The Mystery of Maimonides' Puzzling Name

Why would the most famous Jewish philosopher of all not have a Jewish name? Or did he?

From a marble relief portrait of Maimonides in the U.S. Capitol by Brenda Putnam. Architect of the Capitol.

From a marble relief portrait of Maimonides in the U.S. Capitol by Brenda Putnam. Architect of the Capitol.

Observation
May 5 2020
About the author

Arnold E. Franklin is associate professor of history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Queens College in New York. He is the author of This Noble House: Jewish Descendants of King David in the Medieval Islamic East (2012) and co-editor of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Medieval and Early Modern Times (2015).


The name of the towering religious philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) is surely one of the best-known and most resonant of all Jewish names in the annals of world culture. But, as a name, it’s surely also one of the most puzzling.

The “Moses” part is easy enough. But what about “Maimonides”? More specifically, what’s Jewish about it? The word breaks down into “Maimon” plus the Greek suffix for “son of.” So: Moses son of Maimon, or, in Hebrew, Moshe ben Maimon, and in Arabic—for he lived in the Islamic world and wrote many of his works in Arabic—Musa ibn Maymun.

But what kind of a word is Maimon? It’s not to be found anywhere else in either Hebrew or Aramaic (the other tongue spoken widely by Jews in late-antique times). Instead, it’s a borrowing from the Arabic name “Maymun.” But that only adds to the mystery: why should Maimonides’ father, himself a Jewish scholar, not have had a Hebrew name?

If he did, nobody has ever seemed either to know it or to have used it—at least until now. To the best of my knowledge, the one exception is a scribe who in 1488 penned a Hebrew colophon to his freshly finished manuscript copy in Judeo-Arabic of Maimonides’ magnum opus, Guide of the Perplexed. (A couple of definitions: a colophon—a manuscript’s concluding inscription—normally conveys the title and author of the work being copied, the name of the copier, the date of completion, and other flourishes of interest to later historians; as for Judeo-Arabic, it is Arabic written in Hebrew script.)

I came across this manuscript, whose formal designation is Oxford Bodleian MS Pococke 68, in the course of my work on a descendant of Maimonides, whom we’ll meet again later on. The manuscript contains the great thinker’s commentaries on two key sections of the Mishnah as well as a short series of questions and answers about the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. On the reverse of the first page of one of these commentaries, in the same scribal hand, is the final page of the copy of the Guide. (Evidently, the Guide and the commentaries were originally part of the same manuscript and only later became separated.)

That final page of the Guide contains a short poem in praise of the work, followed by the scribe’s colophon with its first line in Judeo-Arabic and the rest in Hebrew:

כמלה דלאלה אלחאירין תאל’ף אפצ’ל אלנאט’רין

רבנו משה הרב הגדול מאור העולם ופלאו

ממזרח שמש עד מבואו ביר’ יצחק

’המכנה מימון הרב הדיין ז’ק’ל

בירח שבט בחמישי בו

’שנת ה’ר’מ’ח’ ליצירה לשטרות א’ת’ש’צ’ט

אם שגיתי במעשי ימחול לי עושי

 

Completed is the Guide of the Perplexed, by the most excellent investigator,

our master, Moses, the great master, the light of the world and its wonder

from the rising of the sun to its setting, the son of our master Isaac

known as Maymun, the master, the judge, may the memory of the holy one be a blessing,

in the month of Shevat, on the fifth day of the month,

in the year 5248 from creation, 1799 of the Seleucid era [i.e., 1488 CE].

If, in my effort, I stumbled or erred, may my Creator forgive me.

We learn a bit more from a second colophon that appears at the end of one of the manuscript’s two commentaries. There the scribe identifies himself as Joseph son of Y’did known as Ghurawi (or perhaps Gharawi) and gives the date as 22 Shevat—that is, seventeen days after his completion of the copy of the Guide.

So: the author of the Guide did have a proper Hebrew name after all. It was Moses son of Isaac (Yitzḥak).

Mystery solved? Possibly; or possibly not. Let’s see where this leads.

 

I stumbled across the scribal colophon a year or so ago; it was hiding in plain sight. The manuscript containing it had been described by the German scholar Adolf Neubauer in his 1886 Catalogue of Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. In his entry for it, Neubauer also helpfully reproduced the scribe’s colophon; yet he either failed to notice or judged inconsequential its highly unusual reference to Maimonides’ father’s Hebrew name. Nor, I believe, has any scholar since Neubauer’s time cited the colophon with its exciting news or ever entertained its potential implications for how we should think about the father of the “Great Eagle” (another common honorific for the one whom our scribe dubs “the light of the world”).

But let’s first rehearse the reasons for skepticism.

Most significantly, this is, to my knowledge, the only appearance anywhere of a name other than Maimon/Maymun for Maimonides’ father. Scribes can be notoriously sloppy; might this one have slipped as well?

Next, although no signed Hebrew autograph of Maymun himself has come down to us, we do possess ample specimens bearing the signature of his famous son Moses. Many of these do not provide a patronymic—often he signed simply as “Moshe”—but many do; uniformly, he signs them as “Moses son of Maymun.”

Then there is evidence from Moses’ brother David. In a letter sent to Moses in 1170 from the Sudanese port of Aydhab, shortly before the fateful voyage on which he perished, David, too, identifies their father unambiguously as Maymun.

A scribal error, then? Case closed? Not really.

For one thing, the colophon doesn’t present us with what would typically qualify as a scribal error. That is to say, it doesn’t actually get Maimonides’ father’s name wrong; it merely claims to have additional information about it. The scribe knows perfectly well that Moses’ father was “known as Maymun,” and says so explicitly. If anything, then, I would characterize the phrase “Isaac known as Maymun” as a gloss on the father’s name rather than an error. What remains to be determined—a matter to which we’ll return—is whether the gloss was based on discernible fact.

For another thing, consider the time and place when our manuscript was produced: late-15th-century Aleppo. A century earlier, the precious private collection of the Maimonidean family—including autograph copies of the revered man’s works, treasured books owned by the family, and works by later members of the dynasty—had been brought to Aleppo by David son of Joshua Maimuni: the fifth-generation descendant of the master whom I mentioned early on. Pococke 68, the 1488 manuscript we’ve been examining, was itself a byproduct of Maimuni’s successful effort to place the Maimonidean corpus at the center of scholarly and intellectual life in his then-adopted city. Given the prevailing aura, with its emphasis on the expert preservation and transmission of the master’s legacy, it would seem unlikely that the scribe who copied this manuscript was either ignorant or irresponsible enough to botch the name of his and his community’s cultural hero.

No less significant in this connection is another circumstance: the naming practices prevalent among Jews living in Arabic-speaking lands during the period of Maimonides’ and his father’s lifetime. In that milieu, Jewish men typically went by two names: one in Hebrew or Aramaic, and a second in Arabic. (Jewish women usually had names in Arabic only.) In many cases the two names were cognates; the most popular custom was to give an Arabic name that was the Quranic version of the biblical Hebrew name, as in Abraham=Ibrahim or Moses=Musa.

In other cases, the names were coordinated in slightly different ways. Thus, Arabic names sometimes merely reflected what was understood to be the meaning of the Hebrew or Aramaic name, as in the pairing of Netanel with Ḥibat Allah (literally, in each case, “gift of God”) or Shmaryah with Maḥfuz (“protected”). In still other instances, the Arabic might offer an interpretation of the character of the biblical figure who bore the Hebrew name, as in the cases of Mu’afa (“delivered”) for Isaac and Munajja (“saved”) for Joseph.

It would thus stand to reason that Maimonides’ father, too, had a Hebrew name in addition (or prior) to Maymun. And the likelihood increases all the more when we take into consideration what we know about naming practices within the Maimonidean family in particular. We’re fortunate in being able not only to follow Maimonides’ direct descendants for five generations but also, thanks to the genealogy provided by him at the end of his Commentary on the Mishnah, to trace his ancestors back for seven generations. Within these thirteen family generations, we have the names of twenty individual males. Of the twenty, nineteen have Hebrew names; the only male lacking a Hebrew name is Maymun.

Something else is relevant about this family tree. Like many Jews in the Middle Ages—the Cairo Genizah yields multiple examples—Maimonides’ family tended to recycle names, and specifically to name boys after their grandfathers. We see this twice (from an Obadiah to an Obadiah and from a Joseph to a Joseph) in the generations before Maimonides and once in the generations after him (from an Abraham to an Abraham), plus another two times if we include instances in which boys are named after great-uncles (from a David to a David and again from an Obadiah to an Obadiah).

Another recurring name in this family tree, as it happens, is Isaac. In the generations before Maimonides, its first appearance occurs with none other than Maymun’s grandfather.

 

Click to enlarge.

 

In other words, if Maymun father of Moses did have a Hebrew name, Isaac would have been the likely candidate. And there is more: as it turns out, Maymun (Arabic: “fortunate”) was a relatively unusual name for Jewish men in the Middle Ages. Occasionally connected with the Arabic patronymic Abu Sa‘id (“joyous”), it appears just a handful of times in the sources. But the Genizah yields at least one Maymun who would seem to offer a parallel to Maimonides’ father: a trader from Mazara, Sicily, named Maymun son of Khalfa al-Qafsi. This Maymun was one of three brothers, the other two of whom are known by their Hebrew names as Judah and Joseph. And like Moses’ father Maymun, this Maymun, too, had a grandfather named Isaac.

Why does this make such good sense? Dwell for another moment on the custom of pairing cross-lingual names by reference to their meaning, and the connection between Yitzḥak (“he laughs”) and Maymun (“fortunate”) or Abu Sa‘id (“joyous”) seems entirely logical.

 

To be sure, even if Maymun also bore the Hebrew name Yitzḥak, that only raises a further question: why should he have been known to future generations exclusively by his Arabic name? I don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but I’ll float a couple of suggestions, one having to do with historical circumstance, the other with religious principle.

With regard to the first, we need to recall the experience of Maimonides’ family during the Almohad persecutions starting in 1148, when they along with many other Jews were forced to leave their homes in Iberia (in their case, Córdoba) and find shelter elsewhere. They ended up in Fez, Morocco, where, some scholars believe, they lived outwardly as Muslims for some years. Indeed, my first thought on seeing the colophon in Pococke 68 was that the name Maymun may well have become attached to, or added to, Maimonides’ father’s given name during this period.

But on further reflection I think this line of thought is a dead end. Why would a name adopted either to mark or to feign a conversion continue to be used long after its bearer has reverted to his true identity and has been living openly as a Jew? Moreover, there’s no need to invoke the Almohad persecutions in order to account for the existence of an Arabic name; as we’ve seen to be the case, all Jewish men in the Islamic world had one.

Next, when it comes to religious principle, I would adduce specific passages in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’ great compendium of Jewish law, where he codifies the rules pertaining to the biblical obligation to honor and fear one’s parents. Commenting on how a child ought to refer to a father, and on the respect that is owed to the father’s given name, he writes:

What constitutes fear and what constitutes honor? Fear is expressed by not standing or sitting in [the father’s] place, and by not contradicting his words or offering an opinion that outweighs his. One should not call him by his name, either during his lifetime or after his death. Instead one should say: “My father and teacher.” If one’s father or teacher has the same name as others, he should call those others by a different name. But in my view this applies only in the case of an unusual name. With regard to a common name like Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and so forth, one may call others by that given name—in any language and at any time—outside the presence of one’s father.

If, like most Jewish men in his day, Maymun had both a Hebrew name and an Arabic name, this passage may help explain why only the latter has come down to us: Maimonides and his brother, that is, may have avoided the Hebrew name as a show of respect. Bear in mind that, for personal information about the father, we’re entirely dependent on these two heirs; there is no other extant source. If he is known to us exclusively as Maymun in consequence of their deliberate choice, that choice can perhaps be better understood in light of the principle laid down here.

 

What’s the conclusion? Today, when every detail of Maimonides’ life is minutely scrutinized for clues by scholars—was he born in 1135 or in 1138? what sort of snacks did he serve visitors to his home?—there would seem to be some hesitancy, or perhaps some unspoken taboo, against even inquiring into his father’s name(s). But why should that be so? After all, scholars have already asked whether, for instance, the relative uniqueness of the name Moses implies something about the father’s expectations for his son, or how and to what extent Moses’ decision to give the name Abraham to his son says something about the weight given to that biblical patriarch in his writings.

Perhaps the real story here, then, is about a persistent reluctance on the part of many Jewish scholars to situate Maimonides fully within the Arabic-Islamic milieu in which his entire life was lived. In part, the colophon in Pococke 68 may seem surprising simply because many have resisted or failed to appreciate the evident fact that “Maymun” is not a Hebrew (or Aramaic) name and therefore would almost certainly have been paired with one that was. Indeed, the tendency to pronounce and spell Maymun with an “o,” as Maimon, itself suggests an attempt to Hebraize it, to make it equivalent to biblical names like Aharon, Shimshon, Naḥshon, and Gid’on, each of which has an unmistakable Hebrew root.

In the early 20th century, under just such an impression, a family of East European Jews changed their name from Wasserman to Maimon (playing cleverly on the Hebrew word for water). One wonders whether a similarly misplaced intuition about the name and its supposedly Hebrew origins has existed—consciously or not—among scholars as well, and if that may in turn help explain why seemingly no one has bothered to inquire whether Maymun, like all of his ancestors and all of his descendants, had a Hebrew name and, if he did, what it might have been.

Again, of course, we can’t know for certain. Nor can one rewrite history on the basis of a single outlier source. Nor am I about to propose that we drop the name Moses Maimonides and begin calling him Moses Isaacides. Nevertheless, I can’t help speculating that this little-known scribe in this little-known manuscript was on to something.

Which leads to a final question: could it be that the far from ignorant copyist of Pococke 68 was moved to do what he did precisely in order to correct the record? Just suppose that, sensitive to the fact that Maymun was an Arabic name, he assumed there must also have been a counterpart of some kind in Hebrew or Aramaic and it was his responsibility to provide it. Perhaps he even left a structural clue for posterity in the intriguing syntactical parallel between how he signs his own name—Joseph son of Y’did known as Ghurawi—and how he renders Maimonides’ name—Moses son of Isaac known as Maymun.

And what name would our scribe light upon in order to restore his hero’s authentic Jewishness? Well, why not, say, Isaac (“he laughs”)?

More about: Maimonides, Religion & Holidays