On the 13th December 1204, exactly eight hundred years ago, Rabbi Moses Maimonides (known as the Rambam) passed away. From the earliest days following his death it was already said of him “From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses“, signifying his greatness both as a Torah commentator and legal authority. Later he was called the “Great Eagle”, as if to underline the fact that he soared to heights of understanding and erudition, far above that of the sages that preceded him. The high esteem in which he was held by scholars of the past has stood the test of time; in our own day he is seen by many as the greatest commentator and halakhic decisor in Jewish history since the closing of the Talmud.
Maimonides’ learning reached far beyond the areas of Jewish law and Torah study, spreading to philosophical questions that concerned his Jewish and non-Jewish contemporaries, and which are still relevant today. He opened his mind to the study and influence of philosophical theories, chiefly those of the Greek philosophers, and of Aristotle, in particular. He was not afraid to immerse himself in scientific study, and his compulsion for detailed enquiry as required by his profession as a physician, was applied also to his work in philosophy and Jewish law. For this reason his writings are so extensive in their efforts to understand the essence of the universe and of man, while trying to find a rational explanation for conceptual questions such as the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the dead.
This rational world view of Maimonides was by no means universally accepted. Scholars, both contemporary and from later periods, fought his teachings zealously, claiming they endangered pure religious faith that should have no need of explanations. The controversy between Maimonides’ followers and his opponents, which led in some cases to the banning of some of his works, in fact invigorated Jewish thought and writing for centuries afterwards and it has not lost its relevance today. The fact that he touched on the most fundamental questions on the nature of man and the universe intensified his influence on scholars worldwide and to this day he is recognized as one of the spiritual giants of the Middle Ages.
He had no hesitation in making halakhic decisions in current matters and his opinions were considered authoritative in the writings of sages throughout the Diaspora. His willingness to deal with urgent problems can be seen in the many letters he sent to individuals and communities seeking his guidance. Particularly noteworthy are those dealing with the situation of Jews during the period of forced conversion – an experience he and his contemporaries suffered in Spain and North Africa. Maimonides called for closer ties between communities and those who had been forced to convert to Islam on pain of death, but wished to return to practicing Judaism at the first opportunity.
Although Maimonides was a man of his time, many others since have regarded him as an exemplary leader, one that dared to find a compromise between the Oral and Written Law on the one hand, and the existential questions that arise anew in every generation, on the other.
The Jewish National and University Library (JNUL) counts among its treasures a large selection of the works of Maimonides, as well as books about him, in manuscript and print. It is therefore only natural that on this occasion the Library would display some of these to the general public. The exhibition includes examples of printed editions and manuscripts, the most important of all being that written in Maimonides’ own hand: Order Nashim and Order Mo’ed from his Commentary on the Mishnah.
Grateful acknowledgments must be given to all those who worked on the selection and preparation of the exhibits, the organization and design of the exhibition and the production of the catalogue. Limited space allows for only a few to be mentioned by name: Firstly, Dr. Abraham David, of the Institute for Microfilmed Manuscripts of the JNUL, who initiated and curated the exhibition, and edited the catalogue. Other colleagues from the Institute, headed by Benjamin Richler, contributed their expertise. The staff of the Manuscript and Archives Department, headed by Rivka Plesser and in consultation with Rafael Weiser, helped to select the manuscripts. Orly Segal tastefully designed the exhibition. Ilana Kessler, head of the Laboratory for Conservation and Preservation and its staff prepared the items, together with Ofra Lieberman, curator of the Rare Books Collection and with the assistance of Shlomo Goldberg, Head of Circulation and Stacks. Orly Simon, Tomer Koren and Irina Asviyan of the Computerization and Information Technology Department were responsible for the scanning of the items. The English translations were made by Rachel Greenfield and Rosalind Duke. Moshe Pinhas-Pini designed the catalogue and oversaw the printing. We are indebted to Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson and Prof. Samuel Kottek of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and to Dr. Yochanan Cohen-Yashar for their helpful advice. Finally, Elisabeth Friedman, Diana Gliksman, Rosalind Duke and Elhanan Adler, all from the administration of the JNUL, contributed in various ways to the planning and execution of the exhibition.
Finally, a special thank you to An anonymous donor, a true friend of the JNUL, The EFG Private Bank of London and the Manfred and Anne Lehmann Foundation of New York, whose generous support has made possible the organization of the exhibition and production of the catalogue.
My sincere thanks to everyone.
Professor Yoram Tsafrir
Director, The Jewish National and University Library