Photo Credit: Israel Museum

The twelfth century copy of a volume of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah glows under the lighting at the exhibit, Legacy in Spirit, in the Israel Museum. At the bottom of the page, the Hebrew inscription, written by the Rambam, reads: it has been corrected from my own book. The Rambam’s signature follows. I gaze at the black letters and imagine the Rambam authorizing this version to be used for future copies. Suddenly, more than eight hundred years fall away and the legacy of the Rambam comes to life.

At the entrance to the exhibit, I meet Ido Bruno, Anne and Jerome Fisher Director of the Israel Museum. “The contents of a successful exhibit must be placed in an appropriate context,” he explains. I peek beyond the tall director. A central pillar dominates the dimly lit circular exhibition hall. For me, the pillar, so reminiscent of the architecture of old, hints to the central role of the Rambam’s works in Jewish life. Around the periphery of the dim circular hall, fourteen manuscripts of the Rambam’s works nestle like jewels in well-lit exhibition cases. “As well as showcasing the manuscripts in a modern and attractive way that would appeal to visitors familiar with the Rambam and those who are being introduced to his legacy the first time, we wanted to tell the story of the Rambam’s life,” says Ido. Six windows with detailed miniatures and accompanying audio quotes, culled from the Rambam’s writings found in the Cairo geniza, do exactly that by offering a peak into the different aspects of the Rambam’s life.

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An Exhibit is Born

Exhibits of this nature don’t come together overnight. Curator Anna Nizza Caplan, who generously gives me a guided tour, also shares a glimpse into the exhibit’s birth.

“Two-and-a-half years ago, we put together a wish list and began approaching museums and collectors worldwide,” says Anna. The National Library of Israel, The Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries, the National Library of France, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Vatican Library are among some of the institutions that agreed to loan their volumes. “Opening night, on December 10th, was the first night I slept soundly since we began working on the exhibit,” says Anna. We begin our tour and I am immersed in history.

 

The Mishneh Torah

Born in Córdoba, present-day Spain, in 1138, the Rambam and his family were forced to flee when a fanatic Islamic sect took control of the city in 1148. The family wandered through Spain and Morocco, visited Israel and eventually settled in Fustat, Old Cairo in 1166. In his mid-20s, throughout the wandering, the Rambam began authoring his Pirush Hamishnayot, the first full commentary ever written on the Mishnah. This was followed by the Mishneh Torah. In his introduction to the Mishneh Torah, Rambam explains the motive behind his work: “…I sought to compose texts that derive from all these sources [… that are] all in clear language and concise form, so that the entire Oral Torah be laid out for [the benefit of] all.” In its own day, the Mishneh Torah was groundbreaking for its novel system of codifying halacha. In the more than 800 years since its composition, it remains matchless in terms of lucidity and breadth.

We begin with the volume of the Mishneh Torah that the Rambam himself authorized. Owned by the University of Oxford, it is handwritten in ink on paper (1170-1180). Next come two volumes of the commentary on the Mishnah on the orders of Moed and Kodshim. I linger over the sketches of the Beit HaMikdash and notice some handwritten notes in the margins. “By comparing the handwriting with documents that we have from the Cairo geniza, we can be pretty sure when we say that these are the Rambam’s notes,” Anna tells me. “These two out of four volumes were brought to Syria in 1375 and remained in the Rambam’s family until the 15th century. Between 1630 and 1635, the volume on Kodshim was taken to Oxford. The volume on Moed became the property of the Israel National Library. Now, 400 years later, the two volumes are temporarily together,” says Anna.

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We move on to Volumes I and II of the Mishneh Torah from Northern Italy (ca. 1457). The manuscripts are richly illuminated, with six large painted panels decorated in precious pigments and gold leaf, as well as forty-one smaller illustrations with gold lettering adorning the opening words of each chapter. The volumes were separated some 200 years ago. Volume I is now owned by the Vatican Library; Volume II is jointly owned by the Israel Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While illuminated siddurim, haggadot, and copies of Tanach aren’t that hard to come by, the Rambam’s works are unique in that they are scholarly texts meant for study. The fact that they were magnificently decorated wherever they were created (France, Germany, Italy, Spain) underscores the tremendous respect and admiration they were accorded.

Slowly, we move round the circle of time. Anna points out a copy of the Mishneh Torah from Portugal at the end of the 15th century, about 20 years before the expulsion. “This was owned by an advisor to King Alphonso the fifth. Look at the pasuk,” Anna says. In intricate gold leaf, I read: Vezot HaTorah asher sam Moshe lifnei Bnei Yisrael. The Rambam meant for the Mishneh Torah to be a work that standardized and codified Jewish law. The pasuk draws a parallel between Moshe Rabbeinu and Moshe ben Maimon.

We stop at a volume from northern France (1295-96). The volume is decorated with biblical scenes that aren’t necessarily linked to the content of the text. Apparently, the owner of the manuscript commissioned a non-Jewish artist to do the work. While the artist got the scene of Shimshon and the lion correct, he didn’t have the same luck when he tried to depict Hashem giving the Luchos to Moshe. “The original picture had some kind of visual representation of G-d,” says Anna. “The black ink that looks like a cloud was used to rework the faux pas,” she explains. The artist from Perugia who decorated the volume of Mishneh Torah written in 14th century Spain or southern France was more accurate. Sefer Ahavah, which covers prayers and blessings, opens with the halachot of reciting Shema. Appropriately, the bottom of the page depicts a man sitting next to his bed and saying Shema.

 

Medical Knowledge

We pause at a manuscript of medical text from Barcelona (1345-1348) written in Arabic in Hebrew letters. Medical texts testify to the Rambam’s stature as physician to the royal family of Egypt, a profession he undertook to generate a source of income for his family. Doctors throughout the Middle Ages continued to study his writings alongside those of the classic physicians, Hippocrates and Galen. In fact, the Rambam’s instructions for maintaining a healthy regime for a healthy soul are still highly relevant today.

Installation in the central pillar brings the life of the Rambam into today by using six three-dimensional miniature scenes that engage the sense of hearing. I listen to a quote from the Rambam, culled from a letter to ibn Tibbon, in which he describes hectic daily routine: “I dwell in Egypt and the king lives in Cairo […] I cannot go without seeing him every day at the beginning of the day […] And I spend most of my day in the Royal House. […] Each day I go up to Cairo [immediately upon] awaking […] As I arrive, hungry, the public squares are already filled with gentiles […] and I go out to them to console them, before I eat […] and I heal them and write them [prescriptions], the comings and goings do not cease until two full hours into the night. And I lie on my back, overwhelmed with exhaustion […] I am utterly fatigued, I cannot [even] speak. To conclude, no Jew will be able to speak with me nor conjoin with me other than on the Sabbath Day.” The past, it seems, wasn’t quite as idyllic and bucolic as we make it out to be.

 

Philosophical Works

Moreh Nevuchim, written between 1186 and 1190, is a philosophical work that highlights the connection between science, general studies, and the Torah. Written in Judeo-Arabic, the work was undertaken to making the truths available to students who had the proper personal and intellectual preparation and, at the same time, protect the masses who lacked a sound scientific and philosophical education from doctrines that would only harm them. Anna points out a manuscript from 14th century Spain decorated with geometric shapes. A second manuscript from Barcelona (1347 or 1348) is richly illuminated with ink, tempera and gold leaf and features an extraordinary depiction of an astronomy lesson, showing scholars gazing at the heavens. The picture visualizes one of the book’s main topics, the study of the laws of nature, particularly those of the celestial bodies – a subject also dealt with in the Mishneh Torah.

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Our last stop is a manuscript of Moreh Nevuchim from Yemen. It is not illuminated and the margins are crowded with handwritten notes that testify to the intensity with which the text was studied. I listen to a direct quote from the Rambam: “I was extremely fearful of writing that which I really wished to say in this book, for these are esoteric issues upon which nothing has been written by our people in these days of Exile […] and how shall I introduce a novelty, and write about such matters?” The first translation of this work into Hebrew was done by Shmuel ibn Tibbon in 1204. “We have correspondence between the Rambam and Shmuel ibn Tibbon,” says Anna.

 

The Man Behind it All

One last window in the installation leaves me with the feeling that the Rambam, despite being a spiritual giant, lived the kind of life we live and had to deal with the same kind of challenges that we face today. The Rambam lost his wife and two of his sons within the space of two years. Several years later, his brother, David, drowned on a sea voyage undertaken for the family business. I listen to a quote from a letter to Rabi Yafet the Judge: “And the great evil that has befallen me […] is the passing of the Righteous of Blessed Memory, who drowned in the Indian Ocean […] leaving his little daughter and widow with me. And I find myself, for a full year, [beginning on] the day of the arrival of these evil tidings, being sick in bed, afflicted [with]a [horrible [case of] boils and with an infection and [suffering] from depression, and on the brink of perishing […] I mourn and cannot be consoled. And how shall I be consoled? For he was [like] a son [to me], on my lap did I raise him, and he was the brother, and he is the student, […] and I felt no joy other than in his presence.” The Rambam’s son, Avraham, remained his sole comfort. 

Legacy in Script engages viewers through the presentation of 14 manuscripts that have never before been brought together, and a direct relationship between us and the Rambam. Superbly successful, the exhibit has simultaneously drawn me into the past, given me an insight into how much the Rambam’s works were valued, and forged a link within me for this towering scholar who lived through challenges so similar to those we experience today.

 

*Visitors to the Israel Museum can view Legacy in Script until April 28, 2019. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition. It includes an article on the illuminated manuscripts of the Rambam and detailed descriptions of each manuscript on display.

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Rhona Lewis made aliyah more than 20 years ago from Kenya and is now living in Beit Shemesh. A writer and journalist who contributes frequently to The Jewish Press’s Olam Yehudi magazine, she divides her time between her family and her work.