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Introduction to Igeret Taiman by Maimonides

Friday, 15 May, 2009 - 9:48 am

 

Igeret Tamian was written in 1172 in Pustat, old Cairo, Egypt, to address the concerns of the Taimanite Jewish community. After fleeing Spain, Maimonides first travelled to Fez, Morocco, and then made a very dangerous trip to Israel, where his father, Rabbi Maimon, passed away. When he arrived in Israel he declared the day of his arrival a day of thanksgiving to the A-lmighty for being saved from a terrible storm.

 

In Israel, the rabbi of Akko Rabbi Yefas, accompanied Maimonides round the Holy Land, where a hostile Christian government was in power and the roads were extremely dangerous. The Jewish community in Israel was small and destitute, relying financially on support from overseas, which made it impossible for Maimonides to make a living.  After five years, Maimonides paid final homage to Jewish gravesites in Jerusalem and Hebron and immigrated to Egypt, where there was a large, established and affluent Jewish community.

 

Historian Zev Yavetz writes that Maimonides left Israel grudgingly, like Jacob in Genesis [1]. This is evidenced by the fact that on his way to Israel the boat stopped in Cairo. Maimonides, however, did not descend there but continued his journey to the Holy Land.[1][2] When he arrived in Egypt he settled in Alexandria. Historians say that Maimonides studied Aristotelian Philosophy in a famous Aristotelian academy there.

 

Shortly afterwards, Maimonides left Alexandria and moved to the Old City of Cairo, where he lived for forty years until his passing in 1204. In Old Cairo there was a large Caraite community, which posed a great challenge to the Rabbis in the community. Upon his arrival Maimonides was immediately appointed the head of the rabbinic court and was a major force in helping the community in their struggle with the Caraites.

 

Igeret Taiman was written in Arabic six years after Maimonides arrived in Egypt, as a responsa to the Taimanite Jewish community.  It was translated by Shmuel ibn Tabon  in 1210, six years after the passing of Maimonides.

 

The leader of the Jewish Community, Rabbi Yakov ben Nethaniel Alfeyumi, wrote to Maimonides describing the situation in Taiman. The problems consisted of three issues. 1. Jews were being subject to forced conversion to Islam by the government. 2. A particular Jewish apostate was haranguing the Jews in public and attempting to detract Jews away from Judaism to Islam. 3. A Jew had declared himself a prophet and first predicted the imminent coming of the Jewish Messiah and then proclaiming himself as Messiah. These issues strained relations between the Jews and the local population. Out of devastation, they wrote a letter to Maimonides asking for his counsel.

 

Although the problems plaguing the Taimanite Jewish community caused Maimonides much grief, however, in contrast to Igeret HaShmad, Igeret Taiman was written in a calm manner.

 

Igeret Taiman explains suffering as predestined prior to the Messianic era, just as pain precedes giving birth to a child. For this reason, the Talmud [3] says that sages would say, “Messiah should come but not in their life”.

 

The reason for anti-Semitism is that since the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai the Jews became a nation different from others. This was not because the Jews were worthy of this in their own merit, but rather in reciprocation of the service of the Patriarchs who worshiped one G-d regardless of the Pagan traditions around them.

 

This separateness of the Jewish people causes a sense of envy amongst the nations, according to Maimonides, which is expressed in different forms: threat of physical annihilation; written argument questioning the validity of the Torah, and, finally, the rise of Christianity and Islam, which claim to succeed Judaism.

 

To prove the latter, they quote the verse in Deuteronomy, [4] a prophet from among you, your brother, like me, will G-d establish for you, to him shall you listen.  The term from your brother, they say, refers to Christianity, which stems from Edom, and Islam, which stems from Ishmael. Maimonides counters this interpretation by pointing out that the previous words, from amongst you, is referring to the Jews. Although the verse continues, your brother, which might be interpreted to mean Christianity and Islam, the very same verse negates this interpretation by writing like me.

 

This is intended to define the prophet as someone like Moses who does not nullify the law through his prophecy, but rather enforces and teaches it. Similarly, the verse cannot be indicating the possibility of a Christian or Islamic prophet who is like Moses, for the verse says further, there will not arise another prophet like Moses.

 

Maimonides outlines the basic criteria of a prophet according to Judaism as a person who does not attempt to change the Divine Torah. However, he points out, the self-declared prophet and Messiah in the Taimanite Jewish community is most likely just suffering from a mental illness and should be temporarily detained. This would demonstrate that the views of this person should not be perceived as a Jewish revolution against the government.

 

Igeret Taiman condemns the existence of stargazers, future tellers and astrologers amongst Taimanite Jews. Believing in these powers, Maimonides writes, borders on idolatry and is futile and vanity.

 

In a letter to the rabbis of Marsillai, he writes that he is conversant with astrology, future telling and all methods of idol worship, and it should be known that there is no wisdom in these works, even for gentiles, and Jews should clean their minds from these subjects.

 

Igeret Taiman claims that during the Roman siege of Jerusalem the Jews were preoccupied with the constellation of the stars and predicted that the Romans would make peace with the Jews, rather than invade. This belief stopped them from preparing adequately for battle and led to the downfall of Jerusalem and later the destruction of the Temple.

 

In the final subject of this epistle, Maimonides advises that the Jews should attempt to escape from Taiman and move to the desert and uninhabited places. On the other hand, someone who converts to Islam and violates the Shabbat, eats non-kosher food should not think that they are removed from either the privileges or responsibility of the Jewish people.

 

A person does not have within the power to abandon their Jewish identity, either for themselves or for their children.

 

[1] Genesis 46:3

[2] This might reconcile the dispute amongst Historians whether Maimonides went to Cairo before Israel or afterwards.

[3] Sanhedrin 98b

[4] Deuteronomy 18:15

  

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