Later Rishonim II: Ramah

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Aryeh Leibowitz

Rabbenu Meir Ha-Levi (Ramah, d. 1244) 

Rabbenu Meir ha-Levi Abulafia served as Rav and Rosh Yeshiva in Toledo (טוליטולא), a major Torah center in the central Castille region of Spain.1  The Ramah was revered by his contemporaries and all later rabbinic figures in Spain, and his teachings and opinions were quoted in an authoritative fashion for generations to come.2

The Ramah’s Talmud commentary is the first known work to be written in Christian Spain following the Reconquista. The commentary was originally called the “Pratei Pratin (The Fine Details),” but eventually was renamed “Yad Ramah” when it was printed in the 18th century.3  In the commentary, the Ramah always includes a discussion of the pesak halacha that emerges from the sugya (often appearing in the beginning of his discussion) in addition to an analysis of the sugya’s fine details.

The Ramah’s attention to pesak halacha, is one of many ways that the Ramah’s work adheres to the early Sefardic style.  Additionally, the commentary follows the flow of the talmud and utilizes many Aramaic quotations from the talmud text. Like the Rif, the Ramah added his own comments by weaving them into the sugya text, sometimes digressing into long extended discussions in Aramaic.  The Ramah also wrote in plural, which is distinctly Sefardic in style.

Beyond style, Ramah’s content is also drawn from the Sefardic tradition, although he rarely mentions the great Sefardic masters by name.  His sources include the teachings of the Geonim, the Rif, R. Hannanel, Rambam,4 and others.  While much of his commentary adopts the rulings and halachic positions of the great Sefardic masters that preceded him, Ramah’s commentary is also highly original, containing many novel interpretations (chiddushim).

For these reasons, it is easy to simply view the Ramah as a member of the “old school” of Sefardic Talmudics.5 However, the Ramah was also exposed to the teachings of Ashkenaz.  He quotes Rashi and the Ba’alei Tosafot in addition to some of the early celebrated Rabbis of Provance, such as R. Yitzchak b. Abba Mari (Sefer Ha-Ittur) and R. Avraham b. Nasan of Lunel (Sefer Ha-Manhig).  While he generally sides with the Sefardic tradition, he occasionally adopts the Ashkenazic approach.

The Ramah’s inclusion of Ashkenazic teachings alongside the Sefardic tradition is a harbinger of what will come in Spain.  In the next generation, the Ashkenazic teachings and methods of study will make further inroads into the Sefardic study halls.

Toledo and its Yeshiva

For many years, the great yeshiva of Spain was located in the southern city of Lucena. It was led by great luminaries like R. Yitzchak Ibn Gayas (Rit”z Gayus), the Rif, and the Ri Migash.  When the Ri Migash died in 1141 – after leading the yeshiva for thirty-eight years – his children moved the yeshiva north to Toledo.

Toledo was an important city in Christian Spain ever since it had been reconquered by Christian forces in 1085.  Toledo was also a major center for Jewish life.  The Sefer Ha-Manhig writes that in 1196 there were over 10,000 Jews in Toledo; most communities at that time numbered in the hundreds.  Unfortunately, the Jews of Toledo experienced great suffering at the hands of the Christian rulers.  Incidences of forced conversions, stake burnings, and anti-Jewish rioting occurred with alarming regularity.  During the time of the Ramah, a particularly harsh event occurred in 1212, when a “holy war” led to pillaging and mass murder.

Despite it all, Torah study prospered in Toledo.  The Ramah served as Rosh Yeshiva in Toledo, and he was succeeded in this role by Rabbenu Yonah and then the Ra’ah. When the Rosh arrived in Spain, he also settled in Toledo and headed a yeshiva in the city.

  1. The Ramah came from a well-known family of Rabbis and community leaders.  His father, Rav Todros (d. 1225) was a talmid chacham and communal leader. At a very young age, Ramah sat on the Beis Din with one of the great older rabbinic figures of the time, R. Avraham b. Nasan Ha-Yarchei, a Talmudist from Provance and the author of Sefer Ha-Manhig (d. 1215). 

  2. The Ramah is quoted often by Rabbenu Yonah in his commentary on Pirkei Avos as “Rabbenu Meir.”  The Rosh, who flourished in Toledo years later, refers to the Ramah as the “master of the region (מורה דאתרא),” and quotes him in his Piskei Rosh and in his responsa.  The Ramah’s teachings occupy a central position in the writings of the Rosh’s son, the Tur. 

  3. In the end of the 18th century, the Ramah’s commentary on tractates Bava Basra and Sanhedrin were published for the first time.  We now know that Ramah wrote on at least fourteen tractates.  In the late 20th century, R. Avraham Shoshana’s Ofek Institute published the Yad Ramah on Kiddushin

  4. Ramah was involved in the early stages of the controversies regarding the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim and Sefer Ha-Madah.  In this regard, he wrote letters to R. Yehonason and his community in Lunel.  Their exchange was then sent to the great Tosafist, R. Shimshon of Shantz.  Although the Ramah expressed criticism of the Rambam in issues of faith and philosophy, he revered him in halacha.  Rambam is one of the few people he quotes by name, and the Ramah even wrote a kinah lamenting the Rambam’s death. 

  5. The Meiri, who uses nicknames for the various Rabbinical figures that he quotes, refers to the Ramah as “The last of the Spanish Scholars (אחרוני הגאונים בספרד).” 

About Aryeh Leibowitz

Rabbi Leibowitz is a Ram at Yeshivat Sha'alvim and serves as the Assistant Dean of the Overseas Program.

Leave a Reply