Reasonable interpretations of the Torah by Nachmanides
Many of Nachmanides’ views are reasonable, more reasonable than those by Rashi, but many are not, for Nachmanides felt that the only truth was Kabbalah. The following are some of his reasonable views.
Nachmanides, also known as Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman and by the Hebrew acrostic of this name Ramban, as well as Rabbenu Moshe Geronde and Bonastrug da Porta, was born into a prominent family in Gerona in northern Spain in 1194. He died in the land of Israel in 1270, where he had traveled in 1267 to escape persecution after a public religious debate in his old age, in 1263. Many scholars recognize him as one of the greatest Jewish Bible and Talmud commentators About 50 scholarly works authored by him have been preserved.
Although frequently called a philosopher, a more apt description of him would be kabbalist. Unlike his predecessor Moses Maimonides (1138–1204), whose philosophical ideas were based on systematic logic and a conviction that humans are endowed with intelligence that they are obligated to use to orient and control their lives, Nachmanides down-played the efficacy of the intellect and stressed the pervasive impact that the kabbalistic ten divine emanations, the sefirot, have upon humans.
Maimonides’ philosophy was “expressed systematically and explicitly, open to thinkers in every generation, whereas the majority of Ramban’s basic ideas are rooted in the meta-logical realm of the Kabbalah. Their manner of expression is the allusion, which only a select few were able to fathom throughout the generations.” Needless to say, not all of Nachmanides’ Bible interpretations are problematical. Nachmanides wrote his monumental commentary to the Torah when he was about seventy years old. He had just escaped a threat of death for his involvement in the dispute over whether Judaism or Christianity was the correct religion. He was facing settlement problems in the land of Israel, a country that had considerable difficulties, and he died a few years later.
Nachmanides’ commentary generally focuses on two of his predecessors Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra. Nachmanides mentions them frequently and usually attempts to show that his own view of Scripture is more consistent with its plain meaning than theirs. He uses his work to introduce his readers to his unique idea that the Torah contains mystical lessons, for he was the first to offer this idea. He realized that he could not present his mystical interpretations to everyone because most people would not understand them; therefore, he merely hinted at them. Unfortunately, this understandable reluctance on his part to reveal mystical secrets to everyone sometimes produces a difficult text.
When Nachmanides does not insert a mystical interpretation and attempts, instead, to show the plain meaning of the scriptural text, a fair reading of his commentary discloses that he frequently gives a better understanding of the Torah’s plain meaning than Rashi, since Rashi focuses on midrashic interpretation of the Torah passages. However, even in these instances there are many times where his commentary is problematical.
Nachmanides view that Judaism changes biblical laws
Nachmanides mentions Rashi’s interpretation of Numbers 8:2, critiques it, and offers a substitute explanation. Rashi explains that the Torah places the section dealing with Aaron lighting the sanctuary’s candelabrum after the section dealing with the offerings that the Israelite princes brought to the sanctuary when they participated in the dedication of the just-built sanctuary. This was to console the disheartened Aaron because neither he nor his tribe participated, as the Israelite princes did, in the dedication of the sanctuary. Rashi understood that God was saying to Aaron: Your contribution to the sanctuary is greater than the sacrifices of the princes, for you will kindle and trim the lamp every morning and evening.
Nachmanides saw no sense in consoling Aaron by mentioning the lighting of the lamp; there were far more significant things that Aaron did in the sanctuary such as the daily sacrifices. Additionally, why should Aaron have been bothered? He had offered many sacrifices during the preceding seven days of the initiation of the sanctuary, far more sacrifices than those brought by the princes.
Nachmanides wrote that the midrashic statement cited by Rashi was not saying what Rashi understood it was saying. The Midrash was a homily that was alluding to the Chanukah rededication lights that occurred during the period of the second temple in 165 BCE when Aaron’s descendants the priests called the Hasmoneans rededicated the temple after the Syrian Greeks defiled it. It was by lighting the Chanukah dedication lights that Aaron’s descendants performed more for the sanctuary than the Israelite princes.
Nachmanides is recognizing that the midrashic “explanation” is a sermon, not a fact. But the sermon is highlighting that (1) biblical laws will change in the future, even sacrosanct laws such as sacrifices, and (2) the future laws, such as Chanukah, can be more significant than the biblical law—for this is exactly what the Midrash has God saying to Aaron: the act of your descendants will be superior to the offerings brought by the princes.
Why does the Torah begin with the story of creation?
Nachmanides’ commentary to Genesis 1:1 is closer to the plain meaning of scripture than Rashi’s homiletical interpretation. Nachmanides dismisses Rashi’s contention that the Torah begins with a recital of God’s creation of the world to teach that everything belongs to God and God has the right to give the land of Israel to the Jews. Nachmanides correctly calls this “a homiletic exposition.” It is not the plain meaning of the verse.
The biblical style frequently uses the third person in reference to God
Numbers 19:2, as many other biblical passages, states “The Lord commanded.” Nachmanides asks: Since God is speaking directly to Moses and Aaron, why is the third person being used? It should have said “that I commanded.” Nachmanides explains that this is the common biblical style; therefore, the verse can be read as if it states that “This is the statute of the law that the Lord commanded, saying: ‘Speak with the Israelites and tell them.’”
Similarly, Genesis 6:12 states “all flesh corrupted their ways.” Rashi argues that “all flesh” means that animals and birds also sinned and deserved to be killed in the flood. Nachmanides recognizes that animals do not sin and states that “all flesh” denotes “all people.”
Why state both “created” and “made”?
Genesis 2:3 is an illustration where Nachmanides is closer to the plain meaning than his predecessors. The verse seems to have a duplication, “which God created, had made.” Ibn Ezra states that “had made” means that God gave the items the power to reproduce. Rashi opines that it suggests that God did double work on the sixth day. Nachmanides understands “had made” as suggesting, “that which He had made out of nothing.”
Maimonides and Nachmanides on the obligation to pray
The Five Books of Moses portray a close relationship between humans and God. People in the Pentateuch do not pray to God; instead, they speak to God, call upon God to; complain, cry out, and beg.
Despite the absence of the word “prayer” in the Bible, there appears to be a dispute between Maimonides and Nachmanides as to whether the duty to pray is biblical or rabbinical in origin. Maimonides seems to say that the command is biblical.
It is a positive Torah commandment to pray daily, for (Exodus 23:25) states: “You should serve the Lord your God.” Tradition (meaning the rabbinical interpretation) teaches that “service” means “prayer.” It (the Bible also) states (Deuteronomy 11:13): “Serve Him with your entire heart,” and our sages said, “What is service of the heart? This is prayer.”
Nachmanides disagreed. He insisted that the Torah is silent on the matter of prayer and that the commandment to pray therefore must be a post-biblical rabbinical enactment.
Nachmanides is certainly correct that the Bible does not command Jews to pray, but he apparently did not understand that Maimonides categorized laws that are not explicitly mentioned in the Torah as biblical commandments if the rabbis felt that they were deriving the law from a biblical verse. Since the rabbis said the Torah speaks about prayer when it uses the words “serve” and “service,” as mentioned earlier, Maimonides accepted the rabbinical categorization and called prayer a biblical command even though he obviously knew that prayer was not explicit in the Torah.
What does tzitzit recall?
Rashi to Numbers 15:38 derives the meaning of the noun tzitzit the fringes that the Torah states should be placed on four-cornered garments, from the verb l’hatzitz (as in Song of Songs 2:9), “to stare keenly.” How do the tzitzit remind people of the divine commands? A simple answer is that any unusual item, such as a ribbon on a finger, could prompt people seeing it to unconsciously ask why it is there, and then remember that it was placed there to remind the person of a particular thing. Thus, one could think that the details of how the tzitzit is made is of little significance. However, Rashi (based on Midrash Tanchuma) states that the numerical value of the letters in tzitzit equals 600, plus the eight fringes and five knots equals 613, the number of all the Torah commandments.
Nachmanides questions this interpretation. He notes that the biblical spelling of tzitzit is without the second yud and only equals 590. Additionally, he notes, according to the academy of Hillel (Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 41b) there should be only six, not eight fringes. Hence, the count is short of the 613. Therefore, he concludes, the tzitzit is worn to remember the divine commandments, but not because of the numerical value of its letters.
While Nachmanides may present a more realistic explanation than Rashi, the Talmud is even more realistic than both commentators. The Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 43b, states that the blue color of the tekheilet is what reminds the Jew of the duty to observe the divine commands: the “blue resembles the color of the sea, the sea’s color is similar to the color of the heaven, and heaven reminds us of the blue of God’s throne of glory.”
Scripture contains figures of speech which should not be taken literally
Numbers 23:5 states: “The Lord put the word in the mouth of (the Midianite prophet who sought to curse the Israelites) Balaam and said: ‘Return to (the king) Balak and speak thus.’” Nachmanides notes that some Bible commentators suppose that Balaam did not understand the words that God placed in his mouth, and whatever he uttered came out against his will. He also cites an opinion that it was an angel that spoke through Balaam. He rejects both notions and says that the phrase “put the word” is a figure of speech meaning that God instructed Balaam what to say.
Why are there only three cities of refuge in Canaan?
Numbers 35:12 contains a law that apparently attempts to stop anciently-allowed vigilante justice—the killing by a relative, called a blood avenger, of a person who murdered a relative. Verse 14 mandates that three cities were to be placed in Transjordan, the settlement of two and a half tribes, and three in Canaan, where the remaining nine and a half tribes settled. The murderer could escape to the refuge city and could remain there if he killed another by accident; the blood avenger was not permitted to kill the murderer as long as he was in the city. This law did not apply to an intentional killing.
Why were an identical number of cities placed in both areas when it is clear that Transjordan had a much smaller population?
Rashi (based on the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 9b) suggests that there were many more murders committed in Transjordan, as attested hundreds of years later in Hosea 6:8, and Transjordan needed more cities to house the murderers until their cases were adjudicated.
Nachmanides notes a problem with this traditional explanation: it assumes that the Torah is legislating for a situation that would not arise until hundreds of years after Moses’s death. Nachmanides offers what he thinks is the plain meaning of the text. The same number of cities, three, were necessary on both sides of the Jordan because although only two and a half tribes settled in Transjordan, the land was very large, about the size of Canaan, and it would have been difficult for a murderer to escape to a refuge city if there were only one or two cities there.
Nachmanides often begins his commentary by contrasting it with the explanation of biblical verses by Rashi, Abraham ibn Ezra, Onkelos, and occasionally by Maimonides. These sources take a completely different approach to Torah than Nachmanides.
Nachmanides chose these sources wisely because they differ greatly from him in their approach to Torah. He says in effect, “so and so says x; now let me show you why y is correct.”
Nachmanides preferred what he considered the plain meaning of the Torah. However, he frequently inserted a mystical interpretation of a passage and/or by giving it an extended invented narrative that the passage does not suggest. It is as if Nachmanides’ logic is: “Torah contains truth. Mysticism is truth. Therefore, Torah must contain mysticism.” One can also suppose Nachmanides is saying: “Just as the Torah only hints at its mystic teachings, so too it only hints at some actions and we must use our intelligence and imagine the underlying narrative.”
It is easy to show the passage’s plain meaning in contrast to Rashi who generally seeks the midrashic explanation of Scripture that is somehow connected to the biblical passage and seems to fit in to it. It is somewhat harder with ibn Ezra who generally has the plain meaning, but who tends to insert rationalistic ideas that Nachmanides opposes. It is the same with Maimonides, but although the world views of Nachmanides and Maimonides are so dissimilar, he approaches Maimonides’ teachings with great deference and respect.
In the future, I will show some non-rational interpretations of scripture by Nachmanides.
 The rationalist Maimonides did not accept the mystical notion of sefirot. People preferred to use Nachmanides’ books for kabbalistic teachings instead of the Zohar until 1325.
 Rashi states several times that he is presenting the plain meaning of the text, but frequently this means that he is offering the midrashic understanding that fits best with the plain meaning, but not the plain meaning itself. See Sara Cumin, The Bible in Light of its Interpreters (Hebrew), Jerusalem, 1994.
 Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefillah 1:1–3; also Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Command 1.
 Hasagot Haramban on Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Command 5.
 See Drazin, Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets, chapter 29 on the 613 biblical commandments.
 Rashi on Numbers 15:39.