This concise and well-written biography is meant to be, as Sherwin Nuland tells us, "a guide for the perplexed," for those who may recognize the name of Maimonides and his historical importance to Jewish religion and culture, or who may even have read some of his works, but have no knowledge of the man behind the name. The story begins, as it should, in Medieval Spain with its vibrant Judaeo-Islamic culture, in which the historical relationship between Judaism and medicine developed and later expanded throughout the European and Islamic worlds. Though they were outsiders in both civilizations, Jewish physicians became the most sought after healers in the Christian and Muslim worlds.

Moses son of Maimon (also known as Maimonides and the Rambam, 1138-1204) was born in Cordoba, the cultural and political center of Muslim Spain. He and his family had to flee Cordoba to avoid persecution in 1148. They wandered through Spain until 1160, when they settled in Fez, Morocco. Again fleeing from persecution, Maimonides moved to Fustat, Egypt, when he was 30 years old and remained there for the rest of his life. During these early years, the young rabbi wrote numerous biblical commentaries, culminating in the Mishneh Torah, his great code of Jewish law. Later, he attempted to reconcile faith with reason in another great work, The Guide for the Perplexed, completed in 1190.

Maimonides's specifically medical work is difficult to characterize and evaluate. The traditional historical assessment is that he was "unique in his time in the theory and practice of medicine." Essentially, he practiced Galenic medicine, as transmitted and developed in the flourishing Islamic tradition. We don't know how he acquired his medical knowledge, but by the time he reached Fustat, Maimonides was acknowledged to be a leading physician and in 1190 he was appointed personal physician to the vizier of Egypt. Late in life, Maimonides wrote a number of medical treatises, most importantly his Medical Aphorisms, which presents a coherent, well-organized, and practical medical system based on Galen and Aristotle.


From a 21st century perspective, it is difficult to assess Maimonides as a physician. He neither discovered nor wrote anything that can be identified as a contribution to today's medical knowledge. The relationship between religion and doctoring that we find in Maimonides may be emblematic of a long and honored tradition in Judaism. It is clear, however, that he was a highly visible and sought after physician during his lifetime. This suggests that Maimonides possessed those personal qualities of good doctoring that transcend the state of scientific knowledge and theory.


This biography is part of the Jewish Encounter series, a project devoted to the promotion of Jewish literature, culture, and ideas.



Place Published

New York



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