Later Rishonim V: Ramban’s Talmud Commentary

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by R. Aryeh Leibowitz

The Chiddushei Ha-Ramban is known for its terseness and profundity.  Written with utmost care and exactitude, the Ramban’s commentary must be studied slowly and carefully.  Often, one arrives at the Ramban’s true intention only after much thought and analysis.

The Ramban did not provide a running commentary on the Talmudic discussion.  Instead, he focused on specific parts of the Talmudic discussion, providing insight and analysis in those locations.  In fact, there are often large gaps in his commentary, with entire Talmudic discussions bereft of the Ramban’s commentary.1

In his commentary, the Ramban clearly writes as a member of the Sephardic tradition, and he regularly quotes from the early Spanish and North African Rishonim, such as R. Chananel, the Rif, the Ri Migash, and the Rambam.2 However, the Ramban’s commentary does not contain the same overt stress on pesak halacha that is found in the writings of the Ramah and Rabbeinu Yonah.  The Ramban’s commentary was also heavily influenced by the teachings of Provence, and he quotes by name some of its greatest talmudists, including the Ba’al Ha-Meor and the Raavad.

The Ramban’s commentary also bears distinct similarity to the writings of the Tosafists. Many of the questions and issues raised by the Tosafists are also raised by the Ramban. Yet, the Ramban does not merely record their teachings. Often, he provides a different answer or perspective to the questions or issues raised by the Tosafists.

In fact, the commentary of the Ramban is the first known Talmud commentary to fully utilize the Tosafist dialectical style and to systematically integrate the Tosafist teachings with the classic Sefardic teachings. The Ramban’s commentary reflects the successful penetration, and even domination, of the Ashkenazic teachings and learning style on Spanish soil.

For this reason, the Ramban and his beis midrash are to be considered as an heir of the Tosafist tradition of the Ri and his students.   It even appears that this is consistent with the Ramban’s self-perception, as he writes the following about the Tosafists in his introduction to his Sefer Dina De-Garmi, “They are the teachers, they are the instructors, they are the ones who reveal that which is hidden,” and in his commentary on Chullin 94a, the Ramban attributes great honor to the Tosafists and writes, “Our Torah is theirs.”

The influence of the Tosafists on the Ramban is undeniable, as the Ramban makes hundreds of references in his commentary to the “Tosafos of our French teachers.”  He also maintained some form of communication with the French Talmudists of his day.  In his Drasha to Rosh Hashana, he writes how he presented an original thought to R. Moshe of Evreux, R. Shneur of Evreux, and R. Yechiel of Paris via his cousin, Rabbeinu Yonah, who “learned in France.”

The Ramban’s commentary was the focus of all later Spanish and Catalonian scholars, and many of their commentaries were heavily based on his writings.

The Ramban wrote another important Talmudic work, the Milchamos Hashem.  The Milchamos is a spirited defense of the Rif’s Halachos from the critical comments of R. Zerachiah ha-Levi (the Ba’al Ha-Meor).  The Milchamos were written early in the Ramban’s life and are known to be extremely challenging to study.

The Milchamos is one of a number of super-commentaries written by the Ramban.  It is also one of a few “defense works” written by the Ramban.  Another example of a “defense work” is the Ramban’s Sefer Ha-Zechus that defends the Rif’s Halachos from the critical comments of the Raavad. The Ramban also wrote Hasagos on the Raavad’s Hilchos Lulav

Another “defense work” is the Ramban’s Hasagos on the Rambam’s Sefer Ha-Mitzvos.  The Rambam was critical of the methods used by the Geonic author of the Halachos Gedolos (Behag) in classifying and enumerating the 613 biblical commandments.  The Ramban’s Hasagos sought to defend the beleaguered Behag.  A final “defense work” is the Ramban’s Hasagos on R. Zerachiah Ha-Levi’s Sefer Ha-Tzavah, principles on learning Talmud that contain critiques of the Rif’s approach to Talmud study.

The Ramban also wrote Sefer Halachos on tractates Nedarim and Bechoros. A similar work was also written by the Ramban on tractate Challah.  These Talmudic works were written in the style of the Rif’s Halachos, for the latter did not include them in his own writings.

The Ramban also penned a number of Talmudic monographs.  He wrote Kuntres Dina Di-Garmi on the laws of indirect damages and Toras Ha-Adom on the laws of death, mourning, and other lifecycle events, and includes the Sha’ar Ha-Gemul on Resurrection and the World to Come.3

  1. Perhaps, for this reason, the Ramban’s writings, and those of his students, are called Chiddushim

  2. It is also worth noting that the Ramban refers to the Ri of Barcelona as “Our Elder Master (אדוננו הזקן),” and in his introduction to his Hilchos Nedarim he refers to the Rif as “Our Great Master” and to himself as a “student of [the Rif’s] students.

    It has been noted that when the Ramban quotes the Rambam he refers to him as “R. Moshe the Sephardi.”  This might imply that to the Ramban, the Rambam was a pure-blood Sephardi, while he himself was not.  While it is true that the Ramban had broader cultural influences than the Rambam, this title for the Rambam might have simply been utilized by the Ramban to distinguish the Rambam from another R. Moshe quoted by the Ramban, such as R. Moshe b. Yosef of Provence, the Rebbe of Rav Zerachia Ha-Levi and the Raavad. 

  3. The Ramban is also well known for his commentary on the Torah, one of the most celebrated commentaries ever written.  With a marked focus on the commentaries of Rashi and the Ibn Ezra, the Ramban’s commentary has been a classic work that continues to occupy a primary position in Torah study.

    The Ramban also wrote a famous letter to his family that encourages his family to live a life of piety.  It has become a classic work of mussar and has appeared in many editions.  An additional work of the Ramban is his Drasha on Rosh Hashanah, a thorough analysis of the halachik and philosophic elements of the festival and its mitzvos.

    The Ramban also wrote teshuvos, but they are mostly lost.  Some are recorded in the Sefer ha-Trumos of R. Shmuel ha-Sardi, a younger contemporary of the Ramban.  There is a volume of teshuvos attributed to the Ramban, Teshuvos HaMeyuchasos La-Ramban, however already at the time of R. Yosef Karo (See his introduction to his Beis Yosef) it was known that these teshuvos were authored by the Rashba. 

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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