The Rambam as Revealed Through His Teshuvot (Responsa)
In 1862, a remarkable society of scholars was founded in Europe, dedicated to the publication of precious medieval Hebrew manuscripts which had not been printed before. The society was appropriately called Mekitsei Nirdamim (Rousers of the Slumberers). The Society has just celebrated its 130th year, and can look back to the publication of innumerable outstanding works without which we old be greatly impoverished today.
The Society is headed by a board of scholars from various countries. Some of the past board members were: Chief Rabbi Nathan M. Adler, of London; Rabbi S. D. Luzzato, of Rome; Rabbi S. Ganzfried, of Ungvar; Dr. Haim Brody, of Prague and Jerusalem; A. Berliner, of Berlin; S. Y. Agnon, of Jerusalem; and Prof. E. Uhrbach, Jerusalem. My late father, Hans Lehmann, subscribed to their publications while I was still very young, and I remember the radiance on his face whenever a package came to our home with a new sefer published by Mekitsei Nirdamim.
You can well imagine how honored I felt when, a few years ago, I was called to become a member of the Board of Mekitsei Nirdamim, after I contributed a study of a manuscript, dated around 1313, with the rulings of R. Meir of Rutenberg, which the Society published.
The Society, which has been headquartered in Jerusalem since 1934, has just published a very important work: 280 Teshuvot (Responsa) of the Rambam, in four volumes. The Rambam (1135-1204) wrote most of these Teshuvot in Judeo-Arabic, and therefore they were published in Arabic as well as in their Hebrew translation. These Teshuvot are a fabulous source of personal encounters with the Rambam, through which we can ascertain a much more direct, intimate portrait of the master than through any of his other works. We all know his major works: his Commentary on the Mishnah, Moreh Nevuchim, Mishneh Torah, Sefer HaMitzvot, as well as his writings on logic, medicine, astronomy, music and many more subjects. But nowhere does one feel so directly in his presence as when one reads the exchanges between him and his petitioners from all corners of the world of that time. What comes out is the portrait of an immensely warm, caring leader, often lenient in his decisions, but more often than not, brusquely direct and sharp. Most of his decisions and adjudications are brief, consisting of just a few words. Even when they are lengthy, they are never as long and intricate as the Teshuvot of later rabbis. All of his Teshuvot were intended to instruct the entire Jewish people with the highest authority.
Here are a number of the sheylot (questions) placed before the Rambam, and his replies
Several cases involve people who lent money to businessmen who sailed to India to buy silk, but their ship sank and they drowned. The creditors, with their promissory notes in hand, went to the orphans to collect the debts. In case after case of such voyages to India, the Rambam does not once inject a word about his own personal tragedy which befell him when his brother drowned, and all his goods were lost, when his ship sank. His brother had provided the Rambam with a comfortable living. After this tragedy the Rambam had to eke out a living by working at the Royal Palace in Cairo as a physician.
From several cases we see that many Jews owned precious books, which they considered among their most valuable possessions. A book is sometimes called ktab in Arabic, or sefer in Hebrew, but in the cases before the Rambam the Arabic word metsachaf is used, which in my opinion should be rendered mitzchaf in Hebrew, meaning a very voluminous, heavy, handwritten book, a term also used to refer to very large Biblical manuscripts, many of which were written at the academy of the Ben Asher dynasty in Tiberias.
In the Teshuvot we find the names of cities and countries where the Jews traveled for business or family affairs, and from where the inquiries came: Baghdad, Aleppo, Alexandria, Sicily, Tunis, Iraq, Syria and India. These Egyptian towns are mentioned: Cairo, Alexandria, Fustat, Mahalla, Tanis, Minyat Zifta, Dimanhur and Bilbais.
There are other historic glimpses we can obtain from the Teshuvot: As mentioned above, several of them refer to pirates who captured vessels and merchandise. We often forget that this was an ever-present danger lurking over every merchant seafarer for centuries until relatively recent times. Legal implications arose from the capture of Jewish women who were later redeemed, and the need to determine the status of stolen goods offered for sale by the pirates, etc.
Several inquiries concern commerce. For example, what is the law if a loan is given in a form of currency which later is devalued. The Rambam's answer: At the time of the loan it should be clearly stipulated whether the lender will be satisfied to receive his money back in the same currency, or whether repayment should be made in its equivalent, at whatever the rate of exchange is at the time the loan is returned.
Some cases reflect the pettiness of the petitioners, as in a case of two cantors, who initially were good friends and fair partners in their services to their community, but who later had a falling-out. Thereafter, one refused to sing in the presence of the other. The Rambam took the question very seriously, and admonished the community elders to issue their own decision as to who should sing for them, and when.
In another case, he was told that every Shabbat the head of a synagogue would deliver a sermon with his comments on the weekly Torah portion. On one Shabbat, a member of the synagogue, a learned man, suddenly cried out that what the speaker had said was nonsense, and no one should listen to such worthless words. The question was: Should this man be punished for the interruption and embarrassment he caused? The Rambam answered that unless the head of the community insisted on pressing for legal action, "it is best to close your eyes to the incident and ignore it." But, as in several of his written decisions, he concluded with the words "Safeguard the honor of the Torah, because the Torah and the mitzvot are a light unto us!"
One inquiry concerns a shochet who was found to be lax in his religious observances, and in fact was caught with stolen meat. May he continue to act as a butcher for his community? The Rambam replied: "It is public knowledge among gentiles that we only entrust our most honored members, whether our judges or our emissaries before G-d, with slaughtering for us. In fact, the nations envy us for maintaining such high standards. Therefore, a man of such low standing must not be allowed to slaughter for you in public, unless he performs total repentance. Otherwise there will be a profaning of G-d. However, he may slaughter for any one of you in private."
One inquirer asked whether it is permitted to decorate a synagogue with designs, and whether a synagogue may have windows. The Rambam answered that decorations and designs are only a distraction when one prays—and he adds a very personal note, "I close my eyes when I pray." As for the second part of the query, he writes that windows are desirable, because we can imagine seeing through them all the way to Jerusalem!
It appears from some Teshuvot that the Rambam had an aversion to liturgical piyutim added to the regular synagogue service. "Some of these poems were written by poets and not by talmidei chachamim, and their content is often alien to the meaning of the prayers. They divert the worshippers' attention so that sometimes they begin chatting and laughing in the middle of the chanting, since they do not consider these poems part of the service."
He admonished his petitioners to maintain the strictest decorum during synagogue services. For the Shabbat and festival services, especially for mussaf, he preferred that the cantor immediately commence the amidah with a loud voice, thereby obviating the congregation's own silent prayer, because he found that people usually took only the silent prayer seriously, and they started chatting and chuckling during the loud repetition. "However, during weekday services the repetition of the amidah should take place after the silent amidah." Decorum during services and full concentration during prayer were his guiding principles.
When he was asked which kind of ink should be used for writing a Sefer Torah, he recalled how he himself had produced the ink when he wrote his own Sefer Torah. (In Mishneh Torah he also recalls how he wrote his own Torah—a mitzvah he evidently was especially proud to have performed.) One of his longest Teshuvot contains a detailed description of how to measure the lines in a Torah so that they comply with each of the scribal laws. Again, all this is based on his own personal experience. He even reports that the exact length of his Torah scroll, excluding the margins at the beginning and end, was 1362 finger-breadths (a detail not mentioned in Mishneh Torah)!
When a questioner asked him about a certain book authored by a Karaite sage, he brusquely answered: "You must destroy this book, and purge its memory from you. This will be a great mitzvah, as it is written, 'You shall not mention the name of an alien god." One of the Rambam's great historic accomplishments, together with Saadiah Gaon, was to put a total stop to the Karaite heresy, which, after his death, dwindled to a very insignificant number of followers.
The Rambam was faced with problems caused not only by his Moslem neighbors, but also by the Christians who occupied Eretz Yisrael after the Crusades. He was, therefore, well-versed in Christianity. His references to Jesus and Mohammed were purged from all early printed editions of Mishneh Torah produced in Europe. I have a 1509 edition, however, printed in Constantinople, which was not censored.
The Rambam's greatest elaboration on Christianity is found in his famous Iggeret Teman (Epistle to Yemen), written to his loyal followers in Yemen, which evidently escaped the attention of the Christian censors. In it he writes that "Jesus was a Jew, even though his father was a Goy. Only his mother was Jewish." The Rambam did not accept the Christian Gospels' contorted and contradictory genealogies alleging that Jesus' father was a Jew named Joseph. Instead, Jews have always known that Mary, an unmarried woman, had a baby fathered by a Roman pagan soldier.
The Rambam in his Teshuvot gives a correct account of the two types of Christianity: the one that Jesus and his contemporaries practiced, and the one that was created later, without much Jewish content. Interestingly, in one of his Teshuvot the Rambam permits teaching the Bible to a Christian, but not to a Moslem, because Christians believe that the Jewish Bible was G-d-given, while the Moslems declare it to be a corruption of the Koran. Therefore it is easier for a Christian to realize the errors in his religion and return to the truth of Judaism than it is for a Moslem.
One petitioner asked whether one should sit or stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments, in view of the fact that the Minim declare the Ten Commandments to have greater sanctity than the rest of the Torah. The Rambam decided in favor of sitting, because to stand would "lead to harming our faith;" we must not allow any portion of the Torah to appear superior to any other. He adds that Minim are not only Karaites, who deny the Oral Torah, but any who deny that the Torah, in its entirety, was given by G-d at Mt. Sinai. Thus, Christians can also be counted among the Minim, since they deny the Oral Torah. The Rambam added an interesting admonition: "Don't let your conduct be guided by a desire to comply with everyone else. If your neighbors are all sick, you would not infect yourself to become sick like them, but you would try to heal the sick."
In an interesting response to Rabbi Ovadiah, a righteous convert—probably the famous Norman Christian convert by that name known from our literature—the Rambam wrote that a convert, like any Jew, may use all the names for G-d: "our Father," "our King," "the G-d of our forefather Abraham," because a convert has taken the G-d of the Jews as his own. However, he should not say "who has taken us out of Egypt," or "who has performed miracles for our forefathers," and the like, because that would be historically incorrect.
One petitioner was confused as to whether Moslems are considered idol worshippers. The Rambam explained: "The Moslems are not at all idol worshippers. Every vestige of pagan religion has been purged from their hearts, and they acknowledge One G-d, although in ancient days their shrine [in Mecca] was a pagan one. But that is irrelevant today. However, they commit other errors, which I am afraid to commit to writing." In his Iggeret Teman the Rambam goes so far as to say that the Moshiach will come when Islam is widely spread throughout the world.
The Rambam was rigorously uncompromising where the laws of taharat hamishpacha (family purity) were concerned. In one long Teshuva he spoke out harshly against those who had relented in the observance of our purity laws, and adopted the Karaite practice of only having water poured on women (in modern terms, taking a shower), rather than immersing in a mikvah at the end of their niddah period. He ordered all rabbis to announce in their synagogues that whoever violates the laws of women's purity, and fails to use a mikvah, will be dealt with harshly. Such women are to be divorced, and they forfeit their prenuptial property rights under their ketuba. Also, such transgressors—the husbands as well as the wives—are to be placed under a cherem of the gravest sort. Of all his Teshuvot, this is the longest, which shows how serious such a violation is.
This proclamation was issued in 1176, when the Rambam was a mere 41 years old! The Rambam's historic greatness is demonstrated by the Act that he actually single-handedly was able to eliminate these transgressions, and thereby he brought the entire Jewish people back to full observance of Jewish law (and in the process, separated them from the Karaites).
One questioner asks if it is proper and permissible to transport the remains of a departed person to Eretz Yisrael for burial, citing a case in which a man had taken his father's and mother's remains to be buried in Jerusalem. Did he do the right thing? The Rambam replied: "What this man did was tov me’od, very good, and the great men among Israel's sages did likewise." Here we get an inkling of the Rambam's own decision to be buried in Eretz Yisrael. This is worth pondering when we visit his grave in Tiberias.
The heavy burdens of his medical and communal duties are apparent hi some of his letters: "Please excuse me for answering your letter with such brevity, because I am overworked, my body is feeble. I am not even able to read all the letters I receive, let alone answering them, except when they contain a point of important wisdom."
Of course, the bulk of the petitions concern family problems, commercial matters and inheritance questions. His answers on such topics reflect his legislation in his Mishneh Torah.
These few brief excerpts taken from the 280 Teshuvot give us an idea of the Rambam's unmatched greatness, a sampling of the enormous sweep of his expertise in every facet of learning and human experience, enabling him to answer each question with decisiveness and precision. His historic accomplishment in securing complete adherence to Torah law was accomplished through the much used medium of letter writing. The Jews had their own postal system, which made correspondence possible over distances of thousands of miles, and it is our good fortune that the Rambam remained at the center of this world-wide network of Torah teaching, legislation and human experience.
Truly, "from Moshe to Moshe, there was none like Moshe!"
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