Later Rishonim IV: Catalonia

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by R. Aryeh Leibowitz

Catalonia and its Torah Community

Catalonia is located in the north-eastern region of modern-day Spain. The Catalonian region was conquered by Muslims from North African in the early 8th century. However, their rule was short lived. By the 9th century, Catalonia returned to Christian hands. As a part of Christian Europe, Catalonia served as a feudal fiefdom of France during the early period of the Rishonim. In 1137, it became part of the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon. It remained this way throughout the rest of the period of the Rishonim.

The capital city of medieval Catalonia was Barcelona. Barcelona was a major Torah center in Christian Spain, as was the nearby Catalonian city of Girona, and the further west city of Zaragoza in the Kingdom of Aragon. 1)Aragon was one of several Christian kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula during the time of the Reconquista. It was not until the early 16th century that these various kingdoms finally united into the Kingdom of Spain. These cities were home to many great Talmudists during the period of the Later Rishonim. 2)These Talmudists are often referred to as the “Chachmei Sefarad.” As we will see, this is not an entirely precise definition, for their tradition was distinct from that of the pure Sefardic tradition of the Rif and the Rambam.

Although Catalonia is officially located on the Iberian Peninsula, the divide between the southern region of the Peninsula, which was part of Muslim Spain, and the central and northern regions, which were part of Christian Europe, tempered the extent of pure Sephardic influence in Catalonia. As part of Christian Europe, the Catalonian Torah community had access to the other Torah cultures situated in Christian Europe. Specifically, the learned community of Provence, situated in close proximity to Catalonia and bearing an almost identical language, greatly influenced the Catalonian Torah scholars.

R. Moshe b. Nachman (Ramban, d. 1270)

The Ramban lived most of his life in Girona, Catalonia, and was a central figure in Jewish Catalonian life. He came from an illustrious Rabbinic line, and R. Yonah was his cousin.

The Ramban was a Talmudist, Torah commentator, philosopher, mystic and physician. Beside his prolific writing, the Ramban was also the teacher of many important Catalonian Talmudist, most notably, R. Aharon of Barcelona (the Ra’ah) and R. Shlomo b. Aderes (the Rashba). But beyond his immediate students, the Ramban also influenced many later Spanish scholars, such as Rabbeinu Bechaye, the Ritva, the Ran, and others. 3)R. Shmuel Ha-Sardi, a Catalonian Talmudist, was a talmid-chaver of the Ramban. R. Shmuel wrote an important work on monetary laws, called the Sefer Ha-Terumos. In it, he writes that he consulted the Ramban (and the Ramban’s teacher, R. Nasan b. Meir) on several issues in the work. It should be noted that later authorities sometimes confused the Sefer Ha-Terumos with the Sefer Ha-Terumah, written almost 100 years earlier in Northern France by R. Baruch, a student of the Ri.

The Ramban was also a great defender of Rabbinic Judaism and toward the end of his life he engaged in polemical debates, defending Judaism in the presence of the Christian King. In the aftermath of the debates, Ramban immigrated to Yerushalayim, and established a synagogue there that still stands today in the Old City’s Jewish quarter.

The Ramban studied Talmud with two Provincial scholars, R. Nasan b. Meir 4)R. Nasan b. Meir of Trinquetaille was a central Torah personality in Provence. He authored a number of seforim, although none of them have survived. The Meiri came from the family of R. Nasan and he refers to him, among others, as גדולי קדמונינו. and R. Yehudah b. Yakar. Both of these Talmud masters were students of the Rizvah of Dampierre, and they provided the Ramban with a direct channel to the Torah of Provence and the Torah of Northern France, specifically, the Beis Midrash of the Ri.

We have already seen how the teachings of the Ba’alei Tosafos made inroads into Spanish Talmud study. The Ri Migash, a full-fledged member of the Sephardic Torah community, addressed issues raised by the Ba’alei Tosafos. When Spain came under Christian control and gained a political connection to Northern Europe the relationship to Ashkenazic Torah intensified. Hence, the Ramah’s writings featured a greater interest in Ashkenazic teachings and methods, and this only increased with his successor in Toledo, Rabbeinu Yonah. However, with the Ramban we find that Asheknazic teachings do not simply intensify, but in a sense begin to dominate.

Next Installation: The Ramban’s Talmud Commentary

Endnotes   [ + ]

1.Aragon was one of several Christian kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula during the time of the Reconquista. It was not until the early 16th century that these various kingdoms finally united into the Kingdom of Spain.
2.These Talmudists are often referred to as the “Chachmei Sefarad.” As we will see, this is not an entirely precise definition, for their tradition was distinct from that of the pure Sefardic tradition of the Rif and the Rambam.
3.R. Shmuel Ha-Sardi, a Catalonian Talmudist, was a talmid-chaver of the Ramban. R. Shmuel wrote an important work on monetary laws, called the Sefer Ha-Terumos. In it, he writes that he consulted the Ramban (and the Ramban’s teacher, R. Nasan b. Meir) on several issues in the work. It should be noted that later authorities sometimes confused the Sefer Ha-Terumos with the Sefer Ha-Terumah, written almost 100 years earlier in Northern France by R. Baruch, a student of the Ri.
4.R. Nasan b. Meir of Trinquetaille was a central Torah personality in Provence. He authored a number of seforim, although none of them have survived. The Meiri came from the family of R. Nasan and he refers to him, among others, as גדולי קדמונינו.

About Aryeh Leibowitz

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

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