On May 23, 1165, Moses ben Maimon – better known as Maimonides, or the Rambam – arrived in the Holy Land. He landed in the ancient port city of Acre for what would be a brief sojourn in the country, and his only time here at all before he and his family moved on to settle permanently in Egypt.
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The Rambam, a rabbi and philosopher, medical doctor and codifier of Jewish law, is widely considered the most significant thinker in Jewish history, and certainly of the Middle Ages. He was also a highly prolific writer, leaving behind timeless works that combine a delineation of Jewish law, commentary and philosophy. He also wrote numerous medical works, including one on hemorrhoids and another on aphrodisiacs.
Maimonides was born in 1135 in Cordoba, Spain, which was then under Moorish, Muslim rule. When the Almoravid dynasty ruling Spain at the time was replaced by the Almohads in 1148, the Jews lost their protected dhimmi status, and the Rambam’s family was among those that went into exile from the city. There is some evidence that Ben Maimon, who was 13 at the time, underwent a forced, but fake, conversion to Islam before leaving Cordoba.
There is no written testimony about the family from the next eight or nine years, although they are presumed to have moved around Spain, and possibly been in Provence as well. In 1160, Maimonides showed up in Fez, Morocco. Morocco was under Almohad rule, but the now-elderly ruler, Abd al-Mumin, had become more tolerant toward Jews than he had been a dozen years earlier. In Fez, Maimonides studied at the University of al-Karaouine.
Evidence of his journey to the Holy Land comes from a note that was attached to the commentary that the Rambam wrote on the Mishnaic tractate Rosh Hashana, and which was supposedly copied from the original version, in his hand, that appeared at the end of the book. It suggests that he sailed directly from Morocco to Acre. In it, he describes how “On Saturday night, on the fourth day of the month of Iyar, I embarked by sea, and on Saturday, the 10th of Iyar, in the year 25 … of the creation” – which is assumed to be Hebrew year 4925, secular year 1165 – “a wave arose, threatening to sink us, and there was great fury in the sea.”
Maimonides says that he undertook a fast, and ordered family members who were with him to do so as well. They were saved, and three weeks later, on the 3rd of Sivan, “I disembarked in peace, and we arrived in Acre. I had escaped the religious persecution, and we had reached Palestine! I vowed that that day would be a day of joy and feasting… for me and my household forever!” (translation by Herbert A. Davidson, from his 2005 work “Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works”).
Although Professor Herbert Davidson presents both the note quoted above as well as a biography of the Rambam by the 15th-century scholar Saadia Ibn Danan (who says Maimonides sailed to Acre by way of Alexandria, not directly from Morocco), as evidence of the details of the sojourn in Palestine, he also demonstrates how neither source can be considered reliable. Hence, even though the note that accompanied the commentary on Rosh Hashana also describes the Rambam’s visit to Jerusalem, “where I entered the great holy house” (the Temple) as well as to Hebron, where he went to “kiss the graves of my fathers”(that is, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), Davidson concludes that nothing certain can be said about the sojourn in the Holy Land other than the fact that it occurred. He also rejects the suggestion that Maimonides ordered a personal fast for himself and his family, and dismisses the possibility that he would have stepped foot on the site of the destroyed Temple.
We also know about the journey to Palestine because of a letter that the Rambam wrote many years later to Japhet ben Elijah, a rabbinic judge who had hosted the family during their stay in Acre. The letter refers only to three male members of the Rambam’s family – understood to be his father and his brother David – and no women. It may be that the women remained behind in Fez. There are no other details of the visit.
A short time later, probably in 1168, Maimonides settled in Fustat, in what is today Cairo, where he lived until the day he died, December 12, 1204.