Moses Maimonides’ autograph responsum (reply) to a question referred to him by a rabbinical court. The case referred to Maimonides concerns a teacher who had sworn not to teach the daughters of a certain man, but who had ultimately regretted his act. He asks Maimonides what he must do in order to repel his oath.

Who was Maimonides?

Born in Cordoba, Spain and known to Christian Europe as Maimonides, Rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon (1138–1204 CE) or Rambam (his acronym), was a world-renowned rabbinic authority, philosopher and accomplished physician, whose famous writings include the Mishneh Torah (‘Repetition of the Law’), a Jewish legal code and Moreh Nevukhim (‘The Guide for the Perplexed’), a philosophical work. While residing in Egypt during the latter part of his life, Maimonides wrote over four hundred responsa - answers to legal questions addressed to him by local and remote Jewish communities. Many of the responsa have survived in the Cairo Genizah.

Why is the document important?

This document penned on paper, comes from the Cairo Genizah, a store of worn-out Jewish religious and secular writings in Hebrew and other Jewish languages that were deposited in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, old Cairo, Egypt, over a period spanning nearly 1,000 years. According to Jewish law, writings bearing God’s name cannot be disposed of, but must be buried in a cemetery. This vast archive consisting of about 300,000 Jewish manuscript fragments was discovered in the 19th century.

The manuscript

The language of the entire document is a combination of rabbinic Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic. The question is written in a semi-cursive Hebrew Spanish script, whereas Maimonides’ reply is in his personal cursive Hebrew Spanish hand. Both types of writing belong to the western Sephardic category of Hebrew scripts apparently developed in Tunisia and Muslim Spain during the Middle Ages. The cursive Sephardic writing was noticeably influenced by Arabic cursive script. Maimonides’ reply occupies the last three lines of the document, and his signature, ‘Mosheh’, is the very last word of text.

View images of the entire manuscripts via our Digitised Manuscripts website.