Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


Liber Ductor Perplexorum

The readers of this journal have certainly, heard a great deal about this book of our great Maimonides רמב״ם, wherefore I deem a sketch of it of some interest to those who are not initiated in the difficult study of Hebrew philosophy and theology. מורה נבוכים means “the guide of those who know no path.” Rabbi Moses Maimonides, a native of Spain, and a resident of Egypt, living in the second half of the twelfth century, possessed more knowledge of mathematics, physics, medicine, and of the Greek philosophy, than any other scholar among his contemporaries; and though he belonged to the medical profession, and had attained great renown as a practising physician as well as an author, he nevertheless wrote voluminous works on Hebrew theology.

His יד החזקה Yad Hackasakah, is a complete abstract of the Talmud, in which the results of the rabbinical discussions are written out in an admirable order, brevity, and in an elegant Hebrew style. The judicial part of it is the best work of antiquity in this branch; and were it translated in the English tongue, it would to a certainty obtain the admiration and the attention of the legal profession. He wrote also in this department of literature, פרוש המשנה, a Commentary on the Mishnah, which is distinguished for its acuteness, brevity, and correctness of ideas. The Greek philosophers, and particularly Aristotle, principally employed his attention. He gave the fruits of his studies to the world in the Arabic tongue, in which he wrote a Logic bearing the name מלת החגיון, “Terms of Logic,” which was translated in the Hebrew by Eben Tibon, and in the German language by Samuel Newman, and commented by Mendelssohn. Next a Psychology, bearing the name שמונה פרקים, “The Eight Sections,” which was also translated into the Hebrew and German languages. But his principal work in philosophy is מורה נבוכים, Liber Ductor Perplexorum, of we will speak more in detail.

Maimonides in the introduction to this work says: “This work has for its problem the explanation of some terms used in the prophetic Scriptures; some of them can be applied to many subjects; but others <<32>>are abstract and metaphorical terms, which must be understood according to the subject to which they are applied, but which ignorant readers understand according to their original signification; whilst, at the same time, some other terms are doubtful. It is not my intention in the present work to explain these terms to such men as are of a vulgar sort, or beginners in speculative thinking; nor do I intend to instruct those who wish to know nothing but the dead letter of the law; but I intend it to be the basis to the knowledge of the divine legislation. I merely intend giving a brief instruction to those in whose mind religion is rooted by a good education, who have a good moral character, and who are no strangers in the departments of philosophy and speculation; but who belonging to the other side are inclined to listen to the dictates of reason,” &c.

“Hence it is the problem of this work to expound the different allegories of the prophetic Scriptures, or at least to make them known as such, which are generally taken for facts, and bring the investigator in great confusion,” &c.

“I will give in this work, according to the dicta of the Talmud, some of the principles of natural philosophy and metaphysics to the self-thinker; but these principles will not be given in a systematic order; I will only cite them by chance to expound other matters.”

“God revealed to us a practical law which is based upon pure theories, which must be again based upon correct notions of God and of his relation to us, or upon natural theology. Since the first requisite for the comprehension of these theories is natural philosophy, so God commenced his law-book with the history of the creation, which is but a manifestation of the principles of natural philosophy. Our sages say: ‘The manner and method of the creation can be taught to nobody, wherefore the Scriptures say in short terms, In the beginning God created heaven and earth.’ Therewith they meant to say that the history of the creation comprises great secrets of natural philosophy, which, to express, Scripture was to make use of expressions which have a multifarious signification, which are simply understood by the simple, and which display a profound depth of thought to the wise.”

I think these few quotations of his preface will suffice to give to the reader a correct notion about the tendency of the renowned composition in question.

The work is divided in three parts or books. The first book expounds the Hebrew terms which are used in Scripture in connexion with God. Maimonides shows that the Hebrew language, the first-born daughter of nature, being too poor in abstract terms, had to use sensual terms in connexion with God, the most absolute spirit, but which must <<33>>be understood in accordance with the biblical principal doctrine concerning God and his attributes, they being exclusively spiritual. Hence he states that the significance of abstract words not only is changed frequently, but is not seldom forgotten, and then the abstract word is a phantom void of any meaning; but the expressions of nature are immutable, and so the Bible will be understood for ever. Maimonides displays in the lexicographical part of his work the whole theoretical principles of biblical theology, the purest spiritual theosophy, which he shows to be embodied in the natural words of the Bible. A critical investigation about God and His attributes, about the powers and limits of the human reason, concludes the first book.

The second book commences with the outlines of the peripatetic philosophy, and with the arguments derived from that system to demonstrate the existence of God, His unity, spirituality, and immensity. Then follows an explanation about the Aristotelian views of the celestial bodies, which he held to be living and rational beings. Then he speaks of the angels. Maimonides tries to show, that the expression of Scripture, that God sends angels to execute His will in the sublunar world, are anthropomorphous, which ought to be understood as the Psalmist did, when he said that wind and fire are the angels of the Lord. He then argues with Aristotle against the idea of the eternity of the earth; and after having proved, that the world is created, he gives a problematical possibility of the creation. He then proceeds to speak of prophecy and of divine revelation, which he explains to be psychological possibilities, and which can be understood only and merely psychologically. He proceeds then to show the grace of Providence; the symbolic arts of the prophets; and the hyperbolic and metaphoric expressions in their Scriptures. In the conclusion of this book he speaks about the perceptive faculty of the prophets.

The third book commences with the explanation of Ezekiel’s description of the angelic council of God, מעשה מרכבה. He says on that subject, that it is an allegoric picture of cosmological truths. Next he proves that every evil consists in a mere privation; then he speaks of final causes; and next of the destiny of the world. Maimonides is averse to the opinion that all creatures are for man’s sake, which he thinks to be proved by the overwhelming number of creatures besides man. He then dwells on the Providence, Omniscience of God, and man’s freedom of will. He shows that the book of Job is a mere vehicle to furnish us a metaphysical treatise on Providence. He then divides the Mosaic ceremonial laws in fourteen classes, giving profound reasons for each class, drawn from the history, customs, and habits of Egypt; from the <<34>>paganism of that age which was to be prevented; from the customs, circumstances, characteristics of the Israelites themselves, and from the vulgar notions about God and His will.

In conclusion he shows, what may be called, in truth, the service of the Most High, and how he serves the Lord who has learned to know Him, and how eternal happiness may be obtained through serving the Lord. The whole work has a philosophical, theological nature, more inclined to rationalism than to mysticism. Maimonides wrote this work at the request of his scholar Rabbi Joseph, son of Rabbi Judah Hallevy. Samuel Eben Tibon translated it into the Hebrew during the lifetime of the author, whom he consulted about some very difficult passages. The first Hebrew edition appeared in Parma, 1480. (See Joh.’s Bernh. De Rossi, Annalibus Hebraeo. p. 121.) The first, but very incorrect, Latin translation of it appeared in 1320. (See Wolf’s Biblioth. Hebr. P. p. 780-782.)

In 1692 appeared a correct Latin translation of it by the younger Buxtorf. Solomon Maimon, a contemporary of Mendelssohn, wrote an epitome of the Moreh Nebuchim, which was published in 1793, in his biography by K. P. Moriz, p. 15-150. The same Maimon, a great genius and little known, wrote a profound commentary on the Moreh Nebuchim. Many others have been written, too numerous to be mentioned. Dr. Fürstenthal of Breslau translated and commented the Mor. Neb. in the German language, but only the first part has as yet appeared.