Naḥmanides (Moses ben Naḥman)

views updated


Talmudist, Biblical commentator; b. Gerona, Kingdom of Aragon, Spain, c. 1195; d. Acre, Palestine, c. 1270. According to the acrostic formed by his title and name, Rabbi Moses ben Naman, he was called "the RaMBaN," in official non-Jewish documents, "Maestre Bonastrug de Porta," and "Gerondi" from his birthplace.

Life. In addition to his rabbinical duties, first at Gerona and then at Barcelona, Namanides seems to have practiced medicine. He was the father of a family that included, besides his daughters, a son who died early in life, a son named Solomon, and another named Namān. The most noteworthy episodes in his career were his unsuccessful attempt, c. 1232, to conciliate the factions that warred over maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, and his celebrated disputation in 1263 at Barcelona with Pablo Cristiá, OP, often styled erroneously "Pablo Christiani."

Fray Pablo, a convert from Judaism, had undertaken to demonstrate the truth of Christianity from Jewish sources and had enlisted the authority of Jaime I of Aragon to arrange a disputation with Namanides. Freedom of speech was stipulated for this debate, but both sides published accounts claiming victory. Namanides' account gave such offense that he was arraigned, sentenced to two years' banishment, and his pamphlet was burned. Attempts were made to increase this sentence; Pope Clement IV intervened on the side of severity, although he forbade the execution or mutilation of Namanides.

On Sept. 2, 1267, Namanides arrived in Jerusalem where he spent his remaining years in exile; he died, probably at Acre, and was buried at Haifa, close to the grave of Jeiel of Paris.

Writings. At 15 Namanides began to write supplements to the Code of Rabbi Isaac Alfāsī and soon followed these with writings intended to defend that master against Rabbi Zeraiah ha-Levi Gerondi and Rabbi Abraham ben David. Namanides is the author of glosses on a long list of Talmudic treatises and of at least three works of halakah. As he had defended Alfāsi in his youth, so in his maturity Namanides defended the 9th-century "Laws of the Ancients" against Maimonides, although, in a letter to the conservative rabbis of France, he praised the merits of Maimonides. His "Letter on the Sanctity [of Marriage]" opposed the disdain for human impulse which, he felt, Maimonides had adopted from "that Greek," Aristotle. Namanides wrote commentaries on the Canticle of Canticles, on the Book of Job, and, in exile, on the Pentateuch; he published a sermon preached in the presence of the King of Castile. Three letters written during his exile have survived. He commented on the Book of Yeirah and possibly on other cabalistic texts. He wrote also liturgical poems and prayers.

Exegetical Postulates. As early as his defense of Alfāsī, Namanides set down in his "Wars of the Lord" a principle Aristotle would not have disavowed: "There is in the art [of commenting] no such certain demonstration as in mathematics or astronomy" (Schechter, 112). The authority of the ancient rabbis, he held, deserved respec "Though their words are not quite evident to us, we submit to them." Despite his "desire and delight to be the disciple of the earlier authorities," even the "pure wine of their wisdom" must give way to evidence. He was unwilling to be "a donkey carrying books." Hence, "when their views are inconceivable to my thoughts, I will plead in all modesty, but shall judge according to the sight of my eyes" (ibid., 111, 112). One instance of such independence is his rejection of the dictum of Rabbi Simlai that there are 614 precepts in the Law. "How to number the commandments," wrote Namanides, "is a matter on which I suspect all of us [are mistaken] and the truth must be left to Him who will solve all doubts" (ibid., 112). Since Rabbi Simlai's text is merely "homiletical," the solution given is optionala line of argument to which he had recourse in his disputation with Fray Pablo. Another crucial assertion of Namanides in the course of that debate is that the date of the appearance of the Messiah has less importance for Jews than Christians imagine. In his Date of the Redemption Namanides argued that to be faithful to the Mosaic Law under Christian rule is more difficult, and thus more meritorious, than in the days of the Messiah.

Theological Opinions. Namanides was content to enumerate three basic Jewish dogmas: the world has been created, God exercises providence, and God possesses a knowledge that is also foreknowledge and omniscience. But Namanides' thought is rich in unconventional solutions. God, identical with His Glory and Presence, is the author not only of conspicuous miracles such as the ten plagues of Egypt, but also of miracles so frequent and constant that they escape all notice. The Torah (Mosaic Law) knows that all things are miraculous and attributes "nothing to nature or to the order of the world" (Schechter, 119120). Apart from the Torah "there would be no difference between man and the lower animate species"; even Christians and Muslims, thanks to translations, are "heirs of the Torah" and this is why they too are civilized (ibid., 122). The soul of man exists before its life in the material body and a soul can animate successively more than one body. Thus in a levirate marriage a child can inherit the soul of his actual father's deceased brother; and it is with justice that the iniquity of the father falls on his children in whom his guilty soul lives anew (ibid., 118).

Namanides deplored his exile in moving terms: "I am banished from my table, far removed from friend and kinsman with the sweet and dear children whom I have brought up on my knees, I left also my soul." But he knew the solace of the Psalmist too: "The loss of all this and of every other glory my eyes saw is compensated by having now the joy of being a day in thy courts [O Jerusalem]!" (ibid., 109, 110).

Bibliography: s. schechter, Studies in Judaism (1st ser. Philadelphia 1920), On the disputation between M. Namanides and P. Cristiá, see c. roth, "The Disputation of Barcelona (1263)," Harvard Theological Review 43 (1950) 117144. g. vajda, Introduction à la pensée juive du moyen âge (Paris 1947) 110, 152, 153, 165, 210, 232, 233.

[e. a. synan]