NAHMANIDES on Torah, Gemara, Kabbalah

NAHMANIDES (Moses b. Nahman, also known as Nahamani and RaMBaN – an acronym of Rabbi Moses Ben Nahman; 1194–1270), Spanish rabbi and scholar and one of the leading authors of talmudic literature in the Middle Ages; philosopher, kabbalist, biblical exegete, poet, and physician. Nahmanides was born in Gerona, Catalonia, and it was after his native town that he was also referred to as Rabbenu Moses Gerondi or Yerondi. His Spanish name was Bonastrug da Porta. Nahmanides was a descendant of Isaac b. Reuben, a contemporary of Isaac b. Jacob Alfasi. His mother was the sister of Abraham, father of Jonah b. Abraham Gerondi. His teachers included Judah b. Yakar, a disciple of Isaac b. Abraham of Dampierre, who established his yeshivah in Barcelona, and Meir b. Isaac of Trinquetaille. From the first, he received the tradition of the tosafists of northern France, while from the second he learned the methods of study employed in the yeshivot of Provence. He maintained close contact with Meir b. Todros ha-Levi Abulafia of Toledo who replied to his queries, and even more so with his cousin, Jonah b. Abraham of Gerona. His colleagues also included Samuel b. Isaac Sardia, to whom he sent the largest number of his responsa, as well as Isaac b. Abraham of Narbonne. The responsa of Solomon b. Abraham Adret (part 1, 120, 167) relate that Nahmanides earned his livelihood as a physician. Even though there is no information available on Nahmanides’ yeshivah in Gerona, there is no doubt that it existed. His disciples included the leading halakhists of the following generation, such as Solomon b. Abraham Adret, Aaron b. Joseph ha-Levi, David Bonafed, Jonah b. Joseph, Nahmanides’ cousin, and many others. There is reason to believe that after the death of Jonah b. Abraham Gerondi in 1264, Nahmanides acted as chief rabbi of Catalonia until his emigration to Erez Israel. The Spanish rabbis of subsequent generations regarded him as their great teacher and referred to him as ha-rav ha-ne’eman (“the trustworthy rabbi”). In his Nomologia, Immanuel Aboab states that throughout Spain it was the custom to refer to him simply as “the rabbi” or “the teacher.”

When the Maimonidean controversy broke out in Montpellier in 1232, Nahmanides attempted to find a compromise between the opposing camps, although he agreed with Solomon b. Abraham of Montpellier and his followers in condemning the detrimental use which had been made of the works of Maimonides by the “philosophizers” to whom the study of secular sciences was a principal object. On the one hand, in the letters which he sent to the community leaders of Aragon, Navarre, and Castile, he sought to prevent them from taking measures against the extremists of Montpellier, while on the other hand, in his famous letter “Before I raise my voice, I err,” he requested the rabbis of France that they annul the ḥerem which they had proclaimed against the writings of Maimonides. He argued that these were not intended for French Jewry, which was faithful to Jewish tradition, but for the Jews of the south (Provence and Spain), among whom philosophic culture had struck roots, with the objective of bringing them back to the path of the faithful. In order to avert a schism between the opposed communities and camps, he proposed a detailed program which would suit the varying conditions prevailing in France and Spain and would regulate the study of the various sciences according to the age of the students and the locality. Nahmanides’ program failed because the extremists in both camps gained the upper hand and he was isolated.

He exercised extensive influence over Jewish public life in Catalonia; even King James I (1213–1276) consulted him and in 1232, on the strength of Nahmanides’ opinion, rejected the claims of the Alconstantini family to the position of dayyan over all the Jews of the kingdom. In 1263 King James coerced him into a public disputation in Barcelona with the apostate  Pablo Christiani. The disputation, which was held in July in the presence of the king and the leaders of the Dominicans and the Franciscans,was a victory for Nahmanides, the king even presenting him with 300 dinars in appreciation of the manner in which he had stated his arguments. At the request of the bishop of Gerona, Nahmanides summarized his views in a book, apparently the Sefer ha-Vikku’ah, which is still extant. The Dominicans, who had initiated the disputation, did not remain inactive, and in April 1265 they called Nahmanides to trial for his supposed abuses against Christianity. Before the tribunal Nahmanides stated that his words had been spoken during the disputation after the king had promised him freedom of speech, and that he had written his work at the request of the bishop. The king thereupon succeeded in extricating Naḥmanides from the complications of the trial, which was postponed for an indefinite period. Dissatisfied, the Dominicans sought the aid of Pope Clement IV, who sent a letter to the king of Aragon requesting him to penalize Nahmanides for writing the above work. Nahmanides barely succeeded in escaping from Spain and during the same year emigrated to Erez Israel.

A prayer in the spirit of the Psalms, which Nahmanides composed at sea while on his way to Erez Israel, has been preserved. He arrived in Acre during the summer of 1267 and on Elul 9 of that year he went to Jerusalem. In a letter to his son Nahman, he described the ruined state of the city seven years after the invasion of the Tatar hordes. He found few Jews, “only two brothers, dyers who bought their dye from the governor and were joined by up to ten Jews in their home on Sabbaths for prayers.” On his arrival in the town he organized the remnants of the Jewish community and erected a synagogue in a derelict house; it appears that he also founded a yeshivah. Reports of his activities circulated rapidly; many Jews streamed into Jerusalem. In 1268 Nahmanides moved to Acre, where he became the spiritual leader of the Jewish community, in succession to Jehiel b. Joseph of Paris.From this period a sermon which he delivered in the synagogue on Rosh Ha-Shanah in 1269 has been preserved. The site of his tomb has not been ascertained; some believe that he was buried at the foot of Mount Carmel; others that he was buried in Haifa, beside the tomb of Jehiel b. Joseph of Paris; while others say that he was interred in Acre. There is also a tradition that he was buried in Jerusalem, under the slope of the mountain near the village of Silwan, and another that his tomb is in Hebron.

Nahmanides had three sons: Nahman, to whom he sent the above-mentioned letter from Jerusalem; Solomon, who married the daughter of Jonah b. Abraham Gerondi; and Joseph, who was a favorite at the court of the king of Castile and owned an estate in Valladolid. One of Nahmanides’ daughters married Gershom b. Solomon, and their son was Levi b. Gershom.


About 50 of Nahmanides’ works have been preserved, in addition to many works which are doubtfully attributed to him. The majority of his works are novellae on the Talmud and halakhah. He also wrote books and letters connected with his public activities, including the Sefer ha-Vikku’aḥ already mentioned. He devoted a special work to the nature of the belief in Redemption, the Sefer ha-Ge’ullah, written in about 1263. He was also a gifted paytan, writing a number of poems and prayers, including a prayer which he composed on his entry into Jerusalem. Four of his sermons have been preserved: Ha-Derashah la-Ḥatunnah, dating from his youth; Torat ha-Shem Temimah, which he apparently delivered after the disputation of Barcelona; one on the Book of Ecclesiastes, which he delivered before his departure for Erez Israel; and the sermon mentioned above, delivered in Acre on Rosh Ha-Shanah. All his works bear the imprint of his original personality, a synthesis of the culture of Spain and the piety of Germany, a talmudic education together with the teachings of Kabbalah, as well as a broad knowledge of sciences and Christian theological works. An edition of his works has been published by Ch. D. Chavel (see bibliography).

[Joseph Kaplan]

As Biblical Commentator

Nahmanides wrote his commentary on the Torah in his old age. He composed the main part in Spain, but added to it after his arrival in Erez Israel. In the introduction he states the purpose of his commentary: “To appease the minds of the students, weary through exile and trouble, when they read the portion on Sabbaths and festivals.” It is an extensive commentary, both on the narrative and legislative part of the Bible. Unlike his most noted predecessors,Rashi and Abraham Ibn Ezra, who devoted themselves chiefly to the elucidation of individual words and verses, Naḥmanides, though he followed strict philological procedure when he deemed it necessary to establish the exact meaning of a word, concerns himself mainly with the sequence of the biblical passages and with the deeper meaning of the Bible’s laws and narrative. He makes frequent use of the aggadic and halakhic interpretations of the talmudic and midrashic sages, but whereas Rashi quotes these without expressing his own opinions, Nahmanides dwells on them at length, analyzes them critically, develops their ideas, and probes their compatibility with the biblical text.

The commentary of Nahmanides is more than a mere commentary. It reflects his views on God, the Torah, Israel, and the world. The Torah is the word of God and is the source of all knowledge. The narratives of the Bible are not simple records of the past, but are portents of the future. The account of the six days of creation contains prophecies regarding the most important events of the succeeding 6,000 years, while the Sabbath foreshadows the seventh millennium which will be the Day of the Lord, and the accounts told about the patriarchs foreshadow the history of the Jewish people as a whole. Naḥmanides does not hesitate to criticize the patriarchs when their actions seem to him unjustifiable. According to him(Gen. 12:11), Abraham “unintentionally committed a great sin,” when, on coming to Egypt, he said out of fear for his life that his wife Sarah was his sister, for in this way he exposed her to moral corruption; rather, he should have had faith that God would save both him and his wife. Nahmanides demonstrates great psychological insight when describing the behavior of biblical personalities. In the story of Joseph the Bible relates that “he fell on his neck and wept on his neck for a while” (Gen. 46:29). The question arises: Who wept? Jacob or Joseph? It is obvious who is more likely to weep at such a time, Naḥmanides says, the old father who finds his son alive after he had mourned for him as lost, not the son who has risen to become a king. Naḥmanides explains the laws in the light of halakhic tradition. He maintains that there is a reason for every commandment. The commandments are all for the good of man, either to keep from him something that is hurtful, to remove from him evil beliefs and habits, to teach him mercy and goodness, or to make him remember the miracles of the Lord and to know him. He explains some of the dietary laws in terms of health regulations; others he interprets as seeking to keep us from eating foods that dull the mind and harden the heart.

Nahmanides very often quotes Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra. Despite his great reverence for Rashi, he polemicizes with him. At times he praises Ibn Ezra, but attacks him sharply for those of his views which run counter to tradition. He holds Maimonides in high esteem, but rejects some of the reasons given in the Guide of the Perplexed for the commandments. He regards (Gen. 18:1) Maimonides’ view that the visit of the angels to Abraham was a mere vision to contradict the Bible. Nahmanides was the first commentator to introduce Kabbalah into his commentary.

The commentary, written in a lucid style, contains many a word of encouragement and solace to the Jewish people. At the end of the Song of Ha’azinu (Deut. 32), Nahmanides writes: “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 became very popular and has been widely drawn upon by later commentators. Supercommentaries have been written upon it and kabbalistic treatises have been composed on its kabbalistic allusions (see below). Baḥya b. Asher and Jacob b. Asher incorporated large parts of it into their commentaries. The commentary was printed for the first time in Rome prior to 1480. A scholarly edition based on manuscripts and early printings, prepared by Ch. D. Chavel, was published in Jerusalem in 1959–60.

The commentary on Job, too, was probably written by Nahmanides in his old age. Nahmanides regards Job as a historical figure. He intimates that the answer to the problem of the suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked – the central theme of the book – is to be found in the belief in the transmigration of souls. The righteous are punished and the wicked rewarded for their deeds in an earlier life. Comments on other books of the Bible are found dispersed throughout Nahmanides’ writings. His Book of Redemption (Sefer ha-Ge’ullah) contains comments on various passages of the Book of Daniel. He also wrote a commentary on Isaiah 52:13–53:12.

[Tovia Preschel]

As Halakhist

Nahmanides’ halakhic works rank among the masterpieces of rabbinic literature, and some of them have become classics. They may be divided into four categories: novellae on the Talmud, halakhic monographs, hassagot (“criticisms”), and responsa.

Nahmanides’ novellae, which originally covered the entire orders of Mo’ed, Nashim, and Nezikin – from early times the parts of the Talmud customarily studied in Spain – and which are for the most part extant, mark the summit of the halakhic and religious literary creativity of Spanish Jewry. They also opened a new chapter in the cultural history of that cultural community. In his novellae Nahmanides based himself on the best of the earlier Spanish tradition and constantly availed himself of the writings of Samuel ha-Nagid, most of which are no longer extant, of Hananel b. Ḥushi’el Isaac Alfasi Isaac Ibn Ghayyat Judah al-Bargeloni Joseph Ibn Migash, and their contemporaries. Nevertheless, he mainly adopted the mode of learning characteristic of the French *tosafists, whose teachings were previously little known in Spain and whose method was not followed there. In this way Naḥmanides created a new synthesis in the method of study in Spain which was henceforward concerned with a comprehension of the talmudic argumentation for its own sake after the manner of the French scholars and not merely with elucidating halakhah for practical purposes, as had until then been customary among the Spanish scholars. Accordingly Nahmanides emphasizes in his work the theoretical meaning and academic significance of the pronouncements and decisions of the leading earlier Spanish codifiers. Thus he inaugurated a new school in the method of studying the Oral Law which laid the stress on an apprehension, for its own sake, of the talmudic sugyah (“theme”) as a whole, in point both of its inner tenor and of its relation to other relevant sugyot dispersed throughout the Talmud, without, however, becoming entangled in lengthy, sterile discussion. Yet there was no complete dissociation from the practical halakhic aspect. While these two trends are to be found side by side also in the to safot, Nahmanides was undoubtedly the first fully to achieve this synthesis, which pervades his novellae.

A further local “Spanish” factor which he synthesized with the French system was his constant search for ancient, critically examined, and established texts of the Talmud so as not to become involved in needless discussions to solve questions arising from corrupt readings. The tosafists, too, were aware of this problem, but not having access to enough ancient texts, they were compelled to take such versions from secondary sources, such as Hananel’s glosses or the works of the geonim, available to them largely at second or third hand, or they made conjectural emendations of the talmudic text which led to a grave and protracted controversy among the tosafists. In this respect, Naḥmanides enjoyed an obvious advantage. Living in Spain, he had at his disposal the best talmudic texts that had been sent to that country direct from the academies of the Babylonian geonim 200–300 years earlier. Another factor, chiefly Spanish and conspicuous in Nahmanides, is his extensive use of the geonic writings and the Jerusalem Talmud. This system of Nahmanides completely superseded the earlier Spanish tradition. The greatest of his pupils, as also their pupils, having continued, developed, and improved this system, established it as the method for future generations among ever broadening circles of students of the Oral Law.

In addition to the teachings of the French scholars, of whom he speaks with profound esteem, Nahmanides’ works also contain the teachings of Provence, which he incorporated into his system of study as an inseparable part of it. The teachings of Abraham b. Isaac of Narbonne Abraham b. David of Posquières Isaac b. Abba Mari, and many others, form an integral part of his works, the last mentioned to a large extent anonymously. Although not very apparent from a superficial reading, his associations with the teachings of Provence are even closer than with those of Spain. Besides the earlier Provençal scholars, he mentions many others from Provence, contemporaries of his, whose statements he discusses. This threefold Spanish, French, and Provençal trend is undoubtedly connected with two of his principal teachers, Judah b. Yakar and Nathan b. Meir of Trinquetaille, both of whom were pupils of Isaac b. Abraham of Dampierre, the well-known tosafist. Naḥmanides’ contemporary and relation, Jonah Gerondi, who likewise studied under the tosafists, also based his teachings on a similar method of study.

Nahmanides’ novellae are notable for their wealth of sources and mode of presentation, their clear, lucid style and logical structure. In his desire to arrive at the authentic literal meaning, he did not hesitate to disagree even with the geonim and the most illustrious of the earlier authorities, such as Hai Gaon, Isaac Alfasi, and others. He was among the first of those who in their writings developed the theoretical method, at once logical and profound, that aimed at comprehending the pivotal argument on which the sugyah as a whole depends. Often his novellae range far beyond the limits of the sugyah under discussion to a fundamental investigation of various subjects central to the halakhah. He also devotes much space to methodological discussions, to be found dispersed in his glosses, on the principles of the Talmud. The novellae on the Talmud were not published simultaneously, the first to appear having been those on Bava Batra (Venice, 1523) and the last those on Bava Meẓia (Jerusalem, 1929) and, in a complete edition, on Ḥullin (New York, ed. by S.Z. Reichmann, 1955). Most of his novellae – those on Berakhot, on Mo’ed, Nashim, Nezikin, and on Hullin and Niddah – were published between 1740 and 1840. His novellae to Ketubbot go to this day under the name of Solomon b. Adret. Nearly all these were known throughout the intervening years from many manuscripts, and leading scholars, particularly among the Sephardim, quoted them in their works. His novellae were published in their entirety for the first time in 1928 in Jerusalem in two volumes. Some of his novellae on a few tractates are extant in the form of short extracts on several pages of a tractate only. He presumably composed them in this manner and was unable to complete the entire work.

Until the expulsion from Spain, Nahmanides’ novellae occupied, alongside Rashi’s commentary, the place that the tosafot do among students of the Talmud. To such an extent were his words minutely examined and debated that methodological rules were laid down for them. In this respect, Isaac Campanton was especially notable, declaring that Nahmanides’ statements are to be so closely studied that not a single word should appear superfluous. He even established many minute rules for extracting Naḥmanides’ underlying meaning from every single passage. From the time his novellae first appeared in print their influence has become increasingly pronounced also among Ashkenazi students and yeshivot. To this day their study occupies in yeshivot of Polish-Lithuanian origin a principal place together with Rashi, the tosafot, and Maimonides.

The second class of Nahmanides’ halakhic literary works comprises his halakhic monographs, of which there are seven:

(1) Dinei de-Garme deals with a clarification of the laws regarding inconvenience to a neighbor, injury to his property, and their relation to the law of torts. Since the subject is treated in the second chapter of Bava Batra, this short excellent monograph was appended to his novellae on that tractate from its first appearance in print. In it Nahmanides summarizes the principal views of the earlier authorities on the various aspects of the laws of the *assailant and his victim in general, including damage to a neighbor. In presenting the various opinions Nahmanides treats of each with great profundity. On this subject he was, he says, forestalled by monographs of French scholars, whose names, however, he does not mention. In recent years there was published (in Hadorom, 23 (1966), 31–53), from a manuscript Gerama ve-Garme by one of the tosafists, apparently Ephraim b. Isaac of Regensburg, and Nahmanides may be referring to this or to a similar work. This small work of Naḥmanides was highly praised by scholars, several of whom wrote commentaries on it. A comparison between his work and that of the scholar previously mentioned clearly reveals Nahmanides’ superiority as a writer of glosses and systematizer.

(2) Mishpetei ha-Ḥerem deals with the ways in which a ban is imposed and release obtained from it. It also treats at length of Kol Nidrei, said on the eve of the Day of Atonement. Although casting some doubt on its value, he nevertheless states that those accustomed to say it should not be prevented from doing so, since they rely on a custom instituted by the earlier authorities.

(3–5) Hilkhot Bekhorot and Hilkhot Ḥallah written by Nahmanides as a supplement to Hilkhot ha-Rif of Alfasi, from which these laws were omitted. Here Nahmanides adopts, with great fidelity, the Aramaic used by Alfasi, as well as his particular style and mode of writing. Nahmanides also wrote Hilkhot Nedarim to fill a gap in Alfasi (those printed on tractate Nedarim are not Alfasi’s). In this work Nahmanides included, to a much larger extent than is to be found in the writings of Alfasi, novellae and argumentations in the style characteristic of his glosses on the Talmud.

(6) Torat ha-Adam is a comprehensive and unique monograph on all the laws concerning death, starting with what is prohibited and permitted and what is a mitzvah as regards the sick and dying, and concluding with the laws of mourning. In point of fact this work is also in the nature of a “supplement” to Hilkhot ha-Rif, but in it Nahmanides, expatiating on the subject, included many scores of talmudic and tannaitic sources as also of Sephardi and Ashkenazi views, which he compared and discussed at length in the light of the sources. Very great importance was attached to the work by the leading codifiers, Jacob b. Asher incorporated it, in its actual order and form and with corresponding sections, in his Tur, as did Joseph Caro later in his Shulhan Arukh. Commentators on the Talmud set great store by it when dealing with the interpretation of the relevant sugyot in the Talmud. Of special interest on its own account is Sha’ar ha-Gemul, the 30th chapter of the work which, published separately some 30 years before the whole (Naples, 1490), deals with reward and punishment after death.

(7) Hilkhot Niddah was printed in Todat Shelamim (Venice, 1741) of Isaiah Bassani.The third category of Nahmanides’ halakhic writings, and the first to appear in print, comprises his works of criticism, of which there are three:

(a) Hassagot (“criticisms”) of Maimonides’ Sefer ha-Mitzvot (Constantinople, 1510);

(b) Milḥamot Adonai (in Rif, Venice, 1552) attacking Zerahiah ha-Levi of Lunel’s criticisms of Hilkhot ha-Rif as well as criticizing Zerahiah’s Sefer ha-Ẓava; and

(c) Sefer ha-Zekhut, (in Shivah Einayim, Leghorn, 1745) attacking Abraham b. David’s criticisms of Alfasi.

These three share a common feature, namely Nahmanides’ desire to vindicate the earlier authorities against the criticism of later scholars, and hence their contents do not everywhere reflect Nahmanides’ own view; thus, Maimonides having written his Sefer ha-Mitzvot mainly against the enumeration of the 613 commandments by the author of the Halakhot Gedolot, Nahmanides took upon himself the task of defending the earlier authority against this criticism. The most important of them is Milhamot Adonai which also has great intrinsic value for the comprehension of a sugyah, Nahmanides devoting himself with his signal profundity and unique talents to an accurate reconstruction of the earlier views that appear to conflict with the sugyah. The style of the work is terse, vigorous, and not always easy to understand, calling for much concentration by the reader. In general Nahmanides, in keeping with the basic purpose of the work, limited himself to the criticisms directed against Alfasi, but in its earlier parts the author went beyond these self-imposed limits to include in them arguments against Zerahiah ha-Levi even where the subject matter did not touch directly on Alfasi.

Nahmanides’ halakhic writings had a decisive influence on the entire history of subsequent rabbinic literature. Solomon b. Abraham Adret’s glosses on the Talmud are founded on those of Nahmanides, and Adret literally copied extracts from his work. Based principally on Naḥmanides’ writings are Sefer Ha-Ḥinnukh (which is also based on Maimonides) and Samuel b. Meshullam Gerondi’s Ohel Mo’ed. A complete series of works on Hilkhot ha-Rif by an anonymous author, mistakenly identified as Nissim Gerondi, are by a “pupil of Nahmanides” and based on his teachings. Menahem b. Solomon ha-Me’iri  devoted an entire work, Magen Avot, to a controversy with Nahmanides’ pupils who had brought with them to Provence their teacher’s customs, which were diametrically opposed to those of Provence. The very great authority enjoyed by Nahmanides is apparent from the fact that ha-Me’iri found himself compelled to defend the views of the leading earlier authorities of Provence against those of Nahmanides. Of his responsa only a small number are extant; a large number of them being written in reply to the questions of Samuel b. Isaac ha-Sardi who incorporated them in their entirety in his Sefer ha-Terumot. A few other responsa by him appeared in She’elot u-Teshuvot ha-Ramban, the vast majority of which, despite the title of the work, are by Solomon b. Abraham Adret.

It is difficult to fix the chronological order of Nahmanides’ halakhic works. It is known that he composed Hilkhot Nedarim in his youth, and it is clear that he wrote Milḥamot Adonai before most of his novellae on the Talmud. Since he composed his novellae over many years, it is impossible to determine their order.

[Israel Moses Ta-Shma]

In Kabbalah

There is evidence that in an earlier version of his Commentary on the Pentateuch (Rome, 1480) Nahmanides intended to discuss kabbalistic matters more explicitly, but he fell ill and was informed in a dream that he should desist. An extant fragment from an earlier version seems to indicate such a tendency. However, immediate doubts about the authenticity of the fragment were raised by Nahmanides’ students. Hints of kabbalistic references sprinkle his prolific writings, especially his commentary on the Pentateuch (Naples, 1490), commentary on the Book of Job, and the sermons. Kabbalistic concepts are woven into the eschatological discussion in thelast section of his halakhic work, Torat ha-Adam; this section has often been printed as a separate work titled Sha’ar ha-Gemul. Kabbalistic elements are readily recognizable in his liturgical poems, e.g., in Shir ha-Neshamah, and in the prayer on the death of R. Abraham Ḥazzan, one of the kabbalists of Gerona. Nahmanides’ single work dealing exclusively with the Kabbalah is his commentary on the first chapter of Sefer Yeḥirah.

Despite the paucity of his kabbalistic writings, he came to be known in his later years as an expert on the subject. Kabbalists in the late 13th and early 14th centuries made considerable literary attempts to try and solve the secrets of Nahmanides’ commentary on the Pentateuch. The most important commentaries in this vein are Keter Shem Tov by R. Shem Tov Ibn Gaon and Me’irat Einayim by R. Isaac b. Samuel of Acre. Even as late as the beginning of the 14th century, Naḥmanides’ kabbalistic writings were studied and relied upon to a far greater degree than the Zohar itself; a definite preference for the Zohar became apparent only in about 1325.

In the course of time Nahmanides came to be regarded as such an authority that other authors’ works were wrongly attributed to him, e.g., Ha-Emunah ve-ha-Bittaḥon (Korets, 1485), which has been proven to be the work of R. Jacob b. Sheshet Gerondi. G. Scholem has made intensive surveys of Nahmanides’ method in Kabbalah in his Ursprung und Anfaenge der Kabbala (1962) and in his series of lectures, Ha-Kabbalah be-Geronah, ed. by I. Ben Shlomo (1964).

[Efraim Gottlieb]

Nahmanides’ Mysticism in Light of Late 20th Century Research

Researchers throughout the 20th century attempted to decipher Nahmanides’ mystical teachings in the context of their general and Jewish cultural contexts, and there were several efforts to present his mysticism and theology systematically, both by academic and Orthodox authors. In the 1980s a collection was published in which various articles explored diverse aspects of Nahmanides and his thought: his Andalusian background, his conservative transmission of kabbalistic traditions, and the blatant contrast between Nahmanides and Azriel of Gerona regarding Adam’s sin and other physical and spiritual subjects. In the 1990s scholarly interest grew regarding Nahmanides’ exegetical writings and their social implications, and major advances were made in focusing on Nahmanides’ hermeneutics in their Jewish and general context.


Bible commentaries formed the literary and spiritual context in which Nahmanides functioned as a kabbalist. His kabbalistic creativity cannot be separated from its appearance in his Bible commentary, and this exegetical work forms the essential context for understanding his kabbalistic teaching. Nahmanides functioned in a context in which the literary genre of Bible exegesis – especially exegesis of the peshat (plain meaning of the text) – had already been developed by its classical exponents: Abraham Ibn Ezra in Spain, and Rashi and his school in France. In contrast with the peshat exegesis, which was thus already an established and structured literary genre, there was not yet any tradition of kabbalistic exegesis, especially in the specific sense of attempting to explicate the secrets of the Kabbalah in an exegesis following the peshat-exegetical paradigm. Accordingly, Nahmanides had to shape a new strategy of writing, and made a highly significant choice to distinguish between two different paths in the text: the path of peshat and the path of truth. This choice created a problematical exacerbation of the gap between prior bodies of knowledge and the mysticism evolving in this period.

Whole sections of the Bible had, perhaps, not previously been dealt with from a mystical perspective, and certain parts of Scripture had no specific traditions of esoteric interpretation, just as other parts had rich traditions of interpretation. The question of attitude toward the Torah was especially sharp.

Nahmanides sought to compose a consistent and continuous mystical commentary to the Torah, relying only on existing mystical material or on established tradition. He thereby encountered two complementary problems: (a) the Torah contains passages lacking any mystical exegetical tradition; (b) there are mystical doctrines which lack any clear and direct relation to the text of the Torah. This does not mean that Nahmanides faced discontinuity in the mystical tradition; there is an essential and profound difference between what seem to the reader to be “interpretative gaps” and what is lost material. These two phenomena should not be confused. Even if the exegete’s self-conception is related to lost knowledge, the processes leading to this phenomenon are frequently related to the gap resulting from a change in the focus of the exegesis. Another complementary problem exists, namely that the rules of preserving the mysteries, which were at the heart of ancient mysticism, and which were also involved in oral transmission, often led to their being lost.


A lively controversy has surrounded the question of Nahmanides’ innovation or conservatism in the Kabbalah. We can state, however, that both factors are active in his Kabbalah, and we need to explicate the relations between them. On the one hand, Nahmanides transmitted bodies of knowledge which were transmitted in whispers, carefully preserving their character; on the other hand, he transmits them in a reorganized and different manner, in the form of Bible exegesis. One facet of innovation was his attempt to interpret the Bible mystically, an attempt motivated by the notion, characteristic of his time, that “everything is learned from the Torah.” Presenting the mystical meaning while following the linear continuity of the text was also related to his time, since prior mystical traditions were not shaped in direct relation to the text of the Torah. To what, and by means of what exegesis, and on the basis of which texts, could the mystical traditions be connected? This was the urgent and immediate question faced by the early kabbalists, a question closely connected to the process of historicaland social uncovering of the Kabbalah and its becoming written down.

Rabbi Ezra and Rabbi Azriel, in contrast with Nahmanides, chose to interpret the talmudic aggadot. Their choice was simpler: they could review and write Kabbalistic commentaries on aggadot which had a mystical background or tendency. In this respect they remained closely and obviously related to rabbinic materials arranged in a midrashic manner. At the same time, the connection between what they chose to interpret is related to specific points in the Talmud, just as Nahmanides did in his commentary to the Torah, which reflects the fact that we are referring to a process of uncovering existing knowledge, and not merely an exegetical decision.


Attitudes toward Christianity and Islam alike provide additional contexts for Nahmanides’ writings. His attitude toward the Christianity of 13th century Europe becomes blatant in his concept of history and his historiosophy. His attitude toward Islam also finds occasional expression, but less in historical references than in more substantive phenomenological parallels to contemporary mystical doctrines known from the Ismaili Islam.

Nahmanides’ method regarding “the actions of the ancestors are a sign for their children” and “pictures of things,” implemented on the level of peshat, confirms the relationship between his conception and Christian conceptions of history, whereas his overall conception of time (of which the conception of history is a part), such as his theory of shemitot (sabbatical years of release) based on his theory of the Sefirot, is implemented on the mystical level, and is related to Ismaili concepts of cyclical cosmic time.


Nahmanides’ thought, which can be called kabbalistic thought or a “religious system,” connects basic symbols of the mystical tradition and fundamental concepts in Jewish religion. Nahmanides was a creative theologian, whose new system of thought includes such theological and philosophical concepts as miracle, nature, providence, exile, redemption, time, will, commandment, Torah, faith, image and story. In turn, his thought influenced a broad spectrum of Jewish thinkers, kabbalists and non-kabbalists alike, including thinkers of an opposite point of view from his, such as Crescas, Judah Loew ben Bezalel (Maharal), Isaac Luria, Cordovero, Abraham Cardozo, Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (Vilna Gaon), Moses Sofer (Ḥatam Sofer), Krochmal, Rabbi Kook, the Satmar rebbe, and others. Basic ideas of his theology are also subtly connected to a body of symbolic knowledge and render Nahmanides’ Kabbalah uniquely profound, and resulted in its influencing a broader circle outside of Kabbalah alone.


The conservative and normative aspect of Nahmanides’ mystical theory reflects his communal and halakhic leadership as well as his being a kabbalist. However this conservatism was expressed more in the oral manner of his transmitting his theory than in its content. Recent research has increasingly explored the social aspect of two different conceptions of mysticism, related to two strategies of transmission and writing.

The controversy between Nahmanides’ school and the school of the Zohar surrounds a core issue: a differing view of God and man, which in turn is reflected in a differing view of reality and history. Nahmanides’ conception of God contains a dimension of transcendence, absolutely beyond human comprehension, expression, revelation or theurgy, and is experienced by God’s remoteness from language. By the language of the Sefirot, Nahmanides was able to express a hierarchy between two levels of divinity: the known and the unknown, reminiscent of Pseudo-Dionysius.

The school of the Zohar, by contrast, provides a different conception of God and man: the transcendent is open to revelation, theurgic contact and even ecstasy (what can be called theurgic ecstasy). The transcendent is experienced by its absolute proximity to language. The concept of God and man is thus “realized” in the concept of history as a gate open to infinite fields. The acosmic vector of this concept applies to history’s beginning or pre-history, and not to its end. By giving up on the concept of cyclical shemitot, it cuts any link to an apocalyptic world-view, and thus the center of gravity shifts from the cosmos seeking its end, to a cosmos moved by its beginning, and the shift from a cosmic process to a historical process.

There is a close correlation between determining an unequivocal and sharp end to the cosmos and history, and the concept of a defined reservoir of souls, just as there is between the infinity of history, especially in the transition to messianic times, and the continual renewal of souls and the perpetual self-perfection of God.

In recent research there have been diverse claims regarding the pseudepigraphical authorship of the Zohar in relation to the school of Nahmanides, which faithfully preserved his oral teachings in the generation after his death, and served as guardians of canonical kabbalistic writing. The texts of the school of the Zohar, on the other hand, did not exist as a formed corpus in the 13th century, and only at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th century did the idea of “the Book of the Zohar” take shape, in response to the canonization of Nahmanides’ commentary to the Torah and to the rise of a genre of mystical exegesis.


Some of the commentators on Nahmanides are known by name; others are anonymous. The supercommentaries of R. Joshua Ibn Shuaib and R. Shem Tov Ibn Gaon are regarded as the most authoritative for the transmission of the teachings of Nahmanides and his students Solomon ben Adret and Isaac Todros, and are important to understanding Nahmanides. Although Isaac of Acre’s commentary Me’irat Einayim also follows the order of the biblical text, it is a topical key to Nahmanides’ thought. Other commentaries of an interpretative and homilectical character are R. Joshua ibn Shuaib’s Derashot on the Torah and Bahya ben Asher’s Torah commentary. R. Menahem Recanati’s commentary to the Torah also contains commentary on Nahmanides and citations from the Zohar.

The works which present Nahmanides’ teachings in a systematic manner are anonymous, and differ in strategy from super-commentaries: they uncover a system, rather than follow step by step. These include Ma’arekhet ha-Elohut, and two works referred to in scholarly literature as the unknown commentary of Nahmanides’ mysteries, and an anonymous commentary from the circle of Solomon ben Adret, as well as a commentary to the Sefer ha-Bahir.

Following these anonymous works written in Spain, the literature of the circle of the Sefer ha-Temunah in Byzantium also needs to be mentioned. These writings discuss the meaning of the shapes of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet together with the theory of Sabbatical cycles. A similar combination may also be found in the thought of Nahmanides’ grandson, R. David ben Judah he-Ḥasid, whose contacts with the circle of the Zohar were complex. He combined knowledge of the Zohar with knowledge of Nahmanides’ teachings, and was a primary conduit for the transmission of Nahmanides’ Kabbalah to the circle of Sefer ha-Temunah.

In the first and second generations after Nahmanides, there were thus students who received his teachings and transmitted them, sometimes by personal word of mouth. Some of them, however, combined his teachings with other kabbalistic systems. In terms of content, many of the anonymous works focus on the mysteries of time and the nature and character of its historical or cosmic cycles. In this regard, they resemble ancient apocalyptic literature. In terms of form, the anonymous works break out of the limits of oral transmission.

Later developments, which follow in the path of Sefer ha-Temunah and, like it, rely on Naḥmanides’ teachings, are Sefer ha-Kaneh and Sefer ha-Peli’ah, which reinforce its apocalyptic paradigm, in which the shemitot cycles are also used to explain the commandments, in terms of the cycle of human religious life. The mystical transmission is no longer only oral and within the family, but now includes revelation and written transmission, personal revelations and revelations of Elijah.

Such transmission by anonymous revelation is dialectically related to Nahmanides’ own conceptions. It is not necessarily opposed to his strict rules of oral transmission. Rather, the rich power and agitation already existing in the oral circles branched out in writing and revelation. Nahmanides himself had been described, shortly after his life, as someone capable of restraining his horses while galloping at full speed.


The great difference between the behavior of Nahmanides’ students and that of kabbalists in the area of Castille leads to the conclusion that the earlier kabbalists of Nahmanides’ circle, who tended to preserve traditions and to obey strict rules of transmission, were careful in the way they committed these teachings to writing, at the same time that the Zohar was being distributed and thereafter. This does not, however, provide evidence of influence of Castille on Catalonia. To the contrary: earlier material was uncovered later on, in diverse dialogical relations with the kabbalists of Castille. Parallels between the kabbalists of Catalonia and Castille do not necessarily mean that the Catalonians internalized teachings from Castille, but just the opposite: it is possible that the kabbalists in Castille broke earlier restrictions and were the first to commit to writing theories they learned from people close to the circle of Solomon ben Adret, without accepting their strict rules of secrecy, whereas Nahmanides’ students were reticent to take this step. We know about some of these people from the testimony of R. Shem Tov Ibn Gaon, and one of them was likely R. David ha-Kohen.

Such violation of the rules of transmission made possible a much broader explication of mystical teachings than had been previously known through oral transmission, whether direct or indirect. Nahmanides’ students, as well as those of Solomon ben Adret and Isaac Todros, had committed themselves to the strict restrictions of oral transmission. We have the testimony of R. Shem Tov ibn Gaon, one of Adret’s students, that his teachers made the condition that he only transmit the kabbalistic teachings to a wise and humble student, over the age of 40. His testimony also indicates that these strict restrictions sometimes failed; the teachers occasionally misjudged a person who had already learned Nahmanides’ teachings.

The difference regarding innovation and knowledge is not what divided the circle of Nahmanides from the kabbalists in Castille. It is merely an external symptom of a more extreme struggle over the content of completely differing conceptions of reality and God, and the dynamics of the controversy cannot be separated from the essential content.


Moses de Leon’s attitude toward Nahmanides was quite complex. Their ideological and religious controversy was conducted on several levels: the concept of transcendence; the concept of God as binary (i.e., the dichotomy of good and evil, being vs. destruction) or unitary; later on “positive” destruction at the end of time (i.e., rest, identified with the good) or “negative” destruction in the beginning (i.e., motion, identified with evil); theurgy directed at part of the divine vs. a theurgic connection to all of divinity; dimensions of divinity closed to experiential knowledge vs. all levels of divinity being open to contact in ecstatic revelation; the destiny of the sinful soul after death: purification and immersion in water (according to Nahmanides’ circle) vs. purification by fire (according to Moses de Leon); cosmic cycles of time vs. cycles of the year, festivals and Sabbaths. A correct understanding of Nahmanides’ theories thus provides a criterion which may permit a break-through in understanding how Moses de Leon’s circle accepted and rejected Nahmanides.

The awareness of the peshat was critical for the development for Nahmanides’ awareness of sod (mystical meaning) as a defined exegetical layer of the text. Such refinement of the concept of sod, not only in the content but also in the literary expressions and forms of the text and its transmission led to mystical exegesis, but also to a reaction against Nahmanides in the Zohar, which rejected the distinction between the two layers.

Nahmanides conceived of the transcendent as entailing a level closed to human attainment. This accords with the concept of the infinite as a dimension lacking any representation in the stories of the Torah, the concept of the three highest Sefirot which the Torah’s commandments can only hint at but not aim at them or affect them. In other words, theurgic contact with them is absolutely precluded. Similarly, these sefirot cannot be imagined in anthropomorphic terms of any human bodily organ. There is a fundamental connection between the concept of the divine image and the concept of the cycles of shemitot, in other words between the anthropomorphic conception of God in terms of only some of the Sefirot and the limitations of religious language, and the conception of the cosmos as limiting history. This conception of two dimensions of God – the revealed and the hidden – may be congruent to mystical doctrines known from Hasidei Ashkenaz and from ancient mysticism; but in Nahmanides’ teachings they find additional expression.

The Zohar, on the other hand, in most places, offers a different view: it mentions the Ein Sof (infinite), and it relates to all the Sefirot, even to the highest ones, in anthropomorphic terms, and provides a theurgic and ecstatic connection with all of them.


The controversy described above, regarding conceptions of God and the world, also involves completely differing conceptions of exile, the present and the messianic era. At this critical stage in the history of the Kabbalah and its transition from esoteric to exoteric teaching, the apparently temporary collapse of the theory cosmic cycles, namely the ancient doctrine concerning the passage of time, is related to a completely different conception of the present, an immeasurably long exile, which the circle of the Zohar regarded as the building blocks of the immeasurably long messianic future, to be effected by the knowledge of God and influencing Him.

This early kabbalistic interest in eschatology is congruent in some respects to general culture. On the level of the fate of the individual soul there is prominent interest in locating and characterizing the stages of the trial of the soul after death. Such interest may already be found in Sa’adiah Gaon’s Book of Beliefs and Doctrines and in Eleazar of Worms’ book Wisdom of the Soul, and it is particularly prominent in Nahmanides’ Sha’ar ha-Gemul as well as in the thought of his bitter opponent, Moses de Leon. Nahmanides’ work describes a continuity from the time of illness to the time of dying and death, to the fate of the soul after death, and also describes allusions to a collective eschatology. Similar questions occupied other kabbalistic trends of thought: where are paradise and hell located – on heaven or on earth, or in both? What is the essence of the judgment fortifying the soul for the life of the world to come – burning in fire (according to Moses de Leon) or immersion in water (according to Naḥmanides’ circle)? Is there an intermediate state, a liminal area in which there is no right to be judged, or (in the Zohar’s terms) a naked state? Can the zaddik effect an improvement of the sinful souls of the dead? The kabbalists disagreed over these questions and over their answers. In some cases they accommodated their views to ideas they heard in contemporary Christianity, but generally they related to a broad range of options found in rabbinic sources.

Questions of esoterics vs. exoterics, of closed vs. open knowledge, were only the tip of the iceberg in a much deeper struggle over a wide spectrum of religious issues (theology and praxis) grounded in differing world-views. Nahmanides’ conservative theory of shemitot preserved a more ancient worldview, which apparently no longer was relevant to the contemporary experience of reality of some 13th century kabbalists. A different conception of time bursts out of the writings of the kabbalists in Castille, who rejected the theory of shemitot. Instead, they regarded the present day as the time for creative messianic activity, a view related to general processes taking place in Christian European society, such as the rise of the city and mercantile economy, with their concepts of time. These new concepts of time were internalized in the religious life of these kabbalists, and not merely in the way they supported themselves financially. These differences split the world of 13th century Kabbalah, but we would not be witness to these changes of seasons in the conception of time were it not for the conservative component in Nahmanides’ teaching.

[Haviva Pedaya (2nd ed.)]


GENERAL: A. Yeruham, Ohel Raḥel (1942); Y. Unna, R. Moses ben Naḥman (Heb., 1954); Hurwitz, in: Hadorom, 24 (1967), 39–48; I. Ta-Shma, in: KS, 43 (1968), 569–74; H. Chone, Nachmanides (Ger., 1930); F. Rosenthal, in: J. Guttmann (ed.), Moses Maimonides (vol. 1, 1908). IN THE KABBALAH: G. Scholem, in: KS, 6 (1930), 385–419; 21 (1044/45), 179–86; idem, Ursprung und Anfaenge der Kabbala (1962); idem, Ha-Kabbalah be-Geronah, I. Ben Shlomo (ed., 1964); Ch.D. Chavel, Kitvei ha-Ramban (1963); E. Gottlieb, in: J. ben Sheshet, Meshiv Devarim Nekhohim, G. Vajda (ed., 1968), 18–20; idem, in: KS, 40 (1964/65), 1–9; idem, in: Tarbiz, 39 (1970), 87–89; M.Z. Eisenstadt, in: Talpiot 4 (1950), 606–21; T. Preschel, in: Sinai 57 (1961), 161–2; idem, in: Talpiot 8 (1961), 44–53; D. Chavel, Rabbenu Moses ben Naḥman (1967); Y. Hasida, in: Sinai 61 (1967); 240–8; D. Margalit, in: Korot, 4 (1967); K. Cahana, in: Ha-Meayyan 9 (1969), 25–48; S. Abramson, in: Sinai 66 (1970), 185–94; idem, ibid., 68 (1971), 105–37; 235–69; E. Kupfer, in: Tarbiz 40 (1971), 64–83; J. Perles, in: MGWJ 7 (1858), 81–97; 117–36; Z. Frankel, ibid., 17 (1868), 449–58; A. Marmorstein, ibid., 71 (1927), 39–48; L.M. Epstein, in: Students’ Annual 1 (1914), 95–123; M. Grajwer, Die kabbalistischen Lehren des Moses Nachmanides in seinem Kommentare zum Pentateuch (1933). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: I. Twersky (ed.), Rabbi Moses Nachmanides (Ramban): Explorations on his Religious and Literary Virtuosity (1983), 107–28; M. Idel, “Some Concepts of Time and History in Kabbalah,” in: E. Carlebach, Y. Efron, D. Myers (eds.), Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Essays in Honor of Yosef Haim Yerushalmi (1998), 153–88; idem, “The Jubilee in Jewish Mysticism,” in: E.I. Rambaldi (ed), Millenarismi nelle cultura contemporanea – Con un’appendice su yovelabraico e giubileo cristiono (2000), 209–32; idem, Messianic Mystics (1998); idem, “Kabbalah, Halakhah u-Manhigut Ruḥanit,” in: Tarbiz, 64 (1995), 535–80; D. Novak, The Theology of Naḥmanides Systematically Presented (1992); idem, “Naḥmanides Commentary on the Torah,” The Solomon Goldman Lectures, 5 (1990), 87–104; E. Gottlieb, Ha-Kabbalah be-Khitvei Rabbenu Baḥya ben Asher (1970); M. Meira, Ha-Ramban be-Ḥug Gerona (1980); H. Pedaya, Ha-Mareh ve-ha-Dibbur: Iyyun be-Teva ha-Ḥavayah ha-Datit ba-Mistorin ha-Yehudi (2002); idem, Ha-Ramban: Hitalut Zeman Maḥzori ve-Tekst Kadosh (2003); idem, Ha-Shem ve-ha-Mikdash be-Mishnat Rabbi Yizhak Sagi Nahor: Iyyun Mashveh be-Khitvei Rishonei ha-Mekubbalim (2001); I. Ta-Shma, Ha-Niglah she-ba-Nistar: Le-Ḥeker Shekiʿei ha-Halakhah be-Sefer ha-Zohar (1995); D. Abrams, “Orality in the Kabbalistic School of Naḥmanides: Preserving and Interpreting Esoteric Traditions and Texts,” in: Jewish Studies Quarterly, 2 (1995), 85–102; R. Chazan, Barcelona and Beyond (1992); J. Dan, “Naḥmanides and the Development of the Concept of Evil in the Kabbalah,” in: Moses Ben Naḥman i el seu temps (1994), 159–82; idem, “The Vicissitudes of Kabbalah in Catalonia,” in: M. Lazar (ed.), The Jews of Spain and the Expulsion of 1492 (1997), 25–40; E. Kanarfogel, “On the Assessment of R. Moses Ben Naḥman and His Literary Oeuvre,” in: Jewish Book Annual, 51 (1993), 158–72; Y.T. Langerman, “Acceptance and Devaluation; Naḥmanides Attitude to Science,” in: Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 1 (1992), 223–45; M. Saperstein, “Jewish Typological Exegesis after Naḥmanides,” in: Jewish Studies Quarterly, 1 (1993–1994), 158–70; B. Septimus, Hispano Jewish Culture in Transition (1982); E. Wolfson, “By Way of Truth – Aspects of Naḥmanides Kabbalistic Hermeneutic,” in: AJS Review, 14 (1989), 103–78; M. Halberthal, “Ha-Minhag ve-ha-Historiyah shel ha-Halakhah be-Torato shel ha-Ramban,” in: Zion, 67 (1992), 25–26; idem, “Mavet, Ḥok u-Ge’ulah be-Mishnat ha-Ramban,” in: Tarbiz, 71 (1992) 133–62; idem, “Torat ha-Nistar: Revadeha shel Sharsheret ha-Ḥavayah be-Torat ha-Ramban,” in: Kabbalah, 7 (2002); A. Funkenstein, “Parshanuto ha-Tipologit shel ha-Ramban,” in: Zion, 45a (1980), 35–59; S. Pines, “Divrei ha-Ramban al Adam ha-Rishon be-Gan Eden,” in: Galut Aḥar Galut: Meḥkarim be-Toledot Am Yisrael ha-Mugashim le-Prof. Ḥayyim Beinart (1988), 159–64.




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5 Responses to NAHMANIDES on Torah, Gemara, Kabbalah

  1. Introduction to the Thought of the Ramban
    by Rav Ezra Bick


    Taamei Hamitzvot – Reasons for the Commandments

    Devising systems to provide the rationale for the mitzvot and giving reasons for individual mitzvot is a recurring theme in medieval Jewish philosophy, a theme that has continued to fascinate Jewish thinkers up to the present time. This is a quintessential Jewish occupation, because no other major religion has the body of detailed commandments that Judaism possesses, and no other religion places such an emphasis on the law and the commandments. The Torah is primarily the book of the commandments, and Judaism is primarily the way of the Torah. The Ramban, in his Commentary to the Torah, attempts to explain each and every mitzva in the Torah. Unlike the Rambam, who, in chapter 35 of the third book of the Moreh Nevuchim, offers a systematic analysis of taamei hamitzvot, the Ramban’s approach is piecemeal, one mitzva at a time. We will, in the coming weeks, examine several of the individual rationales which exhibit points of special interest within the philosophy of the Ramban. Today, I wish to examine the comments of the Ramban concerning the general topic of taamei hamitzvot.

    The main discussion of the Ramban to this topic is found in his commentary to Devarim 22,6 on the verse mandating the freeing of the mother-bird before taking her eggs or chicks.

    The complete text, in English, of the Ramban’s commentary to Devarim 22,6, is posted on the web at .

    It would be worthwhile to read it in its entirety before and together with the shiur.

    The location is not accidental, and immediately creates the ideological framework for the entire discussion, as the Rambam’s discussion of taamei hamitzvot is also based on the Talmudic statement concerning the nature of this mitzva. The Ramban’s discussion is clearly based on the Rambam’s.

    IF A BIRD’S NEST CHANCE TO BE BEFORE THEE. This also is an explanatory commandment, of the prohibition Ye shall not kill it [the dam] and its young both in one day, because the reason for both [commandments] is that we should not have a cruel heart and be discompassionate, or it may be that Scripture does not permit us to destroy a species altogether, although it permits slaughter [for food] within that group. Now, he who kills the dam and the young in one day or takes them when they are free to fly [it is regarded] as though he cut off that species

    Right at the beginning the Ramban gives two different explanations for the prohibition on taking the mother together with the chicks. We are not going to analyze these explanations today, but it is worth paying attention to several points. First, the Ramban indeed offers two explanations, and not because there is anything wrong with either one of them. This is quite typical of the Ramban. The Ramban sees nothing unusual in explaining a verse in more than one way, and similarly he sees nothing strange in answering the question, “what is God’s purpose in giving this mitzva?”, with more than one answer. If we take a look at the two explanations, we see that they belong to very different categories of reasons for commandments. The first, “that we should not have a cruel heart that does not have pity,” is a moral one, seeing the mitzva as educating man to have the proper moral sensibilities. The second, “that the Torah does not permit man to destroy a species totally, even if it is permitted to slaughter (members) of that species,” is based on a doctrine of the Ramban that there is a mandate to maintain the species created in Sefer Bereishit without change. The explanation of this mandate is metaphysical, as we shall see when we discuss the prohibition of mixing species, in a few weeks, and in fact is directly tied to a kabbalistic doctrine of the Ramban.

    But whatever the exact meaning of these two reasons given by the Ramban, the point I wish to stress is that the Ramban in fact gives two different reasons, without attempting to first explain why the first reason isn’t correct. This is typical of the Ramban. For many mitzvot, I think even for most mitzvot, the Ramban will give two or more reasons. As a matter of principal, he will, whenever possible, give one reason which he calls pshat – the simple explanation, and another reason which he calls al derekh ha-emet – the way of truth, which means the kabbalistic explanation, without denigrating the first explanation. In our case he has two explanations which are both pshat, both simple explanations, and sometimes he will give even more than two. This is quite typical of the Ramban, and is very untypical of the Rambam. In Moreh Nevukhim, the Rambam gives one reason for every mitzva. The Ramban will, on a regular basis, give more than one reason. I think the reason is because the Ramban’s reasons for the mitzvot are part of his exegesis; they are part of his commentary on the Torah. Commentary by definition is multiple. It is not unusual for a commentator to explain a text in more than one possible way, resulting in multiple explanations and multiple reasons. The Ramban will give more than one reason to explain a story in Bereishit, and more than one reason to explain a mitzva. This reflects an important point which will come up a number of times in the coming weeks. According to the Ramban, there are multiple levels of meaning for existence and not only for text. In other words, the mitzvot themselves have more than one reason because the text can have more than one explanation, and the world has more than one explanation because the world has multiple levels of metaphysical existence. If we remember that the Ramban is a kabbalist, then it is important to realize that any theory of Kabbala, in the way that the Ramban understands Kabbala, speaks of the world as having an outer, visual kind of explanation and existence and an inner, spiritual, deeper meaning. So the world always exists at least on two levels. For the Ramban, that is the way of thinking about the existence in general. Things exist on many, many different levels and therefore, there is no problem whatsoever in offering two totally different reasons for a mitzva, not contrasting them, not putting one in opposition to the other, but simply presenting both – this is true and this is true. We will come back to this point many times in our discussion of different reasons for mitzvot which the Ramban will give in our discussions in the coming weeks. Now let’s go back to the discussion for today, which is the Ramban’s general theory of ta’amei ha-mitzvot.

    The Ramban now quotes the Rambam’s analysis of the basic question of reasons for mitzvot. The Ramban’s discussion follows the Rambam almost exactly, at least in the beginning. He quotes two different statements of Chazal which seem to imply that there are no reasons for mitzvot, or at least that we should not give reasons for the commandments. The first one is a statement in the Gemara in Berakhot, that one should not say “Your (God’s) mercy extends to the nest of the bird.” The mitzvah, which is the subject of the Ramban’s commentary which we are reading, is that when one comes across a nest, one should send away the mother before taking the eggs or the young. Chazal said that one is not allowed to say to God – “You had mercy on this bird.” Apparently the continuation would be, “so You should have mercy upon us.” The Rambam thought that this seemed to imply that the commandment of the bird’s nest is not based on mercy, but is simply a Divine decree without any meaning whatsoever. And the Rambam in fact is willing to admit that that is the explanation of this statement of Chazal, but he claims that they themselves disagreed about this matter and we (meaning the Rambam) hold the opposite opinion, that there are reasons for mitzvot. A second statement appears in the Midrash, where the Midrash asks, “What difference does it make to God whether one slaughters from the front of the neck or the back of the neck? Rather the mitzvot were given in order to refine the creatures, refine men (letzaref bahem et habriyot).” And again the Rambam understood this, at least at first glance, to mean that there is no logical distinction and no logical reason why one should slaughter from the neck. Mitzvot were given to refine man by giving him tasks; they impose a yoke upon man, and there is no logic or reason for the individual mitzvot. The Ramban now goes on to state his opinion, which in fact is not different from the Rambam’s. The Ramban says that it is an incontestable principle that is that all mitzvot were given for a reason, which is for the benefit and improvement of man. In fact, even those mitzvot which are classified as chukim, which implies that they don’t have a reason, in fact have reasons, though we are do not know them. The Ramban claims that great individuals, for instance Moshe Rabbeinu, did know the reason, that Moshe Rabbeinu knew the reason of the red heifer, of para aduma, but no one else has known it. I think that the Ramban here is interested in emphasizing that the reasons for these difficult commandments are not merely theoretical, and are not only known to God. It is important for the Ramban that at least one human being should have known the reason. The logic is not some esoteric divine logic that no human being could understand. It’s not enough to say that theoretically there is a reason; Ramban says there is a reason and human intellect can grasp that reason, although it might be such a difficult reason that only one person in history ever achieved it. But in principle, Moshe Rabbeinu does not have a different kind of logic than the rest of us.

    What then is the meaning of the statements that the Rambam quoted from Chazal? The Ramban says the meaning is clear – not that there are no reasons at all, but that there is no benefit to God. God doesn’t care whether you slaughter from the back of the neck or the front of the neck, meaning it makes no difference to Him in terms of the benefit to God. God doesn’t benefit from the mitzvot, but you do. The logic of the mitzvot is not to help God but to help man. The mitzvot form a system that is a kind of religious humanism. The mitzvot all have reasons and the reason is the improvement and correction and benefit of the man who performs the mitzvot. The expression used in the Midrash, “to refine,” refers to the process of purifying metals. The process of refinement means improving the metals, producing pure silver out of silver ore by ridding it of its impurities. In the same way, you refine man by getting rid of his bad qualities and improving upon his good qualities.

    Similarly, the statement about the bird’s nest means that God does not command us to send away the mother because He has mercy on the bird. Ramban claims in an aside that the principle of divine providence does not apply to individual birds, so God did not tell us to spare the mother because God had mercy on the bird. He did, though, have a reason – it was to teach us to have mercy upon the mother bird. God does not benefit from our observing this mitzva, but we definitely do, and the reason why God commanded us to send away the mother bird is that we should in fact develop the very same quality that we thought this gemara was rejecting, the quality of mercy for the mother and the desire not to cause her pain.

    The Ramban, then, has established the principle that all mitzvot in the Torah without exception have as their purpose the refinement of man, of the individual man. There are no mitzvot that reflect merely the will of God, without any logic or reason or goal. The goal of all mitzvot is always, according to the Ramban which we have just read, man-oriented. The goal of God in commanding the mitzva is not to increase his own glory, which is irrelevant to him, not to somehow do something for the majesty of God, but is to improve and to correct, to develop the man who is observing the mitzvot.

    This idea, that God’s purpose in the mitzvot reflects not his attitude towards the world but what he wants our attitude to be towards the world, becomes a rather common theme in later Jewish commentary on the mitzvot. I will give one very prominent example, prominent both because many people learn the book and because of its influence on the history of Jewish philosophy. The Sefer Ha-Chinukh on every mitzva gives a bit of a philosophical explanation. When he comes to the mitzva of charity, of tzedaka, the Sefer Ha-Chinukh states that the reason that God commanded us to give charity is not because God wishes to help the poor person. I think one could add here that if God wanted to help the poor person, He could just help him on his own without commanding us to do so. The reason is that He wants the rich person to develop the attribute of mercy and charity towards poor people. His goal is not to help the poor person but to help and improve the rich person. He wishes not to give money to the poor but to inculcate mercy in the rich. And this is a classic example of the Ramban’s principle, which Ramban expressed in a more extreme manner about birds. God has no mercy for individual birds, but wants us to distance ourselves and avoid the attribute of cruelty. He does this by charging us with exercises in mercy. The Ramban adds, in a fascinating aside, that people who do things which are in themselves permissible, there is nothing wrong with them, but they involve the psychological trait of cruelty, will in fact become cruel. He says it is well known that butchers who slaughter large animals like oxen are themselves people of blood, zovchei adam (the expression literally means that they slaughter men). The Ramban is saying, if you are a ritual slaughterer – which of course is not forbidden, it is a part of Jewish life – your personality will be affected by the fact that you regularly shed blood. Therefore the Ramban says there is nothing wrong taking the mother together with the young birds. God doesn’t care about that. But if you do it, it will affect your soul and your personality psychologically in a manner which would be detrimental. God wishes us to be merciful in general – not necessarily for the bird – and therefore He has found ways for us to practice being merciful.

    Does the Ramban believe that the mitzvot have no purpose or goal in respect to God but only in respect to people, only humanistic reasons? The Ramban in fact elsewhere expresses the exact opposite opinion. The statement that he rejects here, that God could have any benefit from mitzvot, is in fact Ramban’s opinion. In a section that we will see in a few weeks concerning the sacrifices, he states that al derekh ha-emet, meaning in the Kabbala, korbanot are based upon the principle that the Divine Presence (shechina) in the world is not merely for the benefit of mankind but in fact is a “need of heaven.” In fact, all the Kabbalistic references in the Ramban are based on the idea that the deeds of man in doing mitzvot affect and improve and elevate the divine order in the divine emanations. The expression that he agrees to state explicitly – “the Divine Presence in the world is a need of heaven” – is based on the principle that we, through our actions, provide and allow the divine presence to reside in the world and this is a fulfillment of divine needs. How then can the Ramban state so explicitly in our section that God gains nothing from the mitzvot but all the mitzvot have humanistic needs. The answer, I think, is found in the principle that I explained in the beginning of today’s shiur. Existence is multi-faceted. The mitzvot have multiple reasons, and multiple reasons are not multiple possibilities but multiple truths. Both reasons are true and they are true on different levels. In fact, even in this mitzva of sending away the mother from her nest, the Ramban at the end adds that in addition to the first two reasons given in the beginning, there is also a “secret” reason, meaning a reason in the Kabbala. “Yesh ba-mitzva sod” – there is a secret in this mitzva. I don’t exactly understand the reason that he gives and we will not go into it, but the reason clearly refers to different sefirot, emanations, and when we observe the mitzva of sending away the mother, we somehow affect the relationship between the sefira called bina, represented by the mother, and the seven sefirot underneath it, represented by the children. What the Ramban is saying that we have a level of explanation based on pshat, and in the pshat, all the reasons and the goals are humanistic, for the benefit of man, but at the same time there is another level of explanation, of understanding, and another level of the existence of the world, whereby the goal is always the affect that human actions have upon the arrangements within the divine sphere. These two explanations, these two types of explanations, are not contradictory because existence itself functions on multiple levels which do not contradict each other but exist one within the other. The Ramban is therefore capable within one section of writing that all mitzvot have one reason, one kind of reason only, the betterment of man, and God gets nothing from them, and then immediately adds – and I think he adds it on purpose, such that you realize the tension involved – but in the Kabbala sending away of the mother has a secret interpretation. I suggest that the nature of the secrecy involved is that this explanation is the opposite of the previous explanations and not concurrent with them; and therefore it exists hidden within the regular pshat explanation but cannot be open and disclosed next to and parallel to the pshat explanation. In almost all cases, with only one or two exceptions, which we shall see in the future, the Ramban never offers the Kabbalistic explanation as the correct explanation, as the pshat; he always offers first pshat, which is true, and then says that there is a further, deeper hidden meaning which is reflected by the Kabbalistic explanation. In the pshat all mitzvot are directed towards man and that is correct, but there is a hidden explanation that says that mitzvot are directed towards God. In both cases the mitzvot do not reflect the arbitrary will of God but rather have a reason, an intelligent purpose and a rationale which explains why they exist.


    The Introduction to the Commentary on the Torah

    The Book of Genesis

    Moses our teacher wrote this book of Genesis together with the whole Torah from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He.

    It is likely that he wrote it on Mount Sinai for there it was said to him, Come up to Me unto the mount, and be there; and I will give thee the tablets of stone and the Torah and the commandment which I have written, to teach them.’ The tablets of stone include the tablets and the writing that are the ten commandments. The commandment includes the number of all the commandments, positive and negative. If so, the expression and the Torah includes the stories from the beginning of Genesis [and is called Torah – teaching] because it teaches people the ways of faith. Upon descending from the mount, he [Moses] wrote the Torah from the beginning of Genesis to the end of the account of the tabernacle. He wrote the conclusion of the Torah at the end of the fortieth year of wandering in the desert when he said [by. command of G-d], Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Eternal your G-d.2

    This view accords with the opinion of the Talmudic sage3 who says that the Torah was written in sections.4 However, according to the sage who says that the Torah was given in its entirety,5 everything was written in the fortieth year when he [Moses] was commanded, Now write ye this song for you and teach it unto the

    children of Israel; put it in their mouths,6 and, as he was further instructed, Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Eternal your G-d.

    In either case it would have been proper for him to write at the beginning of the book of Genesis: “And G-d spoke to Moses all these words, saying.” The reason it was written anonymously [without the above introductory phrase] is that Moses our teacher did not write the Torah in the first person like the prophets who did mention themselves. For example, it is often said of Ezekiel, And the word of the Eternal came unto me saying: ‘Son of man,’7 and it is said of Jeremiah, And the word of the Eternal came unto me.8 Moses our teacher, however, wrote this history of all former generations and his own genealogy, history and experiences in the third person. Therefore he says And G-d spoke to Moses, saying to him9 as if he were speaking about another person. And because this is so, Moses is not mentioned in the Torah until his birth, and even at that time he is mentioned as if someone else was speaking about him.

    Now do not find a difficulty in the matter of Deuteronomy wherein he [Moses] does speak about himself – [as he says,] And I besought the Eternal; 10 And I prayed unto the Eternal, 11 – for the beginning of that book reads: These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel.12 Thus throughout Deuteronomy he is like one who narrates things in the exact language in which they were spoken.

    The reason for the Torah being written in this form [namely, the third person] is that it preceded the creation of the world,13 and, needless to say, it preceded the birth of Moses our teacher. It has been transmitted to us by tradition that it [the Torah] was written with letters of black fire upon a background of white fire.14 Thus Moses was like a scribe who copies from an ancient book, and therefore he wrote anonymously.

    However, it is true and clear that the entire Torah – from the beginning of Genesis to “in the sight of all lsrael”15 [the last words in Deuteronomy] – reached the ear of Moses from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, just as it is said elsewhere, He pronounced all these words unto me with his mouth, and I wrote them with ink in the book.16 G-d informed Moses first of the manner of the creation of heaven and earth and all their hosts, that is, the creation of all things, high and low. Likewise [He informed him of] everything that has been said by prophecy concerning the esoterics of the Divine Chariot [in the vision of Ezekiel]17 and the process of Creation, and what has been transmitted about them to the Sages. [Moses was informed about these] together with an account of the four forces in the lower world: the force of minerals, vegetation in the earth, living motion, and the rational soul. With regard to all of these matters – their creation, their essence, their powers and functions, and the disintegration of those of them that are destroyed18 – Moses our teacher was apprised, and all of it was written in the Torah, explicitly or by implication. Now our Sages have already said:19 “Fifty gates [degrees] of understanding were created in the world, and all were transmitted to Moses with one exception, as it is said, Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels.”20 [Concerning this statement of the Sages] that in the creation of the world there are fifty gates of understanding, it is as if it said that there is one gate of understanding pertaining to the creation of the minerals, their force and their effects, one gate of understanding pertaining to the creation of the vegetation in the earth, and similarly, as regards the creation of trees, beasts, fowl, creeping things and fish, that there pertains to each of these one gate of understanding. This series culminates in the creation of the rational soul [for the gate pertaining to this latter creation] enables man to contemplate the secret of the soul, to know its essence and its power in “its palace” [namely, the body]21 and to attain [that degree of understanding] which is alluded to in the saying of the Sages:22 “If a person stole, he [who has the aforesaid understanding] knows and recognizes it on him; if a person committed adultery, he knows and recognizes it on him; if one is suspected of having intercourse with a woman in her state of uncleanness, he knows and recognizes it on him. Greater than all is he who recognizes all masters23 of witchcraft.” And from [that level of understanding] a man can ascend to the understanding of the spheres, the heavens and their hosts, for pertaining to each of these there is one gate of wisdom which is unlike the wisdom of the others. The total number of different gates as ascertained by tradition is fifty less one. It is possible that this fiftieth gate concerns knowledge of the Creator, blessed be He, which is not transmittable to any created being. Pay no regard to the Sages’ saying that [“Fifty gates of understanding] were created,”24 for that statement relates to the majority even though one gate was indeed not created. This number [49] is clearly alluded to in the Torah in the counting of the Omer,25 and in the counting of the Jubilee,26 the secrets of which I will disclose when I attain thereto by the Will of the Holy One, blessed be He.

    Everything that was transmitted to Moses our teacher through the forty-nine gates of understanding was written in the Torah explicitly or by implication in words, in the numerical value of the letters or in the form of the letters, that is, whether written normally or with some change in form such as bent or crooked letters and other deviations, or in the tips of the letters and their crownlets, as the Sages have said:27 “When Moses ascended to heaven he found the Holy One, blessed be He, attaching crownlets to certain letters of the Torah. He [Moses] said to Him, ‘What are these for?’ He [G-d] said to him, ‘One man is destined to interpret mountains of laws on their basis.’ “28 ‘”Whence dost thou know this?’ He [Rabbi Akiba] answered them: ‘This is a law given to Moses on Mount Sinai.’ “29 For these hints cannot be understood except from mouth to mouth [through an oral tradition which can be traced] to Moses, who received it on Sinai.

    Based on this tradition, the Sages have said in Shir Hashirim Rabbah30 concerning King Hezekiah [when he was visited by a delegation from the king of Babylon]:31 “He showed them the Book of Tagin [crownlets] .” This book is known and is available to everyone. In it is explained how many crownleted alephs there are in the Torah, how many bets, and the [frequency of the] rest of the letters and the number of crownlets on each one. The praise which the Sages bestowed on this book and the disclosure of Hezekiah’s secret to the delegation were not for the crownlets themselves but rather for a knowledge of their essence and their meanings, which consist of many exceedingly profound secrets.

    There, in the Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah,32 they [the Sages] have also said: “It is written, And He declared unto you His covenant,33 which means: He declared unto you the Book of Genesis, which relates the beginning of His creation;34 which He commanded you to perform, even the ten words, meaning the ten commandments, ten for Scripture and ten for Talmud.35 For from what source did Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite36 come and reveal to Israel the secrets of the behemoth37 and the leviathan?38 And from what source did Ezekiel come and reveal to them the mysteries of the Divine Chariot? It is this which Scripture says, The king bath brought me into his chambers,”39 meaning that everything can be learned from the Torah.

    King Solomon, peace be upon him, whom G-d had given wisdom and knowledge, derived it all from the Torah, and from it he studied until he knew the secret of all things created, even of the forces and characteristics of plants, so that he wrote about them even a Book of Medicine, as it is written, And he spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall 40

    Now I have seen the Aramaic translation of the book called The Great Wisdom of Solomon,41 and in it is written: “There is nothing new in the birth of a king or ruler; there is one entrance for all people into the world, and one exit alike. Therefore I have prayed, and the spirit of wisdom was given to me, and I have called out and the spirit of knowledge came to me; I chose it above scepter and throne.” And it is further said there: “It is G-d alone Who gives knowledge that contains no falsehood, [enabling one] to know how the world arose, the composition of the constellations, the beginning, the end and middle of the times, the angles of the ends of the constellations, and how the seasons are produced by the movement of heavens and the fixed positions of the stars, the benign nature of cattle and the fierceness of beasts, the power of the wind and the thoughts of man, the relationship of trees and the forces of roots; everything hidden and everything revealed I know.” All this Solomon knew from the Torah, and he found everything in it – in its simple meanings, in the subtleties of its expressions and its letters and its strokes, as I have mentioned.

    Scripture likewise relates concerning him, And Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east.42 That is to say, he was better versed than they in divination and enchanting, for this was their wisdom, as it is said, For they are replenished from the east, and with soothsayers like the Philistines.43 (The Sages similarly said:44 “What is the wisdom of the children of the east? They knew and were crafty in the divination of birds.”) And all the wisdom of Egypt means that Solomon was better versed in sorcery, which is the wisdom of Egypt, and in the nature of growing things. As is known from the Book of Egyptian Agriculture,45 the Egyptians were very well versed in the matters of planting and grafting different species. Thus the Sages have said:46 “Solomon even planted peppers in the Land of Israel. How was he able to plant them? Solomon was a wise man, and he knew the essence of the foundation of the world. Why was this? [It is written ] Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, G-d bath shined forth.47 Out of Zion the whole world was perfected. How is this known? Why was it called ‘the Foundation Stone?’ Because the world was founded from it. Now Solomon knew which of its arteries extends to Ethiopia, and upon it he planted peppers, and immediately it produced fruits, for so he says, And I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit.”48

    We have yet another mystic tradition49 that the whole Torah is comprised of Names of the Holy One, blessed be He, and that the letters of the words separate themselves into Divine Names when divided in a different manner, as you may imagine by way of example that the

    verse of Bereshith divides itself into these other words: berosh yithbare Elokim. This principle applies likewise to the entire Torah, aside from the combinations and the numerical equivalents of the Holy Names. Our Rabbi Shlomo [Rashi] has already written in his commentaries on the Talmud50 concerning the manner in which the Great Divine Name of seventy-two letters is derived from the three verses: And he went,51 And he came,52 And he stretched out.53 It is for this reason that a Scroll of the Torah in which a mistake has been made in one letter’s being added or subtracted is disqualified [even though the literal meaning remains unchanged] , for this principle [that the whole Torah comprises Names of the Holy One, blessed be He], obligates us to disqualify a scroll of the Torah in which one letter vav is missing from the word otham – of which there are thirty-nine fully-spelled ones in the Torah – [despite the fact that the same word appears many times without a vav] , or if he [the Scribe] were to add a vav to any of the other deficient ones [that is, words which could be written with an additional vav but are not so written]. So it is in similar cases even though it matters not one way or another on cursory thought. It is this principle which has caused the Biblical scholars to count every full and defective word in the Torah and Scripture and to compose books on the Masoretic text, going back as far as Ezra the Scribe and Prophet,54 so that we should be heedful of this, as the Sages derived it from the verse, And they read in the book in the Law of G-d, distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.55

    It would appear that the Torah “written with letters of black fire upon a background of white fire” was in this form we have mentioned, namely, that the writing was contiguous, without break of words, which made it possible for it to be read by way of Divine Names and also by way of our normal reading which makes explicit the Torah and the commandment. It was given to Moses our teacher using the division of words which expresses the commandment, and orally it was transmitted to him in the rendition which consists of the Divine Names. Thus masters of the Cabala56 write the letters of the Great Name I have mentioned [namely, the Name containing seventy-two letters] all close to each other, and then these are divided into words consisting of three letters and many other divisions, as is the practice among the masters of the Cabala.

    And now, know and see what I shall answer to those who question me concerning my writing a commentary of the Torah. I shall conduct myself in accordance with the custom of the early scholars to bring peace of mind to the students, tired of the exile and the afflictions, who read in the Seder57 on the Sabbaths and festivals, and to attract them with the plain meanings of Scripture and with some things that are pleasant to the listeners and which give grace58 to the scholars. And may the gracious G-d be merciful unto us and bless us59 so that we shall find grace and good favor in the sight of G-d and man.60

    Now behold I bring into a faithful covenant and give proper counsel to all who look into this book not to reason or entertain any thought concerning any of the mystic hints which I write regarding the hidden matters of the Torah, for I do hereby firmly make known to him [the reader] that my words will not be comprehended nor known at all by any reasoning or contemplation, excepting from the mouth of a wise Cabalist speaking into the ear of an understanding recipient.61 Reasoning about them is foolishness; any unrelated thought brings much damage and withholds the benefit. Let him not trust in vanity, deceiving himself, 62 for these reasonings will bring him nothing but evil as if they spoke falsely against G-d, which cannot be forgiven, as it is said, The man that strayeth out of understanding shall rest in the congregation of the shades.63 Let them not break through unto the Eternal to gaze,64 For the Eternal our G-d is a devouring fire, even a G-d of jealousness.65 And He will show those who are pleasing to Him wonders from His Torah. Rather let such see in our commentaries novel interpretations of the plain meanings of Scripture and Midrashim, and let them take moral instruction from the mouths of our holy Rabbis:66 “Into that which is beyond you, do not seek; into that which is more powerful than you, do not inquire; about that which is concealed from you, do not desire to know; about that which is hidden from you, do not ask. Contemplate that which is permitted to you, and engage not yourself in hidden things.”



    (1) Exodus 24:12. (2) Deuteronomy 31::26. (3) Gittin 60a. The name of the authority is Rabbi Yochanan. (4) When a section was declared to Moses, he immediately wrote it down. When all the sections were completed, he compiled them together into one Torah. Rashi, Ibid. (5) Resh Lakish is the authority who maintains that Moses wrote the whole Torah at one time after all sections had been given to him intermittently during the forty years and were properly systematized in his mind.

    (6) Deuteronomy 51:19. (7) Ezekiel 3:16-17; 12:1, etc. (8) Jeremiah 1:4. (9) Exodus 6:2. (10) Deuteronomy 3:23. (11) Ibiat, 9:26. (12) Ibich, 1:1. (13) Shabbath 88 b. (14) Yerushalmi Shekalim 13 b. See also Rashi on Deuteronomy 33:2.

    (15) Deuteronomy 34:12. (16) Jeremiah 36:18. Bausch, Jeremiah’s scribe, is explaining the manner in which he wrote down his master’s prophecies: he Ueremlah] P’onounced all these words, etc. (17) Ezekiel, Chapter 1. (18) The rational soul in man is not subject to destruction. Hence Ramban writes of “those of them that are destroyed,” not all. (19) Rosh Hashanah 21 b. (20) Psalms 8:6.

    (21) See Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Deuteronomy 32:2, which states that the body is the palace of the soul. (22) Heichaloth Rabboth 1:3. f 23) “Masters”; in Heichaloth Rabboth: “kinds.” (24) Since the fiftieth gate of understanding was never transmitted to any created being, how could the Sages say that fifty “were created”? The answer is that the statement relates to the majority of the gates, (25) Leviticus 23:15:Se~en weeks shall there be complete…. (26) Ibid. 25:8. (27) Menachoth 29 b.

    (28) Ibid. Moses said to G-d: “Show me this man.” G-d showed him Rabbi Akiba sitting with eight ranks of disciples. Moses sat down in the eighth rank but was not able to follow the discussions, a fact which deeply grieved him. But then he heard the disciples asking Rabbi Akiba, “Whence dost thou know this?” See now in- text of Ramban. (29) Now Moses was content. Ibid. (30) Not found in our text. See, however, Shir Hashirim Rabbah 3:3, and see also my Hebrew commentary, p. 4, for further reference on this matter. (31) Isaiah, Chapter 39. (32) 1:28. (33) Deuteronomy 4:13. (34) The interpretation is based upon the similarity between the words b *iyah (creation) and b’ritho (His covenant). (35) “Ten for Scripture and ten for Talmud.” Thus the Oral Law is made equal to the Written Law. The basis for the interpretation seems to be the extra word la’asoth (to perform) , which is taken to refer to the Oral Law since it teaches us how to perform the commandments.

    (36) Job 32:2. (37)Ibhi, 40:15. See following note. (38) Ibid., 40:25. The Behemoth and the Leviathan are mentioned in G-d’s response to Job (Chapter 40) and are not found in Elihu’s speeches. Rabbi David Luria (in his notes to the Midrash) amends the text of the Midrash to read: “the secrets of the winds and the rains.” These are mentioned by Elihu in Chapter 37. (39) Song of Songs 1:4. (40) I Kings 5:13. (41) One of the books of the Apocrypha. In Weisel’s Hebrew edition, Verses 4-6 in Chapter 7 come close to the text here mentioned.

    (42) I Kings 5:10. (43) Isaiah 2:6. (44) Pesikta of Rabbi Kahana, Parah. Bamidbar Rabbah, Chapter 19. (45) Mentioned in Rambam’s Moreh Nebuchim III, 29-30. Ramban also mentions it further,11:28. Abraham ibn Ezra refers to it in his Commentary to Exodus 2:10. (46) Tanchuma, Kedoshim 10. (47) Psalms 50:2. (48) Ecclesiastes 2:5. (49) Zohar Yithro 87a: “The whole Torah is the Name of the Holy One, etc.” See also my Hebrew commentary,p. 6 for a broader discussion of this matter.

    (50) Sukkah 45 a. (51) Exodus 14:19. (52) Ibid., Verse 20. (53) Ibid., Verse 21. (54) Megillah 15 a. Malachi (the prophet) is identical with Ezra. (55) Nehemiah 8:8. The Sages’ interpretation is found in Nedarim 37 b: “And they read in the book in the law of G-d, this means the written text; distinctly, this is the Targum [translation] ; and they gave the sense, this has reference to the division in verses; and they caused them to understand the reading, this means the punctuating signs [or accents] , and some Rabbis say that this is the Masoreth [the traditions regarding the full or defective words] .”

    (56) Literally, ‘reception.” In the Talmud the word cabala denotes the whole body of the oral tradition in contrast to the written word of G-d, the Torah. Here, however, as well as in later Hebrew usage the word denotes the system of mystic lore and philosophy which constitutes a distinctive body of esoteric thought. (57) The portion of the Torah assigned for reading on a particular Sabbath or festival. (58) The Hebrew word chein (grace) – is here

    an abbreviation for the Hebrew words chochmah nistarah [the hidden

    wisdom or the Cabala]. (59) Psalms 67:2. (60) Proverbs 3:4.

    (61) The Hebrew is Mekabel mevin, which may also mean “an understanding Cabalist,” thus suggesting that the recipient too has already been initiated into these mysteries to a lesser degree. (62) Job 15:31. (63) Proverbs 21:16. (64) Exodus 19:21 and 24. (65) Deuteronomy 4:24. (66) Bereshith Rabbah 8:2.

  3. Ramban, the Greeks, and Parshat Bereshit
    by Reb Yaakov

    There are a number of perushim by the Ramban on the Torah which have achieved the status of “world-famous” within the Yeshiva world. However, in the world of the Kabbalists there is one perush of the Ramban which is so famous and so fundamental to Kabbalistic philosophy, that I am inclined to refer to it as “Biblical”. I am going to discuss the Ramban’s “Biblical” comment about how the world was created. Nevertheless, since I do not want to confuse anyone, I will just refer to this comment of the Ramban as “world-famous”, but we will know the real truth.

    The “world-famous” Ramban in Parshat Bereshit concerns the first pasuk in the Torah
    – בראשית ברא אלוקים. In reality, this is an extremely difficult phrase to translate accurately. The complex nuances of the Biblical grammar are barely within my grasp (hat-tip to Profs. Steiner and Eichler) but much too difficult to explain here. המבין יבין.

    Nevertheless, the word בראשית is generally translated as, “beginning” – as in, “In the beginning blah blah blah.” However, Chazal treat the letter “ב” at the beginning of the word as a preposition and translate the word as, “with ראשית.” Now don’t get lost because we are almost at the end – ראשית is generally translated as, “the best”. Chazal translate the first phrase in the Torah as, “Elokim created with the best.” Take a look at Rashi on this pasuk and you will see some suggestions for meanings of ראשית: B’nei Israel and the Torah. (Truthfully, Rashi translates the “ב” as, “for the sake of” – so Rashi would translate this phrase as, “HaShem created for the sake of the Torah”.)

    Ramban the Kabbalist is struggling to reconcile the first pasuk of the Torah with the Kabbalistic concept of creation ex nihilo. That is to say יש מאין, or something from nothing. The word ראשית refers to the very first “stuff” that was created by HaShem in the finite universe. Ramban explains that Greek philosophy has a similar idea of the first “stuff” that was used to create the universe – “hiyuli”. (My Greek is a little rusty if not non-existent, so I welcome any help from any blog-like people out there.) According to Ramban, there was a single act of something from nothing creation, and the Torah calls the created stuff ראשית. All of the olamot and sefirot, and molecules and quarks are all made from this ראשית. And there you have it, Ramban uses a little Greek philosophy to help explain how the first phrase in the Torah actually refers to the fundamental Kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum.

    Ramban Says, “Make Aliyah Now!”

    I am not in the habit of recklessly recommending to people to make aliyah – it is a very difficult transition to change from being an American to becoming an Israeli. Nevertheless it is impossible to ignore the significance that the single greatest piece of religious Zionist propaganda falls out on the week of Yom HaAtzmaut. I am sure that at least one of my faithful readers has realized that I am talking about THE Ramban on Parshat Achrei Mot, where he explains that mizvot aseh only “count” in Eretz Yisrael.

    Dramatic pause for self-satisfied Zionist sigh of contentment.

    VaYikra 18:25 states: The land became defiled, and when I directed My providence at the sin committed there, the land vomited out its inhabitants.

    The Ramban begins by explaining the connection between committing an aveirah and being ejected from Eretz Yisrael. His explanation is based on his Kabbalistic cosmology – each of the 70 nations of the world has a ministering angel which acts as the Divine intermediary between that nation and HaShem. That means that all reward and punishment for that nation is delivered by that ministering angel.

    The Jewish people are different; they have Eretz Yisrael as their Divine intermediary instead of an angel. This is the explanation of the pasuk – Eretz Yisrael punishes its inhabitants that sin, by forcing them to leave the land. Yet the reverse is also true – once Eretz Yisrael was given to the Jewish people, then they are rewarded by Eretz Yisrael. (You can go back to Parshat Noach and the episode of Cham, where he is punished by losing his land to the descendants of Shet – the Jews.) This type of reward could also describe the 2nd paragraph of the Shema – the Jews will be rewarded with rain in Eretz Yisrael because they are doing mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael.

    Yet, the Ramban does not stop there – he states that mitzvot have a limited effect outside of Israel. For example then nation of Brooklyn is outside of Israel. When the nation of Brooklyn does a mitzvah, the angel of Brooklyn takes that mitzvah and then brings it to HaShem. The angel of Brooklyn then returns with the reward to the nation of Brooklyn. However, this angel gets to “take a cut” in both directions. That is to say, the positive mystical impact of doing the mitzvah, and the reward are reduced in the process of going from the nation to HaShem. The angel of Brooklyn is profiting from all of the mitzvot being done there, at the expense of the Jews. But, if you do a mitzvah in Israel, Eretz Yisrael brings that mitzvah straight to HaShem without reducing the mitzvah or the reward at all. When you do mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael, there is no go-between angel involved in the mitzvah transaction at all.

    The Ramban uses this statement about doing mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael to explain the Gemara in Ketubot 110b, which states,

    “Anyone who lives outside of Eretz Yisrael, it is as if they have no God.”
    According to the Ramban, you have no God outside of Eretz Yisrael because your mitzvot are going straight to your local angel. Whereas, when you live inside of Eretz Yisrael, your mitzvot are going straight to HaShem.

    This Ramban is often misquoted and misrepresented (see earlier in this post!) to mean that mitzvot outside of Eretz Yisrael do not count. Rather, the proper pshat is that the Ramban means that the positive effects of the mitzvot are limited outside of Eretz Yisrael.

    I highly recommend that you read the Ramban in the original Hebrew because I have certainly butchered him in my summary. Nevertheless, the bottom-line is that the Ramban in Parshat Achrei-Mot teaches us that HaShem REALLY REALLY wants us to live in Eretz Yisrael.

    The Gadlut of Parshat Bo (Part Deux)

    I just wanted to give a little reminder to my readers (yes, I am talking to both of you) that one of the world-famous Ramban’s is at the end of Parshat Bo. Ramban discusses the meaning of tefillin and then talks about one of the central ideas behind many different mitzvot.

    There are hidden Kabbalistic meanings in his explanation of tefillin (ועל דרך האמת), but I am not going to discuss them since we have not covered those Kabbalistic ideas in this blog yet.

    (For those of you nerdy students who want to “read-ahead” – Ramban explains that the tefillin shel rosh represents the Olam of Adam Kadmon which is represented by the מוח of a person. (ד”ה – ואמר ולזכרון בין עיניך) And the goal is to maintain a connection across the separation between the upper two Olamot (אדם קדמון & אצילות) and the lower three (בריאה, יצירה ועשייה). If you did not understand the previous sentences, don’t worry and return to this post in about two years.)
    But the true gadlut (and world-famousness) of this Ramban is this central idea behind many mitzvot – the main philosophical goal of a variety mitzvot is to reaffirm the existence of HaShem and HaShem’s השגחה (Divine Providence) in the world. Ultimately, even all of the laws of science are really hidden miracles of HaShem (נסים נסתרים), and if you believe otherwise then you are a kofer and denying the existence of Divine Providence. (ד”ה – ומן הנסים הגדולים). I am providing the references to this Ramban so that you can feel free to critique my interpretations. I could not possibly do justice to this Ramban without an extra ten hours that I do not have. But I highly recommend that you read (or re-read) this Ramban over Shabbat.

    One final note – I read a summary of a lecture given by R. Natan Slifkin on the Heresy of Intelligent Design which is very similar to Ramban’s idea of hidden miracles. R. Slifkin states that the problem with Intelligent Design is we only need HaShem for things that cannot be explained by science. Moreover, according to Ramban – to believe in Intelligent Design is heretical.

    Kabbalistic Cholent – Ramban’s Introduction to Sefer Shemot

    Did you know that the Ramban was not only a master of Parshanut of the Chumash, and a great innovator in explaining the Gemara – he was also a great Kabbalist. (There are indeed many great kabbalists lurking in the Rabbinic history of Judaism.) The Ramban was also an early lover of Eretz Israel and made aliyah to Tzefat towards the end of his life. Thus we can almost feel the electricity in the air as we turn to the Ramban to introduce Sefer Shemot.

    According to the Ramban, Sefer Shemot completes the story that was started in Sefer Bereshit. Sefer Bereshit describes the creation of the world, the origins of the human race in general and the Jewish people in specific. The lives of the Avot and Imahot are paradigms of behavior for later generations, and they also create the core and foundations for the Jewish people as a nation. As a whole, Sefer Shemot emphasizes three historical events:

    · The redemption of the Jews from slavery in Mitzraim.

    · The acceptance of the authority of the Torah at Har Sinai.

    · The building of the Mishkan which becomes the physical place on Earth where there is the greatest potential for connection between human beings and HaShem.

    We have previously introduced the Kabbalistic concept of Min haKoach el HaPoal (from the potential to the actual). According to the Ramban, Sefer Bereshit is the Koach of the concept of the Jewish people and Sefer Shemot is the Poal. These three historical events become three foundations of the Jewish people as a nation. The redemption from Mitzraim emphasizes the unique and special relationship between HaShem and the Jewish people. The Torah defines what the Jewish people need to do in order to be closer to HaShem. Finally the Mishkan becomes the place where people can be the closest to HaShem. These three foundations were initiated in Sefer Bereshit and are culminated in Sefer Shemot.

    One final comment – (really a mini-SZP) the Ramban states that the mission of the Jewish people includes living in their proper place which is Eretz Israel. The Jewish people are not complete until they are living in Eretz Israel, observing the Torah, to bring the world closer to HaShem.

  4. The shofar’s blasts address the attribute of judgement.

    The Ramban on the Shofar

    From Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman’s commentary on the Torah
    …”a memorial of ‘terua’ [a blast of the ram’s horn]” (Lev. 23:24)

    And by way of the Truth, [the mystic teachings of the Kabbala], terua is that which has stood by our fathers and us, as it is said, “Happy is the people that know the terua” (Ps. 89:15), similar in meaning to that which it is written, “terua [the alarm of] war,” (Jer. 4:19) for The Eternal is a man of war. If so, “…it shall be a day of terua unto you” should mean that the day that is set aside for terua [i.e., i.e. that the world is judged according to the attribute of judgment but it] will be to our relief [for we will be remembered in mercy]. Similarly, “a memorial of terua, a holy convocation” (Lev. 23:24) means that there will be a remembrance [of mercy] in the terua [the quavering sound which alludes to the attribute of judgment], and therefore it is a “holy convocation”.

    It is a day of judgment in mercy…
    It was not necessary for Scripture to mention the shofar [i.e. that “it shall be a day of shofar unto you”], for the shofar is already alluded to in the word “day”, [since the word “shofar” is symbolic of mercy, it is already hinted at in the word “day” which likewise symbolizes mercy], and the terua is on [that “day”], and thus it is a day of judgment in mercy, not a terua [i.e. alarm] of war.

    It is for this reason that Scripture mentioned only the terua [but did not mention the tekiot, the accompanying plain sounds], because it is already a tradition received by our Rabbis which all Israel have seen [done] as far back as Moses our teacher, that each terua (quavering sound) has one plain accompanying sound before it and one after it. And why should Scripture mention the terua, and not mention the tekiot at all, neither in connection with the New Year nor the Day of Atonement [of the Jubilee year]?

    But it is because the tekia [the plain accompanying sound] is the memorial, and it is the shofar [all alluding to the attribute of mercy], and the terua is as its name indicates [i.e. a reference to the attribute of judgment]. And because it [the terua] is wholly surrounded by mercy – an accompanying plain sound before it and one after it – therefore He said of those “who know the terua” that through righteousness they will be exalted, “for You are the glory of their strength.”

    Thus it is clear that everything depends upon repentance, but on the New Year He is concerned entirely with the attribute of justice and conducts His world [by that attribute], and on the Day of Atonement He is concerned entirely with the attribute of mercy. It is this that is expressed in the saying of the Rabbis [with reference to these solemn days]: “The King sits upon the throne of judgment etc.” Thus the New Year is a day of judgment in mercy, and the Day of Atonement is a day of mercy in judgment.

    [Adapted from Rabbi Dr. Charles Chavel’s annotated translation.]

  5. Ramban, Devarim 22,6

    IF A BIRD’S NEST CHANCE TO BE BEFORE THEE. This also is an explanatory commandment, of the prohibition Ye shall not kill it [the dam] and its young both in one day, because the reason for both [commandments] is that we should not have a cruel heart and be discompassionate, or it may be that Scripture does not permit us to destroy a species altogether, although it permits slaughter [for food] within that group. Now, he who kills the dam and the young in one day or takes them when they are free to fly [it is regarded] as though he cut off that species. Now, he [Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon] wrote in the Moreh Nevuchim that the reason for the commandment to release the mother bird when taking its nest and the prohibition against killing the dam with its young on one day is in order to admonish us against killing the young within the mother’s sight, for animals feel great distress under such circumstances. There is no difference between the distress of man and the distress of animals for their young, since the love of the mother and her tenderness to the children of her womb are not the result of reasoning or [the faculty of intelligent] speech, but are produced by the faculty of mental images which exists among animals even as it is present in man. But if so the main prohibition in killing the dam and its young applies only when killing [first] the young and [then] the dam [but not vice versa, whereas the Torah forbids it to be done either way]. But it is all an extraordinary precaution, and it is more correct [to explain them as prohibitions] to prevent us from acting cruelly.

    And the Rabbi [Moshe ben Maimon] said further: “Do not contradict me by quoting the saying of the Sages, ‘He who says in his prayer: Even to a bird’s nest do Thy mercies extend [etc., they silence him , which would seem to imply that there is no reason other than the Will of G-d for the commandment to release a dam when taking its nest], for that is one of two opinions, namely, the opinion of the Sage who holds that the commandments [of the Torah] have no other reason but the Will of the Creator. We follow the second opinion that there is a reason for all commandments.” And the Rabbi [Moshe ben Maimon] raised a difficulty from a text in Bereshith Rabbah [which contradicts his theory that there is a reason for every commandment]. The text reads: “And what difference does it make to the Holy One, blessed be He, whether an animal is slaughtered from the front of the neck or the back? Surely you must say the commandments have been given only for the purpose of refining [disciplining] men through them, as it is said, Every word of G-d is refined.

    Now, this theory, categorically stated by the Rabbi [Moshe ben Maimon] concerning the commandments, that there is a reason for them, is indeed very clear. There is a reason, benefit, and improvement for man in each of them, aside from the reward by Him Who commanded it, blessed be He. Our Sages have already stated: “Why were the reasons for the commandments not revealed? etc.” And they further interpreted: “And for stately clothing – this refers to one who uncovers matters that were concealed by the Ancient of days. And what are these matters? They are the reasons for [the commandments of] the Torah.” The Rabbis have further expressed themselves on the subject of the Red Heifer, concerning which Solomon said, “I achieved [a knowledge of the reasons for] everything, but the section of the Red Heifer I examined, inquired into, and searched; All this have I tried by wisdom; I said, ‘I will get wisdom,’ but it was far from me. And Rabbi Yosei the son of Rabbi Chanina said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, ‘To you I reveal the reason of the Red Heifer, but for others it is a statute [a commandment for which we know no reason].’ For it is written, And it shall come to pass in that day, that there shall not be light, but heavy clouds ‘v’kipaon ‘ (and thick). The word is spelled yekipawon, intimating that matters concealed from you in this world are destined ‘to be revealed’ in the World to Come. like a blind man who suddenly sees, as it is written, And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not, and it is further written, These things have I done and I did not leave them undone, for I for I have done them already to Rabbi Akiba” [meaning that the explanations were revealed to Rabbi Akiba].

    Thus the Rabbis explained that our lack of knowledge of the reasons of [the commandments of] the Torah is but a barrier in our minds, and that the reason for the most difficult of the commandments [i.e., thc Red Heifer] has already been revealed to the Sages of Israel [such as Rabbi Akiba, as mentioned in the above Midrash]. There are many such texts among the words of the Rabbis, and Torah and Scripture, which teach to that effect; and the Rabbi [Moshe ben Maimon] mentioned some of them. But those Agadic [homiletic] statements, presenting difficulty to the Rabbi, are in my opinion, intended to express another thought as follows:

    The benefit from the commandments is not derived by the Holy One Himself, exalted be He. Rather, the advantage is to man himself, to withhold from him physical harm or some evil belief, or unseemly trait of character, or to recall the miracles and wonders of the Creator, blessed be He, in order to know the Eternal. It is this [which the Rabbis intended in saying] that the commandments were given “for the purpose of refining men,” that they may become like “refined silver,” for he who refines silver does not act without purpose, but to remove therefrom any impurity. So, also, the commandments eliminate from our hearts all evil belief, and [are given] in order to inform us of the truth and to recall it always. Now this very same Agadah [homily] is mentioned in the Yelamdeinu in the section of These are the living things. “And what difference does it make to the Holy One, blessed be He, whether one eats of an animal which is ritually slaughtered or if he just stabs it? Do you benefit Him or harm Him at all? Or what does it matter to Him if one eats clean animals or unclean? If thou art wise, thou art wise for thyself. Surely the commandments have been given only to refine men, as it is said, The words of the Eternal are pure words, and it is further said, Every word of G-d is refined. Why? So that [the word of G-d) should protect you.”

    Thus it is clearly stated here that the Rabbis [in this Midrash], meant to say merely that the benefit [accruing from observance of the commandments] is not for His sake exalted be He [nor] that He is in need of the light of the candelabrum as one might Think, or that He needs the food of the offering and the odor of the incense as might appear from their simple meanings. Even regarding the memorial He hath made for His wonderful works ,that He commanded us to perform in memory of the Exodus and Creation, the benefit is not for Him, but so, that we should know the truth and be meritorious enough to be worthy that He protects us, for our utterances and remembrances of His wonders are accounted by Him as things of nought, and vanity. And the Midrash brought proof from [the law specifying] slaughter by cutting the neck in front or in the hark, meaning to state that all the benefits are to us and not to the Holy One, blessed be He, because it is impossible to say concerning slaughter that there is more benefit and glory to the Creator, blessed he He, by cutting the neck in front than by cutting it in the back or by stabbing the animal. Rather, all these advantages are to us – to lead us in paths of compassion even during [the process of] slaughtering. And then the Rabbis brought another proof: ”Or what does it matter to Him if one eats clean things,” – that is, foods permissible to the eater “or eats unclean things,” that is, forbidden food concerning which the Torah declared they are unclean unto you. However, He implied that [these laws were given to us] so that we might develop a fine soul and be wise men perceptive to the truth. By quoting the verse, If thou art wise, thou art wise for thyself the Rabbis [in the above Midrash] mentioned the principle that the commandments pertaining to rites such as slaughter by [cutting of] the neck are to teach us traits of good character. The Divinely ordained commandments which define the species [of animals and birds which are permissible to us] are to refine our souls, just as the Torah has said, and ye shall not make your souls detestable by beast, or by fowl, or by any thing wherewith the ground teemeth, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. If so, all the commandments are solely to our advantage. This is as Elihu said, If thou hast sinned, what doest thou against Him? And if thy transgression be multiplied, what doest thou unto Him? And again he states, if thou be righteous, what givest thou Him? Or what receiveth He of thy hands?

    This is a consensus in all the words of our Rabbis. Thus they asked in Yerushalmi Nedarim whether they may open the way [to release one from a vow or oath] by reason of the honor due to G-d in matters between man and G-d. On this question the Rabbis answered [there]: “What is an example of [a vow being released because of] the honor due to G-d? [If you say that it is a case where he swore] ‘I shall not make a Booth, I shall not take the palm-branch, 1 shall not put on phylacteries’ – but do you call this ‘by reason of the honor due to G-d?’ It is for oneself that [the observance of the commandments] helps, just as it is said, If thou be righteous, what givest thou Him? Or what receiveth He of thy hands? If thou hast sinned, what doest thou aginst Him? And if thy traqression be multiplied,what doest thou unto Him? Thus the Rabbis have explained that even the palm-branch, the Booth, and the phylacteries concerning which He commanded that they shall be for a sign upon thy hand, and for frontlets between thine eyes; for by strength of hand the Eternal brought us forth out of Egypt- are not ordained to honor G-d, blessed be He, but to have compassion on our souls. And the Sages have already arranged it for us in the [Closing] Prayer on the Day of Atonement, stating: “Thou hast distinguished man from the beginning, and hast recognized him [to be privileged] to stand before Thee, for who shall say unto Thee, ‘What doest Thou?’ and if he be righteous what can he give Thee?” Similarly, it states in the Torah, which I command thee this day for thy good, as I have explained. So also, And the Eternal commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Eternal our G-d, for our good always. And the intent in all these expressions is “for our good,” and not for His, blessed and exalted be He! Rather, everything we have been commanded is so that His creatures be refined and purified, free from the dross of evil thoughts and blameworthy traits of character.

    So, too, what the Rabbis have stated, “Because he treats the ordinances of G-d like expressions of mercy, whereas they are decrees” means to say – that it was not a matter of G-d’s mercy extending to the bird’s nest or the dam and its young, since His mercies did not extend so far into animal life as to prevent us from accomplishing our needs with them, for, if so, He would have forbidden slaughter altogether. But the reason for the prohibition against taking the dam with its nest, or against killing the dam with its young in one day] is to teach us the trait of compassion and that we should not be cruel, for cruelty proliferates in man’s soul as it is known that butchers, those who slaughter large oxen and asses are men of blood; they that slaughter men are extremely cruel. It is on account of this [cruelty] that the Rabbis have said: “The most seemly among butchers is a partner of Amalek.” Thus these commandments with respect to cattle and fowl are not [a result of] compassion upon them, but they are decrees upon us to guide us and to teach us traits of good character. So, too, the Rabbis refer to all commandments of the Torah – positive and negative – as “decrees, ” as they said in the parable of “the king who entered a country, and his attendants said to him, ‘Promulgate decrees upon them.’ He, however, refused, saying, ‘When they will have accepted my sovereignty, I will promulgate decrees upon them.’ Similarly did the Holy One, blessed be He, [say to Israel], ‘You have accepted My sovereignty: I am the Eternal thy G-d, accept My decrees: Thoushalt have no other gods etc.’

    However, in the Midrash of Rabbi Nechunya hen Hakanah there is an interpretation with respect to releasing a mother bird when taking its nest, which states that there is a secret in this commandment. “Rabbi Rechimai said, What is the meaning of that which is written, Thou shalt in any wise let the dam go, and it did not say ‘the father?’ [This implies that the verse commands] only Thou shalt in any wise let the dam go with the honor of that ‘understanding’ which is termed ‘the mother of the world,’ as it is written, Yea ‘im ‘ (if) thou call for understanding. And what is the meaning of the phrase, and the young, take thou to thee? Said Rabbi Rechimaie, It means those young that she raised. And what are they? They are the seven days of [the Festival of]Tabernacles, and the laws of the seven days of the week etc.” Thus this commandment alludes to a great matter, and therefore the reward for the observance thereof is abundant, [as it is said], that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days.

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