Reconsidering Pedagogic Use of the Ramban Al HaTorah by Rabbi Yaakov Blau


Kol Torah is honored to present a series of articles from Rabbi Yaakov Blau’s book, “Medieval Commentary in the Modern Era: The Enduring Value of Classical Parshanut.” This week, we will begin with the analysis of the Ramban and will conclude this section in next week’s issue.


The importance of the Ramban Al HaTorah cannot be overstated. Whatever approach one takes to Tanach, be it Peshat, Midrash, Kabbalah, philosophy or Halachic analysis, the Ramban’s commentary is an indispensable aid. The Rav, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, went so far as to suggest that studying Ramban Al HaTorah ought to be an integral part of the curriculum of the Yeshiva University Semichah program.[i] While this did not happen, it indicates the degree of significance that the Rav felt that Ramban served in the understanding of Chumash.

 I would like to examine three pedagogical uses of the Ramban Al HaTorah which I believe are not currently being maximized.[ii] Those uses are a) a Sugya approach b) a Halachic approach and c) studying Ramban’s understanding of certain passages of Navi.

Sugya approach

The Sugya approach to Tanach[iii] views Tanach topically, much as one would view a Sugya in Gemara. Rather than just considering the local area being studied, one simultaneously analyzes parallel parts of Tanach, with the Parshanim’s comments on those areas, with hope of reaching a greater understanding of each component part. Ramban can be understood using such a methodology in one of two ways: 1) where Ramban himself quotes the other areas in Tanach that led him to his conclusion and 2) when he discusses a similar idea several different times throughout his commentary on Chumash and, as such, it is up to the reader to study those instances together. In doing so, the reader will gain a broader understanding of Ramban’s approach to that particular topic.

 An example illustrating the first option is Ramban’s explanation of the account of the three angels visiting Avraham (BeReishit 18:1). Ramban famously disagrees with Rambam [iv], who found it inconceivable that mortals could actually perceive angels and therefore understood the story as being a vision. Ramban points out that Rambam’s approach is not just limited to the Avraham story, but would need to be true for the angels visiting Lot (BeReishit 19) and Ya’akov’s struggle with the angel (ibid 32:24-30), examples where Ramban believes that Rambam’s approach is implausible. To fully understand the Machloket, it is worthwhile to consider each one of those stories as well. The Abrabanel defends the Rambam’s view and claims that Lot had an intuition to leave Sedom and that the story of the angles telling him to leave, as described in Chumash, was indeed merely a vision. Abrabanel (together with the Ritva[v]) explains Ya’akov’s injury as being psychosomatic, rather than the result of an actual struggle with an angel. Ralbag gives an alternate explanation: Ya’akov had already hurt his leg and his dream reflected the pain that he was already feeling. Meanwhile, Ramban is willing to concede that when the angel is actually described by the term Malach, Rambam is right that the story being described is just a vision. To that end, Ramban cites the verse in the Hagar story (BeReishit 16:7-14)[vi] which uses the term Malach. Once again, that story is worth discussing, based on this new approach.

 Another example would be what the Torah means by the term, “BeEtzem HaYom HaZeh” (VaYikra 23:28).[vii] Ramban explains that it can mean that extraneous factors are not necessary for a commandment to be in force. Among his examples are Shavu’ot (VaYikra 23:21), Chadash (ibid 23:14) and Yom Kippur (ibid 23:28). Alternatively, he says there are times that the phrase connotes an event that starts on that specific day and not earlier. Examples of this meaning of the phrase include Noach entering the ark (BeReishit 7:13) and Avraham performing a Brit Milah (ibid. 17:26). As before, examining all the examples that Ramban quotes creates a much richer understanding of the overall idea.

 In the previous two examples, Ramban has done the major research for the reader by listing all the parallels. Some issues require more investigation on the reader’s part—for example, the idea of Ein Mukdam UMe’uchar BaTorah (that the Torah follows a thematic, rather than chronological, order). The idea itself is incontrovertible, [viii] as BeMidbar 1:1 occurs in the second month and the narrative account a few Perakim later (9:1) turns back to the first month. Now it is well known that Ramban attempts to limit the application of this principle, whereas Rashi and Ibn Ezra apply it much more freely. However, it is necessary to examine several examples of this phenomenon in order to fully understand its scope.

A classic example is the discussion of when the Korach story happened. Ibn Ezra (BeMidbar 16:1) believes that the story is not in chronological order, because Korach is complaining about the Levi’im being picked, something that happened many Parashiyot before Parashat Korach. Therefore, Ibn Ezra reasons, the complaint must have actually happened at the time of the Levi’im’s designation. Ramban (ibid) refuses to accept this and instead gives a rather plausible alternative explanation. Korach wanted to complain since the time of the Levi’im’s designation. However, he knew that Moshe’s popularity at the time meant that any complaint against the prophet’s authority would have fallen on deaf ears. Korach therefore waited for an opportunity when the people would no longer have a favorable impression of Moshe to complain. That opportunity was afforded to him by the incident of the Meraglim.

Perhaps more telling is the question of when Yitro came. Both Rashi (Shemot 18:13) and Ibn Ezra (ibid. 18:1) feel that the initial story of Yitro coming is out of order and actually took place post Matan Torah.[ix] Ramban (18:1), at first, entertains this possibility, giving several reasons why one would draw this conclusion, but in the end concludes that the Torah relates this story in order.[x] This is instructive on two levels. First of all, Ramban was willing to hear the logic of why one might think that events are out of order, in an instance when the text does not explicitly state that they are out of order. Also, one must take into account how bound Ramban felt by Midrashim, since in this case, it’s a Machloket in the Midrash when the story happened.[xi]

There are two categories where one might, at first glance, apply this principle, but which are, I believe, actually different phenomena. The first is in poetry. Ramban (Shemot15:9) quotes a Midrash that applies this principle to the quote of “Amar Oyeiv” in Shirat HaYam. The Midrash understands that the quote actually preceded the Egyptian pursuit. Ramban disagrees and feels that the quote is in order. Whatever one’s take on the overall question, poetry could well be different.

The other category is when the Torah “fills in a detail” before it happens. So, the command to put a portion of Man in the Mishkan (Shemot 16:33-34) is in the story of the Man, even though the Mishkan hadn’t been built yet.[xii] Somewhat similarly, several characters’ deaths are mentioned before they actually died.[xiii] I believe that the Chidush of the principle is that one would expect the Torah to be written like a history book, but instead the Chumash chooses a thematic order over a chronological one. Now, a history book would “fill in a detail” out of chronological order if it would be confusing to mention it when it actually happened. So, for example, an American history book would mention Benedict Arnold’s death in its discussion of the Revolutionary War, rather than just inserting it out of context when it actually happened.[xiv] As such, the principle of Ein Mukdam UMe’uchar BaTorah is not needed to explain this category.

[i] Community, Covenant and Commitment, 104-105.

[ii] I will not be discussing uses of Ramban which I think, and hope, are standard—for example, Ramban’s attempts to understand the structure of Chumash, which are found both in his introductions to each sefer and throughout his commentary. Similarly, Ramban’s Ta’amei HaMitzvot, while not as systematic as the Chinuch, are a well-known tool.

[iii] As discussed in chapter 2.

[iv] Moreh Nevuchim (2:42).

[v] Sefer Zicharon.

[vi] Which Rambam understood as just a Bat Kol, a position which Ramban strongly disagrees with.

An additional position that ought to be considered is that of Ralbag, who believes (most likely based on the Moreh Nevuchim 2:34 and 42) that the term Malach often refers to a Navi (see his commentary on BeReishit 18:2, 21:17, 32:2, Shemot 14:19 and 23:20,Shofetim 2:1,6:11, 13:16 and Shmuel Bet 24:16).

[vii] Another example would be Ramban’s idea (Devarim 21:18) that several punishments are meant as a warning to society, rather than being justified by the gravity of the sin. These sins are identified as ones in which the Torah says that the people should “hear and be afraid.”

[viii] Pesachim 6b.

[ix] Rashi clearly feels that the second story (Moshe judging the people) happened after Matan Torah, but he is neutral about the first story (Yitro coming) about which he quotes both opinions in the Gemara (although it is not clear if that is part of the text of Rashi).

[x] Ramban is not clear if he thinks that the story of Moshe sitting to judge the people also happened before matan Torah. In 18:13 he first says that this story happened the day after the previous story of Yitro coming and then he discusses what the Mechilta meant when it said that the story happened after Yom Kippur. One could assume that Ramban is accepting the Mechilta or it could be that he first states what he actually thinks the Pasuk means and then tries to explain what the Mechlita must have meant. See Rabbeinu Bachya on 18:1 who explains how the entire Yitro story, including Moshe judging the people, all happened before Matan Torah.

[xi] Zevachim 116a and the Mechilta.

[xii] Ramban uses this example in Shemot 12:43 and BeMidbar 21:1(while he rejects the application to Pesach in the former, he does not question that it was true about the man). Interestingly, Bechor Shor disagrees with all the other Rishonim and feels that the man was initially placed in front of a Bamah at the time of the initial man story.

[xiii] Like Terach (Bereishit 11:32) and Yitzchak (ibid 35:28-29). Rashi makes a point of explaining why the former is out of order and uses the Ein Mukdam UMe’uchar for the latter. Ramban (ad loc) feels that both are the normal style of the Torah.

[xiv] This principle is discussed many, many times by Ramban (not always by name), so the following list is unlikely to be exhaustive: BeReishit 32:23,35:28, Shemot 2:1, 4:19,12:40, 15:9, 18:1, 24:1, 32:11,33:7,40:2, VaYikra 8:1, 9:22, 16:1, 25:1, BeMidbar 9:1 and 16:1, Devarim 31:24.

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