Maimonides on the Temple Mount
Maimonides' Historic Ascent to the Temple Mount
"From Moshe Rabbenu, (our master Moses), who led us out of Egypt and received Torah at Mount Sinai, to Rabbenu Moshe Ben Maimon, (our master, Moses the son of Maimon),there was none other of comparable greatness." This is the meaning of the well known statement quoted above, which today can be found engraved upon the Rambam's tomb in the city of Tiberias, and such is the measure of esteem in which the Rambam is held in to this day.
During his own lifetime, Maimonides was revered by his coreligionists all across the Jewish diaspora. The Rambam's philosophical works were of such universal importance that he was quoted on a number of occasions by the church theologian Thomas Aquinas in his written works. Aquinas referred to the Rambam as "Rabbi Moses."
A contemporary and fellow native of Cordoba, the Moslem philosopher, Averroes, shared with Maimonides a fascination with Aristotelian thought, and together, their writings introduced the followers of all three religions to the ancient Greek masters, thus laying the foundations for the European renaissance that would take shape in the ensuing centuries.
Although controversial in his day, the Rambam's great works of halacha, (Jewish law), the Mishneh Torah, and of philosophy, Moreh Nevuchim, (The Guide for the Perplexed), are considered unparalleled classics of Jewish thought.
Based on the body of work that he produced, and the intellectual influence he exerted upon giants of Islamic and Christian thought, one could easily imagine that the Rambam lived during an idyllic era of peaceful coexistence and mutual appreciation between cultures and religions. One could imagine that the Rambam lived a cloistered and sedentary life, dedicated to study and composing. Neither of these misconceptions could be further from the truth. The twelfth century was a turbulent and violent time. The Rambam found himself constantly in the midst of turmoil and upheaval. He enjoyed neither tranquility nor prosperity. The Rambam produced his body of work and made his indelible mark on history, in spite of the inhospitable and deadly environment that he found himself in throughout the days of his life. Where did it all begin?
A 12th Century Map
The Almohades, a fanatical Moslem dynasty inspired by and established by the North African Berber, Ibn Tumart, have gained control of the city. Under Moslem rule since its initial capture in 711 CE, Cordoba prospered under the relatively moderate rule of the Moslem caliphate. The city flourished, and at its height the Cordovan population may have reached half a million. The Moslem conquerors introduced ancient Greek philosophy, mathematics and science. Cordoba was a cultural center, housing a library that contained as many as 1,000,000 volumes. Cordoba was the capital of the Moslem emirate of al-Andalus, which covered the southern third of modern day Spain. Second class citizens, granted dhimmi status, Jews and Christians were heavily taxed and faced severe restrictions. They were not actively persecuted. This was all about to change. The conquering Almohades immediately granted all non-Moslems two choices, convert or die. The once noble city was in turmoil.
Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, and reverently referred to by Jews as Rambam, (an acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), was thirteen years old when his mother and father, and his younger brother, along with many thousands of other Jews, fled Cordoba. Moshe ben Maimon was born on erev Pesach, (Passover eve), in 1135. As a child he was able to imbibe upon the cosmopolitan atmosphere and culture of Cordoba prior to the Almohade conquest. But whatever peace and quiet the Rambam had been blessed with as a boy growing up in Cordoba, he would never experience such tranquility again in his lifetime. Disguised as Moslems, the Rambam and his family escaped Cordoba, keeping on the move through southern Spain, eventually arriving in Fez, Morocco, which was also under the tyrannical control of the Almohades. The Rambam later described this time in his life: "[The Moslems] persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us... Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase, and hate us as much as they."
Years later, the Rambam would again draw from his earlier experience, in writing his famous 1172 "Epistle to the Jews of Yemen." The Jews of Yemen, facing a renewed wave of persecution and forced conversion, appealed to the Rambam for instruction as to how to conduct themselves. In his epistle the Rambam immediately drew the parallel between his own experience of two decades earlier and what was currently taking place in Yemen: "You write that the rebel leader in Yemen decreed compulsory apostasy for the Jews by forcing the Jewish inhabitants of all the places he had subdued to desert the Jewish religion just as the Berbers had compelled them to do in Maghreb [North Africa]." In detailing the history of persecution against the Jews, Rambam referred to Mohammed as " ...the Madman who... added the further objective of procuring rule and submission."
Fez itself would eventually become the scene of massacre, as tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered by the Almohades rulers. While residing in Fez, the Rambam was able to study at the prestigious University of Al-Karaouine. The institution was established in 859 and exists to this day. It was no doubt here, at Al-Karaouine, that Rambam absorbed much of his knowledge of philosophy, mathematics, and the natural sciences. It was in Fez, during these years that Rambam wrote his Commentary on the Mishnah.
In the year 1165, the situation for Jews living in Fez, constantly one of danger, took a turn for the worse. Rambam and his family decided to leave Fez after nearly two decades, and head toward the east. Their destination was the land of Israel. What awaited Rambam in 12th century Israel?
12th Century Israel: The Epicenter of Conflict
The land of Israel, in the 12th century, was the epicenter of the now centuries old conflict between Christendom and Islam. It was the time of the Second and Third Crusade. The Crusades had originated in the prior century, ostensibly with the purpose of capturing Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Moslem rulers and bringing it under Christian dominion. In this manner, the Vatican also hoped to check the steady territorial advancement of Islam. The First Crusade was authorized by Pope Urban II, and in 1099 invading crusaders took Jerusalem, slaughtering its Moslem and Jewish inhabitants. The crusaders likewise succeeded in gaining control of a number of other cities in the region.
A second crusade took place in 1147, just eighteen years before the Rambam would set sail for Israel. A relatively quiet period was ended when Moslems captured the city of Edessa, (in modern day Syria). This prompted renewed attempts by the crusaders to conquer Moslem held cities. This Second Crusade was largely a failure from the crusader perspective, as their attempts to expand their territory were repelled. The Second Crusade did, however, result in the massacre of thousands of Jews across Europe by the crusader armies enroute to Israel, and accompanying mobs who had what to gain by sacking their Jewish neighbors.
The Kingdom of Jerusalem, established in 1099, which included the city of Jerusalem and the outlying areas, contained within its borders some 350,000 Muslims, Jews, and native Eastern Christians. The ruling Frank population, (Western European Christians), was no greater than 120,000.
The northern Israel port city of Akko, (Acre), was captured by King Baldwin I of Jerusalem in the year 1104. The crusaders turned Akko into their chief Mediterranean port.
Twelfth century Israel was a land divided and drenched in blood. Those who had swords, lived by the sword. Those who didn't, were wantonly slaughtered. The Holy Roman Empire's reasons for waging the crusades designed at capturing the Holy Land were many, and were based on local realpolitik and not necessarily on reasons of faith or ideology. Nevertheless, it was faith and ideology which were the rallying cries of the crusades. In the popular mind the battles being waged in the land of Israel were for the honor and advancement of Christianity, and to defeat and humiliate the unbelieving Moslems. Needless to say, the crusader assault on the cities of Israel and the surrounding region aroused a similar fervor among the Moslem rulers and their subjects, every bit as deadly. The entire region, which today would be known as the Middle East, was a tinderbox, ready to ignite. For the Jews of the region, who had no arms and had no army, and who were equally despised by both the Christian crusaders and their Moslem opponents, daily life could not have been more fraught with danger.
It was into this deadly arena that the Rambam was determined to set foot when, on the 14th day of the month of Iyar, 4925, (May 5, 1165), he embarked from northwest Africa, and set sail for the port city of Akko.
However, piracy and life-threatening tempests upon the high seas were the immediate dangers faced by any 12th century traveler, and the Rambam was no exception.
Rambam's Journey to Israel and the Temple Mount: In His Own Words
For a description of Rambam's perilous journey, we have the words written in his own hand:
"On the night of the first day of the week, the 14th day of the month of Iyar [May 5, 1165], I set off to sea. On Shabbat, on the 10th of the month of Iyar, in the year 4925 since the time of creation, we were confronted with great waves which nearly drowned us all, as a violent storm arose at sea. I took upon myself a vow that each year I would fast a complete public fast to commemorate these two perilous days of the storm, as would all the members of my household. I am instructing my children to likewise do so, until the end of time, and to give charity, according to their ability.
On this day of my vow, the 10th of Iyar, I will sit alone, and greet no one, engaging only in prayer and deep thought. Just as I spent that day at sea all alone with the Holy Blessed One, so shall I be alone on this day, unless compelled to speak to others.
On Sunday, the 3rd of the month of Sivan [May 23, 1165], I left the ship in peace at the port of Akko, having been delivered from destruction and arrived in the land of Israel. I made a vow that this would henceforth be a day of joy and happiness, in which I would enjoy a festive meal and give charitable gifts to the poor, as would my household, until the end of time. On Tuesday, the fourth day of the month of Marcheshvan, in the year 4926 from the time of creation, I left Akko and set out for Jerusalem, encountering many dangers along the way. I entered the "Great and Holy House" and prayed there, on Thursday, the 6th of the month of Marcheshvan [October 21, 1166].
On Sunday of the following week, the 9th of the month, I left Jerusalem and set out for Hevron, to visit the graves of our forefathers in the cave of the Machpelach. On that day I stood and prayed at the cave - may G-d be praised for everything! These two days, the 6th and the 9th of the month of Marcheshvan, I vowed will be for me life festival days, filled with prayer and happiness, food and drink! May G-d help me in all my endeavors and make true for me the verse, "My vows will I pay unto HaShem" - amen!
Just as I merited to pray in its ruins, may I soon see, myself and all Israel, its comfort, speedily - amen!"
Rambam's Personal Reflections on His Journey to Israel and the Temple Mount
Rambam, in describing his experience, writes, "I entered the Great and Holy House and prayed there, on Thursday, the 6th of the month of Marcheshvan, " refers to the Temple Mount as "The Great and Holy House." The Great and Holy House is a term for the Holy Temple used in Jewish liturgy, including the blessings recited after a meal. The expression, "Temple Mount" doesn't seem to have been in use during Rambam's time, but the expression The Great and Holy House would have been immediately understood by his coreligionists. Nor would it been misunderstood as implying that he actually entered a structure, such as the Dome of the Rock or any other building on the Temple Mount, for the expression The Great and Holy House is consistently used to describe the entire Temple Mount area, and not the Mikdash, or Sanctuary, itself. Entry into either the Sanctuary, or the area upon which the Sanctuary had stood prior to its destruction, is strictly forbidden to any other than a kohen, and, even in the case of a kohen, only when in a state of ritual purity that has been unattainable since the destruction of the Holy Temple. That Rambam stayed clear of the forbidden areas is hardly a question.
But this does raise the question, to what extent was Rambam familiar with the existing topography of the Temple Mount? How did he know where is was permissible to enter, and where is was not? The answer to this question may be found in a letter that Rambam wrote many years later to one Rabbi Yaphet from the city of Akko, Rambam's port of entry when he arrived in Israel:
"To the honorable great and holy teacher and Rabbi Yaphet, a wise man of understanding, an erudite Judge... since that day when we parted from the "Land of the Gazelle," [an appellation referring to the Land of Israel],... my father and teacher passed away... and I have been afflicted with very many misfortunes here in the land of Egypt... the most horrible being what has only recently occurred to me, that being the death of my righteous brother David, of blessed memory... even now, eight years hence, I mourn for him... [I recall the time when] I and he, and my father and you, the four of us, 'We went to G-d's House with great emotion... '"
It is evident from the Rambam's words that so many years and many sorrows later, he still remembers and cherishes the day that he and his father and brother, and Rabbi Yaphet ascended together to the Temple Mount. No doubt his recollection of that day, in counterpoint to the tragedy of losing his brother, whose life was lost as sea, provided for Rambam a great source of strength and comfort. This same Rabbi Yaphet is mentioned in the writings of Binyamin of Tudelo, a contemporary of Rambam, who also visited the Land of Israel, where he describes Rabbi Yaphet as being a great Torah sage. Is it possible that Rabbi Yaphet accompanied Rambam and his family to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, not merely as a newly acquired friend, but also as a guide familiar with the lay of the Mount?
An epistle in the Rambam's own hand
In another missive penned by the Rambam, the famous "Epistle to the Jews of Yemen," he again recalls his day atop the Temple Mount: "When we left the land of the west, [Morocco], 'to behold the pleasantness of the L-rd and to visit in His Holy Sanctuary.'" (Psalm 27:4) Rambam seems to be clearly stating here that his visit to the Temple Mount was not merely another tourist stop along the way, but that the visit to the Temple Mount and performing the positive commandment of Mora Mikdash, (showing reverence to G-d in the place of His Holy Temple), was the very goal of his long and dangerous journey. No doubt it was this fact which gave Rambam the courage to endure the hardships at sea and the dangers he encountered in the Land of Israel.
It is fascinating to contemplate that Rambam's visit to Israel and the Temple Mount took place during the time that he was writing his commentary on the Mishneh, and some years before he took up the work of composing his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, his great work of codifying Jewish law. The section of the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Beit HaBechira, The Laws of the Chosen House, and Chapter Seven, included within this section, which deals specifically and in exact detail with the commandment of Mora Mikdash, (showing reverence to G-d in the place of His Holy Temple), was written with the Rambam's own experience in mind. When Rambam writes, "In spite of the fact that the Holy Temple is now in a state of destruction as a result of our transgressions, one is nonetheless obligated to conduct himself with reverence, just as he would have done, when the Holy Temple was standing," he makes it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he understood his own ascent to the Temple Mount, many years prior to his penning these words, as the performance of a positive Torah commandment.
Rambam's Life in Egypt
Twelfth century Israel, violently torn between the Christian crusaders and their mortal enemies, the Moslems, was too harsh and hostile an environment for Rambam to remain in, and after his his visit to the Temple Mount and the cave of Machpela in Hevron he continued on his journey southward and westward where he settled in Fostat, a large city of 200,000 inhabitants. In the year 1169, David, the Rambam's younger brother and a successful merchant, was given the family savings to invest in his business venture. When the ship he boarded bound for India floundered at sea, David and the family savings were lost. Of this the Rambam wrote:
"The greatest misfortune that has befallen me during my entire life worse than anything else was the demise of the saint, may his memory be blessed, who drowned in the Indian sea, carrying much money belonging to me, him, and to others, and left with me a little daughter and a widow. On the day I received that terrible news I fell ill and remained in bed for about a year, suffering from a sore boil, fever, and depression, and was almost given up. About eight years have passed, but I am still mourning and unable to accept consolation. And how should I console myself? He grew up on my knees, he was my brother, [and] he was my student."
Left virtually penniless, Rambam was compelled to take up medicine, and became a doctor of great renown. He was appointed court physician to the Grand Vezier of Egypt, Alfadil, and then to the Sultan Saladin, Rambam practiced and prescribed treatments that are still studied and used today.
It was in Fostat that Rambam wrote his monumental work, the fourteen volume "Mishneh Torah." He likewise composed here his great philosophical treatise, "The Guide for the Perplexed." Rambam wrote the guide in Arabic, and when Shmuel ibn Tibbon, the Hebrew translator of the work wrote to Rambam asking permission to visit with him and discuss the book, Rambam replied:
"I dwell at Fostat, and the sultan resides at Cairo [about a mile and a half away]... My duties to the sultan are very heavy. I am obliged to visit him every day, early in the morning, and when he or any of his children or any of the inmates of his harem are indisposed, I dare not quit Cairo, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace. It also frequently happens that one of the two royal officers fall sick, and I must attend to their healing. Hence, as a rule, I leave for Cairo very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens, I do not return to Fostat until the afternoon. Then I am almost dying with hunger. . . I find the antechamber filled with people, both Jews and gentiles, nobles and common people, judges and bailiffs, friends and foes-a mixed multitude who await the time of my return."
"I dismount from my animal, wash my hands, go forth to my patients and entreat them to bear with me while I partake of some slight refreshment, the only meal I take in the twenty-four hours. Then I go forth to attend to my patients, and write prescriptions and directions for their various ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes even, I solemnly assure you, until two hours or more in the night. I converse with and prescribe for them while lying down from sheer fatigue; and when night falls I am so exhausted that I can scarcely speak."
"In consequence of this, no Israelite can have any private interview with me, except on the Sabbath. On that day the whole congregation, or at least the majority of the members, come to me after the morning service, when I instruct them as to their proceedings during the whole week; we study together a little until noon, when they depart. Some of them return, and read with me after the afternoon service until evening prayers. In this manner I spend that day."
Rambam died in Fostat, on the 20th of Tevet 4965 (December 12, 1204). He was buried there, but shortly after re-interred in the city of Tiberias, the last city where the Great Sanhedrin convened before its demise. He grave receives thousands of visitors every year.
It can be said that the Rambam is more relevant today than ever before. Unlike other codifiers of Jewish law, who concentrated their efforts on only those commandments that were of immediate relevance to their communities, Rambam, in his work, presented the Torah in its entirety. Rambam made clear in his works that preparing for the building of the Holy Temple by recreating the lost vessels of the Divine service, involves the implementation of Torah commandments that must not be neglected, for, as our sages say, every generation that does not rebuild the Holy Temple, is judged as if it allowed its destruction. In the Rambam's eyes, this is not due to mystical or metaphysical reasons, but for reasons of pragmatism. Performing all of the Torah commandments, even those that pertain to Israel on a national level, even during the era of exile and dispersion, is a necessary prerequisite for the reformation of the dispersed people as a sovereign nation in its own land. This same understanding informed the Rambam concerning the paramount importance of performing the commandment of Mora Mikdash even when the Holy Temple is not standing. It is for this same reason that Rambam concludes his "Mishneh Torah" with the book of the "Laws of Kings," which discusses the reformation of Israel as a sovereign nation and the laws of governance. This was not intended as an appendix or epilogue to the "Mishneh Torah." This was intended as the culmination of a natural redemptive process of a nation that tends to its G-d given responsibilities.
Maimonides' tomb in the Israeli city of Tiverya (Tiberias)