace, he would arrive home exhausted and hungry, where: “I would find the antechambers filled with gentiles and Jews … I would go to heal them, and write prescriptions for their illnesses … until the evening … and I would be extremely weak.” As he goes on to say in this letter, even on the Sabbath he would receive members of the community.
In 1173/4, Maimonides wrote his famous Iggeret Teman (Epistle to Yemen). Maimonides died on December 12th, 1204 (20th of Tevet 4965) in Fustat in Egypt at the age of 69. It is widely believed that he was briefly buried in the study room (beit hamidrash) of the synagogue courtyard, and that, soon after, in accordance with his wishes, his remains were exhumed and taken to Tiberias in Galilee, where he was re-interred. The Tomb of Maimonides on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee in present-day Israel marks his grave.
Here is a recipe for a Passover dish from the Sephardic community. It is a kind of pie or lasagna made with matzoth rather than pastry or pasta. In Spain it is called mina de maza, in Italian, scacchi.
Mina de Maza
2 tbsp butter
1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced
10 oz spinach, chopped
8 oz feta cheese, crumbled
8 oz farmer cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
salt and pepper
1 tbsp minced fresh dill
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced
8 oz mushrooms, sliced
8 oz artichoke hearts, sliced
salt and pepper
2 tbsp roasted pine nuts
8 regular matzah squares
2 cups vegetable broth
1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
butter for greasing the pan
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Lightly grease a 13″ x 9″ pan with butter. Set aside.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a 2-quart pan over medium heat. Sauté the onion until golden. Add the spinach, and cook until wilted. Mix in the feta, farmer cheese, eggs, seasonings, and dill, and then set aside.
Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a small sauté pan and add the garlic. Cook for 20 seconds over medium high heat, and then mix in the mushrooms, sautéing them for about 5 minutes, until they have given up most of their moisture. Add the artichokes and stir to heat through. Mix in the toasted pine nuts and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Warm the broth. Pour into an 8-inch square casserole or a deep dish that will hold the liquid and soak 2 sheets of matzah at a time until they are soft and pliable. Once you have 4 soft matzoth, fit them into the bottom and sides of the buttered dish. Spread the spinach mixture over the matzoth, then top with the mushroom mixture. Soak the remaining 4 sheets of matzah in the broth and then cover the filling, trimming or tucking in the sides.
Add the remaining egg to the leftover broth in the dish (if there is no broth left, combine an additional ½ cup of broth with the egg) and pour it evenly over the entire casserole. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over the top and bake for 35-45 minutes until golden brown and bubbling. Serve hot or at room temperature