I would wager that most of us are familiar, or vaguely familiar with, a sample of the Rambam's handwriting. Numerous fragments in his own hand were recovered from the Cairo Genizah (see here for many). In it's own way, the Nesher Hagadol's own handwriting is famous just like his alleged visage (on his portrait, see here and here).
Here is said sample:
Now, this particular piece is very special. It says "Corrected from my copy. I, Moses ben Rabbi Maimon z"l (at least z"l is what it may say - some assume it says zatza"l and others zaqa"l; I read it almost certainly as a tzade). This is found at the very end of the Huntington Manuscript 80 (Ms. Hunt. 80) owned by the Bodleian Library at Oxford.
There is now an entire website dedicated to displaying this precious manuscript which was personally reviewed by Maimonides. (link).
And here is another sample, of many, from the Genizah:
In Jews in Many Lands (1905) Elkan Nathan Adler (himself no Genizah neophyte) writes that
"Four or five autograph letters of [Maimonides] have been found in the Fostat Genizah. One is a genuine twelfth century שו"ת, i.e., "question and answer."We have come a long way in 105 years!
A few years earlier (1898) an article in a peculiar Christian journal called A Peculiar People wrote, quite correctly, that before the Genizah there was only one example of Maimonides' writing (available to the general public, as will see):
Needless to say, there are things we take for granted. How fortunate are we that we can sit in our own home, with a bowl of Cheerios at our side, and look over something as mind blowing as this! Interesting times - which is not necessarily a curse.
It really was not so long ago where most people did not have access to such things, and even the people who did have access, only had access to the things in their own grasp. To see a snippet of writing by the Rambam? This was a rare, almost impossible sight. I will describe when and how and why this changed below.
The Hebrew collection in the Bodleian Library was in reality so awesome, that legends and rumors arose about it. For example, Solomon Schechter writes in The Hebrew Collection of the British Museum (Studies in Judaism, First Series) that
"The Hebrew collection in the British Museum forms one of the greatest centres of Jewish thought. It is only surpassed by the treasures which are contained in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The fame of these magnificent collections has spread far and wide. It has penetrated into the remotest countries, and even the Bachurim (alumni) of some obscure place in Poland, who otherwise neither care nor know anything about British civilisation, have a dim notion of the nature of these mines of Jewish learning.Although it already had a Hebrew collection since the days of Sir Thomas Bodley in the early 17th century, it was not until 1829 that its collection went from good to astounding. In that year the library acquired the Oppenheimer Collection, named after it's collector, the av beis din of Prague, Rabbi David Oppenheim (1664-1736). The library itself describes this collection as "thought to be the most important and magnificent Hebraica collection ever accumulated." It consisted of "780 manuscripts and 4,220 printed books in Hebrew, Yiddish and Aramaic, many of which are the only surviving copies." Rabbi David was not only a proficient collector, but a man of wealth and taste. Thus, many of his books were special orders, printings on colored paper or vellum (that is, klaf). You can read the original catalog prepared for the sale, Kohelet David - Collection Davidis (Hamburg 1826), here. If I recall correctly, this collection remained unsold (but available) for 70 years (or was it 90?). When the Bodleian finally acquired it, they got it for a song. I once calculated how much it was in today's dollars, and I think it came out to less than $1 million. (My memory is blurry; part of me seems to remember that it was only about $250,000, but in all likelihood that was pounds, not dollars.)
All sorts of legends circulate amongst them about the "millions" of books which belong to the " Queen of England." They speak mysteriously of an autograph copy of the Book of Proverbs, presented to the Queen of Sheba on the occasion of her visit to Jerusalem, and brought by the English troops as a trophy from their visit to Abyssinia, which is still ruled by the descendants of that famous lady. They also talk of a copy of the Talmud of Jerusalem which once belonged to Titus, afterwards to a Pope, was presented by the latter to a Russian Czar, and taken away from him by the English in the Crimean war; of a manuscript of the book Light is Sown} which is so large that no shelf can hold it, and which therefore hangs on iron chains. How they long to have a glance at these precious things! Would not a man get wiser only by looking at the autograph of the wisest of men?
But even the students of Germany and Austria, who are inaccessible to such fables, and by the aid of Zedner's, Steinschneider's, and Neubauer's catalogues have a fair notion of our libraries, cherish the belief that they would gain in scholarship and wisdom by examining these grand collections. How often have I been asked by Jewish students abroad: "Have you really been to the British Museum? Have you really seen this or that rare book or manuscript? Had you not great difficulties in seeing them? Is not the place where these heaps of jewels are treasured up always crowded by students and visitors?"
However, the Bodleian was already in possession of Hebrew treasures. Two such treasures were Rambam manuscripts acquired by Sir Robert Huntington in Aleppo, Syria in the late 17th century. One is a manuscript of the Perush Ha-mishnayot written by Maimonides himself! (In Arabic, so it's the Kitab as-Siraj) The other is a very special codex containing Sefer Madda and Ahavah of the Mishneh Torah. This is Ms. Hunt. 80, and it contains the Rambam's own seal of approval. Apparently these were sold to Huntington by the Rambam's own descendents.
The manuscript's existence was a national treasure, but it had not been a national secret. At least one rabbinic authority refers to it several times in his responsa. Here is one such place in the teshuvot of the Radbaz:
As you can see, he writes that he "searched in the correct manuscripts which were checked according to the book checked with the Rabbi's own book, that is in Aleppo." Thus it sounds like even in Egypt, where he lived, there were copies circulating which was checked from this very manuscript, known to have been approved by the Rambam himself.
Who brought this signature to the attention of the world? The answer lies in a great book published in 1851 called Ginzei Oxford - Treasures of Oxford. This work was a joint effort of two great scholars, Leopold Dukes and Hirsch Edelmann, who described the treasures of Oxford. The book was written in Hebrew by them, and translated to English by Marcus Heinrich Bresslau, and thus the book contains a Hebrew and English section. The introduction is by Edelmann. Here is what he writes:
Note: he says that Huntington acquired it in Cairo. This is, I believe, a mistake. In any case, here is the fac-simile that is given for the first time ever, in the Hebrew section.
As you could see above, Edelmann explained that he noticed the signature and asked Bresslau to request from the librarian Bandinell that they be allowed to make a facsimile (presumably Edelmann didn't speak English).
The rest of the facsimile is of a few lines in the same handwriting, thus also written by the Rambam, in the beginning of the manuscript. It is a tribute to the owner, evidently a deceased student of the Rambam's, named R. Elazar ben Perachiah. It is hard to read, so for this we need a transcription. Since the Hebrew section includes a transcription, here it is:
The translation is pretty faithful, but not exact. Since I am always going on about the ס"ט acronym, note that the Rambam doesn't merely mention "Rabbi Elazar of blessed memory, the son of Perachjah." He writes "מ' אלעזר ז"ל ול"ת בר פרחיה ס"ט."
While Ginze Oxford was published in 1851, apparently Edelmann had not kept it a secret, for already in the April 22, 1850 issue of the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums there is an article about it. In a footnote, the editor hopefully asks "Koennte nicht dieses autograph lithographirt werden? Wie Diesen waere dies eine willkommne Gabe!/ Might not this autograph be lithographed? That would be a welcome gift!" So Edelmann obliged.
It didn't take very long before this signature became a desirable thing to reproduce in works by the Rambam. Thus, in the 1861 Kovetz Teshuvos (ed. by Abraham Lichtenberg) we see this:
Actually, this particular signature, as produced in this sefer, even became used as a source in a certain valuable book on names for gittin, but I won't get into that since that is for another post in the works.
And a beautiful fold-out facsimile in the 1864 Vienna edition of the Moreh Nevukhim (with German translation, called Moreh Nebochim, ed. Max Emanuel Stern):
The same volume is available on Google Books, but look what it has:
A frustrating example of how Google Books messes up - too frequently - with no evident plans to correct these errors.
Here's a luxury, deluxe, full-service example from the periodical Achiasaf:
I thought it was from volume 12 (1904) but now I'm not sure. It includes a snippet of text from his Moreh Nevukhim, and it post-dates the Cairo Genizah.
And here's one from a book from 1918. It just uses the image from the Jewish Encyclopedia:
Rather than go on and on and on in this vein, I will supply one more example. Rabbis Moses Hyamson and Chaim Brecher produced a fantastic edition of Sefer Madda and Ahavah, based on this manuscript. It consists of the Hebrew text and translation. They were careful to print and translate this manuscript, and thus they even included the poems and asides, such as the signature certification. The translation of the Rambam's signature is on the bottom:
Finally, to bring things back full circle - how amazing it is that the Bodleian spent effort, time and money to place this invaluable manuscript online for the entire world to use at leisure? Here is an advertisement on the very last page of Yeshurun 3 (1997) for a facsimile edition of this precious manuscript, in a limited run of 300 copies:
It would still be nice to own it, but it is no longer necessary. Viva democracia digital!