Painting of the Ramban from the walls of the Akko Auditorium
Moshe “Bonastruc” ben Nachman (1194-1270) was born in Gerona (present-day Spain) to a deeply religious Sephardic Jewish family. From a young age he studied with some of the great Sephardic sages of the day, and by the time he was 16 was already recognized as a wise scholar in his own right. He also studied medicine and became a sought-after physician. He was soon the chief rabbi of Catalonia and published several highly-acclaimed works, including glosses on the Talmud and several legal texts. Rabbi Moshe would become known as the Ramban, based on the initials of his name, and also as Nahmanides to the wider world. (The Ramban should not be confused with the Rambam. In fact, the Ramban helped to settle a philosophical dispute that first began with the Rambam in the previous century.) In 1263, Ramban was summoned to publicly debate a group of Dominican friars, before King James I, to settle whether Christianity or Judaism was the true faith. Rabbi Moshe tried his best to avoid the debate, which he knew would be a setup where Judaism could never be shown to win. The king conferred royal protection to him, promising no retribution of any kind. The Ramban gently tore down all the arguments of the Christians, and expertly defended Judaism, later publishing a written account of this famous “Disputation of Barcelona”. As he predicted, the failed friars sought to have him executed for “blasphemy”. The king, however, proved wise and fair, decreeing only a two-year’s exile, and gave the Ramban a gift of 300 gold solidi. (The friars then took their cause to the pope, unsuccessfully.) The Ramban journeyed to the Holy Land and settled in Jerusalem. When he arrived, he found just two Jews left there, following the ravages of the Crusades. He resolved to reinvigorate Jewish life in the Eternal City, building a small synagogue (which still stands today) and re-establishing a vibrant Jewish presence. Henceforth, a Jewish community has never ceased from Jerusalem. The Ramban spent his last days in Acre, where he similarly rebuilt the Jewish community. While there, he wrote his most famous work, the Commentary on the Torah. The commentary is among the first to feature mystical interpretations, since the Ramban was also a renowned Kabbalist. He is considered among the greatest rabbis of all time. Tomorrow, the 11th of Nissan, is his yahrzeit.
Words of the Week
We must believe in freedom of will, we have no choice. – Isaac Bashevis Singer
Interior of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City
‘Daniel Interpreting the Writing on the Wall’ by Gustav Doré
Daniel (c. 6th-5th century BCE) was born in Jerusalem to a noble family of scribes and scholars. In the third year of King Yehoyachin’s reign, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon subdued the Kingdom of Judah and made it a tributary of the Babylonian Empire. Nebuchadnezzar took a number of noble Jewish families with him back to Babylon, including young Daniel. Together with his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, Daniel was raised in the royal palace and trained by the Babylonian wise men. The four were given new names: Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Beltshazzar. However, the Jewish youths held on to their faith, and refused to eat the non-kosher food of the Babylonians. God blessed them to be wiser than all the greatest sages of Babylon. Daniel grew up to become one of the trusted advisors of Nebuchadnezzar and his successors. Daniel also served as an important leader of the exiled Jewish community in Babylon. His prophecies were later collected by the Knesset HaGedolah (“the Men of the Great Assembly”) and make up the Biblical Book of Daniel. In one famous episode, we read how envious ministers in King Darius’ court passed a law to forbid praying to any deity except the king. They then accused Daniel of praying to his God—which he did and did not deny. Daniel was punished by being thrown into a lions’ den, from which he was miraculously saved. The envious ministers were themselves consumed by the lions. King Darius and his court were then convinced of the existence and supremacy of God: “I make a decree, that in all the dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel; for He is the living God, and steadfast forever, and His kingdom is that which shall not be destroyed…” (Daniel 6:27) The Talmud points out that Daniel is the same person referred to as Hatach in the Book of Esther. It was he who took care of Esther in the royal palace and communicated between her and Mordechai. And so, Daniel was also the secret hero of the Purim story!
Words of the Week
Purim and Chanukah are both about antisemitism. There is one obvious difference between them: Haman, of the Purim story, wanted to kill Jews. Antiochus, of the Chanukah story, wanted to kill Judaism. It was the difference between Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism. – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Avraham bar Chiya (c. 1070-1145) was born in Barcelona to a Sephardic Jewish family. It appears that his family was persecuted by its Christian rulers, so they fled to the neighbouring Arab kingdom of Zaragoza. Bar Chiya came from a long line of rabbis, and was also extensively trained in science, math, and astronomy. Famed for his wisdom, he became the court astronomer of Al-Musta’in II. Eventually, he was appointed minister of police and given the title sahib al-shurtah, “city governor”. This is why he was known in the Jewish community as HaNasi, “the prince” or “the president”. Al-Musta’in II was unable to defend his domain from the Christians, who soon took over. Bar Chiya moved to southern France for a while and lived in Narbonne and Provence. There he composed some of the most important scientific texts of the Medieval era. He translated a number of Arabic works into Latin, opening their study for Europeans, and played a key role in introducing the Hindu numerals we use today (by way of Arabia) to Europe, and thus to the rest of the world. Bar Chiya also synthesized ancient Greek wisdom with contemporary Arabic knowledge, and published new discoveries in number theory, arithmetic, geometry, optics, astronomy, and music theory. His Treatise on Measurement and Calculation inspired later greats like Plato of Tivoli and the world-famous Fibonacci. Meanwhile, Bar Chiya also served as the chief rabbi of the Jewish communities he presided over, and composed two important Jewish commentaries and texts. He is credited with being the first person to write a scientific book in Hebrew, and played an instrumental role in the development of the Hebrew language. His disciples included both Jews and non-Jews, among them the great Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, and the Flemish astronomer Rudolf of Bruges. The first historical appearance of the quadratic equation (with a complete solution of x2 – ax + b = c) appears in one of Bar Chiya’s works! He is also referenced in many philosophical works as “Abraham Judaeus”. All in all, his impact on the development of science, mathematics, and human history is unparalleled.