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Jewish Commentators — Their Lives and Works

 

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Moses ben Naḥman
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Hebrew Name(s): משה בן נחמן
Other Names: RaMBaN, Nachmanides, Naḥmanides, Moses ben Nachman, Moshe ben Naḥman, Moses ben Naḥman Gerondi
Period: Rishonim — 13th Century
Location: Spain, Palestine
Dates: 1194–1270

Biography:
Moses ben Naḥman (Nachman) was born in Gerona, Spain (thus, he is sometimes called Gerondi.)  He studied Talmud under R. Judah ben Yakar and Kabbalah under R. Ezra ben Solomon and R. Azriel with whom, together with Jacob ben Sheshet, he later became part of the Spanish school of Kabbalah which moved away from Gnostic leanings (derived in the 1st-2nd Century) to Neoplatonic speculation.  
 
A good student, Naḥman is said to have mastered the whole Talmud and its commentaries sufficiently, by the age of sixteen, to write a defense (Milchamot Hashem) of R. Isaac Alfasi against Zerachiah Halevi, author of Sefer Hamaor. His work showed his natural inclination to mystical interpretation of the biblical text and to the philosophy of the kabbalists.
 
Naḥmanides was not a rationalist and believed the hidden meaning of the text could only be found from within an enlightened faith. He denied that human reason could answer all. His commentary on the Pentateuch, which included both the literal meanings (peshat) and aggadic and halakhic interpretations, usually leaned towards the mystical meanings as most significant.
Moses ben Naḥman approached his exegesis from the perspective that the biblical text and rabbinic tradition were the primary authorities. His approach was fundamentalist in that he rejected the possibility that the text anything but the result of divine dictation to Moses.
 
Although he expressed a conservative philosophy he disagreed with Moses ben Maimon's (Maimonides) philosophical approach to religious truth, although he defended the importance of Maimonides' work against the French who labeled him heretical.
 
Naḥmanides revived Talmudic studies with his fresh approach in which he took selected passages from the Talmud and commented upon them. These novella where after the style of the French school of Tosafists and were published as a series of short works. Moses ben Naḥman reputation as a halakhist was so great that later rabbis in Spain referred to him as "The Rabbi." His fame was not confined to his home state and it was in 1263 that a famous disputation took place, before the Court of King James of Aragon and many dignitaries, between Moses ben Naḥman and a Christian convert from Judaism, Palbo Christiani. Naḥmanides upheld his side of the debate, arguing so well that he not only won the debate but was rewarded by the King for his excellence.
 
Moses ben Naḥman was a physician and supported himself with his practice. He was at the same time a rabbi in Gerona and later became Chief Rabbi of Catalonia.
 
Moses ben Naḥman moved to Israel when in his seventies and helped to revive religious and community life. He established a synagogue in Jerusalem and later moved to Acco (Acre) where he completed his commentary on the Bible.
 
Moses ben Naḥman is often known by the acronym, RaMBaN —Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman

Works:
Commentary on the TorahBi'ur or Perush 'al ha-Torah; Commentary on the Talmud; Chiddushei haRamban; Torat ha-Adam; Milḥamot Hashem; Torat Haacku; Igeret HaKodesh;  Mishpetei ha-Cherem; Hilkhot Bedikkah; Sefer ha-Zekhut; Hassagot; Derashah (Torat Adonai Temimah); Sefer ha-Ge'ulah; Iggeret ha-Musar; Iggeret ha-Chemdah; Perush Iyyov; Wikkuaḥ; Perush Shir ha-Shirim

Comments:
Naḥmanides’ Commentary on the Torah was one of his last works and comments on both the narrative and the legislative parts of the Bible. In it Naḥmanides critiques Rashi and poses alternative explanations. Naḥmanides attacks Greek philosophical approaches and frequently disputes Maimonides’ interpretations. E.g., he cites Maimonides’ interpretation of Genesis 18:8 claiming it is contrary to the evident meaning of the biblical words and sinful to hear.
 
While Naḥmanides, like Rashi and Ibn Ezra, followed a strict philological approach to words when necessary, he concerned himself with the sequence of biblical passages and the deeper meaning of the laws and narrative. His work often takes the aggadic and halakhic interpretations of the midrashic and talmudic sages analyzing it and critically examining it to develop their ideas and examine their compatibility with the biblical text.
 
Naḥmanides' commentary demonstrates great psychological insight when examining the biblical personalities and was the first commentator to introduce Kabbalah into his commentary which is written in a lucid style and provides a source of solace to the Jewish people. Of the Song of Ha'azinu (Deut. 32), Naḥmanides comments:
"And behold there is nothing conditional in this song. It is a charter testifying that we shall have to suffer heavily for our sins, but that, nevertheless, God will not destroy us, being reconciled to us (though we shall have no merits) and forgiving our sins for His name's sake alone…. And so our rabbis said: 'Great is the song, embracing as it does the present, the past (of Israel) and the future, this world and the world to come….' And if this song were the composition of a mere astrologer we should be constrained to believe in it, considering that all its words were fulfilled. How much more have we to hope with all our hearts and to trust to the word of God, through the mouth of his prophet Moses, the faithful in all his house, like unto whom there was none, whether before him or after him."
 
Naḥmanides' commentary on the Torah became very popular and was drawn upon and commentated upon by those who followed. Commentaries included super-commentaries and kabbalistic commentaries. Baḥya b. Asher and Jacob b. Asher included large parts of it in their own commentaries.
 
Naḥmanides' commentary was first published in Rome prior to 1480.
 
Naḥmanides’ Commentary on the Talmud. Naḥmanides wrote glosses on the whole of the Talmud and made compendiums of parts of Jewish law modeled on the work of Isaac Alfasi.
Chiddushei haRamban is Naḥmanides’ major work on the Talmud in which he provides different perspectives on a variety of issues addressed by the Tosafists.
Torat ha-Adam, a work of thirty chapters, deals with mourning rites, burial customs. Naḥmanides criticizes those who demand indifference to pleasure and pain. The Law, he says, declares that humanity should rejoice with joy and weep in mourning. The last part of Torat ha-Adam, Sha'ar ha-Gemul, deals with eschatology.
Milḥamot Hashem is a defense of R. Isaac Alfasi (RIF) against Zerachiah Halevi, author of Sefer Hamaor.
Torat Haacku is a brief book of laws and a number of halachic discussions.
Igeret HaKodesh is a letter on marriage, holiness and sexual relations which criticizes Maimonides’ view that sexuality if a disgrace to human beings. Naḥmanides believed that the human body and all its functions were a work of God. Igeret HaKodesh has been long attributed to Moses ben Naḥman but it is now almost certain that it was not written by him. It is published in Sefer Ha-Musar and also in separate editions.
Mishpetei ha-Cherem is concerned with the laws regarding excommunication and is reproduced in Kol Bo (All Is In It), an anonymous work which contains a collection of Jewish ritual and civil laws.
Hilkhot Bedikkah which deals with the examination of the lungs of slaughtered animals is cited by Simeon ben Tzemaḥ Duran in Yavin Shemu'ah.
Sefer ha-Zekhut, is a defense of Isaac Alfasi against the criticisms of Abraham ben David (RABaD) and is printed with Abraham Meldola’s Shiv'ah 'Enayim and also under the title Machaseh u-Mag.
Hassagot is a defense of Simeon Kayyara against the criticisms of Maimonides’ Sefer ha-Mitzvot (Book of Precepts).
Derashah is a sermon delivered in the presence of the King of Castile; also published with the title Torat Adonai Temimah.
Sefer ha-Ge'ulah, or Sefer Ketz ha-Ge'ulah is a work which deals with on the time of the arrival of the Messiah.
Iggeret ha-Musar is an ethical letter addressed to his son (in the Sefer ha-Yir'ah, or Iggeret ha-Teshuvah, of Jonah Gerondi.)
Iggeret ha-Chemdah is a letter addressed to the French rabbis in defense of Maimonides (with the Ta'alumot Ḥokmah of Joseph Delmedigo).
Perush Iyyov is a commentary on Job.
Bi'ur or Perush haRamban 'al ha-Torah is a commentary on the Torah.
Wikkuaḥ is a record of the arguments and refutation in a public debate between Naḥmanides and Pablo Christiani, recorded by Naḥmanides (published in the Milḥamot Ḥobah, Constantinople, 1710). The subjects discussed were: 1. Has the Messiah appeared? 2. Should the Messiah announced by the Prophets be considered as a god, or as a man born of human parents? 3. Are the Jews or the Christians the possessors of the true faith?
Perush Shir ha-Shirim is a commentary on Canticles (attributed to Naḥmanides, however, the authorship is questionable, since the enumeration of the commandments given in iv. 11 conflicts with that given in the Hassagot).

 

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