On the twentieth day of Teves we mark the 808th yahrzeit of Rabeinu Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam (Maimonides). The Rambam (Maimonides) lived from 1135 to 1204. His scholarly works are world-renowned and it is about him that we say, “From Moses to Moses there never arose so great a person as Moses.”
The Rambam was gifted in the study of science, philosophy and medicine. It was in this latter field that his fame spread throughout the Arab world. So much so, that the Sultan of Egypt commanded him to appear in his court. Recognizing the Rambam’s brilliance, the Sultan wanted to appoint him as a minister.
The Sultan had seven categories of ministers, each in charge of a special branch of science and each an expert in his field. The categories were listed as follows: Literature, Philosophy, Geometry, Numerology, Astrology, Music and Medicine.
Appointed Court Physician
The Sultan realized that the Rambam’s knowledge far surpassed that of his ministers and was not sure to what position he should appoint him. The Rambam requested that he be allowed to serve the Sultan directly and be responsible for his health. The plan found favor in the Sultan’s eyes and he appointed the Rambam as court physician.
This immediately evoked bitter antagonism and hatred from all the ministers, especially the leading physicians of the empire. A non-believer, a Jew dared to attain such a high office in the personal life of the Sultan! Soon a plan was set in motion to trap Rambam and cause him to lose favor in the eyes of the king.
It came to pass that the king became ill. The Rambam prepared a medicinal potion for the king to drink. However, the ministers bribed one of the trusted servants to put a powerful poison into the medicine. This same scoundrel was then told to warn the Sultan that the Jewish physician was prepared to kill the king by poisoning his medicine. He was told that Rambam had joined forces with the Sultan’s enemies and was promised a rich reward for this dastardly act.
The Sultan was overwrought. He could not believe it of his most trusted physician. However, when the Rambam appeared with his medicine, the Sultan ordered the medicine to be given to a dog. One sip and the dog died.
The Sultan was angry. He would not listen to the Rambam’s pleas that it was the doings of his court enemies. The Sultan condemned the Rambam to death.
“However,” said the Sultan, “because of your years of loyal service, I will grant you the choice of choosing the manner of your death!”
The Rambam begged for three days grace to plan his death with his disciples. It was granted. The Rambam immediately went home, gathered his pupils around him and told them of his plan.
“I will permit my enemies, the court physicians, to sever every artery in my body and, in this way, they will be convinced that I must bleed to death,” explained Rambam. “However, due to their ignorance, they will overlook one of the main arteries near the heart. This artery will contain enough blood to enable me to live a while, although my pulse may appear to have stopped. Rush me home and give me the following herbs and medicines and stop the bleeding. With G-d’s help I will survive.”
The Rambam returned to the court and offered his plan of death to the Sultan. The court physicians gleefully accepted it. In the presence of the Sultan, they severed all of the Rambam’s arteries and watched him bleed to death. Feeling no pulse or heartbeat, they allowed the students to remove the Rambam’s body. The pupils obeyed their master’s instructions and within a few days the Rambam was recuperating.
The Sultan was overwhelmed when he saw the Rambam walk into his chambers. Now he was convinced that the Rambam was innocent. He accused the court physicians of the dastardly plot on both his and the Rambam’s lives.
“Only in one way can you convince me of your superiority over the Rambam,” said the Sultan. “I will arrange a contest. You will all prepare poison and put it in each other’s cup. The person who will not die will be the winner, and it will be G-d’s sign that he is the innocent one.”
The enemies of the Rambam were frightened. They pleaded with the Sultan. “He is one and we are many,” they said. “Therefore permit us to drink last and he should be the first to drink our potion.”
The Sultan agreed. The Rambam then requested a few days time to prepare himself. When his pupils heard of this new edict, they rend their garments, fasted and prayed to Hashem.
Every day for one week, the Rambam began tasting various poisons to accustom his body to them. On the day of the contest, the Rambam drank a powerful antidote, which would line his stomach with preventative acids and thus delay the effect of the poisons. He also instructed his pupils to give him other antidotes immediately after swallowing the poison.