Kol Torah is proud to include the conclusion of the article that ran last week from Rabbi Yaakov Blau, one of our respected Rabbei’im, originally published in his book, ‘Medieval Commentary in the Modern Era: The Enduring Value of Classical Parshanut’. After looking at the sugya approach last week, we continue this week with other pedagogic applications of Ramban al-Hatorah.
It has been my experience that Humash teachers tend to view their subject as rather bifurcated from Gemara and therefore basically avoid the Halakhic parts of Humash. An oft-repeated mantra is “this is a Humash class, not a Gemara class.” While this is certainly worthy of a much broader discussion, I question this approach. Clearly there should be a difference between a Humash and Gemara class, yet approximately half of Humash is Halakha. Why do these areas not deserve equal attention as the more “classic” Humash parts.[i] Both Rashi and Ramban felt that halakhic areas were worthy of the same level of commentary in their works as the other parts of Humash. Focusing on those Rambans can also create an opportunity for overlap between Humash and either Gemara or Halakha classes.[ii]
Some examples of these types of Rambans include his discussion of whether or not Tevilat Kelim is actually D’orayta. The Gemara in Avodah Zara presents a drasha suggesting that it is, but the Ramban (Bamidbar 31:23) believes that it may just be an asmakhta. This is not just an argument in the Gemara that is removed from understanding the basic text; it is rather a question of what the requirements of tevila that are mentioned in the pesukim are describing. I believe that any attempt to understand this section of Humash must deal with this issue.
Another example would be the question if the need to first offer a peaceful alternative to battle is required when fighting a melkhemet mitzvah. Rashi (Devarim 20:10) seems to feel that it is not, but Ramban (ibid) disagrees. Ramban supports his position from other pesukim. Once again, this is a fundamental question about how to read the pesukim.[iii]
Similarly, the Ramban can serve as a gateway to the world of minyan hamitzvot. Ramban is extremely consistent in his commentary al haTorah with his opinions in his hasagot on Rambam’s Sefer Hamizvot. In fact, studying those Rambans presents the opportunity to expose students to works of Rishonim with which they may not be otherwise familiar, in this case the genre of sefrei hamizvot.[iv] One can ask if the mandate to remember what happened to Miriam (Devarim 24:9) is actually a mitzvah and see that Ramban says that it indeed is, both in his perush al haTorah and in his list of mitzvot that Rambam omitted (Asseh 7). A similar question arises with regard to the command to be “complete with God” (Devarim 18:13 and Asseh 8). I will grant that in both of these examples it is debatable how necessary this question is for a basic understanding of the text, but if one is willing to maintain a slightly more expansive view of how Humash should be taught, these are fine openings to a new mode of discussion.
An example which is more basic to the text is the question of whether or not it is a mitzvah to swear (Devarim 6:13); Ramban’s reading, that it is not, is consistent from his perush al haTorah (ibid) to his attack of Rambam’s counting it as Asseh 7.[v] Also, his discussion of whether or not the rich person not adding and the poor not subtracting from the half shekel (Shemot 30:15) is considered a mitzvah is straight out of the pesukim. Ramban’s justification for not counting it is somewhat based on other sifrei hamitzvot and it is worth noting that he did not count it himself in his hasagot on Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot.[vi]Finally, the famous discussion of whether v’horashtem et ha’aretz v’yashavtem ba” (“And you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land and dwell in it,” Bamidbar 33:53) is a mitzvah[vii] or a promise[viii] is basic to understanding that passuk.
Several times, Ramban will have a discussion about an episode in the Navi which is somewhat based on the idea in the passuk in Humash. For example, the stories of Pilegesh B’giva (Bereshit 19:8), Yiftach (Vayikra 27:29) , David counting the Jews (Bamidbar 1:2) and the complaint to Yehoshua (Bamidbar 26:54). Now one could reasonably argue that all of these discussions are overly tangential to the text and should not be done in a Humash class. However, then they ought to be done when covering those stories in a Navi class. Additionally, they present an opportunity to discuss Navi during Humash time, which helps students have a broader understanding of how both subjects interact with each other. Thankfully, the Ramban al haTorah is a part of any discussion on Humash. Given how multi-faceted the commentary is, it is my hope that more of those facets will become part of the day to day masah u’matan shel torah.
[i] It’s true that many pashtanim basically avoid these areas, but there was an understanding that one would read Rashi to get an understanding; see Rashbam’s introductions to both Mishpatim and Vayikra.
[ii] Meaning both that Halakha and Gemara teachers could use such Rambans when relevant, and that Humash teachers could work with those teachers of other subjects in cases where the curricula for that year allow such a cross-discipline discussion.
[iii] See also his discussion about the chametz of a goy in Shemot 12:19 for another example.
[iv] In general, Ramban’s commentary on Humash has many parallels in his other works that are worth examining, such as his discussion about how l’khatchila doctors are in both Vayikra 26:11 and his Torat Hadam (Sha’ar Hasakana).
[v] Similarly, Ramban al HaTorah (Devarim 15:3) attacks Rambam for counting charging interest to a non-Jew as a mitzvah (as he does when attacking Rambam’s Asseh 198; the attack is on Shoresh 6).
[vi] Other examples include his discussion of whether “v’akhalta v’savata u’verakhta” is a mitzvah according to the peshat of the passuk (Devarim 8:10) and how to understand the prohibition of “v’ha’aretz lo timakher l‘zmitzut” both in Vayikra 25:23 and hasagot to the sefer hamizvot lav 227.
[vii] See Ramban’s list of mitzvot that Rambam left out, Asseh 4.
[viii] See Rashi and Seforno (ad loc) who seem to understand the passuk as a condition.