Long-forgotten Maimonides text now available in translation for the first time

04.29.2014 | Blair Hodges

Moses Maimonides (1137/8-1204) has been recognized as “the most influential Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages.” ((As an age-old aphorism puts it: “From Moses to Moses, there arose none like Moses.” See Herbert A. Davidson’s assessment in Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 302.)) He sought to master rabbinic law and to integrate it with the best philosophical thinking of his time—a goal that resulted in several of the most important written works in Jewish history. He also dedicated a great deal of time to the study and practice of medicine, authoring ten known texts dealing with the health of the human body. ((Each of the ten, in addition to two additional works thought to be incorrectly attributed to Maimonides, is discussed in Davidson, 429–83.)) The recent discovery of a long-forgotten treatise brings that total to eleven. The Neal A. Maxwell Institute is excited to announce the publication of On Rules Regarding the Practical Part of the Medical Art, the latest volume in our Medical Works of Moses Maimonides series. About a decade ago, the foremost biographer of Maimonides noted that all ten of the well-attested medical works had been translated (at least in part) into English, adding that “the translations are not always satisfactory.” ((Davidson, 435.)) Our series seeks to assist scholars and interested readers alike by providing fresh and top-notch parallel Arabic-English translations of each known medical text written by Maimonides, including the long-lost On Rules.

Moses’s Medical Works

Although Jewish law was his first love, Maimonides reflected toward the end of his life that his “heart had become divided into many parts by all kinds of science,” medicine being one among several “rival wives” competing for his time and attention. ((Davidson, 299.)) From the time he arrived in Egypt around 1177 to the 1190s he studied and honed the physician’s craft, eventually becoming the personal physician for the chief qadi (or Muslim religious judge) for the vizier al-Fadil, and for other important Muslim aristocrats in Saladdin’s Cairo. ((Maimonides seems to have studied medicine and perhaps even practiced it on some level prior to his time in Egypt, but his medical writings themselves appear only after his establishment in Egypt. See Davidson, 67.)) Although he regretted spending less time with his first love (rabbinic law and the Torah), Maimonides believed that the law, philosophy, and medicine were fundamentally related to each other. Thus, while his medical treatises, including On Rules, were written to be palatable to Jews, Muslims, and practitioners of Galenic medicine more generally, he understood them to be integral to his overriding Jewish outlook. Maimonides cared deeply for the health of the human body, but only insofar as a healthy body could make it possible to advance in one’s intellectual knowledge of God, thus achieving “the true goal of human life”—an intellectually grounded immortality in harmony with God. Jewish law, the Torah itself, was crafted to maintain “the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body” in order to allow for intellectual advancement toward God. ((See Davidson, 107, 164, 378.))

This outlook is found in Maimonides’s landmark Mishneh Torah, the first part of which incorporates a regimen for maintaining a healthy body. ((The Mishneh Torah, called “the preeminent literary achievement of the Jewish Middle Ages” was Maimonides’s attempt to present his people with a final, unified, and universal summary of Jewish law; see Davidson, 302.)) There Maimonides explains that each man is obligated to “direct his heart and all his actions exclusively to knowledge of God.” In order to do this, he must keep “his body healthy and strong in order that his rational soul will be equipped for knowing God, inasmuch as it is impossible to understand and study the sciences when hungry or ill. . . . He who follows this path during his entire life worships God at all times [because his intent is] that his body be healthy so as to worship God.” ((Davidson, 233)) Maimonides could thus frame his attention to apparently practical and rationally grounded medical matters as being an extension of his underlying belief in God’s law and the purpose of life.

On Rules

As a physician, Maimonides composed treatises about a variety of health issues at the request of clients who could afford them. One such text, On Asthma, was likely composed shortly after Maimonides relocated to live in Egypt around 1177. While Maimonides discusses general guidelines for healthy living in that text (diet, exercise, clean air, etc.), he planned to provide a more comprehensive treatise on the “practical” side of medicine, but was ironically prevented from doing so by his own failing health. Toward the end of his life Maimonides returned to the task, but his completed text eventually disappeared in shuffles of old documents.

On Rules was lost to scholars for centuries before it was cataloged in the Biblioteca Nacional de España by the great bio-bibliographer Moritz Steinschneider (d. 1907) who thought it was simply another copy of On Asthma. While working on the Medical Works of Moses Maimonides series, Gerrit Bos and Y. Tzvi Langermann discovered that it was actually a different work from On Asthma. This publication of On Rules marks the first time the Arabic manuscript and English translation have been available to a modern audience in any form. It is composed in Maimonides’s favored format of collected aphorisms and contains some unique advice on serious abdominal wounds—likely the result of Maimonides’s own experience with battlefield casualties.

Even though many of Maimonides’s medical views are beyond outdated (gazing into the eyes of a mule can help cure blindness, for instance!), his work is nevertheless valuable in helping scholars understand how one of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages sought to improve the life of his fellow humans in order to glorify his God. According to Maimonides’s biographer, “Medieval Arabic medicine is a field of study still in its infancy, and a precise assessment of [Maimonides’s] knowledge of the medical literature is therefore yet on the horizon.” ((Davidson, 86.)) On Rules, like the rest of the Medical Works of Moses Maimonides series, provides researchers with crucial primary source material to assist in their research. Emilie Savage-Smith, University of Oxford professor of the history of Islamic science, has hailed the publication of On Rules, writing, “How remarkable to find a treatise by Maimonides that has not been listed in the numerous bibliographical listings of his works.  And on such a fascinating and important topic!” ((Email communication, April 12, 2004.))

On Rules Regarding the Practical Part of the Medical Art is now available on Amazon or directly from the University of Chicago Press.