Monday, December 29, 2014

History: The Early Rishonim of Spain, Part III

Note: This post has been incorporated into a pamphlet on the Early Rishonim.  It can be purchased on Amazon by clicking here.  

R. Moshe b. Maimon (Rambam, d. 1204)

The Rambam’s primary teacher was his father, R. Maimon.  R. Maimon was a student of Ri Migash, and he passed on to his son many of the Ri Migash’s teachings. Legend records one meeting between the Ri Migash and a very young Rambam, who was probably only around six years old at the former’s death. 

The Rambam’s early years were spent in Cordova, Spain.  However, the northward expansion of fanatical Muslims tribes that overran North Africa in the 11th and 12th centuries created waves of persecution in southern Spain during the Rambam’s childhood and adolescence.  For many of those years Rambam’s family wandered across southern Spain and eventually crossed into North Africa as they hid from the Muslim persecution.  After a short stay in Eretz Yisrael, the Rambam settled in Egypt.  For over 35 years the Rambam stood at the center of Torah Judaism in Egypt.  His talents were also noticed by the gentile community and he was appointed to be the Caliph’s personal physician. 

The Rambam wrote in his Introduction to the Mishna that he authored a commentary on the Talmud on almost all of Moed, Nashim, Nezikin, and Chullin.  His commentary was written before he arrived in Egypt, and was seemingly based on the tradition her received from the Ri Migash.  However, all we have is fragments from his students who learned with him in his home.  In a letter to the Rabbis of Luniel the Rambam writes that he did not want to publicize his commentary because he didn’t have time to edit and correct it to the degree he would have liked. 

Perush HaMishna

One of the Rambam’s great works is his commentary on the Mishna.  The bulk of it was written in his early years in Spain and N. Africa.   The final touches were done when he arrived in Egypt in 1168, but even then he continued to update it with changes and alterations.  In fact, the Rambam wrote years later of his needs to make many corrections due to mistakes, which he attributes to being influenced by certain commentaries. 

The commentary focuses on pesak and explanations, and is not dialectic or analytical.  The work reflects a vision the Rambam had of independent Mishna study for the masses, something he outlines in his commentary on Mikvaos 4:4.  The Rambam’s choice to write it in Arabic also seemingly reflects its intended laymen audience.[1]  The commentary is the first attempt to create a tool for studying Mishna alone, but through the prism of the Talmudic tradition.  The Rambam also states that the perush is an excellent tool for review.

A valuable part of the commentary are a number of “Introductions” appended to the text by the Rambam.
  1. The Introduction to the Mishna, or more correctly titled the Introduction to Seder Zeraim, discusses the nature of the Sinaitic Revelation and the Masorah, the nature of prophecy, and digresses to speak of the purpose of mankind. 
  2. The Introduction to Tractate Avos, known as Shemonah Perakim, discusses Rambam’s philosophy of man and the nature of man’s soul. 
  3. The Introduction to Perek Chelek, the last chapter of tractate Sanhedrin, is where the Rambam presents his thirteen principles of Faith. 
  4. The Introduction to Seder Taharos, is a detailed overview of the laws of ritual purity.

The Yad HaChazakah

The Rambam’s magnum opus in Halacha was his 14 volume work, known as the Yad HaChazakah (the word “yad” is the letter of the number 14) or more colloquially referred to as the Mishnah Torah.  The Mishnah Torah records the rulings of the entire Talmudic corpus and organizes them into topical sections.  It is a work of colossal significance, as the Talmud itself is not organized topically.  The discussion in the Talmud contain innumerable digressions, and it is nearly impossible for a novice to emerge from a page of Talmud with a comprehensive understanding of a given topic.  Seemingly to remedy this, the Rambam wrote the Mishnah Torah.  As he writes in his introduction, a student can theoretically study the Torah and then skip right to the Mishna Torah for clarity of any Torah topic.[2]

The Mishna Torah is primarily a code, and does not include the Rambam’s sources for his rulings.  Yet, one can extrapolate - through careful study - how the Rambam understood the Talmud.  For this reason, it is very popular to study the Rambam and attempt to infer the Rambam’s interpretation of the Talmud.  But for this very reason, the Mishna Torah also met much criticism initially.  His detractors criticized his lack of sources, to say the least.  The Rambam though wrote in a letter stating that he was working on a source book.  Wehter he finished it we do not know, for alas, it is not extant.  Therefore it was left to the Rambam’s commentators, such as the Magid Mishna and the Kesef Mishna, to remedy this problem by reconstructing how the Rambam arrived at his rulings. 

The End of the Early Rishonim in Spain

Torah in southern Spain came to a close with the death of the Ri Migash and the departure of the Rambam.  The arrival of the aforementioned Muslim warriors from North Africa drove most of the Jewish community into exile.  While some were murdered, such as the author of Sefer HaKabbalah, R. Avraham ibn. Daud (Raavad I), most fled north toward Christian lands – settling in Catalonia or central and northern Spain.  In fact, the children of Ri Migash relocated the great yeshiva of Lucena – previously led by the Rif and Ri Migash – to Toledo in Central Spain.  In the coming generation, some of the greatest luminaries of the Torah world were the heads of the Toledo community.

[1] The Hebrew Translation of the Rambam’s Perush HaMishna - Toward the end of Rambam’s life, R. Yehudah Alcharizi translated select parts of the Perush at the request of the Rabbis of Marseille.  Additionally, R. Yehudah ibn Tibbon translated the Perush on tractate Avos during the Rambam’s life.  But the rest of the Perush was not translated until the 1300’s, when the Rabbis of Italy sent an emissary to the Rashba in Catalonia to help find a translator.  Eventually he succeeded and a translation was fashioned through the work of various individuals.  The Perush we have printed in the standard Talmud is an amalgamation of the various translations.  This should be kept in mind when making a diyuk in the perush.

[2] It is no surprise that the Rambam was accused of trying to supplant the Talmud.  Between his Perush Ha-Mishna and his Mishnah Torah, a student could – theoretically – skip the Talmud itself completely and have access to the full gamut of Torah Shba’al Pe.  

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