Ramban’s Debate Skills Forced His Exile
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HistorySephardic Corner

Ramban’s Debate Skills Forced His Exile

Moses Montefiore followed Nachmanides to Jerusalem more than 600 years later.

Mariana Montiel
A painting of Nachmanides in Akko, Israel
A painting of Nachmanides in Akko, Israel

Moshe ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides and Ramban (not to be confused with the great Maimonides, known as Rambam), was born in Gerona, Catalonia, about 1194 and died in Palestine around 1270.

He was acknowledged as the greatest rabbinic authority of his time. He was also a physician and jurist. Despite his scientific studies, he is considered the maximum representative of the spiritual and mystical branch of medieval Judaism (as opposed to the intellectual and philosophical trends, of which we will talk in future articles).

He was designated the chief rabbi of Catalonia, and King James I of Aragon held him in great esteem.

In his Torat-ha Adam he analyzed mourning rituals and burial customs, while criticizing those scholars and philosophers who declared that man should not succumb to pleasure and pain. He insisted that this idea went against the law, which commands us to rejoice on days of joy and weep on days of mourning.

Nachmanides said the body, with all its functions, is the work of G-d and does not possess impulses intrinsically objectionable.

Even though Nachmanides’ name is often associated with Kabbalah, which he venerated, he was reserved about this subject in his writings and maintained that the Kabbalistic doctrine should be transmitted orally.

Ramban’s successful life as the chief rabbi of Catalonia and as a physician was destroyed by the Disputation at Barcelona, which forced him to leave his family and his country. In 1263 he was ordered by King James to participate in a religious debate with Pablo Christiani, a Jewish apostate.

Christiani assured the king that he could prove the messianic claims of Jesus from the Talmud and other rabbinical writings, and he thought that the fear of the Christian dignitaries would impede Nachmanides’ willingness to speak freely.

Ramban complied with the order of the king, and for four days he debated with Christiani in the presence of the king, the court and many ecclesiastical dignitaries.

Ramban won and published an account of the proceedings. But the Dominicans showed the king several passages that were deemed to be blasphemies against Christianity, and Nachmanides was banished from Catalonia.

After wandering three years in Castile and southern France, he moved to Palestine in 1267, settling in Acco until his death in 1270.

During his three years in Palestine, Nachmanides maintained a close correspondence with his family, students and colleagues, trying to foment a closer connection between Judaea and Spain. At this time he wrote “Commentary on the Pentateuch.” The following passage comes from this last work and has been widely reflected on:

At the briefest instant following creation, all the matter of the universe was concentrated in a very small place, no larger than a grain of mustard. The matter at this time was so thin, so intangible, that it did not have real substance. It did have, however, a potential to gain substance and form and to become tangible matter. From the initial concentration of this intangible substance in its minute location, the substance expanded, expanding the universe as it did so. As the expansion progressed, a change in the substance occurred. This initially thin noncorporeal sunstone took on the tangible aspects of matter as we know it. From this initial act of creation, from this ethereally thin pseudo-substance, everything that has existed, or will ever exist, was, is and will be formed.

Jerusalem Changed Montefiore

This month the protagonist of our post-expulsion Sephardic story is Moses Montefiore, who had an impact on the Jewish world during the 19th century, together with his relation to the Sephardic community of Jerusalem, which dates to 1267 and the arrival of Nachmanides.

Montefiore was born in Livorno, Italy, in 1784 and died in London 101 years later in 1885. He descended from the Sephardic nobility, and among his ancestors were scholars, merchants, rabbis and doctors from medieval Spain and the post-expulsion Italian Sephardic community.

He grew up in London and learned Hebrew from his uncle Moses Mocatta, a member of the famous Sephardic congregation of Bevis Marks. He was a successful businessman, stockbroker and merchant, led the London police force in 1837, and served as the president of the Board of Deputies of the British Jews from 1835 to 1874.

He was knighted by Queen Victoria for his contributions to the welfare of the city of London and for his philanthropic work all over the world.

Montefiore married Judith Cohen, sister-in-law of Mayer Rothschild and a woman with a strong personality. She was a writer and accompanied him throughout his life, influencing and directing many of his endeavors.

After his first visit to Israel in 1827, Montefiore’s wealth and social position moved into the background of his daily life, as his contact with the Jewish reality in Palestine at that time moved him deeply and inspired his strict observance of Judaism. He attended the synagogue assiduously, walked 3 miles to Bevis Marks on Shabbat and ate only kosher food.

On the other hand, he admired the Palestinian Jews, the old Yishuv, and did everything in his power to modify the often-cruel decrees of the Ottoman Empire and achieve dignified conditions for these Jews actually living in Israel, whom he saw as morally superior.

Above all, Sir Moses loved Jerusalem and the Jews who lived in the surroundings of the ruins of the Temple. The projects he launched there include Jerusalem’s first Jewish newspaper and printing house, its first textile factory, several agricultural settlements, and exclusive authority over Rachel’s grave.

In 1860, Montefiore established the first Jewish residential area outside the Old City, Mishkenot Sha’ananim. For this project he used money that Judah Touro, a Sephardic Jew from Newport, R.I., had left to benefit Jerusalem Jews. Planned for Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions, the area had a Sephardic synagogue at one end and an Ashkenazi one at the other.

There were cisterns for drinking water, a mikvah, public ovens and a flour mill. The mill is now a museum, known as the Montefiore windmill. After Sir Moses’ death in 1885, the Yemin Moshe neighborhood was established in 1892 to 1894 on the remaining lands of Mishkenot Sha’ananim by the Montefiore Welfare Fund.

Montefiore’s philanthropic work for Jews worldwide was appreciated when he turned 100. That day there was public festivity in Jewish communities all over the globe.

The Sephardic Corner is a monthly contribution of Congregation Or VeShalom to the greater Jewish community.

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