Moses Maimonides, unparalleled editions
One of the greatest Jewish sages of all times, Moses Maimonides, was not only an outstanding legal authority, compelling philosopher, and accomplished physician, but also the most influential Jewish spiritual leader of his age. The Arabs amongst whom he spent most of his life knew him as Abu Imram Musa ibn Maimun al-Qurtubi. To Western Christian scholars, he was known as Maimonides, while his own people called him
Rambam, an acronym of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon.
Maimonides was born in 1135 in Cordoba, which at the time was the capital of Muslim Spain, and received his formative education in Hebrew and Jewish studies from his father Maimon, a learned judge of the town’s rabbinical court. Driven by relentless persecution and by disturbances caused by invading fanatical tribes, the Maimon family spent many years wandering around Spain and North Africa. In 1165, they finally settled in Fustat, a suburb of Cairo. Maimonides was to spend the rest of his life in Egypt, where he rose to prominence as physician and leader of the local Jewish community, and produced some of his greatest literary works.
Maimonides – a polymath with a stupendous intellect – displays unsurpassed originality, incisive analytical power, and profound erudition in most of his writings. There is barely a discipline of medieval scholarship or field of Jewish knowledge that he did not master and cover in his works. A talented linguist fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, he was also well acquainted with Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Persian, and Spanish.
Maimonides’ literary career began in adolescence with a series of commentaries on Talmudic tractates.
Milot ha-higayon (Treatise on Logic) and
Ma’amar ha-Ibur (Treatise on the Jewish Calendar), which he wrote in his teens, are remarkable studies for one so young, and they foreshadow the clarity and style of composition of his later, greatest works. A pioneering compilation which took him ten years to complete (1158-1168), his commentary on the Mishnah (
Perush ‘al ha-Mishnah), was clearly intended to make the corpus of the Oral Law accessible to Jews at all levels. Written between 1168 and 1178, the
Mishneh Torah (the Second Law, or the Mighty Hand) is regarded as his masterpiece and the greatest contribution to Jewish law ever made by any one individual. Completed in 1190,
Moreh Nevukhin (Guide to the Perplexed) is probably the most authoritative Jewish philosophical treatise of the medieval era, and represents Maimonides’ attempt at reconciling religious Judaism with Aristotelian rationalism.
His pragmatic rationalism is equally reflected in medical texts written while serving as court physician to Sultan Saladin in Cairo. According to experts, many of the views advocated in these writings were modern and far ahead of his time. The preventive approach to illness, the importance of diet and exercise, and the effects of pollution on people’s wellbeing are just some examples of Maimonides’ sophisticated medical acumen. Some of his treatises were translated into Hebrew and Latin (e.g.,
Pirke Moshe, or Medical Aphorisms), thus spreading his fame in the West.
Maimonides’ caring nature and heartfelt compassion for the sufferings of fellow co-religionists are best illustrated in his letters, of which
Igeret ha-Shemad (Epistle on forced Conversion, written around 1165 or 1166) and
Igeret Teman (Epistle to the Jews of Yemen, written in 1173 or 1174) are just two examples.
Maimonides’ personality and literary legacy had a tremendous and lasting impact not only on his contemporaries, but also on generations of scholars and thinkers, Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.
Maimonides works in the British Library collection
The British Library holds an important, wide-ranging collection of books and manuscripts related to Maimonides’ life and works. The present selection, though limited to just 54 mostly Hebrew printed editions, is wide in scope, since it embraces virtually the entire spectrum of Maimonides’ literary output. It includes imprints from the 16th up to and including the 20th century, some of which constitute landmarks in the history of Hebrew printing. To further illustrate the lasting popularity and wide appeal Maimonides' writings had over subsequent generations of scholars, we have also included examples of bilingual editions containing Hebrew and either Latin, Judeo-German, or French text.
Except for the
Mishneh Torah and some responsa and letters which he wrote in the Hebrew language, Maimonides used Judeo-Arabic (Arabic in Hebrew characters) in all his writings. Some were translated into Hebrew during Maimonides’ lifetime, others in the years or centuries following his death. Of the early surviving translations, some have become classics in their own right. A case in point is Samuel ben Judah Ibn Tibbon’s Hebrew version of the
Guide to the Perplexed, which was prepared with advice from Maimonides himself and has often appeared in print since the 15th century. Other medieval scholars whose Hebrew translations of Maimonides' texts have survived are Moses ben Samuel Ibn Tibbon and Judah Alharizi.
It is virtually impossible to quantify the number of printed editions that have been dedicated to Maimonides' writings since printing was invented. A quick glance at the Hebrew editions included here clearly attests to the centuries-long interest in Maimonides’ literary legacy, and further shows that some of the best preserved and well-designed books were produced by early craftsmen whose main goal was to disseminate knowledge and perfect the art of Hebrew printing. As a matter of interest, many of these printers have long earned a permanent place in the annals of Hebrew printing and typography. The Italians Di Gara, Bragadini, Adelkind, Giustiniani, and Usque, the Ibn Nahmias brothers active in Constantinople, Kalonymus ben Mordecai Jaffe in Lublin, and Solomon Proops in Amsterdam are just some of the names that spring to mind.
Letters and responsa
Maimonides replied regularly to legal questions addressed to him from both near and afar, and often wrote letters and epistles, some of which have survived. To date, more than 500 of his responsa and all of his extant letters have been published in Hebrew. The earliest responsa edition featured here is
Teshuvot she’elot ve-igrot (Constantinople, 1517). Although it lacks the printer’s name, the book is likely to have been issued by the brothers David and Samuel Ibn Nahmias, Jewish exiles from Spain, who in 1493 set up the first printing press in any language in the Ottoman Empire. The press remained active until 1518. Some letters and responsa editions contain Maimonides’ ethical will, which was addressed to his son, Abraham. Examples included here are Venice, Adlelkind, 1544 and Giustiniani, 1545, and Amsterdam, Proops, 1712.
Milot ha-higayon [Treatise on Logic]
Written in his teens and rendered into Hebrew by Moses ben Samuel Ibn Tibbon after Maimonides’ death, this treatise is regarded as the first extant work on logic written by a Jew. The Cremona edition issued by Vicenzo Conti in 1556, a copy of which is included here, contains a final leaf, absent elsewhere, bearing the Aristotelian syllogisms and a pictorial “tree of logic.”
Equally noteworthy is the Frankfurt-on-Oder 1761 edition of
Milot ha-Higayon with comments by Moses Mendelssohn, the foremost philosopher of the German Enlightenment and spiritual leader of German Jewry. The manuscript notes found in the copy owned by the Library bear the name Aharon ha-Levi, who was probably a former owner.
Mishneh Torah [the Second Law, or the Mighty Hand]
One of the most important editions of Maimonides’
Code which served as model for subsequent editions of the work was undoubtedly the one issued in Venice in 1574-1575 by Meir Parenzo for Alvise Bragadini. Maimonides’
Code contains laws for fixing the lunar calendar. Accompanying diagrams were introduced for the first time in this edition, which also included for the first time Joseph Caro’s commentary
Kesef Mishneh, the
Hasagot (critical comments) by Abraham David of Posquières, as well as an alphabetical index of the works’ contents. Unfortunately, both Joseph Caro and Meir Parenzo passed away before printing was finally completed.
Moreh Nevukhin [Guide to the Perplexed]
There are a number of reasons for singling out Cornelius Adelkind’s edition of the
Guide printed at Sabionetta in 1553. Firstly, it features a distinctly elaborate and attractively decorated frontispiece and printer’s mark. Secondly, it contains
Be’ur be-‘inyan shene kavim, a short illustrated treatise by Moses ben Abraham Provencal, which is absent from other editions and discusses the idea that two parallel lines never meet. This premise, which is known as Appolonius’ Theorem, is also expounded in the
Guide, thus suggesting that Adelkind fully realized the potential of printing these works together. The copy that has been filmed previously belonged to the library of the Duke of Sussex, the brother of King George IV.
After its appearance, the
Guide generated an extensive literature, particularly numerous full and partial commentaries, some of which were fiercely critical of the work. Some of these commentaries have often appeared in print alongside the text of the
Guide. Examples include the
Efodi by Profiat Duran and
Moreh ha-Moreh by Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera, and Shem Tov Ibn Shem Tov’s commentary, all of which appeared in the Venice, 1551, Sabionetta 1553, and Jessnitz, 1742 editions. Other popular and frequently reprinted commentaries were
Maskiyot kesef and Amude kesef by Joseph Ibn Caspi found in the Frankfurt-am-Main, 1848 edition, the commentary of Moses Narboni and
Givat ha-Moreh by Solomon Maimon, both of which are included in the Berlin, 1791-5 and Vienna, 1828 imprints.
Sefer ha-Mitsvot [Book of Commandments]
In this work, which is likely to have been completed a few years before his towering
Mishneh Torah, Maimonides sets out to systematically enumerate the traditional 613 commandments laid down in the Pentateuch, a daunting task which no one before him had managed to fulfill satisfactorily.
Sefer ha-Mitsvot often prefaces manuscripts and printed editions of the
Mishneh Torah. Known Hebrew versions of the work include Abraham Ibn Hasdai’s, now lost, and that of Moses ben Samuel Ibn Tibbon, which remains the standard translation to this day.
Sefer ha-Mitsvot, Constantinople, 1516 is the earliest dated book in the present selection. Like the Constantinople 1517 responsa edition described earlier, it was most probably printed at the Nahmias brothers’ workshop. Once in the possession of King Charles II of England, this copy was among the rare Hebrew imprints Solomon Da Costa Athias presented to the British Museum library in 1759. Da Costa’s Hebrew name appears on the first page of the book.
Shelosh ‘esreh ‘ikarim (Thirteen Principles of Faith)
Thirteen principles of Faith are still an integral part of the daily Jewish liturgy. The Worms, 1529 edition comprises the Latin translation by Sebastian Muenster, one of the greatest Christian Hebraists of the 16th century. Christian Hebraists took an intense interest in Maimonides’ works, and particularly in his philosophical and legal writings, which they endlessly edited, translated, and commented upon. Thomas Aquinas, Johannes Buxtorf the Younger, Johannes Leusden, and Edward Pococke are just some of the scholars who have been influenced by Maimonides’ idea.
Shemonah Perakim [Eight Chapters]
This was essentially Maimonides’ introduction to his commentaries on
Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), in which he discussed morality and the nature of man’s soul. Included here is
Sefer Hesed Avraham – an interesting commentary on the Eight Chapters by Abraham ben Shabbethai Sheftel Horowitz, a keen student of Maimonides. The Lublin, 1577 edition printed by Kalonymus Jaffe has an exquisite frontispiece with richly ornate borders featuring angels and sirens.
Important bilingual editions
Porta Mosis (Gate of Moses)**, Oxford, 1655 contains the prefaces Maimonides wrote to the Mishnah commentary. The text is in Arabic in Hebrew characters, with the Latin translation by Edward Pococke in parallel columns. Appended to these are Pococke’s own annotations, in which he attempted to refute rabbinic teachings. For many years, Edward Pococke was Professor of Arabic and Hebrew at Oxford, and one of the most famous 17th-century English Christian Hebraists. His was the first book with Hebrew characters to be printed at Oxford.
The copy used for this project is part of the Rosenthaliana Library Collection.
Sexcenta & Tredecim Paecepta Mosaica a Maimonide ex Pentateucho … Utrecht, 1686. Johannes Leusden was a philologist and professor of Hebrew and Oriental languages at Utrecht. He was familiar with rabbinic literature and was the first Christian responsible for the publication of a critical text of the Bible in 1667. In this work, which contains both Hebrew and Latin, Leusden based his enumeration of the 613 commandments on Maimonides’
Sefer ha-Mitsvot, adding to each the relevant biblical verse from which it originated.