Thank you for joining me in this exciting new series. Parsha Themes will focus on the weekly Parsha as well as moadim. The focus is on providing engaging and relevant parsha and moadim thoughts that will enhance your Shabbos and Yom Tov table. I will be focusing on the fundamental Peirush HaRamban for this cycle. We start with a biographical discussion of Ramban and conclude with some information about myself, the author.
The Holy Ramban
We’ve all heard his name and have come to revere him as one of the leaders of Torah Jewry. Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (1194-1270), known as Ramban, Nachmanides was a leading medieval, Sephardic scholar in Spain who was a Rabbi philosopher, physician, kabbalist and Torah commentator. He was born, raised and studied most of his life in Garona, Spain. It was during the last three years of his life that he moved to Eretz Yisrael and became one of the re-establishers of the community there following the crusades of 1099.
Ramban was born in 1194 and passed away in 1270 at age 76. He was a cousin of Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (d. 1264), and they shared correspondence, sometimes sharply, but always with love. Ramban was the grandfather (some debate this) of the Ralbag (R’ Levi ben Gershon, Gersonides, 1288-1344) who was a very fascinating rishon, commentator on the Torah.
Ramban studied under Rabbi Yehuda ben Yakar, and he learned kabbalah from Rav Azriel of Gerona and Rav Yitzchak Sagi Nahar, both very famous kabbalists. He was a noted leader of his generation and the rebbe of world famous talmidim including the Rashba (1235-1310) and the Raah, Rav Aharon HaLevi (1235-1290)
At the age of fifteen, Ramban produced Hilchos Nedarim and Hilchos Brachos which were written in the style of the Sefer Halachos of the Rif, Rav Yitzchak Alfasi (1013-1103). The Rif was a leading halakhist and he had actually omitted those two tractates from his codification of halacha, and so the Ramban filled in the gap. One of the things that the Ritva (R’ Yom Tov Asevilli, 1260-1320), who was a talmid of the Rashba, wrote about the Ramban is that the Ramban’s works strengthen the foundation of the Torah, and his words bear a stamp of truth.
Rambam and Moreh Nevuchim
In 1238, when he was 44 years old he was pulled into the controversy of whether the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim should be learned, and he took a very interesting approach. He defended the Rambam (1135-1204) because he said: Clearly from the Rambam’s writings in Mishna Torah you see that he was a halachist, true scholar and someone that upheld the mesorah. Many of the opponents of Rambam were Jews in France and Germany. Ramban acknowledged that there Rambam’s works were not needed as they did not study philosophy as the Sephardic Jews in Spain and Jews living in Muslim cultures did. Thus, Ramban stressed that Moreh Nevuchim should be learned by those who can benefit from its ideas, however, it should be studied in a group to avoid any misunderstandings. Rashba, his student modified this future by stating that it should only be studies once someone reaches matureness of mind at age 25 and beyond.
Ramban was a powerful upholder of the mesorah, and a lot of his works are defenses against what he saw as injustice or bias against other scholars. He defended the Halachos Gedolos, the BeHag, who was one of the Geonim, against the criticism of the Rambam in Sefer HaMitzvos. Ramban penned Melchamos Hashem where he defended the decisions of the Rif against Rabbi Zerachia HaLevi, the Baal HaMeor (1125-1186). In Sefer HaZechus, Ramban defends Rif against the Raavid III (1125-1198).
The Ramban also wrote chiddushim, in the style of Tosfos, on many tractates. His works are studied in yeshivos and he’s considered a foundation for lumdus. He wrote other sefarim as well, Toras HaAdam, on the laws of mourning; Shaar HaG’mul, about reward and punishment, a philosophical sefer; Iggeres HaRamban, which is his letter to his children beseeching them to act with proper middos. He wrote a commentary on Iyov which is very similar to his style on Chumash.
Rav Chaim Dov Chavel (1906-1982), one of the people who made peirush HaRamban more accessible with his publication in 1959 of Ramban al HaTorah followed by Kisvei HaRamban (2 Volumes, Mosad HaRav Kook), did great research and toiled to express the Ramban’s intentions. Rav Chavel theorized why Ramban wrote on Chumash and Iyov. Torah is the foundation of all knowledge and the source of eveything. Sefer Iyov, which talks about human suffering really summarizes so much of what the purpose of life is, not necessarily the suffering part, but making sense out of it, and connecting to Hashem through it. This may be why Ramban felt it important to write an extensive commentary on Iyov.
Ramban also wrote a kabbalistic work called Emunah U’Bitachon. He authored the very famous Iggeres HaKodesh which is about the sanctity of marriage. Although, some people dispute that and say someone else wrote it.
Pablo Christiani Debate
In 1263, When Ramban was 69 years old King James I of Aragon (1208-1276) challenged him and pulled him into a fight where he had to debate against the Jewish apostate, Pablo Christiani in Barcelona. Pablo Christiani was a man who had converted from being Jewish, and had become, rachmana l’ztlan, a friar, eager to show the Church how committed he was to Christiani. In this debate the Ramban said that he would only be able to take part if he was granted free reign to speak openly without consequence. The King felt this was fair and granted him this right. At the end of the debate King James was so impressed with the Ramban’s performance that he gave him an award of three hundred gold coins. It was obvious that the Ramban had crushed his opponents logically, spiritually and religiously.
The Dominican priests were not happy about this humiliation and thus spread a rumor that the Ramban had lost. The Ramban utilized his newfound diplomatic immunity for freedom of speech and carefully documented the entire debate in Sefer HaVikuach for all to see that Judaism had prevailed. The Dominicans were so outraged by this, because it once again showed how wrong they were, that they created a libel against him. They claimed that his works had blasphemies against the Church and against Christianity and these complaints reached the Vatican. The Pope demanded that King James punish this insolent non-believer leaving the King in an uncomfortable position.
Instead of executing Ramban, they condemned and burned his book and they kicked him out from Aragon. This episode ended up pushing the Ramban to move to Eretz Yisrael which had been one of his dreams. He first left for three years and tried to stay in Castile or Provence until he finally left for Eretz Yisrael.
It was in this time period that Ramban began to write his Chumash commentary. This is important historical information on two fronts. First, because Ramban added comments in his peirush that say explicitly, that now that Hashem has merited him to enter Eretz Yisrael he saw certain locations firsthand himself. Secondly, this was one of the last works Ramban wrote and it is thus seen as his final word.
We know that he probably finished much of Bereishis before he reached Israel. Chumash Ramban is a classic. We often take Rashi (1040-1105) as the first stop for Chumash learning, and for good reason, but Ramban is certainly a close runner up for a classical commentator who shed light on the simple meaning and deeper meaning of Chumash.
In his introduction, he gives great respect to Rashi, who he describes as, “lo mishpat habechorah, He gets first attention.” Ramban also debates with Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167), and says that he will relate to him with “tochachas megula im ahava musteres, Open rebuke with hidden love (See Mishlei 27:5).” One of the main criticisms Ramban has against Rashi is that he shows how Rashi’s explanation is not the simplest reading of the verse. One of the criticisms he has against Ibn Ezra is that he sometimes feels Ibn Ezra’s explanation veers from that of Chazal, kabbalah or Zohar. This is a large discussion and a topic that I hope to cover in this series.
The great kabbalist, the Arizal, said that the kabbalistic aspects of Ramban’s peirush are the last of the ancient kabbalistic school that we have access to and that the mesorah was lost after him, but what he did commit to writing is accurate and a hundred-percent true.
Discussions By Others
There are a lot of rishonim that wrote about the Ramban after his time. Rabbenu Bachya (1255-1340), who was a talmid of the Rashba, and the Tur HaAroch (R’ Yaakov son of Rosh, 1269-1343) quotes the Ramban and debates some of his translations and explanations. For the most part both expound upon the Ramban’s ideas and bring much insight to his works, especially R’ Bachya who clearly revered him.
Chasam Sofer (1762-1839) pioneered the weekly study of Chumash with Ramban. He actually did it according to some people, as shnayim mikrah v’echad targum, reading Chumash, Targum, Rashi and Ramban. Chasam Sofer, R’ Moshe Schreiber, believed himself to be a gilgul of Ramban and strove to explain Ramban’s words whenever possible. I saw Rav Shmuel Vosner (1913-2015) quote a person whom he heard directly from his own mouth that this man watched the Chafetz Chaim review the parsha with Ramban as part of Shnayim mikrah. In the Chasam Sofer’s will he actually asked his descendants to study Ramban with their children because he said it’s something that instills great yiras shamayim.
Like many of the Rishonim, Ramban practiced medicine as a means of supporting his family. Although limited formal medical schools were formed in his time, it is likely that he was self-taught. The Jews wrote and translated most of the medical texts and were known to be the greatest doctors around. We know from numerous letters that Ramban practiced as a general doctor, specialized in eye issues and spent some time as an Obstetrician. His work was alway secondary to his Torah learning and scholarship.
At the age of 72, Ramban finally made it to Eretz Yisrael, and arrived in Acco in Elul 1267. He found Eretz Yisrael, especially Yerushalayim, to be in a deplorable condition. He set out to fix this and actually started a shul there which is called the famous Ramban shul to this day. He wrote back to his family that the greater a place’s holiness, the greater its degradation. In his first lecture there he extolled the people to follow the Torah because when you live in Eretz Yisrael you’re in the king’s palace, and it’s more of an obligation to act appropriately when you’re in front of the king.
Ramban eventually settled in Acco which at the time was the Torah center. That is where he finished his commentary on Chumash. It was in Eretz Yisrael that he was able to see firsthand and document his interpretation of verses based on Ma’aras HaMachpeila and other places that he saw.
He died on the eleventh day of Nissan, 1270. There is a dispute about his place of burial. Some say it was Chevron, others Haifa, Acco or Yerushalayim.
But, where he lives is in the Chumash. Ramban lives on through his magnificent seforim and continues to impact the Jewish nation to this very day. The Rivash (1326-1408, student of Ran) writes: “All his words are like sparks of fire. The entire community of Castile (many people have added: the entire Torah community of the world) rely on his halachic rulings as if they’re given from Hashem directly to Moshe.”
Much has been said about Ramban’s amazing impact. My goal throughout Parsha Themes is to share some compelling questions that we have on simple meaning of the Chumash and see how the Ramban addresses them with clarity and power, instilling Jewish principles and lessons in our hearts and minds.