On This Day in Jewish History: Tevet 20, 4965

On this day, in 4965 (1204 CE), Moshe Ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides or Rambam, the great medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher and Torah scholar, passed away in Fustat, Egypt (present-day Cairo). Considered one of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, Rambam led a rich life as a Torah commentator, philosopher, legal codifier, political advisor, author, legal authority, and physician. Although Maimonides was seen as a “controversial” figure by some during his lifetime for his traditionalist and pioneering approaches to Torah and Judaism, he is now revered by most as a central figure in Jewish history and thought.

Maimonides, Medieval Sephardic Jewish Philosopher and Torah Scholar

Born Moshe ben Maimon in 1137/1138 in Cordoba, Spain, to an educated family, he would later be known as “Maimonides,” the Greek translation of his name, and “Rambam,” the Hebrew acronym for “Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon.” His father, a learned scholar, a Jewish judge, and a claimed direct paternal descendant from Rabbi Shimon ben Yehuda haNasi (Davidic line), provided a home filled with Jewish texts like the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash.

In his early years, Maimonides developed an affinity for ‘secular’ subjects such as astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy, particularly interested in Aristotle and Plotinus. He believed that a reasoned approach to Judaism through these subjects was central to understanding Torah and Jewish philosophy.

When Maimonides was around 10 years old (~1148), the radical Islamic Berber tribe, the Almohads, invaded southern Spain (specifically Cordoba) and offered the local Jewish population three choices: convert, exile, or death. His family chose exile, eventually settling in Egypt by 1166, where Maimonides would live until his passing in 1204 (4965).

During his years in Egypt, Rambam was appointed as the Nagid (leader) of the Egyptian Jewish community and as the court physician to the Grand Vizier al-Qadi al Fadil, Sultan Saladin, and other members of the Ayyubid dynasty. Despite his significant focus on works of Torah and philosophy, Rambam also wrote extensive ethical/legal letters, medical treatises (always advocating balance/moderation as key to good physical and spiritual health), and philosophical works.

After his death on this day in 4965 (1204), his remains were taken to Tiberias in accordance with his last wishes. Today, one can visit Rambam’s tomb on the western side of the Kinneret.

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