from The Rambam (author).
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: TRANSITION
There are episodes in Rabbi Moshe's life whose bare description alone is known. Rabbi Moshe wrote once in a letter, "There have occurred to me many bare sorrows in the land of Egypt: illnesses, loss of money and informers who sought to kill me."
There are as well episodes in Rabbi Moshe's person's life whose content is known, but which cannot be communicated. So filled are they with exquisite feeling, of gladness or sorrow, that they are ineffable.
Rabbi Moshe continued in his letter, "And then there occurred the great evil that overcame me finally, the greatest evil of any that has happened to me since the day of my existence."
Who had brought the sorrowful news back to Rabbi Moshe? Had it been a messenger carrying post from the ports of the Sudan? Perhaps it had been a merchant who had heard gossip passing upon the docks of Ayhdab, or a broker who had dealt with Rabbi Dovid. "This great evil was the passing away of my brother, the righteous man, of blessed memory, who drowned in the Indian Ocean. He drowned holding a great deal of money belonging to me, to him and to others. He left behind a small daughter and her widow, who are living with me."
The death of his brother broke Rabbi Moshe's spirit. "For about a year from the day that the evil report arrived, I remained lying in bed. I suffered a skin disease, fever and a profoundly suffering heart, and I was almost lost."
Rabbi Moshe grieved, "He was like a son to me, growing up on my knees. He was my brother. He was my student." And Rabbi Moshe praised his brother, "He had a quick understanding of the Talmud and understood its details superlatively well.
"I had no joy except in seeing him," Rabbi Moshe lamented. "My joy has passed and gone to eternal life, leaving me dismayed in a foreign land. Whenever I gaze upon his handwriting or one of his manuscripts, my heart turns within me and my pain is reawakened. 'I shall descend to the grave, my son, in mourning' (Ber. 37:35).
"If not for the Torah which is my delight," Rabbi Moshe concluded, "and the words of wisdom in which I forget my pain, I would have been lost in my poverty."
A year passed. Rabbi Moshe walked through the streets of Fostat. Little brass chimes rang in the cool, dusty wind. Overhead the sky seemed new and wet, with a blue, silky sheen. Rabbi Moshe pulled his white robe about him. He was more gaunt now, and weary. He entered the gate of his home, holding his tallis bag against his chest.
In the anteroom, six Jews, men and women, were waiting to see him. One of the women held a red-faced, squalling baby.
Rabbi Moshe passed into the next room. "I'll see the baby first."
An old man with a bowed posture rose up angrily. "Rabbi Moshe, I was here before this woman!"
Rabbi Moshe put his tallis bag onto a shelf. "Her child is in pain. Please sit down patiently. I shall see you shortly."
The woman stepped forward into Rabbi Moshe's examining room, which had once been his living room.
She handed the infant to Rabbi Moshe, her black eyes large above her veil.
After Rabbi Moshe had recovered from his grief over his brother's death, one of the rabbis had offered him a salary as chief rabbi.
"You are no longer supported by your brother," the rabbi had pointed out. "In addition, now you have to support his widow and daughter, as well as repay the debts he incurred. If you give your time to the citizens of Cairo to be chief rabbi, you should be reimbursed--"
"Please, no more," Rabbi Moshe interrupted. "Have you not read what I wrote about this in my commentary on Pirkei Avos?" He lifted a manuscript down from the shelf and flipped through the pages.
The rabbi took the manuscript from Rabbi Moshe's hands and turned it around so that it faced him. "'Rabbi Tzadok said,'" he recited aloud, "'Do not make the Torah a spade with which to dig.' That's the quote from Pirkei Avos."
"Go on," Rabbi Moshe waved a hand. "Read my commentary now."
"'Do not regard the Torah as a tool to make a living,'" the rabbi read. "'Whoever has enjoyment in this world from the honor of the Torah removes his life from the world to come. People have mistranslated this clear language of the Mishnah and cast it behind their backs. They assigned fixed taxes to individuals and communities and brought people to believe with total foolishness that it is an obligation to help sages and the students, people whose Torah is their occupation.
"'But this is all an error,'" the rabbi continued to read, "'and there does not exist in the Torah or in the words of the sages anything that will justify this.
"'When we examine the words of the sages, we will not find that they asked people for money. They didn't receive money for the great, important yeshivas, nor for the Exilarchs, nor for the judges, nor for the teachers, nor for any of the Torah leaders, nor for any other person. We will find that in every generation there was both abject poverty and incredible wealth.
"'They saw that taking money is a desecration of G-d's name in the eyes of the masses, for they will consider the Torah as just another occupation...'"
Three months had passed since that time. Now Rabbi Moshe looked into the infant's eyes. In his youth, he had learned medicine from his father and from the physicians of Morocco. Now he would apply his abilities to earn a living.
"The child is colicky," Rabbi Moshe said. "Give him warm barley gruel sweetened with date honey. If he is not better, come back to me."
"Thank you," the woman murmured. She scooped the child up into her left hand. With her right hand, she reached into the fold of her voluminous robe and cast a few coins onto the ledge. "Is that enough...?"
Rabbi Moshe glanced down at the coins. They were the meanest coins, barely worth a few handfuls of flour.
"I'm sorry," the woman said. "My husband is a dyer and we have many children, G-d protect them. If the payment is not sufficient...."
"No, it is enough," Rabbi Moshe said. "Don't forget to return if the crying doesn't stop."
The woman stepped out. Rabbi Moshe stood at the door and motioned to the old, bowed man to enter. He wore a dirty, frayed robe. He too would pay no more than a few small coins.
In the afternoon, Rabbi Moshe walked into the street. A Jew from North Africa passed by and nodded his head in respect--one of Rabbi Moshe's students. Farther down the street, he passed a Spanish Jew. This man had learned with Rabbi Moshe the previous year. Now his wife and children had followed after him, and he earned a living as a silversmith.
A group of young students from Arabia passed by. They too were students, but Rabbi Moshe did not know their names. So many students now came here to learn.
Most of the Jews now living in Fostat were not native to Egypt, but, a few thousand of them, had come in the last few years to learn with Rabbi Moshe.
Rabbi Moshe entered the large, gray building that had been converted into a hostel under his initiative.
Here were Jews from all over the Islamic world, in tarboushes and turbans. The men stood at attention as Rabbi Moshe walked among them.
A small, round man with olive skin and thin lips hurried forward to Rabbi Moshe. He was a native of Damietta who had moved here to learn.
"Mar Akiva, I have come to look at the books."
"At once! They are in my office."
Mar Akiva led Rabbi Moshe through the dining room, where tens of students sat on carpets before platters of food.
As Rabbi Moshe passed through the hall, they hurried to their feet.
Rabbi Moshe stopped and asked a teen-aged student with lambent eyes, "Is the food adequate?"
"Yes, yes, very good," the student hurried over his words.
In the office, Mar Akiva opened a ledger and Rabbi Moshe bent over it. "This is the record for food expenses," Rabbi Moshe said. "What about the accounts of the clothing that we provide to the students?"
Mar Akiva brought out another ledger and opened it.
Rabbi Moshe studied the figures and looked up at Mar Akiva. "Overall, how much are your expenses per year?"
"About ten thousand Egyptian dinars."
Rabbi Moshe nodded and closed the ledgers. He took out a stack of coins and put it on the table. "Give me a receipt for this money. It will go to any particularly poor Jew."
Out in the street again, Rabbi Moshe passed through the marketplace. A horde of Moslem beggars surrounded him. Some had pus-filled, unseeing eyes, others blunted stumps of hands and feet. "Rabbi Moshe! The Jewish holy man is here! Help us, Rabbi Moshe!"
Rabbi Moshe reached into his robe and distributed coins among them.
"May the Compassionate G-d bless you with all good!" an old man pronounced, his face pock-marked. The others chorused, "Amen, may it be the Compassionate One's will!"
At the entrance to the city, amidst the tens of merchants mounting and alighting from donkeys, a snake charmer in a ragged turban opened his eyes wide as a thick snake sluggishly crawled up his forearm and onto his neck.
Here too a group of dusty beggars, Jewish and Moslem, gathered about Rabbi Moshe--"the Jewish holy man"--and he distributed coins among them.
Every week, Rabbi Moshe gave the poor Jews and Moslems a total of two hundred small Fez dinars.
Now Rabbi Moshe turned back to Fostat. After a short distance's walk, he came to a building whose lintel was still charred from the firebombing that had taken place almost a decade previous.
Here, swaying back and forth, a group of students was rehearsing a sugya from the Gemara. Seated on carpets were a rabbi and a group of students, learning the halachos of property rights. They sprang to their feet. Rabbi Moshe motioned with his hand. "Please keep learning." He walked through the halls of the beis medrash, listening to the students learn.
Then he was on the street again, passing by small boys who carried jars of water. From the leather market came the pungent smell of newly-cured hides, and Rabbi Moshe passed among small shops before which were set out belts, leather bags, straps and saddles.
Rabbi Moshe entered another beis medrash that he had established, and he circulated among the students.
Rabbi Moshe visited all the batei medrash that he had opened: five altogether. Here were not only young students but older men who had for a period of time set aside their craft to learn under Rabbi Moshe.
In two of the batei medrash, Rabbi Moshe sat down and delivered a shiur on the Rif to the students.
Before a group of thirty students, a rabbi told Rabbi Moshe, "We have received the following question. A man divorced his wife. Then, after she remarried and had children, he grew jealous of her. He has issued a document signed by two reputable witnesses that the signatories to the divorce are people who publicly transgress the Torah.
"He demands that the woman be forced to separate from her new husband and that her new children be declared mamzerim. How do you rule?"
Rabbi Moshe remained silent a moment and then answered, "It was a great mistake to have allowed sinful men to sign the divorce papers, for the testimony of such men cannot be accepted. "If these men sinned without being warned, or if they merely have an evil reputation, the divorce is valid. The first husband is merely obligated to write his wife a new bill of divorce with kosher witnesses. She can remain married to her new husband and her children are not mamzerim.
"If, however, the two sinful witnesses were warned ahead of time that what they were about to do was punishable by lashes or excision, and they sinned anywway, then they are not kosher witnesses. In such an unlikely case, the divorce did not take place. The woman must leave her second husband and the children are mamzerim (Teshuvos Harambam 3)."
By positing extremely unlikely circumstances in which the witnesses would be declared unkosher, Rabbi Moshe was able to save a woman and her new family from being the victims of a vindictive former husband.
It is no wonder that Rabbi Moshe was beloved by all who knew him for his generosity of spirit, compassion, piety and learning. "Come out and see," one of his students wrote, "the beauty of the prince of princes...he is inheritor of the crown, Moshe--our rabbi, our commentator, our guide. He is the beauty of the age and its wonder. His name has risen to the heavens. He is the candle of the west and the light of the east. He rejoices like the man of might to run upon the path. He is the crown of the wise men and the prince who commands the nations" (letter of Rabbi Antoli in Igros Ut'shuvos Harambam Lipsiah p. 36).