The great Jewish philosopher and rabbi Moses Maimonides completed his commentary on the Mishnah—the earlier stratum of the Talmud—in 1161, at the age of thirty. Although he had already settled in Cairo by then, he began work on the commentary seven years earlier, when he was probably still living in Morocco. Much of the original manuscript remains extant, and resides in Israel’s National Library; Daniel Lipson explains how it got there:
Maimonides’ family preserved the manuscript (along with other writings of his) and even added their own notes to it. On most of the pages of the manuscript kept at the National Library of Israel we can see the handwritten notes . . . of Maimonides’ grandson, Rabbi David ha-Nagid. This same David eventually immigrated to Syria, taking the manuscript with him. His family settled in the city of Aleppo. . . . At some point Maimonides’ family apparently split apart. It is likely that the famous patriarch’s relatives . . . decided to divide the manuscript into six fragments, each containing one of the six “orders” into which the Mishnah is divided. . . .
In an introduction to the first part of the commentary manuscript, Rabbi Solomon, one of Maimonides’ great-grandchildren, dedicated the text to God and to the past and future generations of his family, up until the coming of the messiah. [He] noted that all who wished to read the text were welcome to do so, as that was the wish of the author, but “he who commits the offense of selling or loaning with deposit will be damned by the God of Israel.”
We don’t know exactly who was cursed with eternal damnation, but one thing is certain: the manuscript was sold. Edward Pococke served as the priest of the English community in Aleppo during the years 1630-1634. While there he purchased the N’zikin (“damages”) and Kodashim (“holy things”) sections of the manuscript, taking them with him when he returned to England. He would later publish some of the material in a book in 1655.
Robert Huntington served in the same role as Pococke in Aleppo later that century. He managed to acquire the Zra’im (“seeds”) section dealing with prayer and agricultural laws. Huntington sold this segment to the University of Oxford in 1693, which also purchased Pococke’s collection during the same year, meaning the university was now in possession of three of the six orders. . . . We know nothing of the Tohorot (“purities”) section of the manuscript, which vanished somewhere in Syria. . . .