Tag Archives: Philosophy

Jew of the Week: Saadia Gaon

Depiction of the Sura Academy

Depiction of the Sura Academy

Sa’adiah ben Yosef (c. 882-942) was born in Fayum, Egypt. His family moved to Israel while he was still very young, and he began his Torah studies at the famous academy of Tiberias. By the time he was 20, he completed his first work, Agron, possibly the first official Hebrew dictionary. Sa’adiah went on to write over two dozen significant texts in both Hebrew and Arabic, including Emunot v’Deot, thought to be the first Jewish work that blended Jewish teachings with science and Greek philosophy. He also translated the entire Torah into Arabic, and wrote a deep commentary on top of it, together with many other books of the Bible. At the time, the vast majority of Jews in the world lived in Arabic lands, so this translation served a monumental role in helping spread Jewish learning. Sa’adiah also authored a number of legal treatises, and translated the mystical Sefer Yetzirah into Arabic, adding his own commentaries that weaved together both esoteric and scientific explanations. Sa’adiah is credited with being a key force in Judeo-Arabic culture, and inspiring a “renaissance” in Jewish-Arabic literature. Meanwhile, he played an instrumental role in defending traditional Judaism in the face of the rising Karaite sect, a cause he fought for until his last days (at times risking his life). For his great wisdom and tireless work on behalf of the Jewish community, Sa’adiah was appointed “Gaon” in 928. The title Gaon (literally “genius”) was given to the head of the Sura Academy, then the leading body of Jewish scholarship in the world. Sa’adiah Gaon died in Baghdad at the age of 60, having inspired a new generation of Torah scholars. Two hundred years later, the great Maimonides wrote: “Were it not for Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, the Torah would have almost disappeared from the Jewish people, for it was he who shed light on that which was obscure, strengthened that which had been weakened, and spread the Torah far and wide, by word of mouth and in writing.”

Words of the Week

The birds and many of the land animals forbidden [to eat] by the Torah are predators, while the permitted animals are not. We are commanded not to eat those animals possessive of a cruel nature, so that we should not absorb these qualities into ourselves.
– Nachmanides (the Ramban)

Jew of the Week: Moses Maimonides

Maimonides

Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204), known in the Jewish world as the Rambam (his initials) and to the rest of the world as Moses Maimonides, was born in Cordoba, Spain, the son of a famed rabbi. In 1148, the Almohads conquered Cordoba and began persecuting the Jews. Maimonides’ family fled and remained on the move across Spain for 10 years before settling in Morocco. There, Maimonides studied at the University of al-Karaouine, focusing on the field of medicine. At the same time, he composed his famous commentary on the Mishnah – the central text of Jewish oral laws. Along with his two sons, he then traveled to the Holy Land, despite the danger of the ongoing Crusades. After visiting the holy sites and praying at the Temple Mount, he journeyed to Egypt and settled there, continuing his work and studies at the local yeshiva. During this time, he played a central role in saving a community of Jews taken captive by King Amalric I. In 1171, Maimonides was appointed president of the Egyptian Jewish community. When his brother’s merchant ship sank in the Indian Ocean, Maimonides lost all of his wealth and started working as a physician. Having studied both Greek and Arabic medicine, and being well-versed in folk healing and mysticism, Maimonides quickly became the top doctor in the world and was soon hired by the legendary Sultan Saladin. Even after Saladin’s death, Maimonides remained the royal family’s physician, and rejected offers by a handful of European kings. He wrote a number of healing manuals that were influential for many future generations (and still studied today). He also composed several religious and philosophical works, including the famous Guide for the Perplexed and Treatise on Logic. His Mishneh Torah remains one of the central compilations of Jewish law to this day. He also set forth Judaism’s 13 Principles of Faith. Scholars are puzzled at how he was able to accomplish so much: his typical day included a visit to the Sultan’s Palace before returning home to a long line of patients that lasted into the night. He would rarely take any breaks, and ended his day hungry and spent. Even on Shabbat he had little rest, dealing with life-or-death situations that trumped the sanctity of observing the Sabbath. Many believe that he passed away because of this difficult lifestyle. Maimonides writes that he wished he had more time to pray, study, and grow closer to God, but his obligation to care for the masses superseded all these. He passed away on December 12th (809 years tomorrow) to great sorrow, and true to his nature, had demanded the humblest of funerals. He remains highly respected in Spain and across the Middle East, the Arab world (as Abu Musa bin Maymun) and the medical community. Countless institutions continue to bear his name, and he is a central hero for modern Jews as a man who was both pious and worldly, bridging the gaps between Torah and science, Jewish wisdom and secular philosophy.

 

Words of the Week

Gems from Moses Maimonides:

“Do not consider it proof just because it is written in books, for a liar who will deceive with his tongue will not hesitate to do the same with his pen.”

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

“No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated with any other means.”

“One who wishes to attain human perfection must therefore first study Logic, next the various branches of Mathematics in their proper order, then Physics, and lastly Metaphysics.”

“One should see the world, and see himself as a scale with an equal balance of good and evil. When he does one good deed the scale is tipped to the good – he and the world is saved. When he does one evil deed the scale is tipped to the bad – he and the world is destroyed.”