Epistle to Yemen/XVIII
In sum, had this man acted presumptuously or disdainfully, I would deem him worthy of death. The truth seems to be that he became melancholy and lost his mind. In my opinion, it is most advisable, both for your good and for his that you put him in iron chains for a while, until Gentiles learn that he is demented. After you have blazoned and bruited abroad the intelligence concerning this man among them, you may release him without endangering his safety. If the Gentiles gain knowledge about him after he has been locked up by you, they will taunt him, and pronounce him irrational and you will remain unmolested by them. If you procrastinate until they learn of this affair of their own accord, then you will most likely incur their wrath.
Remember, my co-religionists, that on account of the vast number of our sins, God has hurled us in the midst of this people, the Arabs, who have persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us, as Scripture has forewarned us, "Our enemies themselves shall judge us" (Deuteronomy 32:31). Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase and hate us as much as they. Therefore when David, of blessed memory, inspired by the holy spirit, envisaged the future tribulations of Israel, he bewailed and lamented their lot only in the Kingdom of Ishmael, and prayed in their behalf, for their deliverance, as is implied in the verse, "Woe is me, that I sojourn with Meschech, that I dwell beside the tents of Kedar." (Psalms 120:5). Note the distinction between Kedar and the children of Ishmael, for the Madman and imbecile is of the lineage of the children of Kedar as they readily admit. Daniel alludes only to our humiliation and degradation "like the dust in threshing" suffered at the hands of the Arabs, may they speedily be vanquished, when he says, "And some of the host and of the stars it cast down to the ground, and trampled upon them." (8:10). Although we were dishonored by them beyond human endurance, and had to put with their fabrications, yet we behaved like him who is depicted by the inspired writer, "But I am as a deaf man, I hear not, and I am as a dumb man that openeth not his mouth." (Psalms 38:14). Similarly our sages instructed us to bear the prevarications and preposterousness of Ishmael in silence. They found a cryptic allusion for this attitude in the names of his sons "Mishma, Dumah, and Massa" (Genesis 25:14), which was interpreted to mean, "Listen, be silent, and endure." (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, ad locum). We have acquiesced, both old and young, to inure ourselves to humiliation, as Isaiah instructed us "I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair." (50:6). All this notwithstanding, we do not escape this continued maltreatment which well nigh crushes us. No matter how much we suffer and elect to remain at peace with them, they stir up strife and sedition, as David predicted, "I am all peace, but when I speak, they are for war." (Psalms 120:7). If, therefore, we start trouble and claim power from them absurdly and preposterously we certainly give ourselves up to destruction.
I shall now narrate to you succinctly several episodes subsequent to the rise of the Arabic kingdom from which you will derive some benefit.19 One of these refers to the Exodus of a multitude of Jews, numbering hundred of thousands, from the East beyond Ispahan, led by an individual who pretended to be the Messiah. They were accoutered with military equipment, and drawn swords, and slew all those that
19The following four incidents about the pseudo-Messiahs are found only in the Arabic original (in only one of the MSS.) For the translation of this text I have utilized the English rendering made by the late Professor Israel Friedlaender which he prepared in anticipation of a complete English version of the Letter which he planned to make. The following additional information concerning the activity of this pretender and his subsequent fate, is given by Maimonides in a letter written twenty-two years later to the Rabbis of Southern France.
- "In Yemen there arose a man who claimed that he was the harbinger of the Messiah, who was supposed to have arrived already in Yemen. Many people, both Jews and Arabs, followed him in his roamings in the mountains. Our co-religionists in Yemen wrote me a long letter concerning his ways, his doings, the innovations he introduced into the prayer book, and his preaching. They asserted that they witnessed such and such miracles of his, and wished to have my opinion regarding ths matter. I concluded from their remarks as follows: That poor fellow was an ignorant religious fanatic without any sense at all, and that the miracles he was alleged to have palmed off upon them were a mere imposition. Inasmuch as I entertained fears concerning the Jews there, I composed rather a lengthy tract in which I dealt with the Messiah, his characteristics, and the nature of the times in which he would appear. I cautioned them to restrain that man lest he perish and the community with him. Finally after a year he was taken into custody, and his adherents fled. When the king of the Arabs requested him 'Why have you done all this?' he replied, 'Indeed, I have done these things in accordance with God's behest.' 'Can you prove that it is so?' asks the king. 'If you sever my head, I shall immediately be resurrected,' he responded. 'I do not expect any better evidence than that,' continued the king, 'and if that miracle transpires then not only I, but the whole world will acknowledge that our ancestral faith is false.' Whereupon they immediately killed that poor fellow, may his death be an atonement for him and for all Israel! As a consequence a monetary fine was imposed upon the Jews in many localities. There are still some fools who believe that he will be resurrected soon."
For the Hebrew text, see Marx, The Correspondence between the Rabbis of Southern France and Maimonides about Astrology, New York, 1926, pp. 50-51.