Tag Archives: Maimonides

Influence of Arab Islamic thought on Maimonides


Perhaps the most imporant book on Jewish philosophy ever written in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed (מורה נבוכים, Moreh Nevukhim.) Yet it is also one of the most misunderstood Jewish books.

The Guide of the Perplexed

Maimonides’s arguments can’t be followed at all, unless one is first familiar with the Hebrew Bible, and the relation of it to classical rabbinic literature (Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud.) Next, one must understand that all of his philosophy relates to Aristotle, and the contemporary neo-Aristotelian literature discussed by that era’s Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars.

One doesn’t need to be an expert one’s self in all these philosophers, but one does need to know Maimonides brought these ideas into his own work (it is standard for philosophers to read each other’s works, and share and critique ideas.) In particular Maimonides references the ideas of:


Abu Bakr al-Razi (850-925 circa)

“As for Maimonides’ harsh judgement of al-Razi as a philosopher, it was clearly based upon the knowledge of the general contents of his metaphysics and theology as found in al-Razi’s Book of Divine Science as found both in his Guide of the Perplexed (Dalalat al-ha’irin) and in one of his letters to the “official” translator of his work, Samuel Ibn Tibbon. ”

al-Farabi, Abu Nasr (c.870-950)

“As for logic, al-Farabi even exerted a stronger influence over Medieval Jewish philosophy… According to Maimonides, there was no need to study logical texts, apart from those by al-Farabi, since “all that he wrote… is full of wisdom, and… he was a very valid author.” Surely, al-Farabi’s logical (and also non-logical) works influenced the Treatise On the Art of Logic (Maqala fi sina‘a al-mantiq) usually ascribed to Maimonides, and probably written around 1160”

“…According to Pines, although al-Farabi’s former work is not explicitely quoted in the Guide of the Perplexed, it was surely among the main sources of Maimonides’ doctrine about the different roles played by the philosopher and by the prophet. Al-Farabi’s idea about the relationship between philosophy and religion, according to which the former is in a substantially higher position with respect to the latter, as found in his Book on Letters (Kitab al-huruf) and Book on Religion (Kitab al-milla), strongly influenced Maimonides’ ideas about this; moreover, the Book on Letters was later employed as a source for Falaquera’s treatment of linguistics in his Beginning of Science. According to Davidson, Maimonides explicitly quoted and employed al-Farabi’s Political Regime under the title The Changing Beings (al-Mawjudat al-mutaghayyira) for discussing the question of the world’s eternity in part two, chapter 74, of the Guide”

Avicenna (real name: Ibn Sina, Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn) (980-1037)

“. Although clear echoes of Avicennian doctrines about the distinction between essence and existence, between necessary and contingent beings, as well as the well-known Avicennian proof of the existence of God, have been found in the Guide of the Perplexed (see Moses Maimonides 1962, 1:xciii-ciii), the explicit judgement of Maimonides about Avicenna’s thought appears to be substantially cool (for a different interpretation of this judgement, see however Dobbs-Weinstein 2002). In his letter to Samuel Ibn Tibbon, he affirms that “Avicenna’s books, although they are subtle and difficult, are not like those by al-Farabi; however, they are useful, and he too is an author whose words should be studied and understood”

Abu Bakr Ibn Bajja aka Ibn al-Sa’igh (d. 1138),

“…Maimonides had the highest esteem of Ibn Bajja: he affirmed that “he was a great and wise philosopher, and all his works are right and correct”, and possibly appreciated him as a commentator of Aristotle too (Marx 1934–1935, 379). In some cases he was surely influenced by Ibn Bajja’s thought: in the Guide of the Perplexed, he explicitly refers to some of his philosophical and scientific ideas”

The above is a short excerpt from the article “Influence of Arabic and Islamic Philosophy on Judaic Thought” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.



Maimonides on Angels

Maimonides uses the words “angel”, “miracle”, “God” and “providence” … but he utterly disagrees with the traditional, perhaps Orthodox, definition of those terms.

Dore Abraham and the three angels

Rabbi Simchah Roth, זצ״ל, of blessed memory, discussed this issue in his famed Mishnah Rabin Study Group. Here he gives and an introduction – and then quotes Maimonides at length. Quite stunning.


I do not think anyone will find it difficult to understand why Rambam sees every physical reference to the Deity, even the remotest, as being pure metaphor and not to be understood literally. God does not sit, God does not speak, God does not really have “a strong hand and an outstretched arm” – the list of examples could be endless.

As far as Rambam is concerned all such expressions are no less obviously metaphoric than for us, say, lines such as John Donne’s “Death, be not proud … Death, thou shalt die” or Homer’s “Gossomer-clad dawn”.

Death is not really a personal entity, and neither, of course, is the dawn, so the dawn cannot wear any clothes at all! And even the most patriotic American knows, when singing “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing”, that the home of liberty is not listening, cannot listen.

“It is all pure metaphor, simile and anthropomorphism” as Rambam so lucidly put it.

Now let us ask how this Deity, whose verity is so incomprehensible to us that we can only speak of God in metaphoric terms – how can this Deity be associated with angels? Maimonides writes:

Now you already know that it is very difficult for people to apprehend, except after strenuous training, that which is absolutely devoid of physicality… Because of the difficulty of this matter, the books of the prophets contain statements whose external sense can be understood as signifying that angels are corporeal, that they move, that they have human form, that they are given orders by God and that they carry out God’s orders…
[Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, 1:49]

All forces are angels. How great is the blindness of ignorance and how harmful! If you told a person who is one of those who deem themselves one of Israel’s sages that the Deity sends an angel, who enters the womb of a woman and forms the fetus there, he would be pleased with this assertion and would accept it and would regard it as a manifestation of greatness and power on the part of the Deity… But if you tell him that God has placed in the sperm a formative force shaping the limbs … and that this force is a “Mal’akh” … the man would shrink from this opinion…
[Ibid. 2:6]


Rick Dinitz sent me the following:

Rambam’s distinction is too subtle for me. Please explain what difference it makes to Rambam’s hypothetical sage whether God sends the angel directly into the womb, or God places the angel in the sperm and the angel arranges transportation to the womb  where it does its work.

I responded to Rick privately as follows:

Moreh Nevukhim [“Guide for the Perplexed”] was originally written in Arabic with Hebrew quotations and phrases interspersed. When the phrase “Chakhmei Yisrael” occurs in the middle of an Arabic sentence in the Guide, experience – gradually built up throughout the work – teaches us that the term here is being used in a derogatory fashion. What Rambam was saying was that most “religious” people are prepared to believe in angels but are not prepared to believe that the forces of nature are the angels – the messengers of God through which the purposes of the Deity are effected. He explains that this is why the Bible, intended for a “mass readership”, accords angels the humanoid physicality that it does. He thinks that the perceptive intellectual will perceive beyond that.

Rick Dinitz subsequently sent the following commentary, which is our shiur for today:-

Thanks for explaining the idiom. I mistakenly thought that by calling them “sages in Israel” Rambam was holding them up as paragons of intelligence. Now I understand that Rambam is actually using the phrase to deride those self-styled “sages” who can’t recognize angels for what they are. (They wouldn’t know an angel if it bit them on the nose, unless the angel were wearing fluffy white wings and a halo.)

If so, then I think Rambam would agree that the cellular machinery that unfolds DNA from a single cell into a full-blown human infant is indeed a Mal’akh [angel] – faithfully (and
mechanistically) executing God’s will in the physical world. On the one hand, our language of science speaks of cells, molecules, amino acids, codons, genes and their expressions. On the other hand, our religious language speaks of angels forming the fetus in the womb. In Rambam’s reality, both languages are correct – all the reproductive machinery of molecular biology is in fact one kind of Mal’akh, doing God’s will. Yes?  [Yes! – Simchah Roth]

(Of course science in Rambam’s time did not speak of DNA in the same way that we do, but his phrase “God has placed in the sperm a formative force shaping the limbs” reflects contemporary science as he understood it. He sees no contradiction between the languages of science and religion.)

We can also understand the “Mal’akhei ha-Sharet” [Ministering  Angels] of [the liturgical poem] “Shalom Aleikhem” as mechanisms of God’s will. As a midrash teaches us, two Mal’akhim follow us home each Erev Shabbat [Sabbath Eve] – one that promotes good for us, and one promotes evil against us. If they find the home ready for Shabbat, the “good” Mal’akh blesses us by saying “so may it be every Shabbat,” and the “evil” one answers “Amen.” If they find the home is not ready for Shabbat, or God forbid, that Shabbat is not even observed in this home, then their roles are reversed; the “evil” Mal’akh “blesses” us by saying “so may it be every Shabbat,” and the “good” Mal’akh answers “Amen.” (Could you please refer me to a source text for this midrash?)

[Gemara, Shabbat 119b – Simchah Roth]

I understand these Mal’akhim as a religious expression of human momentum and inertia. We are creatures of habit, and these Mal’akhim re-inforce our habits regarding Shabbat and our preparations for it. They do their jobs, and bless us in whichever way is appropriate based on the state of our home when Shabbat arrives.

So we can understand the song as a way to explicitly recognize our interaction with these angels, expressing our confidence and satisfaction in their work – which is, after all, both the result of our preparatory work, and also an expression of God’s will. In verse one, we greet them; that is, we recognize them for what they are, we remember that the outcome of their work is in our hands, but that our ability to influence them (for this week) is finished (though we can still influence the result in subsequent  weeks).

….The song and its midrash portray an intricate dance in which God’s will and our human free will spin in and out of one another – each one both leading and following the other. God reconfirms our free will by affirming the consequences we have earned – “This is how you want Shabbat to be, then so be it.” We have free will, but each choice restricts our future options – breaking free of a deeply entrenched mode of behavior requires great determination. How much simpler life would be, if only we could be like angels, with no choice other than to do God’s will. But that is not God’s will for us; rather, we must make our own choices, and welcome the angels that cheer us on when we make  God’s will our will.

Maimonides on resuming sacrifices

Professor Amitai E. Halevi illustrates how Maimonides (Rambam) was ultimately against animal sacrifices, even though he listed laws about them in his Mishneh Torah (12th century Code of Jewish law)

Question: I find the idea that [the Guide alone expressing Maimonides’s real views] uncomfortable in this case…  It is not so much that it is impossible that Maimonides would adopt such a position; but that I find it difficult to see why in that case he would codify the halacha of sacrifice in such positive language …given that he is (I believe) unusual among post-Talmudic halachic codifiers in treating this area at all, and that it was not of practical significance at the time.

Please remember that in Mishneh Torah Maimonides undertook to codify the entire Halakha, and make it unnecessary to consult the Talmud or later commentaries on any point of law. As he writes in the final paragraph of his introduction: “To summarize, in order that a man will need no other composition on Jewish Law whatsoever, [this work is] a compilation of the entire Oral Law: including all of the ordinances, customs and decrees that were promulgated since the days of Moshe Rabbenu and through the Gemarah, as interpreted for us by the Gaonim in all of the compositions that they wrote after the Gemara. For this reason, I have entitled my composition Mishneh Torah, so that if a man reads the written law and then this work he will know the entire Oral Law without having to read any book between the two”.

This being so, though he was no less aware than the Ro”Sh and Ba`al Ha-Turim that the halakhot of sacrifice and Temple service had no practical significance, he was obliged – unlike the other codifiers – to include them for completeness.

The Temple Altar


This engraving by Otto Elliger depicts King Solomon supervising construction of the altar outside of the Temple. At the bottom right is shown one of the movable bronze stands with a basin.

For the most part Maimonides kept his philosophical views out of the Mishneh Torah. Wherever his “real” views conflicted with those expressed in the Talmud, his reservations – stated subtly – almost invariably refer to matters that are relevant to practical life (medicine and hygiene, contemporary science, marital relations, etc…) There was no reason for him to express his reservations about  halakhot that might only become relevant “at the end of days”, so  he simply codified them faithfully without comment.

As to The Guide: I pointed out in my previous post that Maimonides does not deny that animal sacrifices are part of halakhah; having devoted an entire section to them in Mishneh Torah – to say nothing of the fact that they are spelled out in the Written Law – how could he? He explains God’s rationale as a concession to the psychological needs of a primitive people just emerging from idolatry. In Ch. xlvi of Part III he gives animal sacrifice a positive slant (for the era in which it was instituted):

“Scripture tells us, according to the version of Onkelos, that the Egyptians worshipped Aries, and therefore abstained from killing sheep … Some sects among the Sabeans worhipped demons, and imagined that these assumed the form of goats … For this reason, these sects abstained from eating goats’ flesh. Most idolators objected to killing cattle, holding this species of animals in great estimation… In order to eradicate these false principles, the Law commands us to offer sacrifices of these three kinds… Thus the very act is considered by the heathen as the greatest crime, is the means of approaching God, and obtaining His pardon for our sins”.

Maimonides leaves us in no doubt that he considers animal sacrifice to be anachronistic. Not pretending to be a prophet, he does not presume to predict whether or not the practice will be reinstituted in the days of the Messaiah. However, he cites the written law, as well as the prophets, to make the point that even in biblical days, animal sacrifice was at best a second-rate sort of mitzvah. “In addition to the teaching of truths, the Law aims at the removal of injustice from mankind. We have thus proved that the first laws do not refer to burnt-offering and sacrifice, which are of secondary importance (Part III, Ch. xxxii)”.

Maimonides is never explicit about such delicate matters in the Guide for the Perplexed; if he were, he would have been excommunicated – if not stoned – by his contemporaries.

In Chapter 32 of Part III, he writes:

“But the custom which was in those days general among men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up consisted in sacrificing animals … It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God … that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would _in those days_ have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present [12th Century] if he called us to the service of God and told us in his name, that we should not pray to Him nor fast, nor seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve him in thought, and not by any action.”

It should be is obvious from the above that Maimonides does not deny that the various animal sacrifices are divinely ordained, but that he regards them to be a holdover from the idolatrous practices of the time. In his view, God’s decision to allow their continuation, mutatis mutandis, was no more than a concession to the conservatism of the primitive Israelites to whom the Torah was given.

Anyone who is concerned enough about the issue to read this chapter through should follow the advice proffered at its very end. Citing Psalm 50, in which animal sacrifice is trivialized, Maimonides writes “Wherever this subject is mentioned, this is its meaning. Consider it well and reflect on it”.

The last sentence is the code that author uses whenever he urges the discerning reader – the only one he cares about – to read between the lines. Such a reader may even find a hint of relief that animal sacrifice has been discontinued until the days of the Messiah, who may find the Jewish people of his day to be sufficiently sophisticated that the distasteful practice need not be reinstituted.

Miracles in Rambam’s Thought—a Function of Prophecy

Maimonides (Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon) is quite the religious rationalist – instead of hewing towards the mystic or supernatural, he prefers philosophical rationalism. To the point where he holds that – even in the Torah, properly read – supernatural miracles do not exist.  If someone were to write this today, much of the Orthodox community would likely view him as Reform, or as a kofer; yet Maimonides is the philospher-rabbi par excellance, and is generally considered one of Judaism’s greatest authorities,

In Ḥakirah, the Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought, David Guttman writes:


Rambam sees a connection and a parallel between Moshe’s apprehension of God and his performance of miracles. Moshe’s ability to perform the necessary miracles was dependent on the same understanding of God that was required for giving the Torah.

It is our goal in this article to try and understand how these two attributes of Moshe, prophecy and miraculous deeds, are linked and hopefully get a picture of Rambam’s understanding of Moshe’s miracles and miracles in the Torah in general.

….”Following our understanding of Rambam we have defined miracles as properties present in nature that require certain convergences of cause and effect to occur. They are seen as miracles because of the way they occur either rarely or fortuitously. In reality they are preset and would occur with or without human (prophetic) intervention. It is up to the prophet to learn about them and use them where necessary. Depending on the circumstances and stakes involved, the level of certainty allows the prophet to act on his information. Moshe’s level of prophecy afforded him the courage and certainty to act even when the stakes involved put the future of the nation at risk.”

Miracles in Rambam’s Thought—a Function of Prophecy
By: DAVID GUTTMANN, Ḥakirah, the Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought

Miracles in Rambam’s Thought— a Function of Prophecy

All articles from Ḥakirah, the Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought

Jewish views of miracles – an overview