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jeudi 5 mai 2016

Maimonides on fasting


            It is interesting to note that in the course of illustrating the evils of the third type, Maimonides mentions once again the dangers involved in setting out to sea aboard a ship in pursuit of luxuries.

For whereas all necessary things are restricted and limited, that which is superfluous is unlimited. If, for instance, your desire is directed to having silver plate, it would be better if it were of gold; some have crystal plate; and perhaps plate is procured that is made out of emeralds and rubies, whenever these stones are to be found. Thus every ignoramus who thinks worthless thoughts is always sad and despondent because he is not able to achieve the luxury attained by someone else. In most cases such a man exposes himself to great dangers, such as arise in sea voyages and the service of kings; his aim therein being to obtain these unnecessary luxuries. When, however, he is stricken by misfortunes in these courses he has pursued, he complains about God's decree and predestination, and begins to put the blame on the temporal and to be astonished at the latter's injustice in not helping him to obtain great wealth, which would permit him to procure a great deal of wine so as always to be drunk and a number of concubines adorned with gold and precious stones of various kinds so as to move him to copulate more than he is able so as to experience pleasure - as if the end of existence consisted merely in the pleasure of such an ignoble man.

            Did Maimonides believe that his brother's voyage was inappropriate?

            A letter written by R. David to his brother, Maimonides, has been uncovered in the Cairo geniza. The letter was sent from the port city of Idav in the Sudan before R. David sailed off for the Indian Ocean. We are not dealing with the same trip mentioned above, but rather with a voyage that took place in 1171. R. David tries to calm Maimonides, so that he not worry about him. The letter implies that this is the first time that R. David is setting sail for the Indian Ocean.[6]

            An autobiographical note attributed to Maimonides mentions various dates related to his flight from Spain to Eretz Israel. One of the dates recorded there is the date of his brother's return, safe and sound, from his first voyage.

On Tuesday, the twelfth of Sivan,[7] God saw my afflictions and my brother returned safely, and I made it a day of charity and fasting.

            Maimonides' great anxiety concerning his brother is clearly evident here. Moreover, before recording this date, he writes about his flight from Spain to Eretz Israel:

On Saturday night, the fourth of Iyyar, I set out to sea. On the Sabbath, the tenth of Iyyar, in the year 4925 to Creation,[8] a great wave almost drowned us, and the sea was raging. I took a vow that on these two days I would fast, and conduct myself as on a full-fledged communal fast, myself, my family, and my entire household. And I will instruct my children to do the same until the end of generations, and to give charity in accordance with their ability. My vow included that I would sit in seclusion on the tenth of Iyyar, I would not see anybody, but rather I would pray and read all day to myself. Just as on that day at sea I found nobody but the Holy One, blessed be He, so will I not see anybody or sit with him, unless I am compelled to do so.
And on Saturday night, the third of Sivan, I safely disembarked and arrived in Acre, and I was saved from persecution, and we reached Eretz Israel. That day I vowed to be a day of gladness and joy, feasting and presents for the poor, for me and my family until the end of all generations.

            The dangers posed by the sea familiar to Maimonides through personal experience belong to the first class of evils, the evils of nature, which man cannot overcome with his intellect. But a person's entry aboard a ship is certainly dependent upon his decision, which is an agent of Divine providence. Even if Maimonides thought it was necessary for him to board the ship in order to escape persecution, he may not have thought the same about his brother's voyage that was undertaken for business purposes.

            But what is the meaning of marking those days by way of vows as fast days or as days of feasting and celebration? How can this be integrated into Maimonides' fundamental understanding that providence operates through the regularity of nature and the human intellect?

At the beginning of the Laws of Fasting, Maimonides writes that there is a Torah commandment to fast over a misfortune that befalls the community, and in the continuation he notes that the individual must also fast over his personal misfortunes. He explains this mitzva as follows:

[2] This is one of the paths to repentance. When misfortune arrives and people cry out in prayer and sound the trumpets, they will all know that evil befell them because of their evil actions, as it is written: "Your iniquities have turned away…" (Jeremiah 5:25). This will cause them to remove the calamity from upon themselves.
[3] However, if they do not cry out and do not sound the trumpets, but rather they say: "This is just a natural occurrence, the problem is mere happenstance," this is cruelty which causes them to cling to their evil ways and will bring about more misfortune. This is what the Torah means when it says: "If you remain indifferent (be-keri) to me, then I will be indifferent to you in fury (chamat keri)" (Vayikra 26:27-28).  In other words, when I bring misfortune upon you so that you should repent, if you say that it is mere chance (keri), I will add to it the fury of that chance.

A fast must cause a person to change his ways and improve his character traits. Indeed, Maimonides did not suffice with fasting, which even by itself has value with respect to the improvement of morals, but he also committed himself to give charity and designated the day for seclusion that includes prayer and study.[9] In that way, Maimonides turned the fast into a vehicle for repentance and self-improvement. The question remains, however, what is the meaning of the argument that one should not relate to such misfortunes as accidents. Surely, according to the Guide, evils of the first type are due to chance that by necessity governs the material world!

Maimonides asserts that attributing chance to the world leads a person to cruelty, that is, to hardening of the heart, and this is certainly an evil trait. But the question remains whether, according to Maimonides, there is no truth to the argument that the misfortune befell the person by chance.

It may be suggested that a person always determines his actions; nothing is by chance, but they depend upon his level. Maimonides' fundamental insistence on allowing room, not only for Divine wisdom, but also for Divine will in His relationship to the world, must, however, leave a person in constant doubt as to the cause of a specific event. It is true that in the great majority of cases, what happens to a person results from his material nature, but perhaps this one time he merited that God should relate to Him by way of His will, and not only His wisdom. This uncertainty must lead a person to exhaust this possibility and embark upon the path of repentance.

(Translated by David Strauss)

This series is posted in conjunction with the Maimonides Heritage Center,

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