Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, or the Rambam, was born in Cordoba
on March 30th, 1135. His father, Rabbi Maimon ben Chanoch, had been on of the leading Rabbi
s of the city, and the Rambam
grew up in a muslim city with complete religious freedom, able to spend his time learning the Talmud
His early life is mostly unknown, but by the age of 35, he was a well known doctor, supporting himself since his brother died. He was also well known as a great scholar, both Judiacally and in mathematics and astronomy, as is shown by several different sources, notably a treatise on the Jewish calendar involving many rather complicated formulae involved in determining the appearance of leap years in the Jewish calander.
The Rambam published, throughout his life, three sets of books, any one of which would constitute a major body of work for many scholars. The three works each contain a significant amount of philosophy, and all are still intensely studied in Jewish philosophy and law.
The first of the three is the Commentary on the Mishna. Written while he was still younger, and displaying a mastery almost unknown even in older scholars, it explains the conclusion of the talmud and how it fits with the mishna. This work, which was originally written in Arabic, spans all of Jewish law. It contains, in addition to the actual commentary, two very important philosophical works: The introductions to Pirkei Avot and the 10th Chapter of the laws of Judgements (Sanhedrin). The introduction to Pirkei Avot, which is itself a set of statements concerning how one should live their life, is an eight chapter preface, containing Philosophy on everything from the nature of service of G-d to what leisure is, and how one needs to act in public. The introduction to the 10th Perek (Chapter) of Sanhedrin is introduced by the statement: "I have decided that I will now discuss many fundamental ideas of faith which are very important," and commences to do so. This includes the thirteen principles that the Rambam opines must be understood and adequately internalized (NOT "believed in") to be considered a believing Jew.
The second of the three major works that he wrote is the Mishna Torah, sometimes known as the "Yad Chazakah", or "Strong Hand", since "Yad", or "Hand" has the numerical value of 14, which is the number of volumes that the work contains. The work is a complete compendium of all Jewish law, which was monumental because, since the Second temple was destroyed, many laws pertaining to purity, the land of Israel, and the temple itself were almost completely undealt with. The books were also written in such a way as to allow people superficially studying them to see the basic tenets of faith, but it also contains many fundamentals of jewish thought that can be realized through careful comparisons of various concepts contained within the 14-volume set.
The last set of books is probably the most esoteric, misunderstood, and possibly therefore, the most widely know of the Rambam's works. The "Moreh Nevuchim", or "Guide for the Perplexed," was written specifically for those already very well versed in Jewish thought and philosophy. The introduction contains several warnings as to how the books are meant to be studied, almost all of which are ignored by both secular and religious scholars 'studying' the work, thereby leaving them a subject of widespread misunderstanding based on lack of context. These warnings begin with the statement that those who study Moreh Nevuchim superficially will come to more confusion than understanding, and only one well versed in both the old testament and the talmud, as well as understanding philosophy and having progressed in their study of the natural world should attempt to study the book. It was written, partially, to reconcile the philosophy of Aristotle with Judaism, and that both the original Arabic, and the translated Hebrew in the book are very difficult, and I understand almost nothing about this work no all but the most superficial (and therefore probably incorrect) level.
There is certainly more to be said about this intellectual giant, whose contributions to fields as diverse as medicine, linear algebra, and philosophy should amaze anyone who has heard about them, I think it is most appropriate to close with a quote that is written above his grave in Tiberias: "From Moshe (Moses) to Moshe (The Rambam) there were none like Moshe"