Tag Archives: Torah

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.

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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: Elia Levita

The First Yiddish Novel and Hebrew Dictionary

Cover Page of a 1541 Edition of ‘Bovo-Bukh’

Eliyahu “Bachur” haLevi (1469-1549) was born near Nuremberg, the youngest of nine children. When the Jews were expelled from the region, his family settled in Venice. Throughout these years, Eliyahu spent most of his time in the study of Torah, Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and Hebrew grammar. In 1504, he settled in Padua and took on a job as a teacher of Jewish studies. He wrote a textbook of Hebrew grammar for his students, and the book quickly spread far and wide. It became especially popular among Christian scholars, many of whom were then trying to learn Hebrew in order to understand the Bible in its original language. Meanwhile, inspired by other Renaissance authors, Eliyahu wrote a romance novel in Yiddish, the Bovo-Bukh, history’s first Yiddish novel. Hugely popular, it has been continuously published until this day, going through some 40 editions over the past five centuries. It was also translated to other languages, including German and Russian. The book’s title is the origin of the well-known Yiddish phrase, bube mayse, an “old wives’ tale”. Eliyahu wrote two satires in Italian as well. By the time he resettled in Rome in 1514, he was quite famous, and became close with Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo. The two made a deal in which Eliyahu and his family could live in the Cardinal’s palace, in exchange for Eliyahu teaching him Hebrew and Jewish mysticism. (At that time, Jewish mysticism was very popular in Europe, and had many famous non-Jewish students, too, including Michelangelo and Pico della Mirandola.) Eliyahu lived with the Cardinal for the next 13 years. During this time, he composed several more textbooks on the Hebrew language, including one of the first Hebrew dictionaries. He also translated various Jewish texts, mainly Kabbalistic ones, into Latin. Rome was sacked in 1527, so Eliyahu had to relocate again. King Francis I offered him to become a professor of Hebrew at the University of Paris, but Eliyahu declined because at that time Jews were banned from living in Paris and he refused to live in a city where his brethren were not welcome. Eliyahu would return to Venice and passed away there. Today is his yahrzeit. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron is one of his descendants.

Words of the Week

To have a second language is to have a second soul.
– Charlemagne

Jew of the Week: Jeff Hoffman

NASA’s First Jewish Astronaut

Jeffrey Alan Hoffman (b. 1944) was born in Brooklyn. He was always fascinated by outer space, and went to study astronomy at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Hoffman went on to get a PhD in astrophysics from Harvard, researching cosmic x-rays and gamma rays. He built one of the first aerial gamma ray telescopes. After this, he did postdoctoral work in the UK, eventually working as a project scientist for the European Space Agency. In 1975, Hoffman returned to the US to work at MIT. His main area of focus was x-ray bursts, and he authored over 20 papers on the subject, becoming the world expert on it. One time, he heard his wife reading a passage in a book saying that there will never be a Jewish astronaut. This inspired Hoffman to pursue just that, and he applied to NASA. In 1978, he was selected for NASA’s astronaut training program, together with Judith Resnik. The two became NASA’s first Jewish astronauts. Hoffman went on his first mission in 1985 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, during which the crew deployed two satellites and conducted numerous scientific experiments. At this point, Hoffman became just the second Jewish man in space (following Russian cosmonaut Boris Volynov). During his fourth trip to space, Hoffman was responsible for repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. Before that flight, his rabbi asked him if he would take some Judaica with him, and Hoffman happily agreed. He took a mezuzah—which he affixed to his cabin with Velcro—a tallit, as well as a dreidel and mobile menorah, since it was during Chanukah. (Click here to see Hoffman spin a dreidel in space!) On another flight, Hoffman took a Torah with him and made sure to read it while flying over Jerusalem. During his last mission in 1996, Hoffman set a new record, becoming the first astronaut to spend 1000 hours aboard space shuttles. All in all, he spent more than 50 days in space, and logged over 21 million space miles travelled. Since retiring as an astronaut, he has been teaching as a professor at MIT, and visiting professor at the University of Leicester. He has also written a book called An Astronaut’s Diary.

When Jews and Greeks Were Brothers: The Untold Story of Chanukah

Words of the Week

…Science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion.
Albert Einstein