I remember fellows in yeshiva pondering who was greater, Rashi or Rambam, since they seem to be the two most impactful scholars of the post-Talmudic Torah world. I don’t think I’m the first or only who would argue that Ramban belongs in that conversation, since his responses to each of those authors (and others, such as Ba’alei haTosafot in his Talmud commentary and Ba’al HaMaor in his Milchamot) rounded out those other legacies and added important alternative views as well.
His Torah commentary is one of the main avenues by which many of us have gotten to know his worldview, different again from Rashi’s and Rambam’s, with much to offer in understanding the Torah’s goals or values. In this series, at R. Gil Student’s suggestion, I will spend two weeks on select comments of Ramban on each parsha in Devarim. That will give us a sprinkling of Ramban’s ideas on all of Devarim, an introduction to his thought, by next Simchat Torah, when we complete the reading.
For this week, let’s see some of his introduction to the book as a whole.
A New Generation’s Torah
He opens with the surprising statement that Mishneh Torah (meaning the book of Devarim, which is referred to that way because it recaps much of the previous Torah; it was from that use of the term that Rambam came up with the name of his legal code, Mishneh Torah) is there to explain to the generation entering the land most of the mitzvot they would need when they got there. He did not offer such a review or reintroduction for the kohanim, the priests, because they are zerizim, so dedicated to their service that they did not need repeat adjurations (which is why, in his view, Devarim does not have much in the way of mitzvot related to the Temple, its service or the laws that apply specifically to kohanim).
Ramban was trying to explain what was and wasn’t included in Devarim, since it doesn’t only or exactly repeat what we’ve seen before. [Heretics, of course, would say the lack of “priestly law” is a function of the P writer coming later—it pains me to even record it, but I have a reason, so bear with me—or some such. I point it out because it’s an example of the fact that most of the issues heretics raise to claim that this couldn’t be a Torah given by Hashem to Moshe have been noted for centuries, if not millennia, by faithful Jews. It is also a reminder, in an era where it’s often forgotten, that to hold such views is heresy; it is placing oneself outside of the authoritative tradition of Torah and mitzvot. It is, on its own and by itself, an abandoning of the warp and weft of what Hashem wanted us to understand when giving us the Torah.]
Ramban’s claim is that regular Jews needed this review (where kohanim did not), sometimes to add details that had not been laid out before, sometimes just to repeat the warnings already administered, mostly about avoda zara, worship of any power other than Hashem. (I phrase it that way to remind us that while idol worship has mostly been stamped out; it’s equally problematic to see any power other than Hashem as having meaningful control of our lives, whatever name we give that power.) Whether or not it meets the technical halachic definitions of avoda zara, seeing that, 4,000 years later, we still struggle to be as absolute about Hashem’s rule as we were told to be, gives a sense of why so many reminders were necessary.
Ramban’s idea that the people needed this review also assumes that the previous four books of the Torah couldn’t do it for some reason. Otherwise, why would Moshe have to teach them these lessons in new words, why not just teach them the previous four books really well, adding oral emphasis on areas that were problematic for them?
That’s a question, it seems to me, especially if we accept the midrashic traditions that Moshe spent the time in the desert teaching Torah to Aharon, his sons and the rest of the people.
Ramban does not answer it; he assumes that this is what happened which, to me, is a sign that there’s an underlying truth he so took for granted he did not feel the need to address it. From the way he expresses it here, he seems to be saying—and this past Friday, I shared with readers a Chatam Sofer that makes a similar assumption in a different context—that a new generation needed a “different” Torah, a Torah that addressed their particular lacks or concerns as they entered the land and prepared to start building a Torah society.
Only Moshe Rabbeinu, at Hashem’s command and dictation, could insert that “new” Torah into the Torah itself, but for Ramban it might be teaching us that each generation should get its own Torah, an idea that might be true and important even as it can be taken to improper extremes.
Warnings, Clarifications and Seemingly New Material
Moshe Rabbeinu repeated mitzvot that had come before, and stressed the punishments that could and would come with failure to observe the Torah, and added details to mitzvot previously seen. In addition—heresy concern alert!—mitzvot that have not appeared previously are taught, such as yibum, where a man marries his brother’s widow if the brother passed away without children, or motzi shem ra, a husband who claims his wife was unfaithful before their first night together, or divorce, etc.
The simplistic response is to point to those “new” mitzvot as evidence of a different document or author, chas v’shalom. As before, I mention it only to make clear that, since Ramban noticed it long ago and he wasn’t the first, choosing this path is the lazy way out, refusing to engage with the complexity of a faithful response.
Ramban’s view is that these were all in fact said at Sinai or in the Ohel Moed before the sin of the spies. Later, in the plains of Moav (where Moshe says the book of Devarim), the only new material was the covenant between Hashem and the Jewish people at the end. That’s why, he says, we don’t find the locution of Vayidaber Hashem el Moshe or Tzav et Bnei Yisrael, “Hashem spoke to Moshe” or “Command the Jewish people.”
By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, NY, with his wife and three children.