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The Philosophers. Maimonides

p. 375


(translation Of An Epistle Addressed
By Rabbi Moses Maimonides To Rabbi Samuel Ibn Tibbon.)

Our illustrious master sent this epistle to the honored sage, the Chief of Translators, R. Samuel, son of R. Jehuda ibn Tibbon, in reply to the question asked by the latter when he informed Maimonides. that he had translated his great work, "Moreh Nebuchim." (Guide of the Perplexed), from Arabic into Hebrew. Maimonides approved of this translation, and wrote to him as follows:

"A man shall be commended according to his wisdom," etc. All the letters of the worthy scholar and excellent sage R. Samuel, son of the learned R. Jehuda ibn Tibbon, 1 the Sephardi, have duly reached me, Moses the son of Maimun, the Sephardi. Already many years ago the fame of the honored prince, the wise R. Jehuda, your father, had reached me, I had heard of his great learning and the elegance of his style, both in Arabic and Hebrew, through well-known and learned men of Granada, the sons of Alfachar, and the aged Ibn Mosca. Also one of the learned men of Toledo came here and told us of his reputation. Likewise when the honored R. Meir, a disciple of R. Abraham, the son of R. David, the great Rabbi of Pesquieres, who had also studied under the learned R. Abraham ibn Ezra, came to me, he spoke concerning your honored father, and gave me an account of the works on grammar and other sciences he had translated. I did not, however, know that he had left a son.

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But, when your letters in Hebrew and Arabic reached me, and I learned from them your mode of thought and elegance of composition; when I read your remarks both on those passages in my "magnum opus", the "Moreh Nebuchim," concerning the right signification of which you entertain doubt, and on those in which you had discovered errors made by the transcriber, then I said with the ancient poet:

"Had they known his parentage, they would say,

The father's excellence has passed over to his son."

Blessed be he who has granted a recompense to your learned father and granted him such a son; and indeed not to him alone, but to all wise men. For in truth unto us all a child has been born, unto us all a son has been given. "This offspring of the righteous is a tree of life," a delight of our eyes and pleasant to look upon. I have already tasted of his fruit, and lo, it was sweet in my mouth even as honey.

All your questions were just, and all your conjectures with respect to the omission of a word, or words, were correct. At the end of this epistle I explain everything in Arabic, and give you all the information you desire, and mention the works you should study or neglect. 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 recognize from your words that you have entered thoroughly into the depth of the subject, and that its hidden meaning has become clear to you. I shall explain to you in Hebrew how you shall manage with the entire translation. "Give instruction to a wise man, and he will he yet wiser; be wise, ray son, and my heart also will rejoice."

Be assured that, when I saw the beauty of your style and remarked the depth of your intellect and that your lips utter knowledge clearly, I greatly rejoiced. I was the more surprised that such should be the talents, such the thirst for knowledge, such the acquaintance with Arabic (which I believe to be a partially corrupt dialect of Hebrew) displayed

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by one who has been born among "stammerers." 2 I also admired your being so well versed in the niceties of that language in abstruse subjects; this is, indeed, like "a tender plant springing out of a dry ground." May the Lord enlighten your eyes with the light of his law, so that you may be of those that love him, who are even as the sun when he goes forth in his strength. Amen. The letters of your esteemed college, which God grant may ever increase in dignity and learning, have also reached me.

I have carefully examined all the passages concerning the translation of which you entertain any doubt, and have looked into all those passages in which the transcriber has made any mistake, and into the various preliminary propositions and chapters which were not perfectly clear to you, and of which you sought the elucidation.

Let me premise one canon. Whoever wishes to translate, and purposes to render each word literally, and at the same time to adhere slavishly to the order of the words and sentences in the original, will meet with much difficulty; his rendering will be faulty and untrustworthy. This is not the right method. The translator should first try to grasp the sense of the subject thoroughly, and then state the theme with perfect clearness in the other language. This, however, can not be done without changing the order of the words, putting many words for one word, or "vice vers", and adding or taking away words, so that the subject be perfectly intelligible in the language into which he translates. This method was followed by Honein ben Is'hak with the works of Galen, and his son Is'hak with the works of Aristotle. It is for this reason that all their versions are so peculiarly lucid, and therefore we ought to study them to the exclusion of all others. Your distinguished college ought to adopt this rule in all the translations undertaken for those honored men, and the heads of the congregation. And may God grant that the spread of knowledge among other communities of Israel be prompted by such works.

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now proceed to reply to your questions seriatim, to explain all those points which needed explanation, to give the correct reading according to which you may amend the faults in your copy, arranged in the order of your epistle, and embracing the three books of my work.

Now God knows that, in order to write this to you, I have escaped to a secluded spot, where people would not think to find me, sometimes leaning for support against the wall, sometimes lying down on account of my excessive weakness, for I have become old and feeble.

But with respect to your wish to come here to me, I can not but say how greatly your visit would delight me, for I truly long to commune with you, and would anticipate our meeting with even greater joy than you. Yet I must advise you not to expose yourself to the perils of the voyage, for beyond seeing me, and doing all I could to honor you, you would not derive any advantage from your visit. Do not expect to be able to confer with me on any scientific subject for even one hour, either by day or night, for the following is my daily occupation: I dwell in Mizr (Fostat), 3 and the Sultan 4 resides at Kahira (Cairo); these two places are two Sabbath days' journeys (about one mile and a half) 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 of the 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

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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, write prescriptions and directions for their several ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes even, I solemnly assure you, until two hours and 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 unto 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 yon were to visit me.

Now, when you have completed for our brethren the translation you have commenced, I beg that you will come to me, but not with the hope of deriving any advantage from your visit as regards your studies; for my time is, as I have shown you, so excessively occupied.

[Maimonides now proceeds to specify all the philosophical works Du Tibbon should study, and cautions him not to waste his time with certain others.]...

He, Aristotle, indeed arrived at the highest summit of knowledge to which man can ascend, unless the emanation of the Divine Spirit be vouchsafed to him, so that he attains the stage of prophecy, above which there is no higher stage.

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And the works of Ibn Sina, although they contain searching investigations and subtle thought, do not come up to the writings of Abunazr Alfarabi. Still they are useful, and it is right that you should study them diligently.

I have now indicated to you the works you should study, and to which you should devote your intellect. May your happiness, my son and pupil, increase, and salvation be granted to our afflicted people. Written by Moses, the son of Maimun, the Sephardi, on the 8th of Tishri, 1511, according to the Seleucide era. 5


Jehuda ben Saul ibn Tibbon (1120-1190) was born in Granada, whence he emigrated to Lunel on account of persecutions. He was a distinguished physician, and a diligent translator from Arabic into Hebrew. He translated "Duties of the Heart," by Bachja, the Cusari of R. Jehuda Halevi, the Hebrew Grammar and Dictionary of Ibn Ganach and other important philosophical works. For a more detailed account of the two Ibn Tibbons, see Gratz, "Geschichte der Juden"," vi., pp. 241-2.

The author probably refers to the circumstance that the Jews of Provence spoke and wrote Arabic incorrectly.

Founded by the Calif conquerors upon the eastern bank of the Nile, a few miles north of Memphis. See "La Geographie d'Aboulfeda"," pp. 162-4.

It would seem from the term that the Sultan Saladin, to whom Maimonides was attached as body-physician, is here meant, but Gratz (vi, pp. 355, 385) is of opinion that it refers to Alfadhal, the grand vizier, as the Sultan was almost always engaged in warlike expeditions, and therefore absent from Egypt. It may be interesting to mention here that Richard I. of England was anxious to appoint Maimonides his physician, but that he declined the honor. See the authority for statement, quoted by Gratz (ibid., p. 358).

380:5 Corresponding to September 30th, 1199.

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