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).
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.
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]
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).
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.
MYSTICISM IN NAHMANIDES’ BIBLE COMMENTARIES
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.
CONSERVATISM AND INNOVATION
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.
CONCEPTIONS OF HISTORY AND TIME: CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM
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’ THEOLOGY: THE RELATION BETWEEN CONCEPT AND SYMBOL
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 STRUGGLE BETWEEN TWO MYSTICAL THEORIES: NAHMANIDES AND THE ZOHAR
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.
COMMENTATORS ON NAHMANIDES
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.
NAHMANIDES BETWEEN CATALONIA AND CASTILLE
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 CONTROVERSY WITH NAHMANIDES
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 OVER ESCHATOLOGY AND THE THEORY OF SHEMITOT
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.)]
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