Who Was Nahmanides ??

| | Comments (0)

Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman was the leader of Spanish Jewry in the end of the turbulent thirteenth century. He is commonly known as the RaMBaN, as well as by the Greek name, Nahmanides. Not only was he officially the chief rabbi of Aragon and Catalonia, but he was a well respected leader of Jews everywhere. The rabbi was born in Girona, Catalonia, Spain in 1194 (4955) and grew to become the crown of Western European Jewish scholarship. Today we acknowledge that his great Torah scholarship, laudable personal life, and incisive analysis of Jewish history, remains a beacon of light shining through the centuries.

Nahmanides was related to the great Rabbi Yonah of Girona.  Girona was a location with a circle of mekubalim (kabbalists). This city in northern Spain is notable because it was where kabbala flourished in the period prior to the introduction of the Zohar. As a young man, Nahmanides was mentored in kabbala by Rabbis Ezra and Ezriel, both who had arrived from Genova, a seaport city in northwestern Italy.

Once an adult, the rabbi demonstrated he was a true intellectual, a Sepharadi who set the mold for others who followed--he was a man of faith, of Torah, and a man of the world. He was not only a Torah commentator, Talmudist, and kabbalist, but also a student of medicine, something which he practiced professionally. Nahmanides studied physics as well as excelled in numerous languages. He had been one of the earliest writers to build a bridge of understanding between the French and the Spanish schools of Jewish thought. On the one side, his Spanish birth and training made him open to the world, yet he possessed the Ashkenazi devotion to the Talmud that was already existent in France.

Despite the fact that Nahmanides was only a boy of ten when Maimonides passed away, as he matured, he developed an intellectual affection toward his writings.  Eventually, it would be Nahmanides that struggled to unite European Jews that had entered into an incredible schism fueled by the works of Maimonides. Nahmanides had great reverence for Maimonides' works, but he disagreed with Maimonides' rationalizing of the Scriptures and his enumeration of the 613 Commandments.

Nahmanides tried to reconcile the supporters and opponents of Maimonides, including Rabbi Yonah of Girona who was vehemently against Maimonides' writings. Nahmanides defended Maimonides against his detractors, claiming that most of the criticisms were simply false. His need to defend Maimonides ended after Nahmanides most famous defense of Judaism ended in King Louis of France burning all the copies of the Talmud in Paris. After this sad event, Rabbi Yonah and other detractors of Maimonides felt that the events in Paris were a sign that he and the others critics of Maimonides were seriously wrong, and Rabbi Yonah and his colleagues backed down from this matter and all matters that caused division among the Jewish People.

In the Disputation of 1263, Nahmanides brilliantly defended the Jewish religion. This particular disputation took place in Barcelona after King James I of Aragon ordered the rabbi to participate in a public religious debate with the Jewish apostate Pablo Christiani. One of the main themes of the debate was, "Has the mashiah arrived, or is he yet to appear and redeem the world..." Disputations such as this were not that unusual. Heretical converts from Judaism to Christianity challenged rabbis to defend the Talmud against challenges of anti-Christianity. Pablo Christiani demonstrated his knowledge of the subject by basing his arguments on Biblical and Talmudic texts. Nahmanides resisted the attacks of Christiani for four days. He responded, taking advantage of the freedom of speech which the king had granted him. In doing so, the rabbi destroyed Pablo's arguments. It can be observed that the rabbi won the battle but then lost the war. Although he won the disputes, copies of the Talmud were consequently gathered and burned by the Church.

While the king was very impressed by the rabbi's victory, arguments continued after the dispute, with a Dominican priest claiming that Christiani had won. As a result of this claim, Nahmanides wrote Sefer Havikuah (the dispute), which detailed the event. As a result of the printing of this book, the religious authorities charged him with humiliating the Catholic religion. He seemingly offended the Dominicans (the promoters of the Inquisition which would be instituted 200 years later), as well as Pope Clement IV. Soon after, the rabbi was banished from Spain forever.

In 1267 at the age of 72, Nahmanides emigrated to Jerusalem where he established a synagogue from the ruins of an old Crusader-period church. This synagogue was used by all sections of the Jerusalem community for centuries, growing significantly as the Jewish population bloomed following the conquest of Eretz Israel in 1517 by the Turks; the Turkish Ottoman Empire permitted Jews who had been expelled from Spain to settle there. Today, the Nahmanides or RaMBaN Synagogue, is the largest active Ashkenazi synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Nahmanides spent the last years of his enormously productive life finishing his monumental commentary on the Torah that he had begun in Spain. He eventually settled in Acco, north of Haifa, where he continued to write. Through his commentary, he offered a clear view and explanation of the Torah, showing the moral and ethnical lessons that it contained. In many places throughout his commentaries, he introduced midrashic and kabbalistic explanations. Another gem of those final years was Igeret HaRaMBaN, the letter in which he sets forth eloquently and concisely the ethical principles by which his son should conduct himself.

The elderly rabbi remained in Acco while waiting for a decision that would permit his return to Spain. This decision never materialized and he never returned nor saw his family again. Nahmanides died in 1270. It is believed he is buried at the foot of Mt. Carmel.

Leave a comment

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Shelomo Alfassa published on December 5, 2007 8:05 AM.

Nahmanides: First to introduce mystical thought into a Torah commentary was the previous entry in this blog.

This Week in Sephardic History (Dec. 10-15) is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Powered by Movable Type 4.01