Location – Ramban apparently lived most of his life in Gerona.5 At the end of his life he immigrated to Israel and spent time in Akko6 and Yerushalayim.7
Most of Ramban's life overlapped with the reign of King James I of Aragon (1213–1276).8
Ramban played an important role in the second Maimonidean Controversy of the 1230s.9
Ramban mounted a spirited defense of Judaism in the Barcelona Disputation of 1263.10
Occupation – In addition to his various communal and teaching responsibilities, Ramban was also a practicing physician.11
Family – Ramban was a descendant of R. Yitzchak b. Reuven of Barcelona.12 His first cousin was R. Yonah b. Avraham Gerondi,13 and Ramban's son, R. Nachman, married R. Yonah's daughter.14
Teachers – Ramban studied under R. Yehuda b. Yakar15 and R. Natan b. Meir,16 both of whom were students of the famed Tosafist R. Yitzchak b. Avraham.17
Contemporaries – R. Meir HaLevi Abulafia (Ramah),18 R. Shemuel HaSardi,19 R. Shelomo of Montpelier,20 R. Yonah Gerondi.21
Students – R. Aharon HaLevi (Raah), Rashba, R. David Bonafed, R. Yitzchak Carcosa, Ramban's son R. Nachman.
Biblical commentaries – Ramban wrote commentaries on the Torah and on the book of Iyyov. We also possess Ramban's interpretation of Yeshayahu 52:13 – 53:12, written in the aftermath of the Barcelona Disputation, and a lengthy sermon on Kohelet delivered before he departed for Israel.
Rabbinics – Ramban's prolific writing in this area can be divided into a few categories:
Talmudic novellae – Collections of expositions on most of the tractates in the first four sections of the Talmud Bavli, as well as Chullin and Niddah.22
Halakhic codes – Compendia of the laws of Nedarim, Bekhorot, Niddah, and Challah; Torat HaAdam (on the laws of mourning), Mishpat HaCherem (on the laws of excommunication).
Responses to the works of others – Milchamot Hashem,23 Sefer HaZekhut,24 Glosses on the Rambam's Sefer HaMitzvot,25 Hilkhot Lulav,26 Hasagot on Sefer HaTzava.27
Teshuvot – C. Chavel collected and published Ramban's responsa from manuscripts and citations in various medieval works.
Jewish thought – Sefer HaVikuach,28 Derashat Torat Hashem Temimah,29 Sefer HaGeulah, Shaar HaGemul,30 and possibly Iggeret HaMusar.31
Commonly misattributed to Ramban – Commentary to Shir HaShirim,32 Iggeret HaKodesh,33 Sefer HaEmunah veHaBitachon.34
Manuscripts – Over 35 complete manuscripts are extant,35 and a few dozen others contain individual books or fragments of the commentary.36
Printings – Ramban's commentary was first printed in Rome c. 1470.37 A number of annotated editions have appeared in the last half-century,38 with C. Chavel's edition being the most well known and commonplace.39 Click for a table of some of the missing text in Chavel's edition.
Long and short commentaries – The existence of both long and short versions of Ramban's Torah commentary was noted already by R. David HaKochavi in his Sefer HaBattim (c. 1300). In addition to the well known longer Commentary on the Torah of Ramban, there are also over thirty extant manuscripts of an abridged version of the Commentary.40 This "Short Commentary" collects all of the Kabbalistic interpretations of Ramban found in the longer commentary.41
The writing process – It is unclear when Ramban began to author his commentary,42 but it is clear that he continued to update it until the very end of his life. This is indicated by explicit remarks of Ramban himself in his commentary43 and by lists containing some of these updates which Ramban sent from Israel to Spain.44 The various lists contain only a portion of these additions, and many more can be found by a comparative analysis of the various manuscripts and other textual witnesses of the commentary.45 All together, these total over 270 additions and changes. Click to view an interactive table and analysis of these updates.
Ramban's later updates46 – Ramban's additions and changes to his commentary from his later years in Israel reflect the influence of several factors, as can be seen in the interactive table. The two most prominent ones are:
Newly obtained first-hand knowledge of the geography of the land of Israel – This is reflected in many of Ramban's changes to his commentary.47
Expanded library of previously unavailable sources and texts:48
Northern French exegesis49 – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor,50 "Chakhmei HaZarefatim",51 Chizkuni.52
Exegesis from Islamic lands – R. Chananel's Torah Commentary,53 R. Nissim Gaon.54
Works from Israel and Byzantium and more – Targum Yerushalmi,55 Talmud Yerushalmi,56 Midrash Mishlei,57 Lekach Tov,58 Sifrei HaNisyonot,59 and Sefer HaLevanah.60
Other noteworthy features – Ramban's additions also contain most of his lengthy discussions on passages from Neviim.61
Very limited presence in the additions – The vast majority of both Ramban's Kabbalistic interpretations62 and his interpretations which are influenced by Radak are present already in the earlier layer of the commentary.
Broad scope – One of the most salient features of Ramban's commentary is its broad scope view of the text. Ramban looks at Torah with a wide angle lens,63 viewing it in its entirety even when focusing on one small part. Torah is one integrated unit, each part of which bears on the others.64
This is reflected in many aspects of his commentary: its topical nature,65 its internal consistency66 and tendency to self-reference,67 in Ramban's incorporation of introductions to each book where he lays out the central themes of the sefer68 and in his discussions of reasons for stories and mitzvot, which betray a recognition of their role in the larger narrative, legal unit, or even national history.69
This broad scope view impacts Ramban's methodology as well, as seen in: Ramban's adherence to chronological ordering,70 his sensitivity to structure,71 cognizance of literary and linguistic patterns (דרכי המקראות והלשון),72 and his intertextual exegesis.73 Each of these will be discussed more at length below, under "methods".
Topical – Ramban comments on about a third of the verses in the Torah.74 His commentary is selective in what it addresses, and is not a verse by verse commentary.75 His discussions will often revolve around matters that relate to the story or unit as a whole and not just a word or phrase.76 At times, too, he uses the commentary as a platform to discuss philosophical or halakhic issues in addition to exegetical ones.77
Multidisciplinary – Ramban's commentary combines analyses of Rabbinic interpretation (מדרש), literal interpretations (פשט), and Kabbalistic interpretations (סוד).78 This heterogeneous character was unique and may account for part of the commentary's popularity.79
Integration of peshat and derash –
Dialectic – Ramban regularly opens his analyses by surveying the exegesis of his predecessors. These alternative interpretations serve as foils for Ramban's own positions.80
Categories of questions – Ramban, in contrast to many "peshat" exegetes, often discusses not just the "what" or "who" but also the "why" of Biblical narratives and laws. Thus, for instance, he discusses the reasons why narratives are included in Tanakh, the rationale behind mitzvot, and the motivations of Biblical characters.81
General – Though Ramban wrote an introduction to his commentary, it does not explicitly lay out his methodology. Nonetheless, in mentioning that much of his work will be a dialectic with Rashi and Ibn Ezra, he perhaps betrays that his commentary will integrate the distinct methodologies of Northern France / Provence (with its emphasis on literary devices and the use of realia) and of Andalusian Spain (with its focus on language and grammar).
I. Intrascriptural exegesis – Ramban, under the influence of Northern French commentaries, often engages in intrascriptural exegesis, letting the text explain itself. This is manifest in several aspects of his commentary: his recognition of literary patterns (דרכי המקראות) and linguistic phenomena (דרך הלשון), and in his abundant use of Biblical parallels and proof texts:
Literary patterns / דרכי המקראות – Ramban has a keen literary sense and often notes literary patterns in Tanakh, explaining away seeming difficulties by noting that this is "the way of the text".82 Some examples follow:
Resumptive repetition: Ramban notes that repetition in Tanakh sometimes serves a literary purpose, indicating the resumption of a narrative after a parenthetical break.83
קיצר במקום א' והרחיב במקום אחר – Ramban notes that it is the way of the text to be brief in one place and lengthy in another. For example, instead of tediously repeating both a command and its fulfillment, sometimes the Torah brings one and sometimes the other.84 Similarly, when a narrative or law is doubled or a previous story is alluded to by either the narrator or a Biblical figure, certain details might only be mentioned in one account and not the other.85
Names, genealogy, references – Ramban notes certain patterns in the way Tanakh relays individual's genealogies and relationships. For example, it is the way of the text to relate a women to her brothers (Bereshit 4:22, 35:22), to order the tribes according to the mothers and maidservants (Bereshit 46:18), or to mention the name of a father when listing daughters in a genealogy list (Bereshit 36:25).86
Literary anticipation (הקדמות) – Ramban will sometimes explain that a certain detail in a story is included only to prepare the reader for something which is to be told later.87
השלמת הענין – Ramban recognizes that, at times, Tanakh will veer from chronological order so as to finish a storyline. See discussion below (under: "issues of order and structure").
Linguistic patterns / "דרך הלשון הוא" – Often Ramban will comment on the language of the text, noting that seemingly odd linguistic or grammatical phenomena are simply "דרך הלשון".
Language – See Bereshit 23:1 where Ramban notes that the repetition of the word "שנה" when recounting the age of Sarah is not noteworthy (as Rashi appears to suggest), but the way of the text whenever recording ages. See, similarly, Bereshit 12:1 where he notes that the seemingly extraneous "לך" in the phrase "לך-לך" is not significant for often variations of the preposition "ל" will accompany a verb without adding any meaning.88
Grammar – See Bereshit 46:7 (that when listing the genealogy of many people, the text might refer to an individual in the plural form), Shemot 15:1 (that the future tense might refer to the past), or Shemot 24:32 (that at times there might be a change in subject mid-verse, without explicit mention). See also the discussions below regarding Tanakh's use of abridged sentences (מקרא קצר), misplaced modifiers (מקרא מסורס) and extraneous or interchanged letters.
Use of Biblical parallels – Ramban's intrascriptural exegesis is further manifest in the many parallels and proof texts that he brings when explaining a word89 or other difficulty in the Biblical text,90 when showing how an action reflects the realia of the Biblical period,91 or in his comparison of similar texts and topics.92
II. Issues of order and structure
"כל התורה כסדר"93 – Ramban will rarely posit "אין מוקדם ומאוחר" (achronology),94 preferring to say that "all of Torah is in order" except where Torah explicitly states otherwise.95 In the latter cases, he will make sure to explain the reason for the lack of order, noting that Tanakh might veer from strict chronology for literary reasons.96 In particular, Tanakh often records certain details either earlier or later than they occurred chronologically so as to finish a storyline (להשלים הענין).97
Structure – Ramban, unlike most of his predecessors, speaks about both the structure of Torah as a whole and the structure of individual sections of books, explaining both why books open and close where they do98 and why various laws or narratives are mentioned where they are and/or are ordered as they are.99 At times, too, he will comment also on the order of details in much smaller units of text.100
III. Realia – Ramban often turns to science, geography, psychology, and knowledge of human behavior or customs to elucidate the text.
Scientific knowledge – Ramban speaks of geology,101 meteorology,102 flora and fauna.103 His medical background is also evident in numerous places.104
Geography – Ramban makes use of geography to explicate texts and even updated his commentary in numerous places upon arrival in Israel when he had new, more accurate geographic information.105
Psychological insights – At times, Ramban will solve an exegetical difficulty by turning to psychology and an understanding of human nature and emotions.106
Way of the world – In explaining actions of Biblical characters, Ramban often notes how these might simply reflect general patterns of human behavior.107 Often, too, he will explain verses in light of customs and behavior within the Biblical period,108 or apply knowledge of customs of his own era back to Tanakh.109
IV. Language and Grammar
Word definitions – Ramban often engages in linguistic analysis by comparing a word's usage throughout Tanakh,110 evident by the many proof texts he will bring to prove his point. At times, he will also turn to cognate or other foreign languages,111 but less often.112
Extraneous, missing, or switched letters – Ramban notes that individual letters might be missing,113 extra,114 or interchanged,115 thereby explaining otherwise difficult forms.
מקרא קצר – Like many others, Ramban notes that sometimes Tanakh writes in a truncated style, leaving out a subject,116 verb,117 noun,118 predicate or conditional clause119 or even entire phrases or parts of a storyline.120
מקרא מסורס – Ramban notes that often in Tanakh, a clause might modify not the immediately preceding one, but a different part of the verse. Thus, for example, in Bereshit 15:13, "יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה", Ramban claims that the clause "400 years" does not refer to the length of the oppression, but to the length of exile and wandering.121
V. Questioning why – In contrast to many other "peshat" commentators, Ramban will often ask the "why" question, attempting to understand not only what is written, but also the reasons behind both what is written and what is not.122
Reasons for mitzvot – Ramban was a firm believer that all mitzvot have a reason and are not simply "decrees of the king."123 In this, he follows Rambam,124 writing: "וזה הענין שגזר הרב במצות שיש להם טעם מבואר הוא מאד, כי בכל אחד טעם ותועלת ותקון לאדם" (Devarim 22:6).125 As is evident in this statement, Ramban stresses that the laws were made to benefit man, not God;126 they might instill correct behavior, good values, or recognition of Hashem,127 or simply provide utilitarian benefits such as good health.128 Given their importance, Ramban comments on the reasons for mitzvot throughout the commentary,129 sometimes giving more than one reason for any single mitzvah.130
Reasons for stories – Ramban will often discuss both the reason certain details are included in the text,131 and also why an entire narrative is mentioned at all.132 Similarly, he might question why a certain topic is spoken about at such length or a why a certain law is repeated multiple times.133 Ramban notes that narratives might teach moral lessons, demonstrate God's ways, highlight an aspect of someone's character, or explain historical progress and events.134 One specific subset of reasons for the inclusion of stories is the concept of "מעשה אבות סימן לבנים", discussed in the next bullet.
"כל מה שאירע לאבות סימן לבנים" – In his comments on Bereshit 11:6, Ramban lays out the principle: "all that happened to the Patriarchs are a sign for the children".135 The idea is stated already by R. Pinechas in Bereshit Rabbah 40:6136 and R. Yehoshua in Tanchuma Lekh Lekha 9,137 but Ramban develops it further, repeatedly returning to the motif, and attempting to show how even some of the seemingly inconsequential acts of our forefathers foreshadow events to come.138
Reasons why something is missing from the text – Ramban often questions why a certain detail is missing form the text, especially if a similar detail had been provided elsewhere.139
Addressing character motivations – Ramban often questions the actions or speech of characters, attempting to understand their motivations.140
Learning lessons – Ramban often discusses the lessons that one can learn from Tanakh. See above regarding the reasons behind various mitzvot, the messages to be learned from Biblical stories, and the motif "מעשה אבות סימן לבנים" and its implications for understanding history.
Centrality of the Land of Israel – Ramban's love and regard for the land of Israel is evident throughout his commentary. He views the Land of Israel as having unique status, being "נחלת י"י", a place where Hashem's providence is stronger than elsewhere.141 For Ramban, the ramifications of this are manifold, and these are reflected in many statements throughout the commentary:
Ramban distinguishes between the status of mitzvah observance in Israel and exile, claiming that mitzvot were given primarily to be observed in the land ("עיקר כל המצות ליושבים בארץ י״י.")142 Certain laws are not applicable in exile at all, while others (חובות הגוף) are obligatory, but their observance is nonetheless viewed only as preparation for when one will return to the land.143
Israel's holy status further means that it cannot tolerate certain sins144 and that it holds its inhabitants to a higher standard.145 Conversely, when the people do not sin, Hashem's presence there is so strong that it will be like living in the Garden of Eden (Vayikra 26:6). For this reason, too, prophecy is limited to the land of Israel (Devarim 18:15).
Divine providence, miracles and nature – The nature of the miraculous is a theme discussed by Ramban often though his exact stance on the balance between natural and supernatural order is somewhat unclear.146
Ramban points out147 that belief in a system of reward and punishment mandates belief in continuous providence and intervention. For, if rain, health, or victory in war are contingent on Torah observance, that means that each is Divinely sent in accordance with a person's deeds, and not because of natural order. As such, these are all "hidden miracles".148 This leads Ramban to conclude: "אין לאדם חלק בתורת משה רבינו עד שנאמין בכל דברינו ומקרינו שכלם נסים אין בהם טבע ומנהגו של עולם."149
At the same time, elsewhere in his commentary,150 Ramban asserts that the world is generally run by nature. Hashem's providence, for the most part, is evident only over the collective who are judged according to the deeds of the majority. It extends to the individual only in two exceptional cases: .if someone is totally righteous or totally wicked.151
Defense / blame of the Avot – Though Ramban will sometimes justify seemingly problematic behavior of the Avot,152 he does not hesitate to blame them when he thinks this is warranted. A well known example is his faulting of Avraham for his descent to Egypt and endangering of Sarah during the famine.153
Historical awareness – Ramban betrays a historical awareness, showing how some of the promises of Torah have been fulfilled throughout history. For example, see Vayikra 26:16 where he suggests that the curses of Sefer Vayikra refer to and match the reality of the Babylonian exile, while those of Devarim match the present exile.154
Ethics outside of strict halakhah – In several places in his commentary, Ramban notes the limits of a formal legal code, which can never include every scenario, recognizing that it is possible to be a "נבל ברשות התורה". He suggests that Torah therefore includes general principles such as "be holy" or "do what is right and just" to teach us to go further than the strict law both in the realm of interpersonal commands and those between man and God.155
Earlier Sources –
Rashi – As is evident from his introductory poem to Torah,156 Ramban held Rashi in extremely high esteem, and his work served as a cornerstone for Ramban's own commentary. Often Ramban will open his comments with a direct quote from Rashi, or refer to his words later in the discussion, mentioning "רבינו שלמה" by name over 670 times!157 At times he will agree with Rashi,158 sometimes adding to and developing the interpretation.159 Elsewhere, Ramban might disagree, but nonetheless buttress Rashi's explanation or sources,160 while in yet other cases, he will reject Rashi's explanation and explain why it is wrong.161 Even when disagreeing, Ramban's tone is almost always respectful.162