Nahmanides, Moses

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NAHMANIDES, MOSES (c. 1194c. 1270), also known by the acronym RaMBaN (Rabbi Mosheh ben Naman); Spanish name, Bonastrug da Porta; Talmudist, biblical exegete, mystic, and polemicist. Born in Gerona, Catalonia, in a period of cultural transition and controversy, Nahmanides confronted the traditions and attitudes of Spanish, Provençal, and northern Ashkenazic Jewry in a wide range of intellectual pursuits.

His Talmudic education with Yehudah ben Yaqar in Barcelona and with Meʾir ben Yitsaq of Trinquetaille exposed him to the dialectical methodology of the Tosafists of northern France, which had penetrated into Languedoc and was revolutionizing the study of the Babylonian Talmud, the central text in the Jewish curriculum. Nahmanides adopted this methodology, which he enriched with the Talmudic studies of Provençal scholars and the textual traditions of Spanish Jewry, to produce novellae and legal monographs that would establish the dominant school of rabbinics in Spain until the expulsion of 1492. Aside from his novellae, Talmudic commentaries that served as standard texts in medieval Spain, Nahmanides' works in this field include Milamot ha-Shem, a defense of Yitsaq Alfasi's code against the strictures of Zeraiah ha-Levi, in which Nahmanides presented what is essentially a complex commentary on selected portions of the Talmud; a critique of Maimonides' Book of the Commandments which was also a defense of the Geonic Halakhot gedolot; Torat ha-adam, a lengthy monograph on the laws of mourning; a series of studies on other aspects of Talmudic law such as vows, menstrual impurity, and indirect causation of damages, some of which were modeled after Alfasi's code; and, of course, responsa.

Although Nahmanides is a towering figure in the history of Talmudic study, his greatest direct impact on the masses of Jews probably came through his wide-ranging and enormously influential commentary on the Pentateuch, which was to become one of the first printed Hebrew books. Nahmanides was persuaded that all knowledge could be found in the Torah, and his efforts to explicate the text touched upon all the areas of his intellectual interest. He was, first of all, deeply concerned with the plain meaning of the text. This concern went beyond questions of philology and syntax; Nahmanides was extraordinarily interested in the structure and order of biblical narrative, which he perceived, despite an apparent rabbinic statement to the contrary, as carefully chronological. The commentary contains nuanced and richly textured observations about the morality, motivations, and personalities of biblical characters; Nahmanides did not hesitate, for example, to question the moral legitimacy of Abraham's apologia to Abimelech that Sarah was indeed his half sister (Gn. 20:12). Though he provided an ongoing critique of the commentary of Avraham ibn ʿEzra,ʾ often accusing him of insufficient respect for rabbinic exegesis, Nahmanides allowed himself considerable independence in areas that do not touch upon legal norms, and his frequent deviations from Rashi's interpretations can involve a rejection of their rabbinic sources as well.

Nevertheless, for Nahmanides, the straightforward meaning of the Bible, however complex, does not begin to plumb its depths. He stressed the typological understanding of scripture, which, despite Midrashic precedent, was rather unusual among medieval Jews. Thus, the patriarchal settlement of the Land of Israel is taken to foreshadow the later conquest and remains a source of assurance that Jewish rule will be restored at the end of days.

The profoundest level of meaning in scripture, however, is not typological but mystical. This layer of meaning is the one that Nahmanides discusses at the very beginning of his commentary, where he asserts that the Torah consists entirely of esoteric names of God. Nevertheless, neither this extreme esotericism nor his conviction that mystical doctrines could be known only through tradition prevented him from finding these doctrines in the "plain" meaning of scripture as well, so that straightforward exegesis and what Nahmanides called "hidden wisdom" intersected in a fashion that legitimated the teachings of the Gerona qabbalists by an appeal to the biblical text itself. Although Nahmanides' allusions to esoteric lore remained brief, elusive, and inaccessible to the uninitiated, these doctrines move toward center stage in his commentary to Job, where belief in transmigration of souls emerges as the only satisfactory resolution of the problem of evil. This problem and its qabbalistic solution are also at the heart of the theological monograph Shaʿar ha-gemul, which Nahmanides appended to Torat ha-adam and which treats theodicy both exoterically and esoterically.

In the final analysis, Nahmanides' crucial role in the history of Qabbalah does not lie primarily in the content of these passages and similar, sometimes more elaborate discussions in his sermons (The Law of the Lord Is Perfect, Sermon for a Wedding, Sermon on Ecclesiastes, Sermon for Roʾsh ha-Shanah ), nor is it to be sought in his partially preserved commentary on Sefer yetsirah (Book of creation). His key contribution was the legitimation of Qabbalah by the very fact that he advocated it; the problems raised by this system for Jewish theology could not readily be pressed if the critic would thereby be raising questions about the orthodoxy of so unimpeachable a figure as Nahmanides. Consequently, the mere fact that Nahmanides was a mystic was a significant factor in the triumphant progress of Qabbalah in late medieval and Renaissance Jewish history.

Aside from his mystical, exegetical, and homiletical writings, Nahmanides produced two other influential works on non-halakhic topics. Sefer ha-geʾullah (Book of the redemption) was prompted by some signs of messianic skepticism among Spanish Jews. Although Nahmanides did not consider the redemption to be in the first rank of Jewish dogmasone could, after all, expect greater heavenly rewards for observing the Torah under James I of Aragon than under the much more benevolent messianic kingdefense of the belief in redemption was important theologically and crucial for the collective psyche of medieval Jewry. Nahmanides insisted on the continuing relevance of eschatological passages in the Bible, which, he said, are both unfulfilled and unconditional. Finally, he joined the ranks of messianic calculators, arguing eloquently that a straightforward reading of the end of Daniel points to the arrival of the ultimate redeemer in 1403, a date sufficiently close to buttress Jewish morale yet sufficiently removed to discourage messianic hysteria.

Any discussion of exile and redemption inevitably had polemical implications for Jews in Christian Europe, but Nahmanides' major polemical work was thrust upon him late in life under extraordinary circumstances. A Jewish convert to Christianity began to engage in vigorous missionary activity utilizing the relatively new argument that Talmudic passages demonstrate the truth of Christianity. In 1263 in Barcelona, Nahmanides was forced to defend the Jewish position in a disputation witnessed by James I. Despite the reservations of some scholars, there is every reason to believe that Nahmanides, who received an award from the king after the debate, acquitted himself with distinction; he later recorded his version of the proceedings in a work that lifted Jewish spirits and influenced subsequent polemicists through the medieval period and beyond.

His boldest and most controversial argument, which was probably sincere, maintained that rabbinic midrash was not dogmatically binding; hence, the Jewish polemicist was free to reject some uncongenial statements of the rabbis. The reaction of later Jews to this approach was profoundly ambivalent, and they wondered both about Nahmanides' sincerity and about the ultimate utility of an approach that undercut Christian arguments and respect for the rabbis at the same time. Nahmanides' own reverence for the rabbis even while differing from them is illustrated in his one other foray into Jewish-Christian polemica brief commentary on Isaiah 53 in which he asserted his conviction that the suffering servant is the Jewish people, but devoted the work to explaining how the Talmud could have understood the figure messianically without drawing Christian conclusions.

The disputation at Barcelona was not Nahmanides' first encounter with controversy of significant historical dimensions. In 1232, he had played a major role in the dispute over the writings of Maimonides and the legitimacy of philosophical inquiry. Some rabbis in northern France, responding to complaints by Provençal antirationalists, had proclaimed a ban against the study of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed and the first section of his code, while Maimonists had reacted by placing the Provençal anti-Maimonists under the ban. Nahmanides, who admired Maimonides but had deep reservations about the standard form of philosophical study, proposed a compromise to the rabbis of northern France that may well have persuaded them to withdraw from further involvement in this dispute. The code, including its first section, should be studied with enthusiasm; public study of the Guide should be banned; private study of both the Guide and philosophy in general should gently be discouraged.

Modern scholarly views of Nahmanides' position in this controversy as well as of his overall philosophical posture reflect considerable disagreement. Many scholars perceive him as a thoroughgoing antirationalist who despised philosophy and saw a world of omnipresent miracles in which no natural order existed; others, with greater justice, see a far more complex figure who absorbed much of the medieval philosophical legacy, made his living as a physician, saw a naturalistic world punctuated by miracles, and espoused disciplined theological inquiry within carefully delineated limits.

The Land of Israel had always played a particularly significant role in Nahmanides' thought, and when he found himself under pressure in the wake of the Barcelona disputation, he went there to spend his remaining years. This was no placid retirement. Nahmanides revived the Jewish community of Jerusalem, which had been decimated by the invasion of the Khwarazan Turks in 1244. He became the head of the Jewish community in Acre, and it was in Israel that he put the finishing touches on his magnum opus on the Pentateuch.

See Also



Works by Nahmanides

The standard edition of Nahmanides' novellae is iddushei ha-Ramban, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1928). Charles B. Chavel has edited Perushei ha-Torah le-Rabbenu Mosheh ben Naman (Ramban), 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1962), and Kitvei Rabbenu Mosheh ben Nahman, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1963), and is the editor and translator of Ramban (Nachmanides): Commentary on the Torah, 5 vols. (New York, 19711976), and Writings and Discourses, 2 vols. (New York, 1978). Despite drawbacks, Chavel's are the standard editions of these novellae and also contain commentary by the editor.

Works about Nahmanides

The best of several short books on Nahmanides that contain both biographical information and analysis of his thought is Heymann Chone's German work, Nachmanides (Nuremberg, 1930), while Chavel's Ramban: His Life and Teachings (New York, 1960) is the only such work in English. The characterization in Solomon Schechter's Studies in Judaism, vol. 1 (1896; reprint, Cleveland, 1958), remains useful. The most elaborate volume on aspects of Nahmanides' thought is Chayim Henoch's Ha-Ramban ke-oqer ve-khi-mequbbal (Jerusalem, 1978). For an important collection of new studies, see Rabbi Moses Namanides, edited by Isadore Twersky (Cambridge, Mass., 1983).

New Sources

Chazan, Robert. Barcelona and Beyond: The Disputation of 1263 and Its Aftermath. Berkeley, 1992.

Henoch, Chayim. Ramban: Philosopher and Kabbalist on the Basis of His Exegesis to the Mitzvoth. Northvale, N.J., 1998.

Novak, David. The Theology of Nahmanides Systematically Presented. Atlanta, 1992.

Pedaya, Haviva. Ha-Ramban: hitʿalut zeman mahzori vetekst kadosh. Tel Aviv, Israel, 2003.

Stern, Josef. Problems and Parables of Law: Maimonides and Nahmanides on Reasons for the Commandments (taʿamei ha-mitzvot). Albany, N.Y., 1998.

David Berger (1987)

Revised Bibliography