Cambridge University in England said that a Visiting Researcher at the school found previously unknown evidence that the man considered to be the greatest Rabbi and Jewish thinker of all history, Moses Maimonides, wrote in a Romance dialect. The evidence was found in manuscript fragments dating from the 12th century.
The find, only recently uncovered, was one of the more than 200,000 fragments of Jewish writing from the famed Cairo Genizah collection held at Cambridge. A Genizah is a place where Jews bury sacred manuscripts such as Tora scrolls and other holy items. But in an urban desert setting like Cairo, there is not always a place to bury such things, so they were stored in a synagogues attic and were discovered a little over a century ago.
About 60 different fragments were discovered that have been attributed to Maimonides. The pages are described as a glossary of basic terms relating to herbs, basic foods and colors and were identified by José Martínez Delgado, a visiting professor to Cambridge University Library’s Genizah Research Unit, from the Department of Semitic Studies at the University of Granada.
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Maimonides is best known amongst world Jewry by his appellation “the Rambam.” This is an acronym for his name: Rabbi Moses Ben (son of) Maimon. He is known for having been the most prolific writer of commentaries on the Tora, the Talmud and books on Jewish law. He was also known for his works of philosophy and medicine. Rambam worked as a doctor. Maimonides is also possibly the best known rabbi in Jewish history among non-Jews.
But Jews would be surprised to hear that he may have written text using the Latin (European) alphabet. Maimonides lived his entire life – almost nine hundred years ago – in Muslim lands, including then Muslim Spain. He wrote mostly in Hebrew, but also in Arabic. But none of his known works were written in any European languages.
“The glossary covers four semantic categories: colors, flavors and aromas, actions, and food. Why was Maimonides collecting these words? What does it tell us about him?” said Martínez Delgado about the fragments.
“The sequence of the words is interesting, as we are seeing him ‘at work’, writing a progression of words that make sense to him,” he added. “The terms don’t follow alphabetical order – they are arranged logically by basic associations (bread, water), and opposites (white, black). The category of colors (white, black, blue, red, green, yellow, purple), ends in ‘light’ and ‘dark’ and then moves to flavors and aromas. The connection between these is presumably the senses, moving from sight to taste to smell.”
Delgado went on to explain that the list of foods moves from basic foods (bread, water) to vegetables, to edible seeds (wheat, chickpea), to seeded fruits (olive, fig), to dried fruits/nuts (acorn, pistachio), to foods from other natural products (milk, honey). The list of actions first describes the basic actions undertaken by all animals (eat, sleep), and then moves to actions, feelings and emotions that are more specific to people.
“As to why he was collecting the words? He was a physician, with students, so perhaps he was gathering the terms for a medical or educational reason, or testing himself on his vocabulary,” Delgado hypothesized.