A BIOGRAPHICAL AND HISTORIOGRAPHICAL CRITIQUE OF MOSES
by Elise J. Levinoff MSc, Summer 2004
Elise J. Levinoff is a first year student
in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Ottawa.
This study was funded by the Geza Hetenyi Memorial Studentship for
the History of Medicine, administered by the University of Ottawa.
- Introduction - Arabian Medicine
- The Life of Maimonides
- Maimonides’ Contributions to Medicine
- An assessment of the historical documents written
This study was funded by the 2004 Geza Hetenyi Memorial Studentship
for the History of Medicine in the Faculty of Medicine and Health
Sciences at the University of Ottawa. I would like to thank my supervisor,
Dr. Toby Gelfand for his input. I was inspired by the conversations
and ideas that took place between us throughout the course of my
research. I am thankful for the comments and feedback given by Dr.
Jason Tanny and Dr. Batya Grundland. They have always provided me
with academic insight throughout all of my endeavors. Finally, I
must thank my parents who instilled in me the values of both Jewish
and secular education. Maimonides taught: “Teach thy tongue
to say ‘I do not know’ and thou shalt progress.”
Introduction - Arabian Medicine
The Golden Age of Arabic medicine (750-1230)
was strongly influenced by the Greek physicians of ancient times.
Many historians who have written about this particular period
have noted that the thinkers of this time lacked innovative science
in spite of their abilities to excel in mathematics, politics
and literature. The physicians of this time period were considered
to be the assimilators and transmitters of the pre-existing medical
information from their Greek ancestors1. They were criticized
for their lack of original medical discoveries. As a result,
the period of Arabian medicine has been termed the “body
of scientific or medical doctrine which is enshrined in books
written in the Arabic language, but, which is for the most part,
Greek in its origin.”2
Arabian medicine was important because
it became the principal source from which Europe derived most
of its medical and scientific
knowledge3. Arabian physicians and scholars accepted the writings
of the Greeks as a form of truth and authority that was to be
preserved, yet also analyzed and developed. Many of the medical
scholars of the time period wanted to preserve the pre-existing
medical tradition as a treasure chest, and not as a burden or
2004 marks the 800th anniversary of the death
of a great scholar and physician of the Golden Age, Moshe ben
From the time of his death to the present day, historians, physicians
and philosophers of medicine, culture and religion, have commented
on the value of his writings and his remarkable contributions
to philosophy, religion and medicine. Maimonides, like the other
physicians of his time, transmitted the information handed to
him from his medical predecessors. He organized and critically
assessed the ideas brought forth by the ancient Greeks. Maimonides
also went beyond this critique and added to these medical works
some observations of his own.
Opinions of Maimonides have varied
widely and much has been written about his achievements in several
areas of medicine. Outside
of his medical findings, his philosophical works have been more
accepted. Yet, the close relationship between his medical, philosophical
and ethical findings has made him an even more admirable figure
among Jews, as well as in the medical field. Maimonides had to
endure additional obstacles as compared to his contemporaries
because he was a Jewish physician who was trying to establish
himself in a non-Jewish society. In this essay, I outline Maimonides’ contributions
to modern medicine, and why he was considered to be a highly
regarded physician of his time. I will also present a historiographical
account of what other 20th century medical and Jewish historians
have written about Maimonides.
- F. Garrison, A History of Medicine (4th ed.),
- E.G. Browne, Arabian Medicine, Being the Fitzpatrick Lectures, 2.
- Ibid., 4.
- L. Magner, A History of Medicine, 136.
The Life of Maimonides
Maimonides was born in
Cordova, Spain, in 1135 under Islamic rule. His mother died shortly
after his birth,
leaving his father responsible for his upbringing.
His father later re-married and had another son, David. Little is known about
Maimonides’ father’s occupation, although it has been quoted that
he was a learned man, and a pupil of Joseph ibn Migash, a famed scholar5. Furthermore,
extensive genealogy has been published about Maimonides’ father’s
origins on both sides. His father is said to be a descendent of King David.
Maimonides’ father recognized the intellect of his son, and taught him
the foundations of Torah and Talmud. Maimonides received his secular education
from the Arabs living in Spain at the time; they taught him astronomy, mathematics,
philosophy, natural sciences, art and medicine.
In 1148, the family was forced
to leave Cordova because they feared persecution from the Almohades. This
fanatic Moslem group forced the Jews to abandon their
religion or face persecution. The Maimon family wandered around southern Spain
and northern Africa for 12 years, before settling in Fez, Morocco. The Caliph
in Fez required that only certain Moslem customs were to be adhered to, and
he did not interfere with his subjects’ private religious
lives. Maimonides’ brother
became a jewelry trader. This source of income financed Maimonides’ theological
studies. Because the Maimon family did not wish to conceal their religious
identity, they left Fez in 1165 to go to Palestine. They remained there for
only a short
period – Maimonides regarded Palestine as a country of “… great
solitude and waste.” 6
It is interesting that a family that was so
deeply tied to the Jewish religion – a
religion that venerates the return to Zion, or Israel – decided not
to remain in Palestine. Perhaps, as a result of the economic tribulations,
was more prosperous for a physician and philosopher to settle in a place
provide him with monetary compensation. It is also possible that Maimonides
wanted to reside in a city that provided him with a means to promote his
philosophical writings. After leaving Palestine, the family settled in Fostat,
outside of Cairo. There were three noted colleges in Cairo that were devoted
to the study of religion, philosophy and science. The following year, Maimonides’ brother
died in a shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, leaving him to care for his brother’s
wife and children. Realizing the need to finance his widowed sister-in-law’s
family, Maimonides turned to medicine as a means of financial support.
is unclear as to whether Maimonides obtained a formal medical education.
Usually, the training route which one could take to become a physician
with a skilled expert to learn the necessary clinical skills. Maimonides
did not have the time to devote to formal learning, because he was preoccupied
with his philosophical and theological works. Fred Rosner believed that
he may have
studied with elder physicians and scholars; in several of his medical works
(i.e. in the Medical Aphorisms of Maimonides), Maimonides aptly quotes “the
elders before whom I have read.” 7
It is also possible that Maimonides
learned his medical trade from Ibn Zuhr, whose father was the prominent
physician Abu Merwan Ibn Zuhr. Donald
a historian of Arabian medicine, believed that between the years 1160-1165,
Maimonides became acquainted with ‘Abdu’l-Arab ibn-Muisha,
who helped him commence his literary work in medicine8. Another historian
of Maimonides and medicine,
Meyerhof, said that Maimonides’ writings were influenced by physicians
from the West – al-Maghrib or the extreme West – al-Maghrib
Most of Maimonides’ writings were based
on the compilations of the great physicians Hippocrates and Galen,
and the philosopher Aristotle.
a profound knowledge of his predecessors. The works of the Greeks were
translated by Arabian physicians such as Sergius of Resh-Ayna during
the 7th Century and
by Hunayn ibn Ishaq in the 9th Century and were readily available to
physicians9. It was crucial to have accessibility to the translated
versions of these compilations
as a means for practicing medicine and as a vehicle to transmit the
writings of the Greeks.
Maimonides earned the reputation as a renowned
physician amongst his
colleagues. This precipitated his appointment as the head physician
to Saladin, the
Sultan of Egypt in 1174 who was fighting in the Crusades in Palestine.
title came a remarkable honour. However, there was an immense amount
of responsibility associated with the title, because Maimonides was
and Nagid in Fostat10. Why did Maimonides accept this responsibility
in spite of his other commitments? Maimonides was motivated by an
response to economic hardship11. After the death of his father and
was left to care for his own family as well as the family of his
Even though he was a Jew who lived in a Moslem
dominated society, Maimonides felt comfortable accepting the
role as the Sultan’s
physician. During this time period, the Jewish people residing in Fostat
enjoyed religious autonomy.
They also shared similar religious beliefs and values (i.e. monotheism)
with their Moslem rulers. These similarities made the Jewish people
more open to expressing
their religious values in public. From a secular standpoint, they could
easily blend into Moslem society, while maintaining their own Jewish
practices and values
(as Maimonides did with his religious studies and role as Nagid). It
is a striking accomplishment that Maimonides was able to maintain his
multiple roles as Nagid,
philosopher, theologian and physician with proficiency up to the time
of his death. He was a man who professed the importance of maintaining
values while simultaneously interacting with the Moslem culture and
academia. He died in Fostat in 1204 and was buried in Tiberias, Palestine.
- D. Macht, "Moses Maimonides, Physician
and Scientist. The William Osler of Mediaeval Arabic and Hebrew
- S.R. Simon. "Moses Maimonides: Medieval Physician and Scholar," 1842.
- F. Rosner, “Moses Maimonides and Preventive Medicine,” 317.
- D. Campbell, Arabian Medicine and its Influences on the
Middle Ages, 98.
- N.J. Shanks, “Arabian Medicine in the Middle Ages,” 62.
- Several references (Macht, 1906; Mendelson, 1923; Rosner, 2002) mention that
Maimonides was the chief Rabbi of Cairo. The term Nagid referred to the head
spiritual leader of a Jewish community. The appointed individual was regarded
as learned and influenced the Jews of the community.
- Leibowitz, 1957; Macht, 1935; and Baron, 1966 have all mentioned that Maimonides
was forced to finance the members of his family.
Maimonides’ Contributions to Medicine
Maimonides’ most significant works dealt with philosophy
and Jewish commentary. The three most notable works on these
topics were: Commentary on the Mishneh, Mishneh Torah and The
Guide to the Perplexed. His other philosophical works include
a book on logic and a Book of Commandments and several commentaries
on the Mishneh12. Maimonides wrote ten medical texts: The Extracts
from Galen, Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, The Medical
Aphorisms of Moses Maimonides, Treatise on Hemorrhoids, Treatise
on Cohabitation, Treatise on Asthma, Treatise on Poisons and
their Antidotes, The Regimen of Health, Discourse on the Explanation
of Fits, and Glossary of Drug Names. However, his medical works
are not as eminent or highly publicized as his philosophical
There are several indications that highlight the relevance
of Maimonides’ medical works for medical practice in his
time and in later times. First, he is credited for his discussions
on hygiene and the relationship between the mind and the body.
Most people who write about him will mention that in his work
Regimen of Health, Maimonides indicated that the physical well-being
of a person is dependent on his mental well-being, and vice versa.
To illustrate this example, S. Bloch mentioned that “Psychosomatic
medicine, especially as pioneered by psychoanalysts after World
War II, owes a debt to Maimonides; indeed, he could well be crowned
the original psychosomaticist.”13 Second, Maimonides’ compendia
became organized guides to medicine for medieval physicians.
He applied the systematic organization that is seen in his religious
texts to the organization of his medical texts. Of his final
chapter of “Aphorisms of Galen,” it is said that
Maimonides showed a similar ability for which he is renowned,
as a systematizer and codifier of Jewish law.
added his own commentary to the works of his predecessors, in
addition to quoting them as sources. Most of
the chapters that were devoted to his own personal thoughts began
with the statement “Moses said.” Fourth, unlike his
contemporaries, he was not afraid to dispute, or criticize the
works of his predecessors. In The Aphorisms of Galen, he says: “Though
everything Galen says is true, it is disorganized, for only if
one knows the causes of syncope will he be able to recognize
its onset and combat the cause.”
Finally, Maimonides was
able to link his religious writings in the Mishneh Torah with
his medical aphorisms. He believed that
prevention of illness and a commitment to a healthy life style
are obligations which Jews must uphold in order to fulfill their
religious commandments. For example, an important concept in
Judaism is the obligation to avoid or prevent danger to life.
This concept is exemplified in the Bible and Talmud and is elaborated
in the Mishneh Torah. Maimonides said that Jewish law requires
that an obstacle be removed in the case where it can endanger
one’s life because it is written in the Torah, “Take
heed unto thyself and take care of thy life.”14 Maimonides’ medical
writings constantly emphasized the importance of preventing any
danger – the onset of preventable illnesses – in
order to preserve and sanctify life. Therefore, the ability to
refute his predecessors, the organization of Galen’s medical
aphorisms, the introduction of psychosomatic and preventive medicine
and the relationship between religion and medicine were all strong
contributions that Maimonides made to the medical field.
- The Mishneh was the oral law written by the Judah in the early
1st Century, after the destruction of the Second Temple in Israel.
It is a compilation of the Jewish code of laws which is divided
into six sections that extends on the law of the Bible.
- S. Bloch, “Moses Maimonides’ Contributions to the Biopsychosocial
Approach in Clinical Medicine,” 830.
- Deuteronomy, 22:8.
An assessment of the historical documents written about Maimonides
Aside from his communications with other physicians, Maimonides’ contemporaries
said very little about his contributions to the medical field. Ibn Abi Usabi’ah,
a famous historian of Arabian medicine said that Maimonides was “the leading
man of his time in the art of healing.”15 Also, his followers – not
necessarily physicians, but more so his admirers – included his legacy
in their poetry:
Galen’s art heals only the body
But Abu Imram’s the body and the soul
With his wisdom he could heal the sickness of ignorance16
Maimonides’ medical works were translated from Arabic
to Latin throughout the Middle Ages. They made their way through
large European Renaissance publishing cities such as Bologna,
Venice and Lyon. They became a source of transmission from one
era of medicine to the next. In the 20th century, Salo Baron,
a Jewish historian and Fred Rosner, a Jewish physician, have
written Hebrew and English translations of Maimonides’ works.
Several of these historical and medical works have included critiques
of Maimonides’ medical compilations.
Maimonides as seen
by Jewish Physicians on the Eve of the Holocaust
In the 20th Century,
much has been written about Maimonides’ and
his contributions to modern medicine. Those who have written
about him have tended to do so on occasion of the anniversary
of his birth, or on the anniversary of his death. The choice
to write about Maimonides during this time period suggests a
search for a role model on the part Diaspora Jews who identified
with the economic and religious conditions forced by their subject.
Interestingly, the desire to uphold Maimonides as a role model
may have caused some modern Jewish commentators to exaggerate
the extent to which Jews who lived during this historical period
were mistreated by their non-Jewish rulers.
The year 1935 marked
the 800th anniversary of Maimonides’ birth.
It was also a time in which Jews in Europe were facing persecution
from the recently elected Nazi government in Germany. In contrast,
the Jewish people of Fostat in the 12th Century enjoyed relative
autonomy. Unlike the Jews of Spain who were persecuted under
the ruling of the Almohades, the Jews of Fostat were permitted
to express their religious beliefs in public. The rulers of Mohammedan
territory encouraged cultural independence among the minorities
in their empire. This was beneficial, as it allowed the Jews
to collaborate with their Moslem counterparts in scientific and
philosophical studies. Jews often wrote their works in Arabic,
and not in Hebrew, so that they could easily integrate their
scientific and theological findings into the society at large.17
A summary of the life of Maimonides and his contributions to
medicine was written in 1935 by Dr. A.B. Illievitz, a Jewish
physician in Montreal, Canada. The author noted that most of
Maimonides’ writings depended on original and independent
judgment, but he also noted Maimonides’ shortcomings – that
he failed to appropriately cite Galen when necessary. The author
was, however, glorifying Maimonides’ contributions to medicine.
The article was written from the point of view of an individual
who lived in a society which allowed Jews to integrate into their
secular community while simultaneously practicing their religious
beliefs (unlike the persecution that was plaguing the Jews of
Europe). The author glorified Maimonides during this era, because
it was a turbulent one for the Jews in Europe, and he wanted
to publicize the greatness of an accomplished Jewish physician
and medical historical figure. He said: “Unlike his contemporary,
on account of the intolerable anti-Jewish hatred, he had to lead
a dual life, assuming an outer mask, discovery of which meant
certain death.”18 Even though, the Jews of Fostat were autonomous
in the late 12th Century, the author compared the life of Maimonides
to that of the Jewish people in Europe. He used the comparison
to illustrate to his readers that it was, and still is difficult
for a Jewish person to succeed in the secular society without
being reminded of the fact that he is Jewish. By saying this,
he was also further glorifying Maimonides’ achievements
because he acknowledged that Maimonides was able to attain such
a high status within the non-Jewish medical world. Interestingly
enough, although Maimonides was forced to flee from the Almohades
in Spain, it is still widely believed that the Jewish people
of Cairo were free from religious persecution.
Also in 1935, L.
Gershenfeld, a Jewish physician from Chicago, wrote a tribute
to Maimonides in celebration of this octocentennial
anniversary. Gershenfeld discussed Maimonides’ medical
works and the significance of his life as a Jewish physician
in Egypt. He compared the persecution of the Jews in Europe by
the Nazis in the 1930s to that in Spain by the Almohades in the
12th Century. He said:
“ We in this generation are unfortunately in a position
to appreciate this when we see the same endurance manifest
by many of the Jews
in Germany, who, in the Maimonidean spirit born of intense
admiration and affection for their fatherland, cling on even
when days of
Gershenfeld believed that the Jews of Germany in 1935 were comparable
to those of the Jews of Spain in 1148. The Jews of Spain (such
as Maimonides) wanted to cling to their societal culture, even
during times of religious persecution, much in the same way that
the Jews of Germany did. As a result, Maimonides left Cordova,
although the Maimon family wandered around Spain for a period
of 12 years before settling in Fostat.
David Macht wrote and
presented another account of Maimonides in the year 1935. Macht
was a physician living in Baltimore at
the time. He had the honour of presenting this paper to the Johns
Hopkins Medical History Club and Osler Society, at the octocentennial
celebration of Maimonides’ birth. Before he began discussing
the life of Maimonides the physician, Macht discussed Maimonides’ position
in the history of science and medicine. He emphasized the need
to discuss and estimate the work of any scientist or physician
in relation to the age in which he lived:
the general emotions and fervor that animated our scientific
predecessors, their love of truth and appreciation of its value,
the stimulus of scientific imagination, and the hope of achievement
for the benefit of fellowman that inspired them – whether
eighty or eight hundred years ago – remain relatively
unchanged; and they are worthy of emulation and reiteration
in these troubled
times when even science and the art of healing are no longer
looked upon as universal and cosmopolitan, and are tainted
and distorted by prejudice and hatred, be it of race, creed
Macht may have been referring to the situation that was taking
place in Nazi occupied Germany. He argued that it was important
to recognize medical figureheads and their contributions to the
advancement of science and medicine in the context of the time
period in which they lived. In the conclusion of his paper, Macht
compared Maimonides’ greatness to that of Sir William Osler.
He said that they shared similar views on science, which was
combined with a thirst for knowledge and a devotion to the practice
of the healing art. They both advocated for preventive medicine,
simple pharmaceutical intervention, and they both believed in
the importance of prophylactic treatment and personal hygiene.
He also believed that both Osler and Maimonides challenged their
colleagues to harmonize science with the humanities.
mentioned that he supported Maimonides’ decision to decline
the position of the physician to Richard the Lionhearted. Macht says: “I
am thrilled as much today as I was thirty years ago when I read that after
the Crusade this renowned Jew was asked by Richard Coeur de Leon to desert
his royal Saracen employer and go with him to England, which he declined to
do.”21 Macht supported this decision because he knew that the Christian
Crusade led by Richard the Lionhearted was also a Crusade led against the Jews
in Israel. It is admirable that Macht could approach his colleagues in 1935
and reveal to them his feelings about Maimonides and the courage that Maimonides
possessed in order to excel as a Jewish physician in his time.
In his conclusion,
Macht made a comparison between Maimonides and Sir William Osler. The majority
of Macht’s colleagues at Johns Hopkins University
were non-Jews. They knew very little about Maimonides, yet they were able
to identify with the greatness of Sir William Osler. He compared Osler’s
greatness with that of Maimonides because he knew that his colleagues could
identify with Osler. Maimonides was a role model for Macht much in the same
way that Osler was a role model for the physicians at Johns Hopkins Medical
School who were listening to Macht’s talk. It is impressive that Macht
felt comfortable enough to talk about Maimonides at a renowned medical institution
because 1935 was a time in which anti-semitism was rampant, even in the North
Just a few years later, in 1939, an article about the life of
Maimonides appeared in a journal called Medical Leaves. This
journal was devoted to
of Jewish medical history, and was published between the years 1939-1943.
The review was written by an American Jewish physician, Dr. A. Levinson.
wrote about the life and medical works of Maimonides, but he also included
a historiographical account. He divided these historians into those who
believed that Maimonides excelled in “every base of medicine” and
those who said that Maimonides’ contributions were “of
little or no importance.”
According to Levinson, those
who glorified Maimonides, such as Pagel (whom Levinson mentions
as “the great medical historian”), Roner, Minz,
Kraus and Feldman all said that Maimonides possessed a profound knowledge
of medicine and he imposed a great medical influence upon future
Those that opposed Maimonides, Campbell and Robinson, stated that he was
a theorist, rather than a physician, and that most of “his
health rules were platitudes before the twelfth century.”22 Following
this evaluation, Levinson stated why he felt Maimonides was a
remarkable physician. First, he
talked about Maimonides’ contributions, and how they were based on
scientific experimentation, observation, and interpretation. Second, he
discussed Maimonides’ descriptions
of the mind-body relationship, which were original descriptions not previously
made by his predecessors.
Levinson also mentioned Maimonides’ medical
influence on Jewish life. He acknowledged that Maimonides promoted essential
principals of personal hygiene
and preventive medicine among the Jewish people. He felt that this had
a major influence on the future of the Jewish people, especially during
Maimonides’ medical teachings, I believe, were responsible
for the fact that, when the entire medieval world fell prey to
terrible epidemic diseases,
the Jews alone escaped. So noticeable was the immunity of the Jews
that they were often accused of being responsible for the epidemics23.
In this regard, it is clear that the author defended the Jewish
people from a long-standing anti-semitic dogma claiming that
Jews were responsible for the black plague epidemic.
share several similarities. First, they were all written by North
American Jewish physicians. They all viewed
Maimonides as a role model, a hero – someone to whom they
could relate as a medical figurehead in the context of a time
period in which the world Jewish community was experiencing a
rash of anti-semitism. These physicians had the opinion that
Maimonides practiced and advocated his Jewish beliefs while living
in Fostat, while also maintaining his secular identity. They
could identify with Maimonides, because like him, they were accepted
in the secular society because of their status as health care
providers. They tried to apply the situation in North America
in the 1930s to Maimonides’ situation in Fostat. By doing
so, they attempted to emulate Maimonides as a respected Jewish
physician within their North American society.
Salo Baron: “Maimonides
in social and cultural context”
Salo Baron, who was a Jewish
historian, wrote about Maimonides as a physician and philosopher
in the context of the Jew in a
non-Jewish society. He devoted a section to medical science and
practice in his large compilation of Jewish history titled A
Social and Religious History of the Jews. His perception of Maimonides
was written under the heading of “Medical Contributions.” Baron
was disappointed that Maimonides made little reference to medical
teachings that reflected upon the teachings from Jewish sources.
He said that:
Even great experts in all phases of Jewish lore,
like Maimonides, rarely referred to medical teachings reflected
in Jewish sources
but usually quoted non-Jewish authorities like Hippocrates,
or Galen, or the more “modern” Arabian physicians.
Characteristically, while quoting Greek authors they knew nothing
about the ancient
Jewish writers in that language24.
It seems unlikely that Maimonides quoted ancient Jewish physicians
in his medical teachings – there was no reference to support
that he did. However, during the period in which Maimonides lived,
most of the physicians depended solely on the writings of their
Greek predecessors. Without these guides, the Arabian physicians
would not have had a medical background to use to treat their
patients. As well, during the time in which Maimonides lived,
Jews were able to practice their religion freely, and were assimilated.
Therefore, it is possible that in public places Maimonides wanted
to project a secular image to his Moslem patients, especially
while serving as the physician to the Sultan. It is also possible
that even though the Jews were assimilated, an underlying fear
of persecution prevailed that left them from feeling completely
autonomous and comfortable with their religious identity. Baron
… the very segregation of religious communities throughout
Islam, though far less stringent than in Christian Europe and
ample room for scholarly cooperation between members of various
denominations, was sufficiently marked to distinguish Jewish
and Christian doctors in the eyes of both their patients
and the Arabian medical historians and biographers. At the
everything a Jew did, or failed to do, ultimately accrued
to the benefit or disadvantage of his community25.
Even though Baron acknowledged that there was ample room for
scholarly cooperation between the Jews and Moslems, the underlying
feeling still prevailed that the Jewish people were different
from their Moslem rulers.
Fred Rosner: “Maimonides, the
Religious Jewish Physician/Philosopher”
Dr. F. Rosner, a
contemporary physician and expert on Maimonides, has written
several commentaries that discuss the relationship
that Maimonides made between his medical and religious teachings.
Rosner discussed in his article entitled “Moses Maimonides
and Preventive Medicine” how Maimonides linked the fundamentals
of preventive medicine with the religious laws of preventive
medicine from the Talmud. Maimonides devoted an entire chapter
of the Mishneh Torah to discussing a variety of hygienic and
medical prescriptions for healthy living and for the prevention
of illness. Many of the rules that Maimonides stated in the Mishneh
Torah were taken from discussions in the Talmud. He argued that
this was the strength of Maimonides’ teachings.
perspective and background interests in Maimonides were motivated
by their similarities as Jews and physicians.
Like Maimonides, Rosner has written several compilations of Jewish
medical bioethics, and has translated some of Maimonides’ works
into English. He has also written biographical summaries on Maimonides,
which have appeared in numerous scientific and historical journals,
such as The Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Archives of
Internal Medicine, and the Annals of the New York Academy of
Science. It is not surprising that he resembles and adopts some
of the qualities that embody those of Maimonides himself. It
is also unsurprising that he regarded Maimonides as a high ranking
and prominent physician of his time.
The Non-Jewish Historical
Perspective of Maimonides the physician
writings exerted a powerful influence on non-Jewish scholastic
philosophers. He had a profound impact
on the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotas. However,
in terms of his medical influences, non-Jewish medical historians
do not devote the same attention to Maimonides as do the Jewish
medical historians. For example, Fielding Garrison, a well-known
medical historian in the early 20th Century, omitted the added
obstacles that Maimonides was required to overcome because he
was a Jewish physician living in a Moslem-dominated era. Instead,
he discussed the general role of Jewish physicians who lived
during the period of Arabian medicine in his general survey A
History of Modern Medicine26. According to Garrison, the greatest
of Moslem physicians was the Cordovan Avenzoar, and Averroes.
He did not include Maimonides on his list of the greatest physicians
of the time period encompassing Arabian medicine, even though
the title of his chapter was “The Mohammedan and Jewish
periods.” However, he did say that Maimonides was an important
figurehead because he was the physician to the Sultan, as well
as the “great liberalizer of his people, in the sense of
including science and philosophy as phrases of his Jewish culture,
which had hitherto been restricted to the Talmud.”27
Garrison believed that Maimonides’ role as a Jewish
physician was more important in terms of the contributions he
made to his Jewish brethren as opposed to the contributions he
made to the medical world. His chapter concluded with a discussion
of the influence that Maimonides had on future Jewish physicians.
He believed that the Mohammedan medical culture was closely connected
with the influence of Jews upon European medicine. The Jews were
a group of individuals who were often subjected to persecution
from the Romans and the Christians following their dispersal
outside of Palestine. However, under Arabian domination, Jewish
physicians were given the opportunity to become prominent figures
at the courts of the Caliphs. Since Jews and Moslems shared a
common religious bond (their monotheistic beliefs), the Jews
were given the opportunity to advance themselves and their careers.
As a result, Garrison says:
During the middle Ages and long after,
the lot of the Jewish physicians in Europe was to be used and
abused. In the 10th and
11th centuries, he was, as Billings says, “a sort of contraband
luxury,” resorted to and protected by prince and prelate
alike, on account of his superior scientific knowledge, but
hardly countenanced for any other reason28.
Garrison evidently believed that the Jewish physician was “used
and abused” and respected for his intelligence, and that
in addition to common religious ties with the Moslem rulers at
the time, this was the only reason why Maimonides was able to
establish a name for himself and for other future Jews.
Campbell also wrote about Arabian medicine from the non-Jewish
perspective. He mentioned Maimonides’ reputation of being
a renowned physician in Cairo. He said that this reputation spread,
and upon hearing of his greatness,
Richard the Lionhearted offered him the opportunity to serve as the great crusader’s
physician. Campbell also acknowledges that Maimonides did not receive as much
recognition from his contemporaries as from those who followed him. The non-Jewish
perspective of Maimonides the physician is one that acknowledges Maimonides
as an important figure in the period of Arabian medicine. However, the non-Jewish
perspective also underestimated the social and cultural impacts of being a
Jewish physician in Cairo during his time.
It would only be fitting
to conclude a discussion on what others think of Maimonides and
his accomplishments with a view of
what Maimonides thought about his own
medical writings. One vivid description of these thoughts arises from his work
on the Medical Aphorisms of Moses Maimonides. Maimonides understood that medicine
was a multifaceted and difficult topic to master if not organized accordingly.
As such, he wanted to compile an organized guide to Galen’s teachings.
He also wanted to write this compendium in order to commit the written information
Maimonides was able to recognize the limitations of his work.
He says that he was not the original author, and that he wrote
a compendium based
ideas. “I have selected and collected from the words of Galen, out of
all his works, meaning from his original works as well as from his commentaries
on the works of Hippocrates.”29 Maimonides also said that some of the written
words in this medical work contained original thoughts of Galen, with some
additional words of his own. Maimonides mentioned this because he was chastised
for his failure to cite his predecessors in previous works.
- S. Leibowitz, “Maimonides on Medical Practice,” 313.
- Written by the poet, Alsaid Ibn-Sina Almulk. Referenced in Macht, 333.
- S. Grazyel, A History of the Jews, 303.
- B. Illievitz, “Maimonides the Physician,” 441.
- L. Gershenfeld, “Moses Maimonides,” 28.
- Macht, 586.
- Ibid., 597.
- I. Levinson, “Maimonides the Physician,” 98.
- Levinson, “Maimonides the Physician,” 100.
- Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 254.
- Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 255.
- Garrison, A History of Modern Medicine, 130 (Note that this is the fourth edition.
The first edition of this book was written in 1913.)
- Maimonides. Regimen Santiatis: Letters on the Hygiene of the Body and of the
In the context of the era of Arabian medicine, Maimonides’ achievements
as a philosopher and physician surpassed those of his contemporaries. The Jewish
physicians who wrote about Maimonides on the eve of the Holocaust attempted to
create a Jewish role model who they could emulate. They sought to illustrate
how a Jewish physician could excel even amongst a predominantly non-Jewish society,
in this instance, an Arabian society. Finally, the non-Jewish historians who
wrote about Maimonides tended to ignore the religious issue. Instead, they discussed
his achievements in the context of the other physicians who lived during the
period of Arabian medicine. They believed Maimonides paved the way for other
Jewish physicians to advance their careers in the years to come.
From a medical
perspective, I was intrigued by the lack of original scientific
principles that emerged from the Arabian period of medicine. I was aware of Maimonides’ philosophical
achievements, but knew little of his medical achievements. It was this motive
that led me to explore why physicians have said that he was a medical giant.
From a historical perspective, I learned that it is important to consider the
accomplishments of an historical character on the basis of the time period in
which this individual lived. Maimonides was fortunate to have practiced medicine
at a time when his intelligence and expertise were accepted and needed by the
non-Jewish community. Similarly, during the 20th Century, the expertise of the
Jewish physician has been generally recognized. The exception to this situation
was the period of persecution in Nazi occupied Germany. At this time, Jewish
physicians like Macht encouraged their non-Jewish colleagues to consider the
greatness of past medical giants and compare these giants to the contemporary
It is fitting to conclude this essay with a statement that was
made by Sir William Osler, who was compared by Macht to the greatness
original source cannot be traced, Rosner and others have said that Sir William
Osler referred to Maimonides as the “Prince of Physicians.”30 There
is documented evidence that Dr. Joseph Hertz corresponded with Osler regarding
an inquiry that Osler had about the origination of the Physician’s Prayer31.
This suggests that Osler had a vested interest in Maimonides and his medical
Maimonides was a renowned physician and philosopher who became
a role model for many contemporary Jewish physicians. He believed in the
importance of religion
and philosophy and enmeshed the two. He also integrated his medical expertise
into the non-Jewish society, thereby paving the way for future Jewish thinkers
and physicians to follow his examples. To the Jewish people he symbolized
the highest spiritual and intellectual achievement of man on
- The original statement that was made by Osler could not be
found in any of his literary works. However, Rosner, 1996, as
well as Simon, 1999 have both said that Sir William Osler was
familiar with Maimonides and equally interested in his life and
- The Physician’s Prayer was attributed to Moses Maimonides and first appeared
in German in 1783. The origination of the prayer is unknown. Some have said that
it was written by Maimonides himself, while others say that it was written by
Dr. Marcus Herz, and later translated into Hebrew by Isaac Euchel. Further information
regarding the physician’s prayer can be found in Rosner, 1967.
- F. Rosner, “The Life of Moses Maimonides, a Prominent Medieval Physician,” 126.
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©2004, Elise J. Levinoff, MSc