Tag Archives: Sephardic Jews

Jew of the Week: Ramban

Mystic, Physician, Defender of Judaism

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

Jew of the Week: Avraham bar Chiya haNasi

The Rabbi Who Discovered the Quadratic Formula

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.

Jew of the Week Turns 10 Years Old Today!

What I Learned from 10 Years of Writing Jew of the Week

Words of the Week

The mind of man plans his way, but God directs his steps.
King Solomon (Proverbs 16:9)

Jew of the Week: Raphael Mechoulam

“Godfather of THC”

Raphael Mechoulam

Raphael Mechoulam (b. 1930) was born in Bulgaria to a wealthy Sephardic-Jewish family. The family was forced to flee the country due to rampant anti-Semitism, ultimately surviving the Holocaust and settling in Israel in 1949. During his IDF service, Mechoulam worked as a chemical engineer and helped to develop insecticides. Falling in love with scientific research, he continued to study chemistry after his military service, earned his Master’s from the Hebrew University, then his PhD from the Weizmann Institute. After studies at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, Mechoulam returned to Israel to teach at both of his former universities. His primary field of research is cannabis. In fact, it was Mechoulam who first discovered, isolated, and synthesized THC, the primary active ingredient in cannabis. He would later discover and synthesize other important cannabinoids (a term he coined). Mechoulam was one of the pioneers of medicinal cannabis, and has said that medicinal cannabis could probably replace “ten to twenty percent of all pharmaceuticals”. More recently, he discovered endocannabinoids—molecules similar to THC that are naturally produced by the body, playing a key role in immunity and in regulating human emotions. All in all, Mechoulam published over 350 scientific papers. In 2016, he received a lifetime achievement award at Harvard’s School of Medicine. He was also the subject of an eye-opening documentary called The Scientist. Now a nonagenarian, Mechoulam continues to do research at his Jerusalem lab.

Words of the Week

Jewish time sees us as travellers on the road to a destination not yet reached; wayfarers on a journey begun by our ancestors, to be continued by our children.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l