Reconsidering Pedagogic Use of the Ramban Al Hatorah

  • by: Yaakov Blau
  • Submitted on August 1, 2011

Abstract: The article argues for three pedagogic uses of the Ramban al hatorah which the author believes are not currently being employed. The first use is viewing the Ramban al hatorah topically, as a sugya, both where Ramban brings in other sources himself and when Ramban discusses the same topic on several different occasions. The second use would be a halakhic approach, focusing on the halakhic material in the commentary. Finally, the third use would be using Ramban al hatorah to explain passages of Navi. The article gives several examples of how each usage could broaden the discussion of a Tanach class.


The importance of the Ramban al hatorah can not be overstated. Whatever approach one takes to Tanakh, be it peshat, midrash, kabbalah, philosophy or halakhic analysis, the Ramban’s commentary is an indispensible aid. The Rav, Rav 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 smikha program[i]. While this did not happen, it indicates the degree of significance that the Rav felt that Ramban served in the understanding of Humash.

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 halakhic approach and

c] Studying Ramban’s understanding of certain passages of Navi.


Sugya Approach
The sugya approach to Tanakh,[iii] views Tanakh 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 Tanakh, 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 Tanakh that led him to his conclusion and 2] when he discusses a similar idea several different times throughout his commentary on Humash 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 (Bereshit 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 (Bereshit 19) and Yaakov’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 Abarbanel 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 Humash, was indeed merely a vision. Abarbanel (together with the Ritva[v]) explains Yaakov’s injury as being psychosomatic, rather than the result of an actual struggle with an angel. Ralbag gives an alternate explanation, Yaakov has 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 Malakh, Rambam is right that the story being described is just a vision. To that end, Ramban cites the in the Hagar story (Bereshit 16:7-14)[vi] which uses the term Malakh. Once again, that story is worth discussing, based on this new approach.

Another example would be what the Torah means by the term “b’etzem hayom haza (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 Shavuot (Vayikra 23:21), Hadash (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 Noah entering the tevah (Bereshit 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 U’muchar Batorah (that the torah follows a thematic, rather than chronological, order). The idea itself is incontrovertible, [viii] as Bamidbar 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 Korah story happened. Ibn Ezra (Bamidbar 16:1) believes that the story is not in chronological order, because Korah is complaining about the Leviim being picked, something that happened many parshiyot before Parshat Korah. Therefore, Ibn Ezra reasons, the complaint must have actually happened at the time of the Leviim’s designation. Ramban (ibid) refuses to accept this and instead gives a rather plausible alternative explanation. Korah wanted to complain since the time of the Leviim’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. Korah therefore waited for an opportunity when the people would not longer have a favorable impression of Moshe to complain. That opportunity was afforded to him by the incident of the Meraklim.

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 things 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 oyev” 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 hidush of the principle is that one would expect the Torah to be written like a history book, but instead the Humash 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 Bendict Arnold’s death in its discussion of the Revolutionary War, rather then just inserting it out of context when it actually happened.[xiv] As such, the principle of Ein Mukdam U’muchar Batorah is not needed to explain this category.

Ramban’s famous principle of Maaseh Avot Siman Labanim also deserves a broad analysis. First of all, he (Bereshit 12:6) believes that the avot performed acts actually ensured that a parallel action would occur to their children. He sees this as being a similar phenomena to when neviim do symbolic acts.[xv] This creates a broader discussion of the purpose of symbolic acts throughout tanakh and whether or not they somehow cause the resulting action.[xvi] Second of all, while Ramban refers to this notion often, one must be careful in evaluating how similar all the cases are. One can argue that this hidush does not apply to places where things are clearly meant to be symbolic. For example, all the odd details of Brit Ben Habetarim do not make much sense unless they are symbolic for the future, so many mefarshim explain them that way[xvii]. The hidush is that even stories that make sense internally and can be understood in the context of the Humash, are symbolic of the future. So Avaraham going to Egypt pre-figures the whole nation going. That is something that only Ramban says, because the story can certainly stand alone. An example such as Yitzchak with the three wells (ibid 26:20 and 32) can be seen as in between; the story makes sense by itself, but one could ask why the torah needed to record it, if not for its symbolism.[xviii]

One need not only look for large overarching principles, such as the aforementioned. The Ramban has several “smaller” concepts that are worth examining in several places. An example would be Yosef not being excessively materialistic. The Ramban uses this idea both in describing Potipohar’s assessment of Yosef (Bereshit 39:6) and Paroah’s (Ibid 45:19).[xix]

Halakhic Approach

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.[xx] 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 halacha classes[xxi].

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 has 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.[xxii]
Similarly, the Ramban can serve as a gateway to the world of minyan hamitzvot. Ramban is extremely consistent in his commentary al hatorah to 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 seferi hamizvot.[xxiii] So, 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 persuh al hatorah and in his list of mitzvot that Rambam left out (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 have 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[xxiv]. 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 sefer hamitzvot and it is worth noting that he did not count himself in his hasagot on Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot.[xxv]Finally, the famous discussion of whether v’harashtem et ha’aretz v’yashevtem bam” (“And you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land and dwell in it”, Bamidbar 33:53) is a mitvah[xxvi] or a promise[xxvii] is basic to understanding that passuk.

Ramban’s understanding of Navi

Several times, Ramban will have a discussion about something 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 haotorah 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 maaseh u’matan shel torah.

Rabbi Yaakov Blau teaches Talmud, Navi, Jewish Philosophy, and Jewish History at the Frisch School in Paramus NJ. He is also the head of the Talmud and Israel Guidance departments.

[i] Community, Covenant and Commitment pp. 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 humash, which are found both in his introductions to each sefer and throughout his commentary. Similarly, Ramban’s taamei hamitzvot, while not a systematic as the Chinuch, are a well known tool.

[iii] As I have written in Ten Daat volume 20

[iv] Moreh Nevuchim (2:42)

[v] Sefer Zechut

[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 malakh often refers to a navi (see is commentary on Bereshit 18:2, 21:17, 32:2, Shemot 14:19 and 23:20, Judges 2:1,6:11, 13:16 and 2 Samuel 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] Pessachim 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 mekhilta meant when it said that the story happened after Yom Kippur. One could assume that Ramban is accepting the mekhilta or it could be that he first states what he actually thinks the passuk means and then tries to explain what the mekhlita must have meant. See Rabbenu 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 Mekhilta

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

[xiii] Like Terach (Bereshit 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 U’Meuchar 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: Bereshit 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, Bamidbar 9:1 and 16:1, Devarim 31:24.

[xv] He quotes examples from Yirmiyahu and Elisha, but there are many, many other examples of this occurring.

[xvi] See Drashot Haran drash bet who takes issue with Ramban’s approach.

[xvii] See Rashi and Radak ad loc

[xviii] Places where Ramban mentions this principle include Bereshit 12:6, and 10,14:1,26:1,20 and 32, 29:2,Hakdama to Vayishlach, 32:9,17 and 26, 36:43, 43:14, 47:28, Hakdama to Shemot and possibly Shemot 17:9). One could debate whether or not Bereshit 16:9 is an example of the principle (I thank my colleague Mrs Yael Goldfischer for bringing that Ramban to my attention).

[xix] Similarly, Ramban’s famous opinion that the mishkan was commanded before the sin of the egel, only allows him to explain karbanot that were commanded afterwards as being an atonement for the sin. This comes up in Shemot 35:1 and Vayikra 9:2, but makes his comments on Shemot 29:14 hard to explain, unless he’s explaining what Rashi would say.

[xx] It’s true that many pashdanim 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.

[xxi] 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 curriculums for that year allow such a cross-discipline discussion.

[xxii] See also his discussion about the chametz of a goy in Shemot 12:19 for another example.

[xxiii] 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’chatchila doctors are in both Vayikra 26:11 and his Torat Hadam (Sha’ar Hasakana).

[xxiv] 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).

[xxv] Other examples include his discussion of whether “v’achalta v’savata u’verachta” is a mitzvah according to the peshat of the passuk (Devarim 8:10) and how to understand the prohibition of “v’ha’aretz lo timchar l‘zmitzut” both in Vayikra 25:23 and hasagot to the sefer hamizvot lav 227.

[xxvi] See Ramban’s list of mitzvot that Rambam left out Asseh 4.

[xxvii] See Rashi and Seforno (ad loc) who seem to understand the passuk as a condition.

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