Sunday, 17 March 2019


Fragment of a letter from Rambam, as found in the Cairo Geniza.
                                                     MAIMONIDEAN CONFLICT - PART III



If eyes are the window to the soul, then letters are the window to the persona. Maimonides, known as Rambam (1135-1204) was a prolific writer of books - but it is through his letters that we gain a glimpse of his real personality.

In this essay, we will look at one such letter - originally written in Arabic and which also serves as a responsum - to a certain Baghdadi Jew by the name of Josef Ibn Gabir (Jabir).[1]


It’s not easy to put one’s finger on the status of Josef Ibn Gabir because on the one hand he appears to be a simple man, referring to himself as an am ha’aterz - while on the other hand, he appears to be involved in the great ideological controversy between Rambam and the esteemed Gaon of Baghdad, Samuel ben Ali. [See The Maimonidean Controversies.]

Either way, Rambam is most respectful in his letter, as he addresses Mar (Mr) Josef Ibn Gabir in the third person.[2]

Rambam begins by saying that because Josef Ibn Gabir is thirsty for understanding:
“...I must tell you...that you are not justified in regarding yourself as an am ha-aretz.”[3]

The desire to understand a matter in its depth exempts one from the category of a simpleton.


Josef Ibn Gabir cannot read Hebrew. But he can read Arabic and he has read Rambam’s commentary on the Mishna which was written in Arabic.

Now he wants to study Rambam’s magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah - a fourteen-volume summary of the Talmud - which was written in Hebrew.

Josef Ibn Gabir suggests that Rambam translate the Mishneh Torah into Arabic as it would have a wider audience and cater for people like him!

Rambam responds:

“It makes also no difference whether you study in the holy language, or in Arabic, or in Aramaic; it matters only whether it is done with understanding…”

Rambam continues by mentioning that he is, paradoxically, focussing on having all his previous Arabic writings translated into Hebrew. So, instead, Josef Ibn Gabir should try learning the Hebrew of Mishneh Torah, little by little” because:

 “It is not so difficult, as the book is written in an easy style, and if you master one part you will soon be able to understand the whole work.”


Next, Rambam deals with the thorny issue of the anti-Maimonidean rhetoric which emanated from Josef Ibn Gabir’s home city, Baghdad. He referred to the fact “that some scholars in Baghdad reject some of my decisions...” This is a reference to the fierce opposition from the highly respected Samuel ben Ali, Gaon of Baghdad, regarded as one of the most prominent Babylonian scholars of the 12th century, and who was Rambam’s biggest detractor during his lifetime.

Although the Gaonic period had officially ended by 1038, for the next two hundred years, certain prominent rabbis were respectfully referred to by the title Gaon. Ironically, in the case of Samuel ben Ali, he seemed to perpetuate some of the lavish and pretentious practices of both the Gaonim and Exilarchs of the previous era.

Samuel ben Ali was very powerful and influential in the Jewish world. According to an account by the traveller, Pethahiah of Regensburg:

"In the whole of Assyria, in Damascus, in the towns of Persia and Media and in Babylon, they have no dayyan [judge] except one assigned by Samuel, head of the academy, and he appoints judges and teachers in every town."

Samuel ben Ali was not averse to placing family members in positions of power either. He even provided a teaching position for his daughter, said to have been a Talmudic scholar in her own right. She taught “through a window of the building in which she sat, the pupils outside below unable to see her.”[4]

Furthermore, his two sons-in-law, Zechariah and Azariah[5] were also both appointed to positions of power.


Rambam had severely criticised the nepotism and the sometimes forceful means of collection of funding for scholars and academies which was often adopted by the Gaonim and Exilarchs.


In fact, Rambam was even against financial support to scholars in general who did not work but were full time students.

Rambam wrote:

 “For as we look into the [earlier] sayings of the honorable sages, we do not find that they ask people for money, nor did they collect money for the honorable and cherished academies.”[6]


Additionally, Rambam also disagreed with the approach of the Gaonic Yeshivot which had only one subject in their curriculum - namely, Talmud study.


These criticisms were not minor condemnations but were seen as threatening the very essence of Judaism as was known and practised in those communities. It is, therefore, not hard to understand why there was such opposition to Rambam who was regarded as an ideological threat to the mainstream, and who was disrupting the status quo.

It didn’t help matters either when Rambam wrote his Mishneh Torah which - being a summary of the entire Talmud - was seen as rather subversive in that it undermined the ultimate authority of the rabbinic leadership. This was because ordinary people themselves, could now easily consult the Mishneh Torah, written in simple Hebrew, and have no need to confer with expert authorities. It even came with perhaps the first example of an index to a Torah work.


Rambam was well aware of his opposition in Baghdad by Samuel ben Ali and mentions it very politely:

“I have been informed - although I do not know whether it is true - that there is in your city somebody who speaks evil against me and tries to gain honor by misrepresentation of my teaching.”

Rambam also knows how Josef Ibn Gabir had tried to intervene in the controversy and defend him. This was actually the core reason why Josef Ibn Gabir had originally asked Rambam to translate his Mishneh Torah into Arabic – so that he could read it, arm himself with knowledge, and support him:

“I have heard also that you protested against this and reprimanded the slanderer.
Do not act in this way!
I forgive everybody who is opposed to me because of his lack of intelligence, even when he, by opposing, seeks his personal advantage.”

And then Rambam adopts a ‘live and let live’ approach when he writes:

“He [Samuel ben Ali] does no harm to me…While he is pleased, I do not lose anything…

You trouble yourself with useless quarrels, as I do not need the help of other men…”


A commonly held view at that time, and still today, is that after the Messiah comes there will ultimately be a state of Techiyat haMetim where the dead will arise within their bodies.
Rambam adopted a  slightly nuanced approach to that concept. [See What was Rambam’s Real View on ‘The Revival of the Dead’?]

Rambam mentions this in his letter:

“The statement you have heard, namely, that I deny in my work the resurrection of the dead, is nothing more than a malicious calumny.
He who asserted this is either a wicked man who misrepresents my words, or an ignorant one who does not understand my views on olam haba [the World to Come].
In order to make impossible any further mistake or doubt, I have composed in the meantime a special treatise on this subject...[7]


Rambam turns a blind eye to certain irrational follies which are entertained by the masses:

“It will not harm you religiously to think that there are corporeal beings in the world to come until you can establish rationally the authentic nature of their existence.
Even if you think that they eat, drink, propagate in the upper sphere or in the Gan Eden, it will not hurt your faith.
There are other more widespread doctrinal follies to which some cling and yet their basic religious beliefs were not damaged.”

However, for those seeking a deeper understanding:

“ refutation of this notion, it is important to project the authentic interpretation of the rabbinic statement "that there is no eating or drinking in the world to come," from which we may deduce that there are no corporeal beings...”


The letter contains a number of other unrelated issues as well and is regarded as a responsum on some Halachic matters.

This letter is important because it clarifies a previous contradiction within Rambam’s earlier writing.
In Rambam’s Mishneh Torah[8], he writes that a person praying without a minyan should not recite the kedushat yotzer (which is between barechu and shema).

In this letter, he writes that it is permissible to recite it as it only records the kedusha which is said by the angels but is not a kedusha in itself (like the kedusha in the amidah).

Interestingly, Rambam’s son was later to refer to a letter (probably this one) where his father had changed his mind from what he had previously written in Mishneh Torah![9]


The letter contains some interesting terms of endearment for Josef Ibn Gabir as well as for those who follow the rationalist path in general. In one instance Rambam refers to Josef as ‘our brother’ and in another place he writes:

“You are my beloved pupil, and so are all those who are inclined to pursue zealously the study of Torah and attempt to understand even one biblical verse or a single halakhah.”

Thus Rambam - by alluding to a brotherhood - uses terminology generally associated with mystical schools and refers to all those who ‘attempt to understand’, as being part of a fraternity of intellectual searchers.
Those excluded from this brotherhood would be the masses “who do not possess the capacity to reflect and who do not concentrate on the roots of religion but [only] on its branches.”

A Maimonides Reader, by I. Twersky.
A Letter by Rambam to a Simple Jew, by Mitchell First.
A Responsum by Maimonides; Maimonides' Rational Approach to Halakhic Problems, by Leon D. Stitskin.

[1] See Y. Shailat, Iggerot Ha-Rambam, pp. 402-418.
[2] This is omitted from the English translation, which follows, as it is too cumbersome.
[3] Translation from A Maimonides Reader by I. Twersky
[4] Pethahiah, p. 9f; L. Greenhut (1905), 10.
[5] There is some controversy as to whether these names got mixed up with each other in a copyist’s error. Some believe that Samuel’s daughter was engaged to Azariah who passed away before the marriage and then she subsequently married Zechariah. Another view is that Samuel had two daughters who married scholars by both names.
[6] See Rambam’s commentary on Avot 4:7.
[7] This treatise was known as Maamar Techiyat haMeitim and was written in 1191.
[8] Hilchot Tefillah 7:17.
[9] See Kesef Mishnah to 7:17.

Sunday, 10 March 2019


A street sign in Tel Aviv.
R. David Alro’i (or Al Ruchi, or Al Ruji[1]) was another false messiah who was active around the mid-1100s. 

He was born in Iraq under the name Menachem ben Shlomo, and was a student of Chasdai the Exilarch as well as Ali the Gaon of Baghdad. He was well versed in Talmud, Jewish mysticism and acquainted with matters of the occult.[2] With time he built a reputation amongst the masses as a kind of wizard and miracle worker.[3]


Politically, these were very unsettled times because the early Crusades had begun to weaken the Caliphate in Persia and David Alro’i seized on the opportunity and led an uprising against Sultan Muktafi.

Historically, there had already been precedents of successful Jewish revolutions in Persia (around Iran and Iraq) with Jews capturing whole areas and ruling over them. In one instance, two brothers Chasinai and Chanilai ruled over a section of Iraq. In another case, a certain Exilarch or Reish Galuta also managed to capture a region and rule over it.[4]

The charismatic Alro’i wanted to free the Jews from Muslim rule, and he wanted them to follow him to Jerusalem where he would become the Jewish King. This grand messianic plan would have involved a great revolt against the Muslim Caliphate and a subsequent battle against the Crusaders to wrest Jerusalem from their grip.

Alro’i was following in the footsteps of his father, R. Shlomo, who claimed to be Elijah the prophet, whose role was to declare that his son was the Messiah. Another account (see below) has it that the father also professed to be the Messiah which makes the messianic claims an apparent family affair.[5]
It didn’t take long for Alro’i to have a considerable following and a fighting force was soon assembled. 

Many Jews of that time were known to have been fierce fighters [See The Jews of Arabia]. In nearby Azerbaijan, there lived a number of warlike mountain Jews who were also co-opted to join the battle. 

The Jewish rebel force was also encouraged and supported by the Yazidis.


The Jewish fighting force attacked the citadel of the strategic town of Amadiya which was on the Crusader route. They dressed like Talmud scholars assembling to listen to their sage Alro’i but with hidden swords concealed beneath their robes.

What happened next is uncertain. According to some accounts, the fighters were defeated and Alro’i was killed.


According to another account[6] when the Sultan heard that there was a ‘King of the Jews’ in his realm, planning a great revolt, he cast Alro’i into prison. Alro’i subsequently escaped and the story is embellished with miraculous legends - but essentially the Sultan threatened to kill all the Jews if Alro’i did not give himself up to the authorities. 

The Jewish leadership in Baghdad and Mosul then encouraged Alro’i to ‘give up his messianic aspirations’ but to no avail. The governor of Amadiya then bribed Alro’i’s father-in-law to assassinate him - which he did - and the revolt was quelled.

The remaining Jews of Persia now had to pay a large indemnity to appease the authorities to be allowed to remain there.


The earliest account of the story is provided by Ovadia the Ger (an Italian Catholic priest who converted to Judaism during the early 12th century):

“In those days there arose ‘children of the violent’ among the nation of Israel, who lifted up their souls to establish a vision and stumbled in their words...there arose a certain Jew named Solomon ben Ruji, the name of whose son was Menahem...

They wrote letters to all the Jews near and far in all the lands which were round about them, so that their renown and the contents of their letters reached a far distance.

Unto all the places which are upon the face of the earth where the Jews are scattered amongst all the nations beneath the heavens did their renown reach.

All of them said that the time had come when the Lord would gather his nation Israel from all the lands unto Jerusalem the holy city, and that Solomon b. Ruji was the King Messiah.

When all the Jews residing in the various lands heard the words of their letters, they rejoiced greatly. 

The waited days, months and years, but did not see anything. Many of the Jews spent many days in fasting, prayer and charitable acts, for they were awaiting the Lord’s salvation, as He had said through His servants the prophets. 

When they failed to see anything, their hearts were utterly broken within them, and the Jews became ashamed before all the gentiles (Muslims).”[7]

It is interesting to note that according to Ovadia the Ger, the fame of this pseudo-messiah was not just localised but had indeed spread throughout the entire Jewish world at that time, because “All of them said that the time had come when the Lord would gather his nation...” and “all the Jews residing in the various lands... rejoiced greatly.” [8]


Despite David Alro’i’s death, many Jews continued to believe that he was actually the Messiah.

Capitalising on this messianic sentiment, two impostors possessing a forged letter which they claimed was from Alro’i, persuaded his followers to hand over all their possessions and they were to meet on a certain night, dress in green, and then ‘fly’ from Baghdad to Jerusalem.

According to R. Adin Steinsaltz, it was Alro’i himself who made this promise while still alive. 

Either way, the followers waited up all night and even the Muslims “were so amazed at what had happened that they refrained from opposing (the Jews) until the result of their vain expectations had revealed itself (in the morning)”.[9]  


Shlomo ben Yachya or Samau'al al-Maghribi - or  שלמה בן יחיא אלמוגרבי‎ (1130 – 1180) - was the son of a Moroccan rabbi, Yehudah ben Abbas, a friend of Yehudah haLevi. Shlomo hid his conversion to Islam for some time in fear of offending his father, until eventually openly embracing Islam in 1163 (the year of Alro'i's death) after he allegedly had a dream instructing him to do so.  When his father eventually heard about his conversion, he immediately set out to Maragha, but died on the way in Mosul.  

[Shlomo ben Yachya is also known to have been a great mathematician and although he did not invent logarithms, he did explain the law of exponents, which is the basis of logarithms. He also studied the binomial theorem, the arithmetic triangle (usually called Pascal's triangle), and mathematical induction.]

Shlomo ben Yachya became an anti-Jewish polemicist. Perhaps he had been negatively affected and disillusioned by the messianic fervour which he witnessed.

According to Samau’al al-Maghribi, after that fateful night on the rooftops of Baghdad, the Jews named that year the ‘am al-tiran’ or year of the flight. They subsequently began to date the years and calendar as from that year.

Shlomo ben Yachya wrote a vitriolic account of the Alro’i incident:

“In order to show how [the Jews] are inclined to believe whatever is false and impossible in a big hurry, we will mention an incident that will show as well how weak are the intellectual powers of the Jews of Baghdad…

...when the rumors about [al-Ro’i] reached Baghdad, two swindling Jews, elders and men of esteem, conspired and wrote letters… to the Jews of Baghdad, to announce to them the Redemption for which they had been long waiting.

They set the date for a certain night in which they would all fly to Jerusalem. And the Jews of Baghdad, who glory so in their acuity [def: the ability to think clearly] and analysis, attended closely to this and trusted in the truthfulness of these two men.

And the women brought them their wealth and ornaments so they might give them to whomever needed them. And so the Jews donated a fair part of what they owned. They had clothes made for themselves and gathered on the rooftops that night, in order to wait for the angels that would carry me to Jerusalem on their wings.

And the mothers who were there and had babies to nurse worried tearfully, lest they should fly before their children or their children before them, that the babies would thus die for lack of nourishment…

That whole night, until the dawn, the Jews tried to fly. Finally, they came to know that they had been misled and had become a laughing matter.

The two swindlers fled, taking with them what they had gotten from the Jews…

They called the year “the year of flying” and used it to tell how old someone was… The whole matter is an eternal and constant shame for them.”[10]

The expression 'carry me to Jerusalem' may suggest that Shlomo ben Yachya was, at that time, part of the very group of Jews who were waiting on the rooftops - and after experiencing this event became disillusioned by what he saw. Perhaps that was the catalyst which prompted him to leave his religion and to write so angrily against his people.

As mentioned, R. Steinsaltz suggests that it was Alro'i himself who encouraged the Jews to wait on the rooftops. This may be borne out by the dating of Shlomo ben Yachya's account which is dated 1150. This would have been while Alro'i was still alive as he passed away thirteen years later in 1163.


After that fateful night, the remaining followers became known amongst the Jews as Menachemim.[11]

These followers perpetuated their belief in Alro’i’s messianic claims for about a generation or so after his death.[12]


Rambam was born in 1135 which makes it most likely that he would have heard about the events surrounding Alro'i. We know that Rambam entered into correspondence with Baghdadi Jews.

We also know that Shmuel ben Ali, the Gaon of Baghdad publicly accused Rambam of discarding a most fundamental precept within Judaism, namely the notion of the Revival of the Dead. The Gaon was the most outspoken critic of Rambam during his lifetime. This prompted Rambam - in 1191 - to write his Essay on the Revival of the Dead, to defend himself against this open charge of heresy. [See Rambam's View on the Revival of the Dead.]

In the Essay, Rambam writes equally scathingly about his adversary the Gaon of Baghdad:

"I received a copy of the writing of the Gaon. I found it was a collection of homilies and legends that he had gathered. Everyone knows that scholars are not expected to rehearse the homilies and the curious tales, of the sort that women tell one another in their condolence calls.”

Benjamin Disraeli's manuscript of his novel about David Alroy.
In 1833, the then British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (whose father left Judaism after a synagogue dispute) wrote a novel about the Alro’i revolt, entitled The Wondrous Tale of Alroy.[13]


Fascinatingly, R. Adin Steinsaltz suggests that the origins of the Star of David go back, not to King David, but to David Alro’i who used it on his shield as a possible magical symbol, being a practitioner of the ‘magical arts’. 

He also points out that this same symbol was common in Islamic countries and culture. Yet, over time it became a hallowed symbol of the Jewish People because it reminded them of a great hero “a dreamer, a leader...a young good looking man leading an army, sitting on a horse – with a Magen David!


There have been so many false messiahs over the ages [see here, here, here and here for just a few examples] and Jewish scholarship has different ways of dealing with them:

Some believe that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with (the ‘good’) false messiahs because like scientific experiments, one has to fail many times before getting it right. The person is therefore not held accountable, as his intentions were good - and in a different environment things could have turned out better.

There is even a Chassidic analogy that compares meshichei sheker or false messiahs to someone who has to wake up a sick person from time to time to prevent him from falling into a coma. So too the Jewish people have to be awakened from time to time to keep the messianic dream alive.

Another common explanation is that there has to be a potential messiah in every generation so that a candidate, so to speak, is always waiting in the wings. In this sense, not every messiah is a false messiah but rather a potential messiah.

On the other hand, one could argue that a false messiah is just that – a false messiah

One can very easily be inclined to go along with the latter argument, especially when one reads about the utter and sometimes unimaginable turmoil that often followed in the wake of such messianic claimants.

In our example, one just has to read the account of Shlomo ben Yachya al-Maghribi (quoted above). It’s easy to say that he was just a Jew turned anti-Jew because of his apostasy. In all probability that was the case. However, much usable material was handed to him on a plate, as he witnessed the messianic frenzy and he didn’t have to look far to find it.

Similar - and harsher examples - are glaringly apparent in wake of the many other false messiahs as well. As Ovadia the Ger said, in the aftermath ‘when they failed to see anything, their hearts were utterly broken within them, and the Jews became ashamed before all the gentiles’.

In fairness, if these false messiahs, themselves, had rather claimed to be potential messiahs then one could accept all the oft-repeated explanations offered for their failure. The problem is that they didn’t. 

They all claimed to the Messiah.

Surely that must place them in a very different category - no different perhaps from another great figure in Jewish history.

[1] Ruj is a region near or part of Aleppo.
[2] From a lecture by R. Adin Steinsaltz on David Alro'i.
[3] Ibid. R. Steinsaltz.
[4] Ibid. R. Steinsaltz.
[5] Alternatively, it is also plausible, as Moshe Gill explains, that Abu Da’ud - being the nickname for Suleiman (Shlomo) in Arabic - became somehow conflated with the father’s name Shlomo. Thus the full name of Menachem would have been Menachem ibn-abi-Da’ud Suleiman ibn al-Ruji, which was later recorded only as Da’ud, or David.
It has also been suggested that he assumed the name David to conjure up images of King David.
[6] The account of Benjamin of Tudela. For more on this adventurer rabbi see here.
[7] Translation from Norman Golb (The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago) THE MESSIANIC PRETENDER SOLOMON IBN AL-RUJI AND HIS SON MENAHEM (THE SO-CALLED “DAVID ALROY”).
[8] This widespread fame and messianic acceptance was not limited to Solomon and David Alro’i but mirrored by other false messiahs as well. See Shabbatai Zvi regarding whom it appears that the majority of the Jewish world believed him to the righteous Messiah as well.
[9] Moshe Perlman, Samau’al al-Maghrebi, Ifham al-Yahud — Silencing of the Jews (Proceedings of the American Academy of Jewish Research 32, 1964).
[10] Samau’el Ibn Abbas – Ifham al-Yahud ca. 1150. [Non-italics mine.]

[11] As mentioned, David’s name was in fact Menachem.
[12] Ibid. R. Steinsaltz.
[13] Disraeli received a £300 advance from his publishers which he used to repay a debt to his father’s landlord.