A wall painting in Acre, Israel, honoring Nahmanides, also known as the Ramban. (Wikimedia Commons)

Who Was Nahmanides (Ramban)?

This Spanish Bible commentator earned a place alongside Rashi.

Nahmanides was a Spanish Talmudist, Kabbalist and biblical commentator (1194-1270), known, after the initial letters of his name, as Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman).

Nahmanides was born in Gerona, Spain, where he lived for most of his life. An outstanding Talmudist, his work in this field still enjoys the highest esteem among students of the Talmud. As a halachic authority, he exercised a great influence on the Codes of Jewish law, especially through the Responsa of his most distinguished disciple, Solomon Ibn Adret.

Nahmanides was also the leading figure in the Gerona circle of Kabbalists. Indeed, it was through his renown as a Talmudist that respectability was won for the Spanish Kabbalah; though he was very circumspect in sharing his Kabbalistic insights, referring to them, for instance, in his Commentary to the Pentateuch, only by hint.

Nahmanides’ Relations with Christians

Nahmanides was on very good terms with Christian notables, including King James I of Aragon. In the famous disputation in Barcelona with the convert to Christianity, Pablo Christiani, in the presence of the king, Nahmanides emerged the victor and was rewarded by the king.

But this victory aroused the ire of the Dominicans with the result that Nahmanides, at the age of 70, was forced to leave Spain for the land of Israel, where he settled in Acre, compiling there his great Commentary.

During a stay in Jerusalem, Nahmanides worshipped in a synagogue that has recently been excavated and partially rebuilt and is now a tourist attraction in the Old City.

Nahmanides’ Bible Commentary

In his commentary, one of the standard biblical commentaries which took its place side by side with that of Rashi, Nahmanides tries, wherever possible, to arrive at the plain meaning of the text. At the same time, he believes that the Torah has a deeper, inner meaning as a mystical text.

For instance, he accepts the Kabbalistic view that on one level the Torah is a series of combinations of divine names and goes far beyond the actual narratives, which is why, for him, the Torah, in this mystical sense, preceded the events of Moses’ life, even though the book of Genesis, dealing with events before Moses was born, was also given by God to Moses. The mystical Torah actually preceded the creation of the world.

Even on the level of the plain meaning, Nahmanides rejects the rationalizations of Maimonides. According to Maimonides all biblical references to angels appearing to men refer to their appearances in dreams. Nahmanides finds such a notion contrary to the meaning of the texts which clearly speak of actual appearances, as in Genesis 18:1-15 and the continuation of the narrative.

The old puzzle of why the Torah, in the creation narrative, uses the plural: ‘Let us make man’ (Genesis 1:26), Nahmanides solves by postulating that God is inviting the whole of creation to take part in the formation of man. Man has a body created out of the dust of the earth but he also has a soul from the heavenly realms. The soul spurs on man to acquire wisdom and perfection.

In his comment on the command to be holy (Leviticus 19:2), Nahmanides understands this to mean that, in his pursuit of holiness, a man has not only to avoid the illicit but, as the Talmudic Rabbis say, he must also sanctify himself by a degree of separation even from things permitted; otherwise he could become, in Nahmanides’ powerful phrase, ‘a scoundrel with the full permission of the Torah.’

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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