Jewish History Blog

Maimonides’ Letter to a Friend

Plaque at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel. Photo by David Shay. Published under the GNU Free Documentation License.

There are many ways I could describe the great Maimonides. He was an unparalleled genius: a Torah scholar, a philosopher, a physician. His prolific work raised terrible controversy; his books were banned and burned. But if there is one document that gives the flavor of his personal life, it is this letter. Dated September 30, 1199, he wrote it to his friend, supporter and translator,  Rabbi Samuel ibn Tibbon of Provence.

First, a little background. After his escape from the Almohads, Maimonides lived out his life in Egypt. Until middle age, he was supported by his brother David, who was a world-famous merchant. That allowed him the freedom to compose his great works. But when his brother was suddenly lost at sea, he supported himself, his family, and his brother’s family by practicing medicine. Eventually, his reputation reached the palace of Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt who is famous for his defeat of Richard the Lionheart in the Third Crusade. At the time the letter was written, Maimonides was court physician to Saladin. He was 64 years old and would die four years later.

The Lord God Himself knows how I am able to write you this letter. I have had to run away from people, isolating myself in a hidden place. Sometimes, I have had to lean against the wall, and at others, I’ve had to write lying down because I am so ill and weak. I am already coming to old age. But with respect to your wish to come visit me here, I rejoice that you would like to come, and I long for your companionship. More than you would be happy to see me, I would be happy to see you, though it worries me that you would have to make the dangerous sea trip. [Remember: his brother died at sea.]

My advice is that you should not risk it. What advantage would you have in coming here, except that you would see me for a few minutes? If you want to have a private audience with me and discuss matters of wisdom, don’t even hope for one hour during the day or the night. I will write you my daily schedule:

I live in Fostat, and the Sultan lives Cairo. The distance between them is 4000 cubits [a mile and a half]. My duties to the Sultan are very heavy. I must see him every morning to check on his health. If one day he doesn’t feel well, or one of the princes or the women of his harem doesn’t feel well, I cannot leave Cairo that day.

It often happens that there is an officer or two who needs me, and I have to attend to healing them all day. Therefore, as a rule, I am in Cairo early each day, and even if nothing unusual happens, by the time I come back to Fostat, half the day is gone. Under no circumstances do I come earlier. And I am ravenously hungry by then. When I come home, my foyer is always full of people – Jews and non-Jews, important people and not, judges and policemen, people who love me and people who hate me, a mixture of people, all of whom have been waiting for me to come home.

I get off of my donkey, wash my hands, and go out into the hall to see them. I apologize and ask that they should be kind enough to give me a few minutes to eat. That is the only meal I take in twenty-four hours. Then I go out to heal them, write them prescriptions and instructions for treating their problems.

Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes – I swear to you by the Torah – it is two hours into the night before they are all gone. I talk to them and prescribe for them even while lying down on my back from exhaustion. And when night begins, I am so weak, I cannot even talk anymore.

Because of all this, no Jew can come and speak with me in wisdom or have a private audience with me because I have no time, except on Shabbat. On Shabbat, the whole congregation, or at least the majority of it, comes to my house after morning services, and I instruct the members of the community as to what they should do during the entire week. We learn together in a weak fashion until the afternoon. Then they all go home. Some of them come back and I teach more deeply between the afternoon and evening prayers.

That is my daily schedule. And I’ve only told you a little of what you would see if you would come.

Copy over the teshuva [written Torah response] I wrote to you and discuss it with all the scholars in your town. If, after that, you still want to come, I would happy to see you, but you should know you will not be able to learn with me here. My time is so compressed.

May your happiness, my dear pupil, increase and grow great, and may salvation be granted to our afflicted people.[1]

For more about Maimonides, please check out our film Rambam: The Story of Maimonides.

[1] This translation was mine, based on the original Hebrew, but you can also read an English version of the letter in The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book 315-1791 by Jacob Rader Marcus.

3 Responses to “Maimonides’ Letter to a Friend”

  1. Rebecca says:

    died of exhaustion

  2. Berel Wein says:

    Actually, 69 years is quite a long life for the 12th century. Apparently, he took good care of himself. But you’re correct in one thing; he didn’t follow his own advice about sleep. His writings advise eight hours a night. As you see by this schedule, he didn’t keep it.

  3. Zac says:

    Hi, I was just wondering where the hebrew version is printed – Thanks