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Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides/Ramban)

(1194 - 1270)

Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides or the Ramban) was the foremost halakhist of his age. Like Maimonides before him, Nachmanides was a Spaniard who was both a physician and a great Torah scholar. However, unlike the rationalist Maimonides, Nachmanides had a strong mystical bent. His biblical commentaries are the first ones to incorporate the mystical teachings of Kabbalah.

Nachmanides was born in Girona, Spain, in 1194, where he grew up and studied. According to the responsa of Shlomo ibn Aderet, Nachmanides studied medicine. During his teens, he began to get a reputation as a learned Jewish scholar. At age 16, he began his writings on Jewish law.

He lived in Aragon until September 1, 1267, when he left for Jerusalem to escape persecution and establish a Jewish community. He founded a synagogue in the Old City that still stands today. After the Crusades forced him to leave, Nachmanides settled in Acre, where he began teaching and attracted a large following of students

In the view of Nachmanides, the wisdom of the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud and the Geonim (rabbis of the early medieval era) was unquestionable. Their words were to be neither doubted nor criticized. “We bow,” he says, “before them, and even when the reason for their words is not quite evident to us, we submit to them” (Aseifat Zekkenim, commentary on Ketubot).

Ramban’s commentary on the Torah (was his last and most well-known work. He frequently cites and critiques Rashi’s commentary and provides alternative interpretations where he disagrees with Rashi’s interpretation. He was prompted to record his commentary for three motives: (1) to satisfy the minds of students of the Law and stimulate their interest by a critical examination of the text; (2) to justify the ways of God and discover the hidden meanings of the words of Scripture, “for in the Torah are hidden every wonder and every mystery, and in her treasures is sealed every beauty of wisdom”; (3) to soothe the minds of the students by simple explanations and pleasant words when they read the appointed sections of the Pentateuch on Sabbaths and festivals. His exposition, intermingled with aggadic and mystical interpretations, is based upon careful philology and original study of the Bible.

As in his preceding works, he vehemently attacks the Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, and frequently criticizes Maimonides’ Biblical interpretations. Thus, he assails Maimonides’ interpretation of Gen. 18:8, asserting that Maimonides’ preferred understanding is contrary to the evident meaning of the Biblical words and that it is sinful even to hear it. While Maimonides endeavored to reduce the miracles of the Bible to the level of natural phenomena, Nachmanides emphasizes them, declaring that “no man can share in the Torah of our teacher Moses unless he believes that all our affairs, whether they concern masses or individuals, are miraculously controlled and that nothing can be attributed to nature or the order of the world.”

Next to belief in miracles, Nachmanides places three other ideas: the Jewish principles of faith, namely, the trust in creation out of nothing, in the omniscience of God, and divine providence.

He was well-known for his aggressive refutations of Christianity, most notably, his debate with Pablo Christiani, a converted Jew, before King Jaime I of Spain in 1263.

Nachmanides could be described as one of history’s first Zionists because he declared that it is a mitzvah to take possession of Israel and to live in it (relying on Num. 33:53). He said, “So long as Israel occupies [the Holy Land], the earth is regarded as subject to Him.” Nachmanides fulfilled this commandment, moving to the Holy Land during the Crusades after he was expelled from Spain for his polemics. He found devastation in the Holy Land, “but even in this destruction,” he said, “it is a blessed land.” He died there in 1270.

Sources: Judaism 101.
“Nachmanides,” Wikipedia.
Benyamin Cohen, “Forwarding the News,” Forward, September 1, 2022).

Photo: 21st-century artistic depiction of Nachmanides - Chesdovi, CC BY-SA 3.0. via Wikimedia Commons.