Tag Archives: Talmud

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: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

In Memory of a “Once-in-a-Millennium Scholar”

Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz (1937-2020) was born in Jerusalem to parents who had made aliyah from Eastern Europe a decade earlier. His father was completely secular, and a devoted socialist who had fought in the Spanish Civil War on behalf of Communist International. Nonetheless, his father wanted his son to know what Judaism was all about, and made sure to have him tutored by a rabbi. Meanwhile, young Steinsaltz studied math and science at Hebrew University. He then took up rabbinical studies at Chabad’s Yeshivat Tomchei Temimim. After receiving semicha (rabbinic ordination), Steinsaltz tried to establish a neo-Hasidic community in the Negev, but was unsuccessful. He then became a school principal and, being just 24 years old, was the youngest principal in Israel’s history. In 1965, he embarked on a life-long journey to translate the Talmud into Modern Hebrew, along with composing a detailed commentary to explain its complexities. He finished the massive 42-volume set in 2010, after which it was translated into English, too, and shared freely online to make Talmudic learning accessible for everyone. Rabbi Steinsaltz also wrote profusely about topics that span the gamut of Judaism, including bestsellers on Kabbalah and Hasidism. Altogether, he penned over 60 books and some 200 other original texts of Jewish thought. (He even wrote an unpublished science fiction novel!) Meanwhile, Rabbi Steinsaltz helped found several yeshivas in Israel, as well as the Jewish University in Russia, with campuses in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He had spent several years in the former Soviet Union to help re-establish Jewish life there, and in 1995 was given the title of Russia’s duchovny ravin, the “spiritual head” of Russian Jewry. In 2004, a large gathering of rabbis in Israel sought to re-establish the ancient Sanhedrin. Rabbi Steinsaltz accepted the nomination to head the court, being given the title nasi, “president”. Before he suffered a stroke in 2016, he was known to regularly give classes until two in the morning. He spent time at Yale University as a scholar-in-residence, and received honourary degrees from five universities. Among his many awards is the prestigious Israel Prize. His motto was “Let my people know!” and he has been compared to a modern-day Rashi and Maimonides. Sadly, Rabbi Steinsaltz, one of the Jewish world’s most beloved public figures, passed away last Friday.

Words of the Week

The Bible is the record of when God talks to Man. The Talmud is Man talking to God.
– Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Jew of the Week: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

The Man Behind Modern Hebrew

Eliezer Yitzhak ben Yehuda Leib Perlman (1858-1922) was born in what is now Belarus to a religious, Yiddish-speaking, Chabad family. Before his bar mitzvah he was already recognized as a genius in Torah and Talmud. While studying to become a rabbi, Ben-Yehuda was first exposed to some of the Hebrew works of the medieval Sephardic rabbis (such as Ibn Ezra) who wrote poems, stories, and even textbooks of Hebrew grammar. Meanwhile, he came across contemporary, secular (Haskalah) literature written in Hebrew, most notably a Hebrew-only Zionist newspaper called HaShahar. This sparked a passion for languages in general, and Hebrew in particular. Ben-Yehuda plunged into the study of the grammar, history, and development of Hebrew, and also started learning Russian, German, and French. He soon realized the tremendous power of language, and that the only thing truly uniting all Jews around the world—whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi, religious or secular—was Hebrew. In 1877, Ben-Yehuda moved to Paris to study medicine and Middle Eastern history at the famous Sorbonne University. While sitting at a café one day, he met a fellow Jew who started speaking to him in Hebrew. This was the moment that convinced Ben-Yehuda that it was possible to turn Hebrew into a common, spoken language. While some Zionists (like Herzl himself) initially sought to make Yiddish or even German the official language of what would be the Jewish State, Ben-Yehuda knew that it had to be Hebrew. Upon graduating in 1881, he made aliyah and settled in Jerusalem. Ben-Yehuda taught at the Torah and Avoda School, where he devised his immersive ivrit b’ivrit system of learning. He spent the rest of his time writing and developing the language. He founded the Hebrew Language Committee (still operating today) to dig up ancient Hebrew words and to coin new words for modern phenomena, based primarily on ancient Biblical, Aramaic (often Talmudic) terms, as well as from Arabic roots. Ben-Yehuda coined words like glida (“ice cream”), ofanaim (“bicycle”), magevet (“towel”), and rakevet (“train”) using Biblical roots for similar terms. Meanwhile, he wrote for the Havatzelet newspaper, edited the Hashkafa newspaper, then launched his own periodical, HaTzvi, where he would introduce his new words (such as iton, “newspaper”!) He published the first dictionary of Modern Hebrew, a whopping 11-volume tome (later expanded to 17 volumes). Ben-Yehuda raised his children strictly in Hebrew. His son, Ben-Zion, is considered the first native speaker of Modern Hebrew. Some people inaccurately state that Hebrew was a “dead” or “extinct” language before Ben-Yehuda and the Zionists. This is, of course, completely inaccurate since Hebrew has always been used by Jews throughout the centuries, particularly in prayer and for the writing and teaching of holy texts. What Ben-Yehuda did was systematize Hebrew, adapt it to modern times, and transform it into a commonly-spoken tongue, as historian Cecil Roth summed it up: “Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did.”

The Kabbalah of Yom Ha‘Atzmaut

Words of the Week

For everything there is needed only one wise, clever and active man, with the initiative to devote all his energies to it, and the matter will progress, all obstacles in the way notwithstanding… In every new event, every step, even the smallest in the path of progress, it is necessary that there be one pioneer who will lead the way without leaving any possibility of turning back.
– Eliezer Ben-Yehuda