Apr 062019

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


Spinach Filling

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
ground nutmeg
1 tbsp minced fresh dill

Mushroom-Artichoke Filling

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


Apr 152014


Today is the birthday (1126) of ʾAbū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rushd‎ (أبو الوليد محمد ابن احمد ابن رشد‎), commonly known as Ibn Rushd  (ابن رشد‎‎) or by his Latinized name Averroës, an Al-Andalus Muslim polymath, a master of Aristotelian philosophy, Islamic philosophy, Islamic theology, Maliki law and jurisprudence, logic, psychology, politics, Andalusian classical music theory, and the sciences of medicine, astronomy, geography, mathematics, physics, and celestial mechanics. Averroës was born in Córdoba, Al Andalus, present-day Spain, and died in Marrakesh, present-day Morocco. He was interred in his family tomb at Córdoba.

Averroës was a defender of Aristotelian philosophy against Ash’ari theologians led by Al-Ghazali. Averroës’ philosophy was considered controversial in Muslim circles because Aristotle’s rationalism conflicted with faith-based Islam. Averroës had a greater impact on Western European circles and he has been described as the “founding father of secular thought in Western Europe.” The detailed commentaries on Aristotle earned Averroës the title “The Commentator” in Europe. Latin translations of Averroës’ work led the way to the popularization of Aristotle and were responsible for the development of scholasticism in medieval Europe.

Averroës was born in Córdoba to a family with a long and well-respected tradition of legal and public service. His grandfather Abu Al-Walid Muhammad (d. 1126) was chief judge of Córdoba under the Almoravids. His father, Abu Al-Qasim Ahmad, held the same position until the Almoravids were replaced by the Almohads in 1146.

Averroës’ education followed a traditional path, beginning with studies in Hadith (traditional Islamic literature), linguistics, jurisprudence ,and scholastic theology. Throughout his life he wrote extensively on philosophy and religion, attributes of God, the origin of the universe, metaphysics and psychology. It is generally believed that he was once tutored by Ibn Bajjah, also a noted Andalusian polymath, and his medical education was directed under Abu Jafar ibn Harun of Trujillo in Seville.  Averroës began his career with the help of Ibn Tufail, the author of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan and philosophic vizier of Almohad king Abu Yaqub Yusuf who was an amateur of philosophy and science. It was Ibn Tufail who introduced him to the court and to Ibn Zuhr, the great Muslim physician, who became Averroës’ teacher and friend. Averroës’ aptitude for medicine was noted by his contemporaries and can be seen in his major enduring work Kitab al-Kulyat fi al-Tibb (Generalities) which was influenced by the Kitab al-Taisir fi al-Mudawat wa al-Tadbir (Particularities) of Ibn Zuhr. Averroës later reported how it was also Ibn Tufail that inspired him to write his famous commentaries on Aristotle:

Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl summoned me one day and told me that he had heard the Commander of the Faithful complaining about the disjointedness of Aristotle’s mode of expression — or that of the translators — and the resultant obscurity of his intentions. He said that if someone took on these books who could summarize them and clarify their aims after first thoroughly understanding them himself, people would have an easier time comprehending them. “If you have the energy,” Ibn Tufayl told me, “you do it. I’m confident you can, because I know what a good mind and devoted character you have, and how dedicated you are to the art. You understand that only my great age, the cares of my office — and my commitment to another task that I think even more vital — keep me from doing it myself. “

However, while the thought of his mentors Ibn Tufail and Ibn Bajjah were mystic to a degree, the thought of Averroës was purely rationalist. Together, the three are considered the greatest Andalusian philosophers.  Averroës devoted the next 30 years to his philosophical writings.

In 1160, Averroës was made Qadi (judge) of Seville and he served in many court appointments in Seville, Cordoba, and Morocco during his career. Some time during the reign of Yaqub al-Mansur, Averroës’ political career was abruptly ended and he faced severe criticism from the Fuqaha (Islamic jurists) of the time.

A contemporary of Averroës, Abdelwahid al-Marrakushi writing in 1224, reported that there were secret and public reasons for his falling out of favor with Yaqub al-Mansur:

And in his days [Yaqub al-Mansur], Abu al-Walid Ibn Rushd faced his severe ordeal and there were two causes for this; one is known and the other is secret. The secret cause, which was the major reason, is that Abu al-Walid [Averroës] —may God have mercy on his soul— when summarizing, commenting and expending upon Aristotle’s book “History of Animals” wrote: “And I saw the Giraffe at the garden of the king of the Berbers.”

And that is the same way he would mention another king of some other people or land, as it is frequently done by writers, but he omitted that those working for the service of the king should glorify him and observe the usual protocol. This was why they held a grudge against him [Averroës] but initially, they did not show it and in reality, Abu al-Walid wrote that inadvertently.Then a number of his enemies in Cordoba, who were jealous of him and were competing with him both in knowledge and nobility, went to Yaqub al-Mansur with excerpts of Abu Walid’s work on some old philosophers which were in his own handwriting. They took one phrase out of context that said: “and it was shown that Venus is one of the Gods” and presented it to the king who then summoned the chiefs and noblemen of Córdoba and said to Abu al-Walid in front of them “Is this your handwriting?” Abu al-Walid then denied and the king said “May God curse the one who wrote this” and ordered that Abu al-Walid be exiled and all the philosophy books to be gathered and burned. And I saw, when I was in Fes, these books being carried on horses in great quantities and burned.

Averroës was not reinstated until shortly before his death in 1198.


Averroës’s works total 20,000 pages covering a variety of different subjects, including early Islamic philosophy, logic in Islamic philosophy, Islamic medicine, mathematics, astronomy, Arabic grammar, Islamic theology, Sharia (Islamic law), and Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). His most important works deal with Islamic and Aristotelian philosophy, medicine, and Fiqh. He wrote at least 80 original works, which included 28 works on philosophy, 20 on medicine, 8 on law, 5 on theology, and 4 on grammar, in addition to his commentaries on most of Aristotle’s works and his commentary on Plato’s The Republic.

Averroës commentaries on Aristotle were the foundation for the revival of interest in Aristotle in the 12th and 13th centuries in Europe. He wrote short commentaries on Aristotle’s work in logic, physics, and psychology, and longer commentaries provided an in-depth, line by line analysis of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, De Anima, Physics, De Caelo, and the Metaphysics. His most important original philosophical work was The Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahafut al-tahafut), in which he defended Aristotelian philosophy against al-Ghazali’s claims in The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al-falasifa).

Averroës is also a highly regarded legal scholar of the Maliki school. Perhaps his best-known work in this field is Bidāyat al-Mujtahid wa Nihāyat al-Muqtaṣid ( بداية المجتهد و نهاية المقتصد), a textbook of Maliki doctrine in a comparative framework. Jacob Anatoli translated several of the works of Averroës from Arabic into Hebrew in the 13th century. Many of them were later translated from Hebrew into Latin by Jacob Mantino and Abraham de Balmes. Other works were translated directly from Arabic into Latin by Michael Scot. Many of his works in logic and metaphysics have been permanently lost, while others, including some of the longer Aristotelian commentaries, have only survived in Latin or Hebrew translation, not in the original Arabic. The fullest version of his works is in Latin, and forms part of the multi-volume Juntine edition of Aristotle published in Venice 1562-1574.

Averroës wrote a medical encyclopedia called Kulliyat (“Generalities”, that is, general medicine), known in its Latin translation as Colliget. He also made a compilation of the works of Galen, and wrote a commentary on the Canon of Medicine (Qanun fi ‘t-tibb) of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (980-1037).

Averroës wrote three books on physics namely: Short Commentary on the Physics, Middle Commentary on the Physics and Long Commentary on the Physics. He defined and measured force as “the rate at which work is done in changing the kinetic condition of a material body” and correctly argued “that the effect and measure of force is change in the kinetic condition of a materially resistant mass.” He took a particular and keen interest in the understanding of “motor force.” Averroës also developed the notion that bodies have a (non-gravitational) inherent resistance to motion into physics. This idea in particular was adopted by Thomas Aquinas and subsequently by Johannes Kepler, who referred to this resistance by the Latin term “inertia” (inaction).  In Optics Averroës followed Alhazen’s incorrect explanation that a rainbow is due to reflection, not refraction. In astronomy, Averroës argued for a strictly concentric model of the universe, and provided explanations for sunspots and the occasional opaque colors of the moon.

Following Plato, Averroës accepted the principle of women’s equality. They should be educated and allowed to serve in the military; the best among them should be philosophers or rulers. However, he also accepted Plato’s harsher social policies such as the censorship of literature. He uses examples from Arab history to illustrate Plato’s notion of just and degenerate political orders.

His most important original philosophical work was The Incoherence of The Incoherence (Tahafut al-tahafut), in which he defended Aristotelian philosophy against al-Ghazali’s claims in The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al-falasifa). Al-Ghazali argued that Aristotelianism, especially as presented in the writings of Avicenna, was self-contradictory and an affront to the teachings of Islam. Averroës’ rebuttal was two-pronged: he contended both that al-Ghazali’s arguments were mistaken and that, in any case, the system of Avicenna was a distortion of genuine Aristotelianism so that al-Ghazali was aiming at the wrong target.

His other major works are the Fasl al-Maqal, which argued for the legality of philosophical investigation under Islamic law, and the Kitab al-Kashf, which argued against the proofs of Islam advanced by the Ash’arite school and discussed what proofs, on the popular level, should be used instead.

Averroës tried to reconcile Aristotle’s rationalist system of thought with Islam. He argued that there is no conflict between religion and philosophy, rather, they are different ways of reaching the same truth. He believed in the eternity of the universe. He also held that the soul is divided into two parts, one individual and one divine; while the individual soul is not eternal, all humans at the basic level share one and the same divine soul. Averroës asserted there were two kinds of knowledge of truth. The first is the knowledge of truth derived from religion. Being based in faith, knowledge via religion could not be tested, nor did it require training to understand. The second knowledge of truth is philosophy, which was reserved for an elite few who had the intellectual capacity to undertake its study.

Many people in the contemporary world are aware that the contribution of Islamic scholars to astronomy and mathematics was profound in the Middle Ages, and some are aware that many works of Greek and Latin philosophy would not have survived were they not preserved in that period in the Islamic world. Many fewer are aware of the major contribution that Averroës made in re-introducing Western Europe to its own philosophical traditions, slowly making incursions into what had hitherto been a strictly faith based philosophy.

Few Westerners today understand the difference between the Islamic and Christian worlds in the Middle Ages. For example, in the 10th century, when only about 40,000 people lived in Paris largely in their own filth, the Andalusian city of Córdoba, where Averroës was born, had a population of half a million, and had lighted streets, libraries with hundreds of thousands of volumes, 700 mosques and 900 public baths. The homes of the wealthy had fountains, plumbing, and running water.  Their cooking was magnificent, and traces of it are still to be found in contemporary Andalusian cuisine. This included lamb meatballs, a spicy sausage called mirgas, fried fish (still common), and a kind of cheese cake today called almojabana. Another survivor in the Spanish world today is the churro, a cylindrical fried pastry which is now sprinkled with powdered sugar rather than, as in the old days, when they were dipped in boiling honey. In Argentina they are filled with dulce de leche. Yum.


The grand cuisine of Medieval Al-Andalus is little known these days.  Want to try this royal recipe taken from a 13th century cookbook?

One takes a fat young sheep, skinned and cleaned. It is opened between the two muscles and till that is in its stomach is carefully removed, In its interior one puts a stuffed goose and in the goose’s belly a stuffed hen, and in the hen’s belly a stuffed young pigeon, and in the pigeon’s belly a stuffed thrush and in the thrush s belly another stuffed or fried bird, all of this stuffed and sprinkled with the sauce described for stuffed dishes. The opening is sewn together, the sheep is put in the hot clay oven, or tannur, and it is left until done and crisp on the outside. It is sprinkled with more sauce, and then put in the cavity of a calf which has already been prepared and cleaned. The calf is then stitched together and put in the hot tannur, and left till it is done and crisp on the outside. Then it is taken out and presented.

Here is a 13th century recipe for buraniya from al-Andalus:

The preparation of buraniya, attributed to Buran, wife of the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun, of whom it is said that she was the first to invent this dish.

One takes a fat young sheep and puts it in the pot with salt, pepper, dried coriander, a little bit of cumin, saffron and oil. The pot is set on a moderately hot fire; a tablespoonful of soaked almori and two of vinegar are added. It is cooked till half done, then taken off and grilled eggplant is added. One adds a layer of meat, and another of grilled eggplant. Then prepared meatballs are added, and chopped almonds; all is done with a lot of saffron. Then it is thickened with whipped eggs, with lavender or cinnamon or saffron, and crowned with egg yolks. Then it is put in the oven and left till the sauce has dried and it is blended and the fat is left. It is then taken out and put on embers and left a while. Then it is served.

Almori was a very common ingredient. It consisted of salt, honey, raisins, pine nuts, almonds, hazel nuts, and possibly some flour, all pounded into a paste which was then allowed to harden in the sun. As needed, pieces were broken off, soaked, and added to the ingredients of a dish.


Here is a modern version of Buraniya, still popular in the Middle East.



3 onions, chopped
vegetable oil
5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 ¼ lbs of lamb shoulder, cut into cubes
5 tomatoes, skinned and quartered
salt and pepper
juice of 1 lemon
1 ½ tsps cinnamon
¾ tsp allspice
4-5 medium eggplants
4-5 red bell peppers
5 tbsps chopped flat-leaf parsley


Sauté the onions in about 2 tablespoons of oil until soft and golden. Add the garlic and the meat and brown it well.

Add the tomatoes and salt, pepper, lemon juice, cinnamon, and allspice. Cover with water, stir well, and bring to a boil.

Simmer gently, covered, for about 1 ½ hours, until the meat is very tender, adding water to keep the meat covered.

Cut the eggplants and red bell peppers into ½ inch thick slices and brush generously with oil. Cook under the broiler or (best) over charcoal, turning several times until lightly colored. Add to the stew.

Simmer, covered, for ½ hour, adding parsley towards the end.

Serve with rice and flatbread.  To be fully traditional you should serve everything on common platters and eat with the fingers of the right hand.