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A meeting with Maimonides1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 December 2009


The interest of medieval Jewish historians in the works rather than the lives of the great figures of history explains the relative paucity of biographical data to be found in their writings. Indeed the most factual contemporary accounts of the foremost Jewish thinker of the medieval period, Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), are to be found in Muslim historiographies, whereas entries of comparable substance by Jewish authors are both later in date and more fictitious in nature. Although Maimonides's legal and philosophical writings betray at times both warmth and humanity, the autobiographical letters that have come down to us, on the other hand, portray him as an extremely occupied person, whose professional engagements left him little time for the mundane affairs of his fellow men.

Copyright © School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 1982

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2 The most significant of which are Ibn, al-Qifṭi, Ta'arīḫ al-ḥukamā', ed. Lippert, J., Leipzig, 1903, 317–19Google Scholar (this author was an intimate friend of Yōsef Ibn Šam'un, Maimonides's favourite disciple) and Ibn, Abi Uṣaybi'a, ‘Uyūn al-anbā’, ed. Mueller, A., Cairo, 1882, II, 117 ff. (the author was a colleague of Maimonides's son Abraham).In volume II, 205–6, he gives an account of the Arab philosopher ‘Abad al-Latī al-Bagdadī (ob. 1231) and the latter's impresion of Maimonides whom he met while on a visit to Egypt.Google Scholar

3 For example, Sa'adyah Ibn Danān (ob. c. 1450), Seder ha-dōrōt in Obadyah, D., Fas wě-haḵcamēhā, Jerusalem, 1979, II, 1920Google Scholar, and Yōsef, SambarīDibrēy YōsefDibrey Yōsef, in Neubauer, A., Mediaeval Jewish Chronicles, Oxford, 1887, I, 117–23.Google Scholar

4 See his Epistle to Samuel Ibn Tibbon, in Iggārōt ha-Rambam, ed. Lichtenberg, , Leipzig, 1859, II, 28Google Scholar, and Glass, T-S 16.290 published by Baneth, D., in Studies in memory of A. Gulak and S. Klein, Jerusalem, 1942, 50–6.Google Scholar

5 , ‘Moses Maimonides, man of action: a revision of the Master's biography in (the) light of the Genizah Documents’, in Hommage à Georges Vajda, Louvain, 1980, 155–67.Google Scholar

6 I am also indebted to Professor Goitein for having kindly brought to my attention some of the letters by the same writer listed in the following note.

7 For example, Bodl.Heb.a.3.24, which was published by Goitein, S. D. in his article [in Hebrew] ‘The Nesi'im of Mosul and the destruction of their houses by an earthquake’, in Y. Braslayy Jubilee Volume, Jerusalem, 1960, 486501Google Scholar. Other letters include T-S13J21.24, 20.128 and possibly also 8J24.3, a hurried note similar to our document, bearing Šělōmōh b. Yišay's handwriting overleaf. 18J3.8 is addressed by our author to Yahya (b. Samuel ?) ha-Nagīd and 8J10.5 is written to Ḥanan'el (b. Samuel ?) the Judge. Although they are written in an Iraqi hand, I do not think as does Goitein (ibidibid., p. 488, n. 7) that T-S 12.352, 12.413, and 12.654, whose hand is distinctly different, were also written by our author. Their scribe, who also wrote T-S 13J21.8 and 16.36, was, however, connected with Šělōmōh b. Yišay, to whom some of these letters are also addressed.

8 See Mann, J., The Jews in Egypt, Oxford, 1920, I, 175–6; II, 209–10,Google Scholar; and idem, Texts and studies, Cincinnati, 1931, I, 401.Google Scholar

9 Bodl. Heb. a.3. fol. 24, line 77, published by Goitein in Y. Braslavy Jubilee, 498. Al-Faḫr is also mentioned again in that letter, lines 36–7. See also plate VIII at the end of that volume.

10 Goitein, ibidibid., p. 500. His surmise is confirmed by the fact that we have so far only found this term used in this particular sense in letters written in an Iraqi hand, e.g. T-S 20.175 verso, lines 1 and 37, 13J21.8, headed fasl, as well as in two documents dated, respectively, 1241 and 1242, written by Šělōmōh b. Yišay himself, 13J8.25 recto, line 14, and 8J6.11, heading. In a letter T-S 10J16.3, by the same writer as T-S 13J21.8 we find the following sentence (line 15): wa-fi l-kitāb faṣl ilä mağlisih yataḁamman aš-šawq ilayk, ‘enclosed in the letter is a note to your lordship, expressing longing for you’. In T-S 20.175, the writer introduces a new subject immediately after the heading fasl, with the words: ‘After having written the content of the above dispatch (ḫidma)⃛’. On the use of hidma, literally ‘service’, to designate a ‘letter’, see also Cambridge University Library Genizah Collection, Or.1080 J.34.

11 Although this term, derived from the Persian was characteristic of the later Mamlūk terminology (cf. al-Maqrizi, (ob. 1442) in Silvestre de Sacy, Chréstomathie arabe (2nd edition), Paris, 1826, II, 179Google Scholar), Professor Goitein, however, assured me that it is to be found in a poem of Kamāl ad-Dīn Ibn an-Nabīh (ob. 1222), a contemporary of Maimonides. Indeed the verse in question is to be found in his Dīwān, ed. Beirut, 1882, 59.

12 It was common in Genizah times for officials and religious leaders to employ their sons as assistants with a view to their eventually succeeding their fathers. Cf. Goitein, S. D., Mediterranean society, II, Berkeley, 1971, 90.Google Scholar

13 cf. Lane, E. W., Lexicon, I/l, 129: ‘a slightly raised portion of the floor generally extending nearly from the door to the end, or each end, of a room.’.Google Scholar

14 Is this the red paper so often referred to in Arabic literature ? Cf. Goitein, , A Mediterranean society, II, 1971, 573, n. 20Google Scholar. For other documents written on red paper see T-S 18J4.4, 24.34 and AS152.49.

15 Note the colloquial use of the verbs rāḥa ‘to go’ and qa'ada ‘to remain’.

16 In his reverence for the master, the writer endeavours to reproduce the Classical Arabic i'rāb, which is omitted in line II, q'dt. On verso, 1. 11, he attempts to do the same, although in his haste he writes ğrtw, instead of ğztw. It is difficult to qualify these instances as examples of hyper-correction. Indeed no example of this particular phenomenon is to be found in J. Blau's treatment of the subject in his On pseudo-correction in some Semitic languages, Jerusalem, 1970, 1112Google Scholar, or in his earlier Grammar of Mediaeval Judaeo-Arabic, Jerusalem, 1961, §56, p. 67Google Scholar. It can be argued that our author is simply employing scriptio plena in order to indicate the Classical vowel, a feature, which while mostly characteristic of late Judaeo-Arabic texts from the fourteenth century onwards, also appears sporadically in much earlier texts. Indeed, specialists have failed to point out that a great number of tenth-century (?) Judaeo-Arabic and Hebrew texts, written on vellum, invariably employ scriptio plena. For example, in T-S Arabic Box 45 alone, nos. 14, 19, 20, 38, 49, 56, etc., and in a similar hand in the Hebrew language, T-S C2.173. Moreover, these texts are mostly medical works and were therefore not intended for the kind of popular use associated with later texts in scriptio plena.

17 ṝawq means ‘strength’, especially that of a young man. Rabbi Ṭawq is colloquial for ‘young man’. The writer stresses the master's joviality (Goitein).

18 For this orthography see J. Blau, Grammar, § 30b, p. 48.

19 Note the inconsistency, typical of Judaeo-Arabic, in the use of the accusative, omitted here but represented in line 9 above and line 15 below. Cf. Blau, op. cit., § 218, p. 150.

20 In his haste the writer has utilized the masculine instead of the feminine possessive pronoun.

21 ḥawā'iğ, lit. ‘objects’; spices or similar small presents (Goitein).

22 cf. Dozy, Dict., II, 328. A sort of lemon pastille that was served as a dessert.

23 Note the use in this and the preceding line, of the asyndetic imperfect, widespread in Judaeo-Arabic although not uncommon in the Classical idiom. Cf. J. Blau, op. cit., § 328, p. 208. For the use of 'āda as an auxiliary, id. § 295, p. 188. The spelling yu 'qnī for yu'īqnī seems to be a lapsus calami rather than a colloquialism. Note also the omission of the accusative for the adverb of time, see J. Blau, op. cit., § 218, p. 150.

24 The writer seems particularly proud to have been addressed confidentially; he assures his master of an affirmative response from Maimonides (Goitein).

25 Note that the auxiliary has remained invariable, the person being indicated by the main verb only. On this phenomenon see J. Blau, op. cit., § 287, p. 186. For the form ğztw, vide supra note 15.

26 Note again as above, n. 23, the asyndetic construction: waqaf&yaḥaddit.

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