This episode is the conclusion of the Moses story. It's all about his life in Egypt after the death of his brother, at court, as a physician, and just how he fit into that world as well as his impact on it.
Thanks for listening and for your support!
Ben-Sasson, Menahem. "Maimonides in Egypt: The First Stage," in Maimonidean Studies: vol. 1, edited by Arthur Hyman. Yeshiva University Press, 1991.
Bareket, Elinoar. Fustat on the Nile: The Jewish Elite in Medieval Egypt. Brill, 1999.
Davidson, Herbert, A. Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Goitein, S.D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, Vol. IV: Daily Life. University of California Press, 2000.
Halbertal, Moshe. Maimonides: Life and Thought, translated by Joel Linsider. Princeton University Press, 2014.
Koros, Sarah. "Maimonides' Influence on Modern Judaic Thought and Practice," in Forbes & Fifth. Volume 10, Spring 2007.
Kraemer, Joel L. Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds.Doubleday, 2010.
Rudavsky, T.M. Maimonides. John Wiley & Sons, 2009.
Though he may have always considered himself of Al-Andalus, of its culture, and of its scholars that were his acknowledged forefathers in learning, Moses the son of Maimon spent the greater part of his life in Egypt. He became a recognized authority there, a source of wisdom to be written to and consulted on matters of law and medicine, and so letters poured in to Fustat, each with their own issue that required his attention.
What was to be done with an elder who had offended a preacher, interrupting his sermon with a yelled “How long will you go on with this senseless jabber?” What was to be done with a habitually drunken prayer leader? Who was allowed to listen to music and when? Was it acceptable for a Jew and a Muslim to run a business together and for each to work, keeping the shop in operation, on the other’s holy days?
To these and to other issues Moses responded, and many of these letters and his responses to them have come down to us. So we can read for example a letter that arrives on the question of a teacher who had made an oath in haste and then regretted it. We can read the deluge of honourifics with which the questioner opens their letter. We read:
“What says his eminent dignity, diadem of glory, his honour, greatness, and holiness, our teacher and master, our Lord and Pride, Moses, the Great Rav, the mighty hammer, may his name be eternal, who has exercised authority in truth and justice, removes the hedge, reinforces the repairs, applies the measuring line to judgement, causes the kingdom of idolatry to vanish, raises the banner of the Mosaic religion, expounds the Talmud of Rav Ashe, composes and arranges, and magnifies and glorifies the Torah.”
Our Moses was not one of those whose impact came only later. He was a giant in his own time too, and Egypt was where he really became it that figure.
Hello and welcome. My name is Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World, the podcast that follows medieval history’s most fascinating travellers and the stories around them. And before getting to today’s fascinating traveller, I would like to send my thanks out to Alan for joining the ranks of Transcontinental Friars on Patreon. And I would also like to quickly point out to you that you could be listening to this episode ad-free on Patreon. You could, as you would by signing up tip me over my next goal, be listening to the next episode ad-free and with a little something extra on the end, and you could be helping me out quite a bit at the same time. And you can do all of that at patreon.com/humancircus or via my website at humancircuspodcast.com.
And now, back to the story.
When last we talked, Moses was mourning the death of his brother David, and actually it had initially been my plan with this series to end things there. I had really intended to make this more about David than Moses, but then Moses really is the more well-known son of Maimon for a reason, and he still really had a lot of life left to live after we last left him. So today, I’ll be talking about that life.
It’s sometimes said that David’s death altered the entire trajectory of Moses’ existence. And we do get a bit of a sense of that in that letter of his which I’ve read parts of in the last two episodes. Certainly, he seems to have been distraught to the point of sickness at the news, and in that way it certainly did alter his life. How could it not? But many writers have looked beyond that to say that his whole manner of life was forced to change. Remember in his letter to Japheth there was that line: “It was he who did business in the market place, earning a livelihood, while I dwelled in security.” While it very much seems that this was an overstatement on his part and that he’d long had his own resources by which to manage, there were financial consequences to his very personal loss. He’d lost a substantial amount, “much money,” he’d said, that had sunk to the bottom with David, and he’d also gained two dependents in David’s widow and daughter. So Moses, who wrote of the need for a sage to work rather than require the community’s support for their wisdom, was indeed going to need to work.
Fortunately for him, he had his patron, Al-Qadi Al-Fadil. The name was not a birth name, but an honorific, meaning “the judge, the excellent.” And Moses was lucky to have this “excellent judge” on his side, this man who, thought not in fact a judge, wielded immense power and influence first in Fatimid Egypt and then even more so under the Ayyubid dynasty.
Al-Fadil had originally been sent to Egypt by his father to learn the skills of an administrator, and he had learned well. He had studied in Cairo or Fustat and then gone to Alexandria where his work had brought him to the attention of a vizier, and that vizier had brought him back to Cairo as head of the Ministry of the Army. The vizier’s time in power had been short, short enough that I won’t burden you here with another name to remember, but Al-Fadil had stuck around, just as he always would.
He’d played the game exceptionally well, and as we saw last episode, he’d eventually become counsellor to Salah ad-Din and his lead administrator too, one of whom it was written that “No scribe is known to have reached a position with regard to his master comparable to that achieved by Al-Fadil with Salah ad-Din.” He’d helped that master in his rise to power, his removal of the Fatimids from power, and his establishment of the Ayyubid regime, with all the planning and reorganization of tax, military, and intelligence that went that. Salah ad-Din himself was said to have later acknowledged his role, saying “I have not conquered the countries with the sword, I conquered them with the pen of Al-Qadi Al-Fadil.” Al-Fadil would be involved in planning the logistics of those conquests and, when Salah ad-Din was abroad, in managing Egypt along with his ruler’s brother. And Al-Fadil seems to have deeply felt his love for the land he’d moved to and come to call home. As he crossed the Euphrates he’s said to have spoken aloud:
“Bear me a message to the Nile,
Tell it that I could not quench my thirst
With the waters of the Euphrates,
And inquire from my heart, for it is my witness,
If my eye has been a miser in shedding tears.”
Which is quite lovely, and really indicative of the cream of an administrative class required not simply to administer but to be well-read in history, religion, rhetoric, grammar, math, science, law, and poetry, though I must admit his description of the pyramids as being like “the breasts of a woman, symbolizing beauty, prominence, and vitality,” showed less imagination.
But any poetic shortcomings aside, Al-Fadil clearly flourished and this despite an entirely unassuming appearance, a hunched back and large head. Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi described him as “a frail old man” at fifty-six, “all head and heart. He was writing and dictating to two people, with all kinds of contortions of the face and lips caused by his eagerness to get his words out. It was as though he was writing with his whole body.”
Here was a man who had amassed great wealth from his position and his investments in Mediterranean and Indian trade but who spread it generously among the schools which he founded, including a school for orphans, and spent it freely on building a magnificent library. He was a collector of books and a collector of people, and in his circle of patronage and his literary salons moved all the leading lights of Egyptian intellectual life, with Moses among them.
In this cultivation of talents beneath his wing, Al-Fadil was not unique. Indeed, it was a necessary part of survival and success in the world of Egyptian state administration, as elsewhere, to develop a web of personal ties, alliances, hired-on family members, and dependents, to fix oneself from a fatal fall from grace.
And within such a patronage system, Moses would not only have been an appealing fellow to have close, a renowned scholar and practitioner of medicine. He was useful, an influential leader in the Jewish community, a man who could deliver that community’s support and money to the Ayyubid cause. And there were other little perks too, like having the book On Poison and Antidotes dedicated to you, a text of obvious interest for a man in public life.
But the relationship wasn’t entirely instrumental, not all an exchange in influence and social currency. It was a thread within a circle of “lovers who love[d] discourse,” a community of poets, writers, and philosophers that would bring together an Egyptian Sunni, a Syrian Shi’i scholar, an Andalusian Jew, and more, and all under the auspices of Al-Fadil.
You would find characters like Baha ad-Din ibn Shaddad, the scholar and jurist, like Imad ad-din al-Isfahani, the historian and poet who became al-Fadil’s deputy and Salah ad-Din’s biographer, like Al-Muwaffaq ibn Shu’a, the Jewish physician, musician, poet, like Ibn Sana al-Mulk, the poet, poetry critic, and qadi, or like the Syrian Christian physician Asad ibn Ilyas ibn al-Matran who was apparently not a poet. You might meet someone like the physician and philosopher ‘Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, who travelled to Cairo and, for what it’s worth, found Moses to have “extensive knowledge and great intellectual gifts, but [to be] too much concerned with worldly success and frequenting [the company of] the great.” Though to be fair to Moses, who had known a fairly precarious existence, that concern could be what kept one comfortable and indeed alive in this world
And Moses seems to have fit right in. As a court physician, he thrived, and we have some picture of his views and practices as a physician. To one patient he recommended hot pepper, a herbal wine concoction, and also a mixture of oils with saffron coloured ants to be massaged into the penis for hours, but more generally he was in favour of a non-invasive approach, a passive one really. Much better, he followed Hippocrates in thinking, to let nature take its course and for the body to heal itself than to attempt to treat every minor problem with drugs, though he seems to have been pretty convinced of the healing powers of wine. Actually, his outlook on medical practice was non-interventionist bordering on outright pessimism. In one discussion of the topic, he concluded that as “most physicians are incompetent, the result is as Aristotle said, namely, that most people die as a result of medical treatment.” Much better then, to focus on prevention and live a healthy life to begin with.
Diet figured largely in this advice. He counselled moderation in all things: moderate portions of easily digestible foods, eaten in only moderate variety at one sitting, taken only when hungry. For himself, he might have a young rooster soup, raisins with almonds or pistachios, or boiled eggs seasoned with salt and cinnamon. Wine or honey water were recommended, and water was to be boiled multiple times before being allowed to cool and drunk the same day it had been drawn, the boiling precaution a wise one given the diseases Nile water could carry.
Moses’ approach to health was what we might term holistic. He didn’t believe in treating the disease so much as the person. In this, he cited Galen in saying that a physician ought to consider “the nature of the sickness, the nature of the patient, their age, their habits, the nature of the town, the season of the year, and the constitution of the surrounding air,” all before arriving at a medical judgement on their case. He spoke to the importance of one’s living environment, urged against living in the congestion of the city with its unclean air, narrow streets, and corpses and waste all in close proximity. Better to be on the outskirts, open to the wind and sunlight, and to proactively purify the air. He also wrote of the dangers of excessive passions, anxieties, and grief. He recognized their connection to physical health and where melancholy was concerned, at times prescribed pleasures that he elsewhere railed against - the enjoyment of music, gardens, and forms of beauty - for to be beset by melancholy was to be unable to properly think, to create, or to focus one’s mind on God.
Like many intellectuals of his age, the work of a physician was that by which the scholarly Moses applied his ideas and made his money. But he also engaged with the medical field in his writings. He produced a commentary on Hippocrates, a collection of extracts from Galen’s vast body of work, and texts addressing a wide variety of medical issues. And he worked.
He served as court physician, one of several, dealing first with Salah ad-Din and then his eldest son. He saw to the many bodily cares and grievances of the court, and at times he complained of it, that the work was becoming a burden. By 1191, we find him writing to his pupil, Joseph ben Judah, and revealing just how much his star had risen and just how tiresome that had become.
“Know that I have attained great fame in medicine among the eminent, such as the chief judge, the emirs, the house of al-Fadil, and other heads of state, without recompense. As for the common people, I am above them and inaccessible to them.
This has necessitated my always spending the day in Cairo attending the sick. When I return to Fustat, I am able at most during the remainder of the day and night to peruse what I need in medical books. You know the length and difficulty of this art for one who is conscientious and exacting and wishes to avoid saying anything without knowing a proof for it, its source, and the manner of reasoning in that subject.
Because of this, I do not find an hour for studying anything of the law, and I only study Scripture on the day of the Sabbath. As for the rest of the sciences, I do not find time to study any of them. I am deeply aggrieved by this.”
And In 1199, another piece of correspondence tells us his schedule was no less busy. He wrote then that he went every day to the palace in Cairo, that there was the early visit to the sultan and then, very likely, a royal family member or officer to be treated, and that even if nothing untoward occured it was late in the day by the time he made his way back to Fustat. There, “almost dying with hunger,” he found his antechamber full of people of all walks of life who had eagerly waited his return.
“I dismount from my animal, wash my hands, go forth to my patients, and entreat them to bear with me while I partake of some slight refreshment, the only meal I take in the twenty-four hours. Then I attend to my patients, write prescriptions for their various ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes even, I solemnly assure you, until two hours and more in the night. I converse and prescribe for them while lying down from sheer fatigue, and when night falls, I am so exhausted that I can scarcely speak.”
In short, Moses was hard at work, highly successful, and pretty tired of it all. And we’ll move to looking at some other elements of his life in Egypt after this break.
Moses became Ra’is al-Yahud, the head of the Rabbinic and Karaite Jewish communities in Egypt, in September of 1171, and that was a pretty tumultuous month, the one when Salah a-Din entirely assumed power and the last Fatimid caliph died. It was a time when, aside from any personal desire for power he may have had, he would have seen the need for someone to be a strong voice for his community under the new regime.
The office he was assuming was not an ancient one, had been created under the Fatimids only in the eleventh century, but it was an important one. Its holder served as something of a go-between, a spokesperson, not as some kind of king of all Egyptian Jews. They were selected by their co-religionists and then approved of by their rulers.
Moses would have been responsible for ensuring that all regulations were followed within his community and that they paid their taxes as they should. He would also have been bound to do what he could with government officials on their behalf, to act as supreme judicial authority to whom they could appeal, to appoint judges and community officials, to oversee marriage and divorce, and to administer to charities and funds raised for the ransoming of Jewish prisoners. He would, again, have been very busy in his time in office.
That period may have been quite short, limited only to the years of 1171-1172 and then possibly again in 1198-1199. Those are the years we have documents signed under his authority and pertaining to issues that range from a widow who wished to remarry to an accounting of the possessions of a recently dead physician. And despite ‘Abd al-Latif’s criticism of Moses, that he liked the company of the great and grand a little too much, there’s no indication that Moses was particularly attached to this particular glory. Quite the opposite seems the case in his letter to a student in which he refers to high office as “not … a minor evil but an appalling vexation and burden,” full of “much agony and grief.” For he who held high office, quote “The gentiles may disgrace and humiliate him, and he may fall into the hands of the authorities, and they then torture him and break his bones. And if he attends to people’s affairs and strives to be acceptable to them, he violates the Torah of the Lord (the exalted) and behaves with flattery and partiality. The Torah explicitly warned us not to honour transgressors.”
All of this seems rather beyond a socially expected performance of distaste for worldly titles, and in the same letter he writes, “the perfect man who attains ultimate happiness is the one who attends to the refinement of his religious life, carrying out his obligations and avoiding the evil of men.” Such spiritual pursuits were not at all aided by the entanglements of the palace, by being pushed and pulled by the often competing goals of its officers and your own community.
It’s no surprise then that Moses’ time in office was short, that he may not have made any effort to stay there and was replaced by the man who he had replaced just two years earlier. But as came across so clearly in those letters of complaint as to his schedule and courtly commitments as physician, Moses did not get to step out of public life and into the welcoming seclusion of scholarship, however much he may have desired it. He did not surrender his authority with the office, and to a large extent he didn’t offload the work either.
Even absent the title of Ra’is al-Yahud, we find him still fielding requests and questions, locally and from afar, and we find him referred to with the honourific, “the Great Rav,” the “great master.” He seems to have lost little of his authority, for that authority was derived not from any title recognized by the ruling officials but from his knowledge, his scholarly standing, his ability to apply the law and to gather in similarly excellent minds, both students and elders, the latter often co-signing his legal decisions.
So we have correspondence between, for example, Moses and Anatoli ben Joseph, an Alexandrian judge from Marseilles that Moses appears to have appointed. Or Moses and Phineas ben Meshullam, yet another judge who had arrived from France, who had written to Moses on a matter that the community had brought to him, and who Moses had torn to pieces in writing. Phineas’ letter had been “full of drivel,” he’d said, and arrived “while [he] was sick and on the verge of death. How could [he] avoid being angry?” He was irritated, apparently that Phineas had characterized the issue as being raised by young and old, when, quote, “it was not all of them but only a few of the idiotic ignoramuses, and Phineas had legitimized the views of the ignorant, treated them as the words of great sages. Still, he would not uproot what he had planted or demolish what he had built,” for he had evidently appointed Phineas in the first place.
We have various enactments signed off on by Moses: that a woman might only be married to a foreigner in Egypt if the man provided proof or swore that he was not already married, that only the local muqaddams were to be allowed to perform marriages or divorces, and that menstruating women should no longer follow the Karaite custom of washing in drawn water rather than in ritual baths. He also ruled on the prayer customs of the Synagogue of the Levantines, attempting to bring their practices into agreement with that of the other Rabbinic Synagogue, the Iraqi or Babylonian one, but in this, he was not successful.
We also have a number of his replies to legal questions, letters which were drafted, copied down, and deposited for later consultation on their rulings, and which survived for us to learn from. So we can see that Moses would often write his answer on whatever blank space the questioner had left on the paper or on the back for a scribe to then produce a final copy from. We can see that these queries might reach him from Arabia, the Levant, Africa, Spain, and France, that they might be carried to him on ships from Marseilles and then relayed on by messenger from Alexandria, that they might write from an Egyptian town or from Tyre or Aleppo. We can see the variety of issues which Moses held forth on.
For example, he ruled on whether or not one might appoint an attorney to act on one’s behalf, for it was held by some that an attorney might have their own motivations and not act as the client would with their own skin in the game; Moses disapproved of the practice as well, admitting its usefulness only when it was impossible for the two parties to appear together. Or in another example, on the question carried from Aleppo as to whether the enjoyment of music and performed poetry was permitted. As a legal scholar he replied that listening to it for pleasure was not, but he elsewhere proposed its use as a physician of the soul in finding remedies in beautiful music, bodies, and gardens.
Or in third, when a father objected to his daughter, a mature woman, disposing of her dowry and choosing her husband as she saw fit. The father brought the case before a Muslim judge and found a Jewish judge to attend and testify that in such a case the woman was under the father’s power, but another Jew in attendance spoke up and against this, saying that as the daughter was a grown woman, the father had no such jurisdiction. Faced with such contradicting views, the Qadi referred the matter to a Jewish authority, to Moses, who was not at all pleased with the Jewish judge and resolved to investigate what had happened.
Issues of marriage frequently came before his attention, such as the question of whether a woman who had already married twice and had two husbands die could marry a third time. The woman in question was, by talmudic law, a qatlanit, a quote/unquote killer wife, and Moses’ response shows a practicality over and in the face of tradition for the sake of tradition.
The case was caused by an unfortunate bit of timing. The woman, who I don’t have a name for, had in the past been married for a substantial period. But then her husband had died, and their son as well. She had in time remarried, and that marriage had lasted for years, but the couple had often argued and not got along. She’d resolved to end their marriage before witnesses, and her husband, getting word of it, had left without word. He’d gone away, fallen ill, and died, and he’d left quite a legal mess behind.
There were claimants on his property, creditors who lined up to collect even while the court determined that that she had, in revoking the marriage before witnesses, surrendered any right to the land and its proceeds even if the husband had not completed his end of the divorce. And now she was in a bit of a tight spot. She was without resources in the middle of a general famine; she was also, having had two husbands die, barred from marrying anyone else though there was someone who wanted to marry her. It was this possibility on which she sought a legal ruling. It was this case that came to Moses.
Against talmudic tradition, he seems not to have allowed that this woman ought to be responsible for her previous husbands’ deaths, or at least he thought that being a stickler over the rules did more harm than good. As his response put it, “One ought to be lenient in these matters, and the judge should feign inadvertence, for punctiliousness on this minor point leads to very serious consequences.” It’s an example, not the only one, of Moses as a reforming figure, seeking to adjust the rules of Jewish life where he thought it made sense, to act on a concern that the traditional ways were worse for the individuals subject to them and for the broader community, and it’s an example which would come to be referenced many times, as periods of plague, persecutions and other disasters brought mass death and the need to reconsider how many times one might reasonably remarry.
And I do want to pause for a moment here to briefly consider Moses’ attitude towards women in marriage, specifically because it seems to me to be in a way representative of his wider thinking. First, we should acknowledge that he was, of course, a creature of his times, a character who did not stray from the ideas that a married woman must be modest and not wander too often from the home, must be subservient to the wishes of her husband, and may be beaten if she did not do the housework as directed. So, again, very much of a time and place, but then on the other hand the husband was to be held financially responsible for any harm done to his wife and that this money be set aside for her benefit alone, marriage did not imply consent, and any married woman claiming that she was disgusted by being with her husband might divorce him.
And that last item might not sound like a revolutionary intervention, but it was a controversial one. I’m not covering a great deal of Moses’ writing and thought here, because that’s not what this is about, but I do want to underline again that he did not simply amplify traditional or common practice as law. He sought in places to change it, to divert the workings of his community in ways that he saw as being more rational, and more conducive for the health of that community.
As for his own marriage situation, as I mentioned last episode, Moses did marry. Within his context, he married late, in his early to mid thirties, or by some assessments even later, in his late forties, just before his son Abraham was born. The former age number seems more likely though, for marrying would have been important to Moses. He came to Egypt an outsider, and though he would quickly make his name as a scholar, joining himself to another family and a preexisting social network of power and influence would really facilitate that name-making process, really grease the wheels and lay the foundation for that climb to happen and for most people really be required to make it possible at all. Maybe Moses would have been an exception to that requirement, maybe not, but the details of his marriage seem to indicate that he didn’t think so.
The family he married into was well placed for success, his wife the daughter of a physician and official and descended from a long line of renowned physicians, scholars, and administrators. And the families were doubly joined. We read of Moses’ sister marrying his bride’s brother, a secretary to a Salah ad-Din family member. The families were joined because that was how one succeeded, through friendship, family, and patronage, the kind which we’ve seen a little of in Moses’ relationship to al-Fadil, the kind that could best be solidified by contract.
So, we have Moses achieving success on this three-part foundation: on his marriage to a prestigious family, on the support of his well-connected patron al-Fadil, and on his own personal triumphs in the scholarly exploration and application of the law and his enormously influential writings. In that last sense he was a self-made success whose standing was known far and wide, as evidenced by the letters that were carried to him in Fustat, but then that last sense required a little boost from the others.
And that’s where we’ll leave things for a moment, with Moses boosted by himself and others to the peak of Jewish Egyptian society, and we’ll take this short break.
So far, we have Moses as a kind of inevitably rising rocket, pushed into the stratosphere with difficulties on the periphery, the odd complaint as to being busy with his commitments at court, the odd complaint as to what a modern reader might identify as the costs of fame. But nothing too serious, no real opposition to that rise, no real friction. He’d had a hard life in exile from an Al-Andalusian that no longer existed, but he’d landed on his feet in Egypt. His father had died, and then his brother; there’s some suggestion he may have lost a daughter. But aside from all that death, and that’s a big “aside,” all seems to have gone remarkably smoothly for this scholar far from home. And it had, up to a point. But when we think about those letters coming in from across all those far-flung Jewish communities, it’s no surprise that his influence was not welcome everywhere. And when we see the immense authority he held in Egypt, even when not yet or no longer holding the office of Ra’is al-Yahud, it’s no surprise that there were those who competed for that authority. Let’s start with that second one first.
Within Egypt, some of that competition came from a character who comes down to us as “Zuta the Wicked.” And that name, basically “Mr. Small and Wicked,” tips us off right away that this was not a man who got to write his own biography. It’s not what his mother called him; that was Yahya. It’s not what he called himself; that was Sar Shalom, or Prince of Peace. And we need to be a little wary of what we have on him as recorded by his enemies
That said, the story we have of this Zuta is that he bought and bribed his way into office, that he used that office to force local representatives to raise money for him, a classic figure of corruption then, and he also claimed a messianic status for himself and clashed with the Jewish community’s elders, attempting to turn Alexandria’s lower classes against them. And he did not do this only once in an isolated act. He floats here and there in Fatimid and then Ayyubid Egypt for decades, again and again popping up and into power through one bit of dishonesty or another, and then abusing that power and those beneath him, replacing local leaders who would not bend to his will.
He’d lie about hidden treasure buried beneath the head of a Jewish leader or simply pay to be placed in power. When that failed, he spread stories about traitors to the rulership among the Jews, manipulating matters that way, and then watching as his words wrought distrust and chaos, as arrests were made and deaths occurred. Multiple times he rose to the peak and was dragged back down until he “fell, never to rise again.” And Moses, a man of consequence not quite at the beginning of this Zuta’s career but for a substantial portion of it, had a part to play in some of that rise and fall.
Early in his stay in Egypt, it’s written that Moses put a halt to Zuta’s actions, that he, quote, “restored the law to its former state, removed the image from the temple” and ushered in “the beginning of salvation,” but what did this amount to? It resulted in the first round of communal bans brought against Zuta, not the last, but what was Moses’ place in all of this?
It seems that even in those early days, prior to holding office, he was looked to for his judgement, that he came to Egypt with something of a reputation already, not yet referred to as “our master” in writing maybe, but then also not yet embedded in local turmoil and thus something of an ideal independent adjudicator. And though it’s a little hard to pick the truth out among the portrait of a tyrant that his rivals painted of him, there was enough to this Zuta or to the actions of the opposition that Moses, when asked, decided against him, again, not the last time.
The two appear to have very much been in each other’s orbit for some twenty years, Moses repeatedly ruling against Zuta on issues that came before him, supporting community leaders that resisted Zuta’s appointees, appealing to the sultan on their behalf, and condemning many of Zuta’s practices in his Mishneh commentary. Zuta maybe responsible for blocking Moses’ attempts at synagogue reform and seeking to stir populist sentiment in Alexandria against the community’s elders.
Unlike the Andalusian newcomer who opposed him, Zuta’s power in Egypt was inherited. His authority was based on long-standing familial connections and ties to the Fatimid court. He was a legacy applicant, but his weakness may have been that he thought himself rather more than that, rather more than just a corrupt man at the court seeking to make the most of it. Were he only that, it’s likely his run would have been even longer and more successful, but he apparently viewed himself also as something else, for we read that, quote:
“...he said in his foolishness and his awesome stupidity, ‘Is not the office fixed in my name, an inheritance from my father and mother? Moreover, in my dream, I saw it resting on my shoulders. Be comforted my people, for the horn of salvation shall spring forth in my days, and from me they will receive the messiah.”
A self-interested man of some corruption could always be found a use for, but one that saw himself something greater than the power of the Egyptian rulers, that was interested in changing the ways of worship, that would have been seen as troublesome by both Jewish and Muslim authorities.
We have the scraps of their struggle for power, a scroll telling something of Zuta’s story, other written sources, a few letters, to or from Moses. Maybe they are bread crumbs tracing the outlines of a larger conflict, an ongoing clash of two titans circling one another through two or more decades of medieval Egyptian politics. Maybe they’re the whole thing, a few times these figures ran up against one another’s interests in the small world composed of the Jewish communities of Fustat and Alexandria, and the well of power at Cairo. Maybe in truth Zuta was much less villainous than our record would have him and his rivals would claim, not all “worthlessness and wickedness.”
One theory is that this Zuta was not actually one person at all, but rather a family, a man and his two sons. It would explain his apparent longevity, from well before Moses’ arrival until his power eventually waned towards the end of the the century, until Moses would respond to a mid-1190s letter from a concerned judge in Alexandria in absolutely dismissive terms.
There was nothing to be feared of this Zuta, he wrote.
“[He] fears the most insignificant member of the community and has no one to support him. Do not mind him, and let not the words of transgressors alarm you. He turned over ninety dinars futilely without receiving any writ [of appointment] from the ruler, but only permission as follows: ‘If the Jews want him, let them.’ He came and said to the elders, ‘If you expel me I shall leave,’ and he wept at night in their presence until they let him be. This is the truth of the matter. May your peace increase.”
Whatever rivalry or strife there had between Moses and this man, this family, had clearly by that time come to an end. He judged that their power to do harm had passed, and of course he had other matters to attend to. He always did.
Aside from all that business at the court and at home as a physician, his production of a large body of written work, and his responses to the questions which came in from all over the Jewish diaspora, Moses faced challenges from Samuel ben Eli, the Head of the Academy in Baghdad, and a man who did not at all enjoy Moses’ influence across that diaspora and the threat it constituted to his own. From Samuel ben Eli’s Baghdad, attacks poured forth against Moses, his teachings, and his pupils, some of whom vigorously fought back in defence of their teacher. Letters whipped back and forth, along with polemical teachings and texts decrying the other’s position, though Moses repeatedly counselled his students to restrain their anger and not lash out against this man who heaped abuse on them.
Samuel’s career was like a mirror to Moses’ own, playing out over 30-40 years as Head of the Academy between about 1160 and 1200, and the two clashed over influence and doctrine. Moses had intruded into Samuel’s sphere of authority, and Samuel was not keen to surrender his position. Far off Al-Andalus had long been culturally independent, but Egypt was a different matter. Out of Baghdad, the Head of the Academy had held sway over Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Iraq, and Egypt. He had laid claim to an ancestry running back to the biblical Samuel and lived in a state of grandeur in a great house garnished with gold and tapestries. All that gold had to come from somewhere and that also was an issue between the two.
As has come up already, Moses was no fan of religious authorities raising money as Samuel did, sending round men to collect and making threats against those who failed to comply with the required levels of generosity. He disapproved of the rigid hierarchy by which the Baghdad academy was governed, of the very basis of their education, all Talmud studies with no room for anything else, and of their leader, a man Moses described like this:
“A person who from his youth was trained to believe that there is none like him in his generation, and who has been aided by age, high office, by the prominence of his ancestors, by the absence of discriminating people in that state, and by his relation to his fellow men to place in their heart that same abominable brew: that all people await every word that they will hear from the academy.”
These two competed over religious authority, in terms of personal standing but also in terms of defining a centre and direction for Judaism moving forward.
As I mentioned, one of the grounds of difference in this conflict was the Baghdad curriculum which was entirely focused on study of the Talmud. What Moses proposed, and produced in his writing, was a boiling down of principles, a systemization and in some ways a simplification into practices to live by, most notably in the thirteen articles of faith in his Commentary on the Mishneh. Much as he did with Galen, culling from the Roman physician’s work what he thought absolutely necessary for the doctor of the day, he did with Judaism. He recognized that not everyone could devote their lives to an exhaustive examination of the Talmud. They needed something more readily understandable by which to live. And not everyone was comfortable with this direction, not only because of infringements on their own power and influence. It was a rethinking of what Judaism looked like and to some it represented a threat to the primacy of debate and inquiry into the meaning of sacred texts.
Ultimately, one would have to conclude that Moses was successful in his project in that his writings were widely popular even within his own lifetime, many of his ideas adopted and maintained over the centuries, and his thirteen articles discussed and recited and by many down to this day. He predicted that in time, once ambition and envy had passed, his Mishneh Torah alone would be enough to satisfy all save for those who “seek something to busy themselves with throughout their lives without attaining any objective.” In this rather bold assessment, he was not quite right, but he was not so very far off in assessing his future impact on Jews and also Muslims and Christians. There is a reason that if you know one name of a medieval Jewish figure, it’s very likely Maimonides. There is a reason that it’s said that “From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses.”
In the final years of his life, Moses turned aside many requests to meet and discuss matters of law and religion. He was too busy, he said, and too weak and tired to do much beyond lying down when he was not engaged at court. His handwriting in this period becomes visibly shaky. Physicians were called for on multiple occasions, and all around him, famine and disease were prevalent, a low year on the Nile leading to drought and plague, depopulation and people fleeing from the urban areas. ‘Abd al-Latif even makes mention of cannibalism. It was a difficult time to live through with compromised health.
Moses would survive the worst years of it, but not by much. Only until December 13th, 1204 when, according to his grandson David, Moses died.
And that seems an appropriate place to leave things for today. The descendants of Maimon were going to continue to thrive in Ayyubid and then Mamluk Egypt for generations, were going to continue to be scholars and leaders of some renown. But we won’t be following their stories.
What I will be doing is coming back next time with an episode on Salah ad-Din, who is just too important for me to pass quickly over like I did last episode, and I might follow that up with an episode on the rise of the Mamluks because I think that will help tie some of this together. You’ll see how the world of a 12th-century, Spanish born, Jewish scholar knits into that of the travellers in the Mongol world that we’ve followed.