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Nachmanides (Ramban)

Introduction to the Ramban

Portrait of Ramban or Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as Nachmanbides

The Ramban 

(Image from


Like Maimonides, Nachmanides was a physician, Talmudist, and philosopher. However unlike the rationalist Maimonides, Nachmanides had a strong mystical bent. Nachmanides the Mikubal incorporates the findings of Jewish mysticism into his commentaries.Works by Nina Caputo, Charles Chavel, Isaac Unna, Meier Rappaport-Hartstein, Chayim Henoch, David Novak, Josef Stern, Yaakov Shulman, Yael Feldman, David Berger, A. Newman, Avinoam Safran, Moshe Idel, Joseph Dan, Marvin Fox, Tzvi Langermann, Moshe Wesblum, and others illuminate this tension between rationalism of the Rambam and the mysticism of the Ramban, what perhaps Rav J.B. Soloveitchik characterized as dualism in the soul of halakhic man and homo mysticus or the lonely man of faith.

The historical context of the Ramban (1194-1270) is the medieval Disputations, one of which occurred in 1240 with Rabbi Yechiel in Paris, one in 1263 in Barcelona with the Ramban, and one in 1414 in Tortosa with Rabbi Yosef Albo, author of Sefer Ha-Ikarim. The Ramban, who lived in Barcelona, was forced to debate in a medieval disputation, the fallout after publication of the Ramban's Sefer Ha-Vikuach, led the Ramban to flee for his life to Acco.

Ramban's disputation in Barcelona in the year 1263 is well known. As Hayim Maccoby has shown in his book, The Talmud on Trial, this disputation was one of many other disputations where Jews were forced to debate theological matters. The outcomes of all disputations were bad for Jews, leading to pogroms, burning of rabbinic texts, and often forced exile for the Jewish interlocutors. In 1240 in Paris Rabbi Yehiel debated and as a result of the debate in 1242, 24 cartloads of Talmud volumes were burnt outside Notre Dame Cathedral. Superstitious Jews explained the burning of the Talmud on the Maimonidean controversy whereby certain Rabbis like Rabbi Judah Alfakar urged the Friars to burn the works of Maimonides, particularly the philosophical sections of the Mishneh Torah and all of the Moreh Nevukhim. Repentant anti-Maimonideans confessed that as a result of punishment for being complicit in encouraging the Friars to burn the philosophical writings of the Rambam, two years later 24 cartloads of general Rabbinic works were also burnt. However, as Robert Chazan and Cecil Roth have shown, the real impetus for the burning of the 24 cartloads of Rabbinic texts was the debate in Paris between Rabbi Yechiel and his Christian interlocutor. As Jeremy Cohen has demonstrated in his excellent book, The Friars and the Jews, the Christian debators, many who included apostates, learned Rabbinic texts in a superficial manner in order to challenge the Rabbis in hermeneutical argument trying to marshal Rabbinic texts to prove the truth of Christianity.

In 1263 Ramban debated a Christian apostate. Rambam set the record straight about the debate in a work called Sefer Ha-Vikkuach, published after the debate in response to the Latin version of the debate. As Charles Chavel has shown, Sefer Ha-Vikuach caused scorn and anger amongst the Christians who rioted and committed programs as a result of its publication. The Ramban himself was forced to flee for his life to eventually settle in Acco. Some of the content of the Barcelona 1263 debate dealt with the question "Has the Messiah come?" to which Pablo Christiani declared that Rabbinic texts affirm this proposition. Pablo noted that Midrash Ekiah states that the Messiah was "born" (nolad) the day the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed i.e. the Hurban. The Ramban retorted that that is aggadata, and many statements can be found in the Talmudim and Midrashim about the Messiah, such as he is at the gates of Rome healing the sick. (See Raphael Patai, Messiah Texts). The Ramban noted that aggadata is not as authoritative as halakhah. Secondly, the midrash eikah is careful with its language and states "born" not arrived (hegiah). Thirdly, the Ramban pointed to the historical current phenomenological evidence indicating that famine, plague, war, still exist and the Temple of the Jews is not yet reconstituted on Har Habayit. Thus the conditions as laid out by Maimonides in Section 14 of the Mishneh Torah (Sefer Shoftim) do not seem to have been fulfilled, although the Ramban disagreed with the Rambam on the timing of the dawn of the messianic era based on a well-known gemarah. The Ramban esoterically argued (see Amos Funkenstein) based on a pusek in Tehillim (A thousand years in your sight L-rd are as yesterday) that each creation day refers to 1000 years of Jewish history, so that the messianic era will dawn in the year 6000 of the Jewish calendar and set in the year 7000 (see Yosef Saracheck, The Doctrine of the Messiah in Medieval Jewish Literature). Rambam, on the other hand, also based on a Rabbinic text, argued that the Messiah can come in harif-ayin (ein augenblick), "for there is no difference between olam ha-zeh and biyamei ha-mashiach, except that the medinat Yisrael as a politcal entity will not be persecuted by surrounding nations that wish to destroy her." In 1414 Rabbi Yosef Albo, the author of Sefer Ha-Ikkarim, also debated and the debate led to further pogroms against the Jews.

Thus, we see from the history of the disputations that constitute the historical context of the Ramban's life  that theological debate led to negative outcomes for Jews. As Rav J.B. Soloveitchik noted, Jews should discuss "ethics" with non-Jews but " theological" discussion can lead to resentment and backlash, and thus the Rav was opposed to the interfaith chapel at Cornell University (see Nathan Helfgott). and ecumenicalism.

by David B Levy exerpted from longer draft of "Introduction" by David B Levy to Rabbi Moshe Pinchas Weisblum book, The Hermeneutics of Medieval Jewish Thought: The Linguistic Codes or Rashi and Ramban (Edward Mellon Press, 2007) 

 For Ramban as a Mikubal and his disciples of the Gerona circle see: Levy, David B. AJL Proceedings of the 48th Annual Conference, Houston, Tx., 2013.

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