When Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon zt”l moved to Fostat, Egypt, in 4925 (1165), his fame as a physician spread rapidly, and he soon became the court physician to Sultan Saladin, the famous Muslim military leader, and his son al-Afdal. He also continued his private practice and lectured before fellow physicians at the state hospital.
However, as often happened throughout history, non-Jewish ministers were jealous of the Rambam’s success and continuously plotted against him in order to discredit him before the sultan. On one memorable occasion, a rumor spread throughout the palace that the Rambam was planning to serve a potion to the Sultan that would kill him. Of course, as intended, the rumor reached Sultan Saladin’s ears. Horrified, he ordered a thorough investigation into the matter, and since the investigators were the same people who promulgated the rumor in the first place, it was no wonder that the investigating committee found him guilty. The sultan found the charge hard to believe. He knew Rabbeinu Moshe to be an exceptionally honest, upright person, and did not want to punish him unduly. He decided to put the matter in the hands of Heaven.
“Prepare two sheets of paper,” he commanded his chief minister. “Write ‘life’ on one, ‘death’ on the other. We will give Maimoni one last chance at life. We will allow him to draw the lot and pick his own fate.”
The Rambam was informed of the charges and the test he will be required to undertake to prove his innocence. All that night, he prayed to Hashem to save him from the clutches of the evil ministers, and to make his lot fall on ‘life.’ In the morning, he made his way to the palace, where he could see people looking at him and whispering. “It will soon be over,” he overheard one minister tell the other, and it was then that he realized that a plot was afloat, and he was doomed to failure.
“Suppose I tell the king to check the papers before the lots are drawn,” he thought to himself. “If they attempted to alter the lots, their nasty scheme will undoubtedly be revealed, but in all likelihood, the king will order a new set of papers written up, and I will once again face the risk of drawing the one that reads ‘death.’”
Rabbeinu Moshe entered the throne room, which was filled to capacity. On a small table in front of the sultan lay a bowl with two folded squares of paper. The hall was filled with ministers, and the royal physician sensed the hatred and excited anticipation in their eyes, which convinced him that his reasoning was correct. He strode up to the box where the two papers lay, and he unflinchingly chose one square. He didn’t even open the sheet. Instead, he put the parchment into his mouth. Ignoring the stares of the crowd, he chewed and chewed, tearing the paper into shreds, and finally, swallowing the entire sheet.
Now, he pointed to the paper in the bowl on the table. “Your majesty, please open the remaining parchment,” he said. A servant hastened to open the paper and held it high. The crowd strained to see. Clearly printed in thick black ink, the word ‘death’ could be seen, even by those standing across the hall. The room was filled with hushed whispers.
“Clearly,” thundered the sultan, bringing the strange mutterings to an abrupt end, “Maimoni chose the lot of life.” A small smile threatened to burst upon his dignified face. “I must say, though, that I admire your original way of choosing lots. Perhaps we should have spiced the paper? Do you always enjoy chewing little scraps of paper?”
Rabbeinu Moshe stepped forward. “Your Highness,” he said. “This is no laughing matter. The paper I chose did not read ‘life.’” He paused for emphasis. “Your minister took the liberty of writing ‘death’ on both papers, to ensure that I would die.” The sultan glowered at the minister cowering at his side. The Rambam continued. “It is quite obvious that these ministers hate me, and that they plotted to kill me today. They interfered with the king’s plan in an effort to destroy me. It is they who are the traitors, not I; for if they could stoop so low as to foil the king’s justice system in order to satisfy their own envy, how can they be believed with regard to the matter I have just been tried for? Is it not preposterous to say that I attempted to murder the sultan?” Saladin investigated and found that the charges against the Rambam were baseless. The minister was thrown into prison, and the Rambam continued his work, his wisdom and integrity unblemished and unsurpassed.