The 'Copenhagen Maimonides' - a short introduction

The author

Maimonides (Heb. משה בן מימון , Moshe ben Maimon, ”Moses, the son of Maimon”) was born in Córdoba, Spain, in 1135 or 1138, depending on which sources one relies upon. He was the son of a local Jewish judge, Maimon ben Josef, who gave his son a thorough religious and secular education. In 1148 the family was forced to flee Spain due to the invasion of the Almohads, a Berber dominated reform movement, under which both Jews and Christians in periods were given the choice between conversion and death.

Having eventually settled in Fez in 1160, the family moved on five years later, when religious persecution reached a new peak. Via Palestine and visits to Acre and Jerusalem, they eventually reached Fustat (Old Cairo), where they settled in the year 1166. After the death of his father and later also his brother, who had supported the family through his trade with precious stones, Maimonides chose to rely on his education as a physician to support his family and relatives, and apparently he was on the list of physicians attending to the ruling Fatimid, and later Abbasid, family and the upper classes. From 1177 onwards, Maimonides also held the position as leader of the Jewish community in Fustat. He married twice; in the second marriage, a son, Abraham, was born.
Maimonides describes his daily routines in a letter sent to Samuel (Shmuel) ibn Tibbon, the translator working on the Hebrew translation of the Moreh nevukhim (see below). Ibn Tibbon had asked for permission to come and visit Maimonides and discuss the work, but Maimonides regretfully declines:

"Yet I must advise you not to expose yourself to the perils of the voyage, for, beyond seeing me, and my doing all I could to honour you, you would not derive any advantage from your visit. Do no expect to be able to confer with me on any scientific subject for even one hour, either by day or by night. For the following is my daily occupation.

I dwell at Mizr [Fostat] and the Sultan resides at Kahira [Cairo]; these two places are two Sabbath days journey distant from each other. 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 Kahira, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace. It also frequently happens that one or two royal officers fall sick, and I must attend to their healing. Hence, as a rule, I repair to Kahira very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens, I do not return to Mizr until the afternoon. Then I am almost dying with hunger ... I find the antechambers 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. I have here related to you only a part of what you would see if you were to visit me." (Quoted from: Franz Kobler (ed.): Letters of Jews through the Ages: from Biblical times to the Middle of the Eighteenth Century, vol. 1, p. 211f)

Whether this description is accurate or not, with his increasing fame, both as a physician and an author, Maimonides became widely known among Jews and Muslims alike. When he died in the year 1204, public mourning was observed in Fustat and Jerusalem. He is buried in Tiberias.


The work

Two of Maimonides’ works stand out as classics in their respective fields. Mishneh Torah (“Repetition of the Torah”) is a halakhic (legal) work. Being a systematisation of the material in the Talmud, it was intended as an aid for anyone wanting to live a life according to traditional Jewish praxis. The addressee is not the intellectually inquisitive reader, but anyone feeling overwhelmed by the assembled debate on the different mitsvot (precepts) and their application in daily life.

Moreh nevukhim has a different scope. Due to the philosophical questioning of religious doctrines that flourished in intellectual debates, among Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, on basis of the rediscovered classical Greek authors, the work is an attempt at reconciliation of traditional Jewish theology and the, at the time, very influential Aristotelian philosophy. Written in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew letters; the original title being, in transcription, Dalalat al-Ha’irin) it is considered the foremost work of Jewish medieval philosophy, and has also influenced Christian scholastic thought. It discusses the basic tenets of Judaism, as presented in the Biblical texts, from a philosophical point of view, emphasizing the spiritual meaning of the, sometimes, anthropomorphic, descriptions of the divine realm.

Maimonides’ way of dealing with the classical Jewish sources was not accepted without debate. For the following century and more, the debate known as “the Maimonidean Controversy” raged among Jewish scholars of both northern Europe and the countries around the Mediterranean. The debate dealt both with the danger in studying philosophy and the possible danger of slight to the Rabbinical sources due to the digest of the Mishneh Torah. Though never wholly reconciled, the critical side eventually defused their arguments; opposing Maimonides became more and more questionable.


The translator

The translation of the Guide from Arabic into Hebrew began almost immediately after its completion, in cooperation with the author. The translator was Samuel (Shmuel) ben Judah (Yehudah) ibn Tibbon (c. 1150 - c. 1230), a member of the famous ibn Tibbon family of translators (and occasionally authors) active in southern France and Spain in the 13th and 14th century. That Maimonides was satisfied with his translator is shown in another passage in the letter quoted above: "You are thoroughly fitted for the task of translation, because the Creator has given you an intelligent mind to ‘understand parables and their interpretation, the words of the wise and their difficult sayings’. I discern from your remarks that you have thoroughly mastered the subject and that its inmost meaning has become clear to you." (Quoted from: Franz Kobler (ed.): Letters of Jews through the Ages: from Biblical times to the Middle of the Eighteenth Century, vol. 1, p. 209)

That others were of the same opinion is witnessed by the fact that Samuel ibn Tibbon’s translation, to this day, remains the Hebrew translation of the Guide.


The scribe

What we know about “Levi, the son of Isaac, son of Caro from the city of Salamanca” is this piece of information, given in the colophon of the book (fol. 316a), a tentative translation of which might read:

I, Levi, the son of Isaac, son of Caro, may he be blessed, from the region of Salamanca, wrote [i.e. copied] this book that is called Guide for the Perplexed, “that Moses displayed before all Israel” [Deut. 34:12]. For the enlightened honourable physician Menachem Betsalel. And I wrote it here in Barcelona, and I completed it in the year 108 according to the smaller count [in] the sixth thousand [= the Jewish year 5108 = A.D. 1347-48]. Despite that I am not from these countries. May the Omnipresent favour him with the study of it, him and his children and his offspring and the offspring of his offspring. And may He bless him. And may He extend the tabernacle of His peace and he shall remain in the shadow of God.* And may He establish in him Scripture, as it is written: “ Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may faithfully observe all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful.“ [Jos. 1:8] And may He remember and deliver us to the days of the Messiah and to the advent of the Saviour. 

                  *Here Levi makes a pun on the name of his patron: the name Betsalel means ”in the shadow of God”.

The quotation of Deut. 34:12 is interesting. In its entirety, this verse (the final one in the whole Torah) reads: “and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel”. “The great might” (lit. “the strong hand”, in Hebrew ha-yad ha-chazaqah) was originally a term employed by circles critical to Maimonides, as substitute for the title Mishneh Torah – the letters yod-dalet of “yad” being read as the number fourteen, in allusion to the fourteen parts of this work. Later, this designation became commonplace as a reference to the work.


The illuminator(s)

The “illuminatorship” of “the Copenhagen Maimonides” has been much debated, but the current consensus is that the main illuminator was Ferrer Bassa, active in Barcelona as leader of a workshop, which also included his son Arnau. He is better known as a mural painter (the San Miguel de Pedralbes monastery, Barcelona), but is thought to have been the illuminator of several manuscripts.

One possibility is that Ferrer Bassa is responsible for the larger panels in the codex, while other members of the workshop may have executed the marginal illuminations. Some of the details connect with words in the text, but whether these cases point to a Jewish illuminator is uncertain; they may also be a result of cooperation with the scribe or the patron.

It has been suggested that "the Copenhagen Maimonides” was Ferrer Bassa’s last work. He died around the time of is completion, presumably from the Black Death; after 1348, nothing is known of him or his son.


The patron

As mentioned in the colophon, the manuscript was commissioned by Menachem Betsalel, a Barcelona physician in the service of the Catalan King Pedro IV (“el Ceremonioso”; also known as Duke Pedro III of Barcelona and King Pedro II of Valencia). The king was a patron for Ferrer Bassa as well, which might explain the choice of Bassa as illuminator of the codex, and there are also other transactions known between the Bassa workshop and the Jews of Barcelona. Menachem seems to have met the same fate as Bassa; his widow received monetary support from the king in March 1349, so presumably he also became a victim of the plague.


From Barcelona to Copenhagen

It is not possible to track in details the fate of the manuscript during the two centuries after its completion. Papal censors have signed the codex (fol. 352b) in 1587 and 1619, and in the late 1600s, the Danish theologian Hans (Johannes) Bartholin (1665-1738) bought the book, possibly in Holland during his time there as a student. He later gave it to the Danish book collector Frederik Rostgaard (1671-1745; for Bartholin’s dedication, see fol. 2b, for Rostgaard’s proprietary signature, see fol. 3b). In 1726, the manuscript was bought by another Danish book collector, Count Christian Danneskjold-Samsøe (1702-1728). After his death it was acquired by The Royal Library (1732), together with numerous other titles from his collection.


Physical description of the manuscript

Number of folia: ii + 352 +ii
Size of codex: 194 x 133 x 65 mm
Writing: Sefardi Hebrew script


Contents of the manuscript

fol. 4a: Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon’s introduction to his translation
fol. 9a: Guide for the Perplexed, Book I
fol. 114a: Guide for the Perplexed, Book II
fol. 202a: Guide for the Perplexed, Book III
fol. 317b: Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon’s glossary of foreign words

Publications  about this manuscript and about Maimonides

Back to  the digital facsimile / Back to  Manuscripts in the Judaica Collection