Ramban on Ibn Ezra’s Heresy

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by R. Gil Student

R. Avraham Ibn Ezra has long been a controversial figure. R. Shlomo Luria (Yam Shel Shlomo, intro to Bava Kamma) respectfully but strongly rejects his entire approach to Torah commentary. What does the Ramban, one of the classical commentaries whose work serves as a foundation for modern Jewish thought, think of his predecessor, Ibn Ezra? He certainly disagrees often with Ibn Ezra, sometimes sharply. But there may be a more fundamental reason for opposition.

At the end of Ramban’s commentary on Shir Ha-Shirim, he writes that anyone who says that Ezra the scribe added to the Torah–such as Gen. 13:6 or Deut. 3:11–is a heretic (Kisvei Ha-Ramban, vol. 2 p. 548). Ibn Ezra famously suggests that four verses imply post-Mosaic interpolations–Gen. 12:6, 22:14, Deut. 3:11, 31:22. Ramban, who shows clear expertise in Ibn Ezra’s Torah commentaryn quotes two of these four verses in describing the heretic! Coincidence? R. Betzalel Naor, in his annotated edition of Rashba’s Ma’amar Al Yishma’el (Orot: Spring Valley, NY, 2008, pp. 25-27) finds this correspondence convincing. The author of the commentary on Shir Ha-Shirim must have been condemning Ibn Ezra as a heretic. Even though some supercommentaries and scholars dispute the claim that Ibn Ezra ever intended anything other than that Moshe wrote those verses prophetically, many believe he made the more radical claim. [1]On this disagreement, see R. Yonatan Kolatch, Masters of the Word, vol. 2 pp. 310-318. If so, this passage from the Shir Ha-Shirim commentary condemns him as a heretic.

However, R. Naor points out that Ramban did not write that commentary. R. Chaim Dov Chavel argues cogently in his introduction to that work that it was written by the earlier, kabbalist R. Ezra of Gerona (Kisvei Ha-Ramban, vol. 2 pp. 473-475). If so, we can ask whether Ramban agreed with R. Ezra’s evaluation. R. Naor (ibid., pp. 136-143) makes the following points and suggestions:

  1. Even in his introduction to his Torah commentary, Ramban expresses his mixed attitude toward Ibn Ezra, which he calls “a public rebuke and private affection.” This might be used to describe a commentary that is both brilliant but occasionally sacrilegious. However, Ramban calls him “Rabbi” Ezra, a term of respect.
  2. It could be that Ramban interpreted Ibn Ezra conservatively, as some supercommentators and scholars have. If so, he could agree with R. Ezra of Gerona generally but disagree with him about Ibn Ezra.
  3. Ramban unquestionably rejected any post-Mosaic interpolations into the Torah, as seen in his general introduction to his commentary. While hiss attitude toward the level of prophecy of the Torah varies (commentary to Num. 16:5), that is nowhere near the claim that any verse postdates Moshe.
  4. Rabbeinu Tam wrote a poem in praise of Ibn Ezra. Perhaps this influenced Ramban to judge him favorably as an inadvertent heretic, which was a status that, according to the Ra’avad (Hilkhos Teshuvah 3:7), even great scholars fell into.
  5. The Chida (Shem Ha-Gedolim, part 1, alef 89) quotes R. Binyamin Spinoza, a late eighteenth century rabbi, who deduces from Ramban’s failure to argue against Ibn Ezra’s radical suggestions that those comments must be late forgeries (interpolations?). Had Ramban seen them, he would surely have objected.

In the end, once we determine that the commentary to Shir Ha-Shirim is misattributed, we can only speculate about Ramban’s attitude toward Ibn Ezra. Maybe he agreed with R. Ezra of Gerona’s condemnation or maybe he felt the belief was wrong but not heretical. Or maybe, as R. Naor suggested, he rejected the belief as heretical but not the person.

(Republished from May ’13)



1On this disagreement, see R. Yonatan Kolatch, Masters of the Word, vol. 2 pp. 310-318.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. Ibn Ezra to Gen. 36:31 strongly rejects and condemns the notion that the verse “And these are the kings that reigned in the land of Edom, before there reigned any king over the children of Israel” is a late addition to the text.

    I might add a sixth possibility to the list: that Ibn Ezra held that certain verses were added by Yehoshua; and that while Ramban might have disagreed with this view, he’d have seen it as a legitimate extension of the similar Talmudic view regarding the last eight verses in the Torah and therefore not heretical.

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