Ramban’s Choices in Introducing His Torah Commentary

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Today, it might seem obvious that if a person feels s/he has what to say on the Torah, that person can or even should publish a commentary. Ramban introduces his commentary from the opposite perspective, apologizing for his temerity, since he feels there’s a gap between his knowledge and wisdom and the lofty secrets found in the Torah.

He’s going to come back to what Torah contains, but at this point he says only that all we might want to know, all wisdom, all wonders, are found there, which is why Tehillim 119;96 describes the Torah as extremely broad.

He’s Doing It Anyway

With all his inadequacies, he feels compelled to share his understanding. He expresses that with two recognizable phrases, first that his soul desires the Torah [Yevamot 63b quotes Ben Azzai using those words to respond to those who asked him why he didn’t marry, when he himself likened the failure to marry to murder, reducing the divine element within human beings]. The second phrase is that his ideas burn like a fire in his heart [from Yirmiyahu 20;9; as R. Chavel made clear in his edition, Ramban was a practitioner of a literary style called melitzah, where thoughts are couched in Scriptural phrasings to the extent possible. I won’t note this regularly, but these examples show he was skilled at pulling up the right words for what he wanted to say].

Perhaps as part of his humility, he plans to follow the lead of two earlier great scholars, taking up their ideas for critical discussion. First is Rashi, whom he lauds while telling us he intends to searchingly question Rashi’s ideas, and will often disagree. Second is Ibn Ezra, about whom Ramban says he will have open admonition and hidden love (many have noted that his reactions to Ibn Ezra are so harsh one can wonder where this concealed love lies; a former professor at Harvard, Bernard Septimus, has an article where he claims that Ramban’s textual readings are more similar to Ibn Ezra’s than to Rashi’s, but that’s an issue for some other time.) 

Moshe’s Narrative Style

Taking up the book at hand, Ramban wonders why Bereshit never says Vayedabber Hashem el Moshe, Gd spoke to Moshe. After all, in Shemot 24;12Hashem tells Moshe He’s going to give him haTorah ve-haMitzvah, the Torah and the commandments. Torah includes the stories from Bereshit, since those teach us matters of emunah, of holding fast to claims about Hashem’s rule of the world that others might deny [I am trying to wean myself from using “believe” for emunah, since it implies that it’s about what I believe, not about what is the truth—emunah means I assert that this is true, not that I think or believe this is true].

But if Hashem dictated Bereshit as much as any other part of Torah, why doesn’t that common introductory phrase appear? Ramban’s answer is that Moshe Rabbenu didn’t write the Torah as if he were writing it, he wrote it as Hashem dictated it. Where other prophets insert themselves into the story (such as Yechezkel, who often will say “the word of Hashem came to me, saying “son of man”), Moshe writes in the third person. If so, there’s no reason to mention him until he is born, at the beginning of the book of Shemot.

Ramban’s theory works until Devarim, where Moshe speaks in the first person for most of the book. But that’s easily explained, he says, since Devarim opens with the words “these are the words Moshe spoke to the entire Israel,” so the rest is a quotation within the book as a whole. (It’s not Moshe lapsing from his style, the third-person style led to a large section that quotes Moshe himself).

Primordial Torah

The choice of third-person presentation isn’t obvious, and Ramban says it was meant to reflect the fact that the entire Torah predates the world (this is based on a tradition Rashi, too, quotes, that the Torah was written as black fire on white fire before the world was created).

Whatever that means—and Ramban does not expand on it—Moshe’s writing the Torah was like a scribe copying over a pre-existing text [this needs a great deal of clarifying, which Ramban does not provide. In this introduction, he did refer to the debate in Gittin 60a about whether Moshe gave the Torah to the Jews scroll by scroll or in one large scroll at the end of their time in the desert. We ourselves saw, at the end of Devarim, that Ramban had shifting views as to when Moshe was taught all the pieces of the end of the Torah. So his chronology is not quite clear).

What he is clear about is that the entirety of the Torah, from the first word to the last was dictated directly from Hashem to Moshe (similar to what Baruch b. Neriah describes about how Yirmiyahu dictated prophecies for him to record, in Yirmiyahu 36;18 [meaning, among other interesting aspects of this assertion, he is not accepting the Talmudic view that Yehoshu’a wrote the last eight verses].

All-Encompassing Torah

The other aspect of Torah Ramban emphasizes is that it contains all wisdom. When Hashem transmits these ideas to Moshe, it’s not just the bare-bones version of the Creation story we have in Bereshit, it was a full explanation of the four elements [until the 19thcentury, most people accepted the four element theory, that the basic building blocks of matter are earth, wind, water, and fire], how matter decays, and more.

Moshe was taught all the details of how that works, and it was included in the Torah, explicitly or implicitly. When Chazal speak of fifty gates of wisdom (forty-nine of which were revealed to Moshe, see Rosh HaShana 21b), each gate means an aspect of the world—vegetation, animal life, human life, the soul, the ability to tell people’s deeds by looking at their faces, and more. All possible wisdom is included (he suggests that the gate Moshe was denied was the one that leads to full understanding of Hashem, as Hashem tells him, Shemot 33;20, that no one can see Hashem and live; “seeing,” for Ramban, means understanding).

The number forty-nine (for the achievable gates of wisdom) is hinted at in the forty-nine days of counting the Omer, and the forty-nine years of each Jubilee (when we get there, we’ll have to check what Ramban says—I think he there suggests a more cosmic significance to the number, although perhaps that too is connected to the limitations and reaches of human understanding).

Finding Moshe’s Wisdom

This was all included in the Torah, whether by the shapes of the letters, by writing certain words with or without a vav, or other ways of inferring added layers of meaning, such as gematria, numerological readings of letters and words.

Ramban relates this claim to Menachot 29b, where Moshe is told that R. Akiva would one day make significant halachic inferences from the crowns Hashem attached to letters of the Torah. Surprisingly, though, Ramban reads the end of that story (where R. Akiva agrees that a particular rule is halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai, sourced in a tradition going back to Moshe) to mean that all such hints and inferences must be a matter of tradition (he’s saying R. Akiva didn’t expound these ideas, as the Gemara itself seems to say, it’s that R. Akiva gathered all the traditions about such inferences, and taught them to his students).

All later visions, too—such as Yechezkel’s famous vision of the Chariot of Hashem—have their basis in Torah itself. So, too, Shlomo’s great wisdom, his ability to understand the plant and animal kingdoms so fully that he could converse with them (and, according to Midrash Tanchuma, knew which parts of Israel could grow crops that aren’t native to Israel, since he knew which parts of Israel were the roots of the regions where those crops do in fact grow), are for Ramban an expression of the depth of his understanding of Torah.

One Long Word and Names of Gd

Another tradition is that the entire Torah consists of Names of Hashem (Ramban points out that Rashi to Sukkah 45a accepts at least some of this perspective, since he defines the 72 letter Name of Gd as being Shemot 14;19-21. Ordinary verses, then, can be Names).

Part of the way we get to these Names (or, in the first view he mentioned, the wisdoms hidden or embedded in the Torah) is by realizing, according to Ramban, that the Torah was originally written as one long word, leaving it up to us to decide where words begin and end. That’s why the Gemara rules that a Torah scroll missing even one letter loses its validity—that missing letter interferes with our ability to get at the wisdom of the Torah.

[Among the challenges in Ramban’s claims here are that it is commonly accepted, since the time of the Gemara, that we no longer are certain of the correct spelling of many of the words of the Torah; for Ramban, that seems to mean some of the Torah’s wisdom has been lost, that we today cannot in fact find all possible knowledge in the Torah, because of flaws in our scrolls]. It was the importance of each letter, too, that led to the development of and investment in the Masorah, the painstaking enumeration of words and letters in parts of the Torah and the book as a whole, to try to safeguard the exact writing [I would have thought as an end of its own, Ramban means that it’s because of the hidden knowledge that will be lost].

His Commentary

Turning to what he aims to do, he says that, first, he’ll follow the example of his predecessors, giving enough explanation to ease the reading of the parsha itself for those who only have time on Shabbat or holidays to study it. For them, he’ll offer the plain sense of the text, while he’ll also offer some ideas for those who know or have heard some mysticism (chen, literally grace or attractiveness, but often used as code for chochah nisteret, hidden wisdom).

Once he’s mentioned esotericism, he cautions the reader against thinking he can infer new ideas about that wisdom. It has to be tradition, he says, and there’s no way to extrapolate or elucidate new ideas. [This raises two questions: first, what does it say about what he might have thought of later forms of Kabbalah, which I’m pretty sure have in fact built off of tradition? Second, what’s his point in including these ideas, if the ones who can understand them already know them?]

They are questions Ramban does not address, so we’ll leave it as well. What we have facing us, then, is a commentary that views Torah as the source of all wisdom, and looks to make some small piece of that wisdom available to us, as we begin again to read our way through the Torah.

About Gidon Rothstein

One comment

  1. But you don’t need the Ramban’s approach to assert that R’ Meir’s statement about having lost the true list of full and deficient spellings mean we lost some of the Torah’s truth. The statement is used to dismiss attempts to create new derashos based on extra or missing letters, at least when those letters are semivowels standing in for vowels.The derashos we could have made are also Toral lost.

    Second, Chassidim believe Rashbi (as the author of the Zohar), the Ari and the Besh”t had new revelations, not that they build upon the tradition deductively. The Ramchal said as much about himself, the mechaber wrote Magid Meisharim, a collection of teachings he received from an angelic Maggid, etc… Perhaps this is to get around the problem.

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