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Notes from Limmud 2004

Maimonides and the Jews of Yemen

Uri Melammed

The Three Major Yemenite Rabbinic Figures

The first great leader of the Jews of Yemen was סעדיה געון R. Saadya ben Yoseph Gaon al-Fayyumi (882-942) - an outsider from Egypt (as his toponymic surname implies) who was elected ראש ישיבה [head of the rabbinical school] in Sura in Babylon, the only outsider ever to become ראש גלות (Exilarch). ["Gaon" means "genius"; the term was applied to the leaders of the Jewish community in the centuries after the close of compilation of the Talmud.] There was a clear connection at that time between Babylon and the Yemen - they supported them financially and intermarried with them [referents not clear from my notes, sorry]. They used the סידור [prayerbook] of סעדיה געון, and, indeed, still use some prayers from it today.

The second great leader was Maimonides, ak.a. the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), a.k.a. Abu Imran Musa bin Maimun ibn Abdullah al-Kurtubi al-Israili. Maimonides lived 1138-1204 (and not from 1135 as in many books). He wrote תורה משנה [Mishne Torah, "Repetition of the Law", the first closed-form Jewish law code] at the age of twenty-three. Born in Córdoba, his family fled to the Maghrib when the Islamic fundamentalist Almohads came to power in Spain al-Andalus, and stayed in Fez in Morocco for a couple of years. Then he went to visit the holy places in Israel to settle there. But the situation there was very difficult because of the wars with the Crusaders. He landed in Acre and went from there to צור ["in the north" my notes say, which may mean this doesn't mean Tyre, as I already know where it is!] then the south and all four holy cities (Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias and Hebron).

Then he went to Egypt and stayed there. He was not the leader of the community (though he was the spiritual leader of his time). The leader of the community was the נגיד [nagid] - the mediator between the Jewish community and the Moslem community. (Maimonides' son was a נגיד but not Maimonides himself.) Maimonides was a codifier of הלכה [Jewish law] and commentator on the Bible and Talmud, and a physician [he became court physician to the Sultan, Saladin himself], and a philosopher.

The third great rabbi in the Yemenite community was Joseph Karo (1488-1575). They adopted his books and used them alongside those of Maimonides.

The Yemenites and Maimonides

Why did the Yemenites love Maimonides so much? Even though in every letter he signed אני משה בן מיימון הספרדי ("I am Moshe ben Maimon the Sephardi"), the Yemenites were much more attached to him than the Sephardim.

In eleventh century Yemen there were many wars; many rulers trying to conquer Yemen, and also the Egyptians. The Jewish community suffered from each one. There is a saying "תחת אדום ולא תחת ישמעאל" - "better to be ruled by Edom (Christendom) than Ishmael (dar al-Islam)", because the radical Moslems were so tough and inflexible. [Odd; the impression I got was that the Jews were generally better off under the Moslems (e.g. Spain during the so-called Golden Age), but obviously this didn't apply when fundamentalists were in power (including of course Spain under the Almohads).]

Because the Jews suffered under them, a messianic figure arose among them. [Dr Melammed did not name him.] But he became a Moslem and started to pull all the community towards Islam. So the head of the community, R. Yaakov ben Netanel Fayyumi (an Egyptian) wrote to Maimonides in Egypt asking him lots of questions about how to p[...] Judaism.

In response Maimonides wrote his famous איגרת תימן Letter to Yemen (1171/2), setting lots of things in order. He wrote that so long as the Jews are in exile they would be open to antisemitism.

When they got this letter the Yemenites became calmer about their situation. They turned to Maimonides' school and adopted most of his philosophies and halachic solutions, including משנה תורה [Mishne Torah] (written in Hebrew because for the whole world), פרשי משניות [Interpretations of the Mishnayot] (written in Judaeo-Arabic, the vernacular), and ספר המצות [Book of the Mitzvot (commandments/precepts)].

In the Cairo Geniza fragments a letter was found written in 1202 in which a Yemenite wrote to the leaders of the Egyptian community telling them about the situation in Yemen - again there were pogroms. The community had been saved and they got the reasoning for their saving from Maimonides. From Dr Melammed's description it sounds almost like it was by praying to him!

Maimonides mentioned the Jews of Yemen in some books. He was a great linguist and always replied in the language in which he was written to. His letter to the rabbis in Lunel (in Provence), written in Hebrew, says, "People from Yemen are rich people; they donated and they sent messengers and they brought here three copies of החיבור" (the composition, which means his משנה תורה [Mishne Torah]) "and they sent all kinds of copies in each district in Yemen. This specific composition was the only book they trusted in and followed."

Maimonides wrote three other letters to his son and the communities of France from Israel. He met all kinds of pilgrims to Jerusalem from Yemen.

"I swear before you Heaven and Earth, I swear to G-d, that I heard from people who are really trustworthy that in all the districts of Yemen they are really practising Judaism, and they were mentioning the name of the Rambam in every Kaddish." (בחייכון וביומכון ובחיי דמשה בן מיימון)

This was a relic of the custom during Geonic times, of mentioning the name of the Exilarch in the Kaddish. This practice had stopped elsewhere by the middle of the eleventh century. Maimonides was the last to have this honour bestowed on him.

A seventeenth-century Yemenite prayerbook, showing Maimonides' name in the Kaddish.
(They had stopped saying Maimonides' name by then but it was still put into prayerbooks.)
(And you thought our קדיש דרבננן was long!)

After Maimonides

After Maimonides's death the Jews of Yemen wrote lots of commentaries on his books. There were lots of debates because they had their old מנהגים [customs of religious practice]. Were they going to drop those and follow Maimonides or revert to their old customs? There was a big debate in the [?thirteenth] century - a time of renaissance in Yemenite Judaism. They debated about the World to Come, resurrection of the dead, and halachic matters. One of the richest in this field is הלכות שחיטה [The Laws of Schechita (Ritual slaughter)] written by Maimonides in fourteen chapters, hence its byname, the ארבעה עשר (fourteen). Everyone who wanted to be a as referring to Maimonides saving them from being converted to Islam. (Presumably 3:1 "Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me"). His role, they saw, was to teach them and pull them back to Judaism properly in preparation for the future.

He was known as the Great Eagle; a reference to Isaiah? [I can't see how, on flicking through the KJV.] He was also known as משה הזמן - the Moshe of this generation. And, of course, there's the saying "ממשה עד משה לא היה כמשה" ("from Moses [the prophet] to Moses [Maimonides] there is none like Moses"). Also, as מרדכי הזמן, the Mordechai of his generation: Mordechai was described in the Book of Esther (10:3) as דרש טוב לעמו ודבר שלום לכל זרעו "seeking good for his people, and speaking peace to all his seed."

Later on, the Jews of Yemen remained in connection with his family; they wrote lots of questions to his son and his grandson ר׳ דוד הנגיד [R. David the Nagid]: "All the Yemenites, from the elders to the smallest one, are well practised in Maimonides, since they are only dealing with his philosophy/הלכה."

[אדר התפילה skipped due to time pressure]

The Yemenite Community in the twentieth century

In 1905 during fighting between the Ottoman Empire and the local Moslems, many Jews died in the siege of San'a (capital of the Yemen): the community there was almost wiped out. The Turks were finally expelled in 1917.

The Turkish government had appointed Jewish [?scholars] to be the leader of the community as they had for Jewish communities across the Empire - חכם ברשי [learned in the commentaries of Rashi??]. [Sorry, notes not clear again.]

In this period there were eight chief rabbis in Yemen. There was a fight between two and they split the community into two: one community went with Maimonides, one with Chasidism -- rather like a delayed version of the fighting between the Chasidim and Misnagdim in Europe. This was one of the saddest periods of the Jews of Yemen. The two groups were known by pejorative nicknames - עקשים (from דור עקש - "stubborn generation") for the Chasidim, and דרדעים (from דור דעה - "generation of knowledge") for the followers of Maimonides. This split remains until today; the two groups do not speak to each other. (Someone in the audience talked about a moshav where both groups were present and called each other Sodom and Gomorrah!)

The grandson of the Chief Rabbi of the דרדעים made עליה [immigrated to Israel] by foot in 1947 to Tel Aviv and then Jerusalem. He translated many books about Maimonides, and made a new translation of the Guide of the Perplexed into Hebrew. He got the Israel Prize in 1964 for translating the משנה תורה [Mishne Torah] into Hebrew (for the first time in modern times).

Quotations from Maimonides in the Yemenite liturgy

Halachic Citation from Maimonides in the Yemenite סידור:

For ראש השנה [Rosh Hashana - Jewish New Year] before the blowing of the shofar - no other community has a quotation from this in their סידור [prayerbook].

Laws Concerning Repentance 3:4 הלכות תשובה פרק ג, הלכה ד

Although the sounding of the Shofar on the New Year is a decree of the Written Law, still it has a deep meaning as if saying, "Awake, awake, O sleep, from your sleep; O slumberers, arouse yourselves from your slumbers; examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember your Creator.

"Those of you who forget the truth in the follies of the times and go astray the whole year in vanity and emptiness which neither profit nor save, look to your souls; improve your ways and works. Abandon, every one of you, his evil course and the thought that is not good."

אף על פי שתקיעת שוקר בראש השנה גזרת הכתוב, רמז יש בו; כלומר, "עורו עורו ישנים משינתכם, והקיצו נרדמים מתרדמתכם, וחפשו במעשיכם, וחזרו בתשובה, וזכרו בוראכם.

אלו השוכחים את האמת בהבלי הזמן, ושוגים כל שנתם בהבל וריק אשר לא יועיל ולא יציל. הביטו לנפשותיכם, והטיבו דרכיכם ומעללכם. ויעזוב כל אחד מכם דרכו הרעה, ומחשבתו אשר לא טובה."

A festive song

And praise G-d
I will praise He Who created the sky without effort. He is the Knower, and He is the Known, and He is the Knowledge.
He robes Himself with light as with a garment; He spreads out the Heavens like a curtain.

And praise G-d.  


אהלל למי שברא שחקים בלא יגיעה הוא היודע, והוא הידוע, והוא הדעה
עוטה אור כשלמה נוטה שמים כיריעה


This song is used for שמחות [festive occasions]. It was written after Maimonides' death. The order of singing at such occasions is first an introductory song, and then a long song during which people can dance, and then concluding with a short recitation praising first G-d then the event and host then the occasion - שבת [Sabbath] or ברית מילה [a circumcision], etc. Every short song starts and ends with והללויה (vehalleluyah, "and praise G-d").

The second line comes from Maimonides' works, on the unity of G-d; the third line is a quotation from Psalms 104:2.

Date: 2005-01-13 12:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] snjstar.livejournal.com
Very interesting, I remember you telling me the bit about Kaddish at Limmud.

Date: 2005-01-13 12:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
See further my notes on "The Aramaic of the Kaddish", when I get around to typing them up.


Date: 2008-11-03 05:35 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Any idea where I can find a copy of the Iggeret Teman? Preferably in English.


Re: Letter

Date: 2008-11-03 06:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Google is your friend (http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Epistle_to_Yemen).



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