The Jews of Spain, Reason, and Rambam

As the armies of Islam conquered larger and larger swaths of Europe, the Jews of the Middle East saw new opportunities opening up for them in Muslim Europe.

One of the best opportunities proved to be Spain, starting with the Muslim conquest of 711. Indeed, things were so good for Jews there, that to this day, half the Jewish world is known as Sephardi meaning "Spanish." (The other half would later become known as Ashkenazi, meaning "German.")

In the Muslim Spain, Jews found a symbiotic relationship emerging between them and the non-Jewish world that surrounded them.

So for one thing, the Muslims impacted on the Jews. Some of the greatest Jewish scholars wrote in Arabic. But the impact was much greater the other way around. Indeed there can be no question that the Islamic world, especially in Spain, did remarkably well because of the large number of Jews who were allowed to operate freely there.


The Jewish contributions came in every sphere -- whether economic or intellectual. For example:

  • Jews excelled in skilled crafts. Jews were excellent tanners, metalworkers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, and jewelers. (We see some of these skills surviving today. Yemenite Jews continue their reputation as silversmiths and Jewish diamond merchants are famous the world over.)
  • Jews excelled in the sciences, particularly in medicine. Jewish doctors were everywhere, among the most famous was Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the 10th century physician to two caliphs who was considered one of the most influential people in Spain.
  • Jews excelled in trade. Jews were the middlemen between the Muslim and Christian worlds, which at this time were engaged in huge rivalry and were not communicating directly with each other. As a result Jews became traders who covered the Far East, the Middle East, and Europe.
  • Jews excelled in scholarship. The Muslims were fascinated by classical knowledge, but since they did not know either Greek or Latin, the Jews came in to fill the gap translating these works into Arabic. The Jews also helped to disseminate Arabic scholarship to Christian Europe translating Arabic texts first into Hebrew, then sending these translated texts to Europe, where other Jews translated the Hebrew into Latin -- the language of the Roman Empire that was still in use then.


Some of the greatest Jewish writers and philosophers came from this time period. Three deserve special mention:

  • Abraham ibn Ezra, the famed physician, philosopher, astronomer, and biblical commentator.

  • Bachya ibn Pakuda, the famed moralist who authored Duties of the Heart (a book that continues to be a highly popular text in Jewish ethical studies today), examining the obligations of one's inner life and presenting a system to assess one's true religious commitment.

  • Judah HaLevi, the famed author of The Kuzari, a philosophical novel based on the story of the king of Khazaria, a kingdom located between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. (In the 8th century the king of Khazaria, undecided whether he should affiliate with the Christians or Muslims, had great scholars argue before him the merits of the world's religions, and as a result of this debate converted to Judaism as did a goodly portion of his country; the history of Khazaria ended in 11th century when it was destroyed by a Byzantine/Russian coalition.) Basing himself on this reportedly true story, Judah HaLevi imaginatively recreated the debate before the king in his novel, which continues to be popular to this day.

The Jewish paradise in Spain ended abruptly when a cruel Muslim Berber Dynasty -- Almohades -- came to power in the 12th century. When Almohades seized southern Spain, they gave the Jews three choices: covert to Islam, leave, or die.

Of the many Jews fleeing Spain at this time was none other than the famed Maimonides (often known as Rambam, the acronym of his full name, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon).

(Incidentally, you may have noticed that so many of the famous Jews were known by their acronyms. This is because Jews did not have last names; they did not use last names until forced to by Christian tax collectors later in history. Jews were known by their first names and their father's names, sometimes by their tribal names, such as Cohen or Levi, or places of their origin, and therefore, it was easier to shorten so many words to an acronym.)


Maimonides was born Moses ben Maimon on the eve of Passover in 1135 in Cordoba, Spain, to a prominent rabbinical family. In his family tree figured King David and Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi, who had compiled the Mishnah (as we saw in Part 39).

His primary teacher was his father, Rabbi Maimon ben Joseph, a Jewish judge, who taught him not only the Talmud, but also the fundamentals of mathematics, astronomy and philosophy.

Maimonides was only 13 when his family was forced to leave Spain. After wandering homeless for many years -- wanderings during which his father died -- Maimonides and his brother David finally settled in Cairo, Egypt. There Maimonides continued his Torah studies, while his brother David, a dealer in gems, supported the family. When David perished in a sea voyage, the burden fell on Maimonides.

Maimonides refused to make money from his Torah knowledge, and therefore, in order to earn a living, he taught himself medicine. Within a short time, he was so famous as a healer that he was appointed physician to the Court of Sultan Saladin in Cairo. He was also appointed the chief rabbi of Cairo.

He was not proud to be living in Egypt, however. It is against Jewish law for Jews to live in Egypt after the Exodus, so he would sign himself "Moses ben Maimon who violates the commandments of the Torah daily by living in Egypt."

In addition to being a famous doctor and healer, Maimonides was a prolific writer. Of his voluminous works -- most of which were composed in Arabic but written with Hebrew characters -- four stand out as perhaps the most famous:

  • Commentary on the Mishnah -- his explanation of the Mishnah

  • Mishneh Torah -- his codex of all the legal decisions of the Talmud (it's also known as Yad Hazakah)

  • Guide to the Perplexed -- his explanation of how seemingly contradictory teachings of the Torah are in fact part of a complete unified whole

  • Discourse on the World to Come -- his explanation of the Messianic Age which includes the 13 Principles of Faith (this discourse is contained in his introduction to Tractate Sanhedrin 10:1)

(For translations of key excerpts from Maimonides' seminal works see The Essential Maimonides by Avraham Yaakov Finkel.)

During his time the writings of Maimonides proved highly controversial. Some of his statements were deemed too radical, others were simply misunderstood. At one point, his works were banned, and after his death in 1233, burned at the instigation of the rabbis.

However, when nine years later, the French king Louis IX ordered the Talmud burned, Jews interpreted this as a "measure-for-measure" punishment from God for the burning of the works of Maimonides. Indeed, the rabbi who instigated the ban and burning, Rabbi Jonah Gerondi, subsequently repented for doing so and authored the book Sha'arei Teshuva, "Gates of Repentance," as a form of atonement for his derogatory statements about Maimonides.

Today the works of Maimonides are universally accepted and revered. Indeed, Maimonides is known in the Jewish world as one of most important of the Rishonim or "the First Ones."

This group of Jewish sages follows those we have previously discussed: the Tanaim or "Teachers" (200 BCE to 100 CE) who are quoted in the Mishnah; the Amoraim or "Explainers" (200 to 500), who are quoted in the Gemara; and the Gaonim or "Geniuses" (500 to 1038) who were the masters of the post-Talmudic Babylonian academies. The Rishonim (1038 to 1439) added significantly to Jewish scholarship.

In addition to Maimonides, among the most famous of the Rishonim was the French rabbi, Solomon ben Isaac, known the world over by his acronym -- Rashi.


A question may be asked here, how did Jews end up in France?

First of all, some Jews settled already some 1,000 years earlier in the far-flung outposts of the Roman Empire. But for a long time these Jewish settlements were small. The expansion came through some interesting quirks of fate.

Jewish tradition has it that in the 8th century Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, seeing how helpful Jews were to the Muslims, asked the caliph to send him a few rabbis, knowing that once he had rabbis more Jews would follow.

Additionally, Jews were frequently kidnapped by pirates who knew that their fellow Jews would pay handsomely to redeem them. A small group of French Jews put up a lot of money to redeem Rabbi Nosson HaBavli in just such circumstances on the condition that he come and start a yeshiva in their community in France -- which he did.

Rashi, the most famous of the French rabbis was born Solomon Ben Isaac in 1040 in France, though he was sent to study in a yeshiva in Germany.

After he completed his studies, Rashi returned to France and settled in his hometown of Troyes. Just like Maimonides, he refused to make money from his Torah knowledge, earning a living instead from several vineyards that he owned.

Rashi had an absolutely encyclopedic knowledge of the Torah. He took it upon himself to answer some of the most obvious questions that come up when reading the text. This is why today so many editions of the Torah include his explanations alongside the text.

The other thing that Rashi did was to write a commentary on the entire Babylonian Talmud. Today this commentary appears on the "inner" margin of virtually every Talmudic page. We find his explanations indispensable because as we move further and further away from Mount Sinai, it becomes harder and harder to understand the nuances of Jewish law.

Rashi did not have sons, but he did have two very famous daughters, Miriam and Yocheved, whom he educated in the Talmud. Rashi's daughters married great scholars and fathered great scholars. Rashi's sons-in-law, his students, and his descendants became part of a group of scholars that is known as the Ba'alei HaTosefot, meaning "Masters of Addition." The Ba'alei HaTosefot added commentary to the Talmud which is featured on the "outer" margin of every Talmudic page. The best known of this group is Rashi's grandson, Rabbi Jacob ben Meir, also known as Rabbeinu Ta'am.

Rashi lived until 1105 and he survived the first Crusade, which saw the slaughter of about 30% of the Jews of Europe.

According to Jewish tradition, he met one of the leaders of the Crusade, the French nobleman Godfrey de Bouillon. As Godfrey embarked on the Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims, Rashi told him that he would succeed but that he would come back home with only two horses. In response, Godfrey vowed that if Rashi's prediction was wrong, he'd kill him upon his return.

As it happened, Godfrey came back home from the Crusade with only three horses, but as he entered the archway to the city of Troyes, the center stone of the arch fell and killed one of them.

Maimonides Verses Aristotle

This article is an excerpt from "Fundamentals and Faith: Insights into the Rambam's 13 Principles" by Rabbi Mordechai Blumenfeld. Published: Sunday, April 27, 2003

With this Principle, the Rambam parts company with Aristotle and describes a God who necessarily preceded Creation and is free to choose to create.

Ani Ma'amin, an unabridged version of the 13 Principles written by an unknown author, reads, "I believe with complete faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is the first and the last." The point of this statement seems to be that God has no beginning and no end; He exists outside of time and is therefore not limited by it. Thus, the statement in Ani Ma'amin appears to be a repetition of the first Principle of absolute existence, which, by definition, means that He has no beginning and no end. If He suddenly sprang into existence, He would be dependent upon the source that brought Him into being. As discussed in the examination of the first Principle, it is impossible to conceive of God as an absolute being from which everything else derives unless He Himself has not beginning. By adding the idea of eternity, Ani Ma'amin is misleading.

It implies that the Rambam is referring to God existing outside of time. A careful reading of the Rambam, however, shows that this implication is incorrect. Instead, the Rambam is actually presenting the idea that the Almighty preceded the universe and created it ex nihilo. This is evident from the verse he cites (Deuteronomy 33:27): "God who preceded all existence is a refuge..." The Principle is not that "He was the first," a statement which implies that He may have had a beginning; rather, He was "without a beginning," the absolute first: He preceded all Existence and created all Existence from a perfect void.


This Principle of creation ex nihilo has been the subject of a classic dispute among philosophers throughout history. In his Guide to the Perplexed (Vol. 2, ch. 25), the Rambam states that it would be possible (though wrong) to accept the story of Creation in Genesis while still assuming that matter was eternal. This concept of the eternity of matter implies that God and the universe co-existed without any beginning, an idea held by Aristotle.

The Greek philosopher acknowledged a beginning and no end, its role as a creator had not beginning and no end. To Aristotle, the eternity of matter was not a contradiction to his belief that God was the Source of all Existence.


It is with this Principle that the Rambam parts company with Aristotle. The god of Aristotle is merely a docile machine. It cannot choose to act or react. It is what it is. It could not and cannot choose to become Creator. It is impotent, with no understanding, no awareness and no freedom. Such a god, so limited, cannot be served.

The god of Aristotle is merely a docile machine. It cannot choose to act or react.

In contrast, the Rambam's God preceded Creation and is free to choose to create. He observes and controls. The world is His. Aristotle's god has no control; even man has more control than Aristotle's god. It is bound by its own nature and therefore has no relationship with creation. None of the names of God that describe Him as He relates to creation would be applicable to the god of Aristotle. It is neither a Lord nor a Master nor a Power. In Aristotle's world, there is nothing to serve because it is impossible to serve a limited force.


This Principle of creation ex nihilo we know only from the Torah. Both the Rambam (Guide to the Perplexed, ch. 16) and Yehudah HaLevi (Kuzari 1:63-67) admit that it is impossible to prove Aristotle wrong through logic. Up until this point in our discussion, intellect acted as a guide to considering the truth of each of these Principles, step by step. Since Aristotle cannot be proven wrong by logic, we must now rely on God's revelation to Israel in order to know the truth.

It would seem, however, that this Principle could be derived through reason as well. Wasn't that what happened in our history with the story of Abraham? Didn't he look at the "palace" (Midrash Hagadol 12:1; Bereishis Rabbah 39:1) and understand that there had to be an Owner? He observed the universe and knew that there had to be a Creator.

Not only did Abraham perceive a God who creates, but he also concluded that this Creator cares for and imposes obligations upon creation. With total clarity and an extraordinary fidelity to his convictions, he deduced all these facts to the extent that he was willing to be thrown into the burning furnace rather than worship idols (Bereishis Rabbah 38:19), he had to understand that there was a system of morality that came from a Creator. This system of morality defined the relationship between the Creator and man to the extent that it was proper and necessary to defend the truth even at the cost of life itself.

With his intellect, Abraham saw in the universe a God far different from the impotent, mechanical god of Aristotle. The God of Abraham related to man in such a way that man could address Him as "my Lord, my Master" (Genesis 15:2; see Berachos 7b). One might say that the inference of a caring God from the perfect design of the universe is a subtle step that demands trust as well as logic.

To Aristotle the "why" of Creation must remain a mystery. Obviously, the world was not created in order to fulfill the needs of the Creator, because by definition He lacks nothing, He has no needs. If, according to Aristotle, creating is part of the very definition of the Creator, then there never existed a separate act of Creation or a separate will on the part of the Creator to create.

To Abraham, the sublime order of the universe testified to purpose and meaning.

In Aristotle's term there never existed an act of giving -- of chesed, such that one could term Creation an act of giving to the created; the question of "why" in Creation does not exist.

Abraham, on the other hand, could not leave this "why" unresolved. To him the sublime order of the universe testified to purpose and meaning. This conviction led him to conclude that the Almighty was not always a Creator. He became convinced that God willed Creation for the benefit of man. This benefit is the absolute pleasure that is derived from closeness to the Source of all existence. The more man would emulate the Creator, the closer he could come to Him.

Since Abraham came to know God through a Divine attribute manifested in Creation - that of chesed, of giving - it follows that the theme of Abraham's life became one of giving to others.

Religious Articles Index
Origins Christianity