Tag Archives: Spain

Jew of the Week: Moses Maimonides

Maimonides

Moshe ben Maimon (1138-1204), 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.”

Jew of the Week: Dona Gracia Mendes

Commemorative Coin of Dona Gracia Mendes

Commemorative Medal of Dona Gracia Mendes

Hanna ‘Gracia’ Nasi (1510-1569) was born in Lisbon, Portugal to a family of conversos – aka Marranos, Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity – and named Beatriz de Luna Miquez. She married Francisco Mendes Benveniste, a wealthy spice trader and banker. When she was only 28, Gracia’s husband passed away, leaving the business to her and his brother. Gracia thus joined her brother-in-law in Antwerp (then part of the Spanish Netherlands). From there, she organized an escape network for Jews to flee Spain and Portugal from the Inquisition, smuggling them in spice ships, providing them with money and documents to make their way to the Ottoman Empire where Jews were still welcome. This saved the lives of countless Jews, who nicknamed her ‘Our Angel’. Shortly after, her brother-in-law died as well, leaving Gracia alone at the helm of the massive Mendes financial empire, dealing with the likes of European kings, the Sultan of Turkey, and several Popes. At the time, she was possibly the most powerful woman in the world. After a series of political intrigues, which included an unjust imprisonment and several attempts to seize her wealth, Gracia settled in Istanbul, where she was now free to return to her religion. She built and financed dozens of synagogues and yeshivas across the Ottoman Empire. In 1558, the Sultan granted her a lease for the desolate town of Tiberias in Israel. Gracia began rebuilding the town, allowing Jewish refugees to settle there, with the vision of reestablishing a Jewish homeland in Israel. Many historians consider this the earliest modern Zionist attempt. Today, Donna Gracia has become a feminist icon, and is celebrated as a hero around the world. Both Philadelphia and New York City host a ‘Dona Gracia Day’, and the Turkish government has sponsored exhibits in her honour. There is a museum exploring her life in Tiberias, and the ‘La Senora’ synagogue of Istanbul, named after her, still stands to this day. Dona Gracia is the aunt of past Jew of the Week Joseph Nasi

 

 

Words of the Week

One of the greatest tragedies of intellectual human experience is that we study Bible stories when we are 55 in the same manner as we studied them when we were 5.
– Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky

Jew of the Week: Abenezra

Abenezra’s Commentaries

Avraham ben Meir ibn Ezra (1089 – c. 1167 CE) was a world-renowned scholar born in Tudela, Spain. He became famous at an early age for both his beautiful poetry and philosophical genius. In 1140, ibn Ezra (also known as Abenezra) left Spain and began a fascinating journey that took him across North Africa, to the Holy Land, back through Europe, Italy, France and England. It was during this time that he wrote most of his famous works, including some of the first Hebrew grammar books, and a commentary on the entire Torah and Tanakh. His commentary contained such depth that subsequently many commentaries were written on ibn Ezra’s commentaries! He is famous for his rationalism and logic; in religious matters, too, sometimes even criticizing sacred texts. Not surprisingly, he was also a scholar of mathematics and science, writing several treatises on astronomy, arithmetic and even a manual for using an astrolabe. He is credited with being among the key figures who introduced Europe to the Indian system of mathematical symbols and decimal fractions (still used to this day). Ibn Ezra’s poetry continues to be recited around the world, in both translations and the original Hebrew and Arabic. Among other titles, he has been called “ibn Ezra the Great” and the “Admirable Doctor”. The lunar crater Abenezra is named after him.

 

Words of the Week

Words are the pen of the heart; song is the pen of the soul.
– Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi