Chapters On Jewish Literature
By Israel Abrahams

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Chapter XVI. Moses Nachmanides

     French and Spanish Talmudists.–The Tossafists, Asher of
     Speyer, Tam, Isaac of Dompaire, Baruch of Ratisbon, Perez of
     Corbeil.–Nachmanides’ Commentary on the Pentateuch.–Public
     controversies between Jews and Christians.

Nachmanides was one of the earliest writers to effect a reconciliation between the French and the Spanish schools of Jewish literature. On the one side, his Spanish birth and training made him a friend of the widest culture; on the other, he was possessed of the French devotion to the Talmud. Moses, the son of Nachman (Nachmanides, Ramban, 1195-1270), Spaniard though he was, says, “The French Rabbis have won most Jews to their view. They are our masters in Talmud, and to them we must go for instruction.” From the eleventh to the fourteenth century, a French school of Talmudists occupied themselves with the elucidation of the Talmud, and from the “Additions” (Tossafoth) which they compiled they are known as Tossafists. The Tossafists were animated with an altogether different spirit from that of the Spanish writers on the Talmud. But though their method is very involved and over-ingenious, they display so much mastery of the Talmud, such excellent discrimination, and so keen a critical insight, that they well earned the fame they have enjoyed. The earliest Tossafists were the family and pupils of Rashi, but the method spread from Northern France to Provence, and thence to Spain. The most famous Tossafists were Isaac, the son of Asher of Speyer (end of the eleventh century); Tam of Rameru (Rashi’s grandson); Isaac the Elder of Dompaire (Tam’s nephew); Baruch of Ratisbon; and Perez of Corbeil.

Nachmanides’ admiration for the French method–a method by no means restricted to the Tossafists–did not blind him to its defects. “They try to force an elephant through the eye of a needle,” he sarcastically said of some of the French casuists. Nachmanides thus possessed some of the independence characteristic of the Spanish Jews. He also shared the poetic spirit of Spain, and his hymn for the Day of Atonement is one of the finest products of the new-Hebrew muse. The last stanzas run thus:

    Thine is the love, O God, and thine the grace,
    That holds the sinner in its mild embrace;
    Thine the forgiveness, bridging o’er the space
      ’Twixt man’s works and the task set by the King.

    Unheeding all my sins, I cling to thee!
    I know that mercy shall thy footstool be:
    Before I call, O do thou answer me,
      For nothing dare I claim of thee, my King!

    O thou, who makest guilt to disappear,
    My help, my hope, my rock, I will not fear;
    Though thou the body hold in dungeon drear,
      The soul has found the palace of the King!

Everything that Nachmanides wrote is warm with tender love. He was an enthusiast in many directions. His heart went out to the French Talmudists, yet he cherished so genuine an affection for Maimonides that he defended him with spirit against his detractors. Gentle by nature, he broke forth into fiery indignation against the French critics of Maimonides. At the same time his tender soul was attracted by the emotionalism of the Kabbala, or mystical view of life, a view equally opposed to the views of Maimonides and of the French school. He tried to act the part of reconciler, but his intellect, strong as it was, was too much at the mercy of his emotions for him to win a commanding place in the controversies of his time.

For a moment we may turn aside from his books to the incidents of his life. Like Maimonides, he was a physician by profession and a Rabbi by way of leisure. The most momentous incident in his career in Barcelona was his involuntary participation in a public dispute with a convert from the Synagogue. Pablo Christiani burned with the desire to convert the Jews en masse to Christianity, and in 1263 he induced King Jayme I of Aragon to summon Nachmanides to a controversy on the truth of Christianity. Nachmanides complied with the royal command most reluctantly. He felt that the process of rousing theological animosity by a public discussion could only end in a religious persecution. However, he had no alternative but to assent. He stipulated for complete freedom of speech. This was granted, but when Nachmanides published his version of the discussion, the Dominicans were incensed. True, the special commission appointed to examine the charge of blasphemy brought against Nachmanides reported that he had merely availed himself of the right of free speech which had been guaranteed to him. He was nevertheless sentenced to exile, and his pamphlet was burnt. Nachmanides was seventy years of age at the time. He settled in Palestine, where he died in about 1270, amid a band of devoted friends and disciples, who did not, however, reconcile him to the separation from his Spanish home. “I left my family,” he wrote, “I forsook my house. There, with my sons and daughters, the sweet, dear children whom I brought up on my knees, I left also my soul My heart and my eyes will dwell with them forever.”

The Halachic, or Talmudical, works of Nachmanides have already been mentioned. His homiletical, or exegetical, writings are of more literary importance. In “The Sacred Letter” he contended that man’s earthly nature is divine no less than his soul, and he vindicates the “flesh" from the attacks made on human character by certain forms of Christianity. The body, according to Nachmanides, is, with all its functions, the work of God, and therefore perfect. “It is only sin and neglect that disfigure God’s creatures.” In another of his books, “The Law of Man,” Nachmanides writes of suffering and death. He offers an antidote to pessimism, for he boldly asserts that pain and suffering in themselves are “a service of God, leading man to ponder on his end and reflect about his destiny.” Nachmanides believed in the bodily resurrection, but held that the soul was in a special sense a direct emanation from God. He was not a philosopher strictly so-called; he was a mystic more than a thinker, one to whom God was an intuition, not a concept of reason.

The greatest work of Nachmanides was his “Commentary on the Pentateuch." He reveals his whole character in it. In composing his work he had, he tells us, three motives, an intellectual, a theological, and an emotional motive. First, he would “satisfy the minds of students, and draw their heart out by a critical examination of the text.” His exposition is, indeed, based on true philology and on deep and original study of the Bible. His style is peculiarly attractive, and had he been content to offer a plain commentary, his work would have ranked among the best. But he had other desires besides giving a simple explanation of the text. He had, secondly, a theological motive, to justify God and discover in the words of Scripture a hidden meaning. In the Biblical narratives, Nachmanides sees types of the history of man. Thus, the account of the six days of creation is turned into a prophecy of the events which would occur during the next six thousand years, and the seventh day is a type of the millennium. So, too, Nachmanides finds symbolical senses in Scriptural texts, “for, in the Torah, are hidden every wonder and every mystery, and in her treasures is sealed every beauty of wisdom.” Finally, Nachmanides wrote, not only for educational and theological ends, but also for edification. His third purpose was “to bring peace to the minds of students (laboring under persecution and trouble), when they read the portion of the Pentateuch on Sabbaths and festivals, and to attract their hearts by simple explanations and sweet words.” His own enthusiastic and loving temperament speaks in this part of his commentary. It is true, as Graetz says, that Nachmanides exercised more influence on his contemporaries and on succeeding ages by his personality than by his writings. But it must be added that the writings of Nachmanides are his personality.



I.H. Weiss, Study of the Talmud in the Thirteenth Century, J.Q.R., I, p. 289.

S. Schechter.–Studies in Judaism, p. 99 [120].

Graetz.–III, 17; also III, p. 598 [617].

Jacob Tam.

Graetz.–III, p. 375 [385].


Graetz.–III, p. 344 [351], 403 [415].


Preface  •  Chapter I. The “Vineyard” At Jamnia  •  Chapter II. Flavius Josephus and the Jewish Sibyl  •  Chapter III. The Talmud  •  Chapter IV. The Midrash and Its Poetry  •  Chapter V. The Letters of the Gaonim  •  Chapter VI. The Karaitic Literature  •  Chapter VII. The New-Hebrew Piyut  •  Chapter IX. Dawn of the Spanish Era  •  Chapter X. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (I)  •  Chapter XI. Rashi and Alfassi  •  Chapter XII. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (II)  •  Chapter XIII. Moses Maimonides  •  Chapter XIV. The Diffusion of Science  •  Chapter XV. The Diffusion of Folk-Tales  •  Chapter XVI. Moses Nachmanides  •  Chapter XVII. The Zohar and Later Mysticism  •  Chapter XVIII. Italian Jewish Poetry  •  Chapter XIX. Ethical Literature  •  Chapter XX. Travellers’ Tales  •  Chapter XXI. Historians and Chroniclers  •  Chapter XXII. Isaac Abarbanel  •  Chapter XXIII. The Shulchan Aruch  •  Chapter XXIV. Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century  •  Chapter XXV. Moses Mendelssohn

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