The Introduction to the Commentary on the Torah

  • Rav Ezra Bick

RAMBAN

The Introduction to the Commentary on the Torah

The Book of Genesis

Moses our teacher wrote this book of Genesis together with the whole Torah from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He.

It is likely that he wrote it on Mount Sinai for there it was said to him, Come up to Me unto the mount, and be there; and I will give thee the tablets of stone and the Torah and the commandment which I have written, to teach them.' The tablets of stone include the tablets and the writing that are the ten commandments. The commandment includes the number of all the commandments, positive and negative. If so, the expression and the Torah includes the stories from the beginning of Genesis [and is called Torah - teaching] because it teaches people the ways of faith. Upon descending from the mount, he [Moses] wrote the Torah from the beginning of Genesis to the end of the account of the tabernacle. He wrote the conclusion of the Torah at the end of the fortieth year of wandering in the desert when he said [by. command of G-d], Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Eternal your G-d.2

This view accords with the opinion of the Talmudic sage3 who says that the Torah was written in sections.4 However, according to the sage who says that the Torah was given in its entirety,5 everything was written in the fortieth year when he [Moses] was commanded, Now write ye this song for you and teach it unto the

children of Israel; put it in their mouths,6 and, as he was further instructed, Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Eternal your G-d.

In either case it would have been proper for him to write at the beginning of the book of Genesis: "And G-d spoke to Moses all these words, saying." The reason it was written anonymously [without the above introductory phrase] is that Moses our teacher did not write the Torah in the first person like the prophets who did mention themselves. For example, it is often said of Ezekiel, And the word of the Eternal came unto me saying: 'Son of man,'7 and it is said of Jeremiah, And the word of the Eternal came unto me.8 Moses our teacher, however, wrote this history of all former generations and his own genealogy, history and experiences in the third person. Therefore he says And G-d spoke to Moses, saying to him9 as if he were speaking about another person. And because this is so, Moses is not mentioned in the Torah until his birth, and even at that time he is mentioned as if someone else was speaking about him.

Now do not find a difficulty in the matter of Deuteronomy wherein he [Moses] does speak about himself - [as he says,] And I besought the Eternal; 10 And I prayed unto the Eternal, 11 - for the beginning of that book reads: These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel.12 Thus throughout Deuteronomy he is like one who narrates things in the exact language in which they were spoken.

The reason for the Torah being written in this form [namely, the third person] is that it preceded the creation of the world,13 and, needless to say, it preceded the birth of Moses our teacher. It has been transmitted to us by tradition that it [the Torah] was written with letters of black fire upon a background of white fire.14 Thus Moses was like a scribe who copies from an ancient book, and therefore he wrote anonymously.

However, it is true and clear that the entire Torah - from the beginning of Genesis to "in the sight of all lsrael"15 [the last words in Deuteronomy] - reached the ear of Moses from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, just as it is said elsewhere, He pronounced all these words unto me with his mouth, and I wrote them with ink in the book.16 G-d informed Moses first of the manner of the creation of heaven and earth and all their hosts, that is, the creation of all things, high and low. Likewise [He informed him of] everything that has been said by prophecy concerning the esoterics of the Divine Chariot [in the vision of Ezekiel]17 and the process of Creation, and what has been transmitted about them to the Sages. [Moses was informed about these] together with an account of the four forces in the lower world: the force of minerals, vegetation in the earth, living motion, and the rational soul. With regard to all of these matters - their creation, their essence, their powers and functions, and the disintegration of those of them that are destroyed18 - Moses our teacher was apprised, and all of it was written in the Torah, explicitly or by implication. Now our Sages have already said:19 "Fifty gates [degrees] of understanding were created in the world, and all were transmitted to Moses with one exception, as it is said, Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels."20 [Concerning this statement of the Sages] that in the creation of the world there are fifty gates of understanding, it is as if it said that there is one gate of understanding pertaining to the creation of the minerals, their force and their effects, one gate of understanding pertaining to the creation of the vegetation in the earth, and similarly, as regards the creation of trees, beasts, fowl, creeping things and fish, that there pertains to each of these one gate of understanding. This series culminates in the creation of the rational soul [for the gate pertaining to this latter creation] enables man to contemplate the secret of the soul, to know its essence and its power in "its palace" [namely, the body]21 and to attain [that degree of understanding] which is alluded to in the saying of the Sages:22 "If a person stole, he [who has the aforesaid understanding] knows and recognizes it on him; if a person committed adultery, he knows and recognizes it on him; if one is suspected of having intercourse with a woman in her state of uncleanness, he knows and recognizes it on him. Greater than all is he who recognizes all masters23 of witchcraft." And from [that level of understanding] a man can ascend to the understanding of the spheres, the heavens and their hosts, for pertaining to each of these there is one gate of wisdom which is unlike the wisdom of the others. The total number of different gates as ascertained by tradition is fifty less one. It is possible that this fiftieth gate concerns knowledge of the Creator, blessed be He, which is not transmittable to any created being. Pay no regard to the Sages' saying that ["Fifty gates of understanding] were created,"24 for that statement relates to the majority even though one gate was indeed not created. This number [49] is clearly alluded to in the Torah in the counting of the Omer,25 and in the counting of the Jubilee,26 the secrets of which I will disclose when I attain thereto by the Will of the Holy One, blessed be He.

Everything that was transmitted to Moses our teacher through the forty-nine gates of understanding was written in the Torah explicitly or by implication in words, in the numerical value of the letters or in the form of the letters, that is, whether written normally or with some change in form such as bent or crooked letters and other deviations, or in the tips of the letters and their crownlets, as the Sages have said:27 "When Moses ascended to heaven he found the Holy One, blessed be He, attaching crownlets to certain letters of the Torah. He [Moses] said to Him, 'What are these for?' He [G-d] said to him, 'One man is destined to interpret mountains of laws on their basis.' "28 '"Whence dost thou know this?' He [Rabbi Akiba] answered them: 'This is a law given to Moses on Mount Sinai.' "29 For these hints cannot be understood except from mouth to mouth [through an oral tradition which can be traced] to Moses, who received it on Sinai.

Based on this tradition, the Sages have said in Shir Hashirim Rabbah30 concerning King Hezekiah [when he was visited by a delegation from the king of Babylon]:31 "He showed them the Book of Tagin [crownlets] ." This book is known and is available to everyone. In it is explained how many crownleted alephs there are in the Torah, how many bets, and the [frequency of the] rest of the letters and the number of crownlets on each one. The praise which the Sages bestowed on this book and the disclosure of Hezekiah's secret to the delegation were not for the crownlets themselves but rather for a knowledge of their essence and their meanings, which consist of many exceedingly profound secrets.

There, in the Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah,32 they [the Sages] have also said: "It is written, And He declared unto you His covenant,33 which means: He declared unto you the Book of Genesis, which relates the beginning of His creation;34 which He commanded you to perform, even the ten words, meaning the ten commandments, ten for Scripture and ten for Talmud.35 For from what source did Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite36 come and reveal to Israel the secrets of the behemoth37 and the leviathan?38 And from what source did Ezekiel come and reveal to them the mysteries of the Divine Chariot? It is this which Scripture says, The king bath brought me into his chambers,"39 meaning that everything can be learned from the Torah.

King Solomon, peace be upon him, whom G-d had given wisdom and knowledge, derived it all from the Torah, and from it he studied until he knew the secret of all things created, even of the forces and characteristics of plants, so that he wrote about them even a Book of Medicine, as it is written, And he spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall 40

Now I have seen the Aramaic translation of the book called The Great Wisdom of Solomon,41 and in it is written: "There is nothing new in the birth of a king or ruler; there is one entrance for all people into the world, and one exit alike. Therefore I have prayed, and the spirit of wisdom was given to me, and I have called out and the spirit of knowledge came to me; I chose it above scepter and throne." And it is further said there: "It is G-d alone Who gives knowledge that contains no falsehood, [enabling one] to know how the world arose, the composition of the constellations, the beginning, the end and middle of the times, the angles of the ends of the constellations, and how the seasons are produced by the movement of heavens and the fixed positions of the stars, the benign nature of cattle and the fierceness of beasts, the power of the wind and the thoughts of man, the relationship of trees and the forces of roots; everything hidden and everything revealed I know." All this Solomon knew from the Torah, and he found everything in it - in its simple meanings, in the subtleties of its expressions and its letters and its strokes, as I have mentioned.

Scripture likewise relates concerning him, And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east.42 That is to say, he was better versed than they in divination and enchanting, for this was their wisdom, as it is said, For they are replenished from the east, and with soothsayers like the Philistines.43 (The Sages similarly said:44 "What is the wisdom of the children of the east? They knew and were crafty in the divination of birds.") And all the wisdom of Egypt means that Solomon was better versed in sorcery, which is the wisdom of Egypt, and in the nature of growing things. As is known from the Book of Egyptian Agriculture,45 the Egyptians were very well versed in the matters of planting and grafting different species. Thus the Sages have said:46 "Solomon even planted peppers in the Land of Israel. How was he able to plant them? Solomon was a wise man, and he knew the essence of the foundation of the world. Why was this? [It is written ] Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, G-d bath shined forth.47 Out of Zion the whole world was perfected. How is this known? Why was it called 'the Foundation Stone?' Because the world was founded from it. Now Solomon knew which of its arteries extends to Ethiopia, and upon it he planted peppers, and immediately it produced fruits, for so he says, And I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit."48

We have yet another mystic tradition49 that the whole Torah is comprised of Names of the Holy One, blessed be He, and that the letters of the words separate themselves into Divine Names when divided in a different manner, as you may imagine by way of example that the

verse of Bereshith divides itself into these other words: berosh yithbare Elokim. This principle applies likewise to the entire Torah, aside from the combinations and the numerical equivalents of the Holy Names. Our Rabbi Shlomo [Rashi] has already written in his commentaries on the Talmud50 concerning the manner in which the Great Divine Name of seventy-two letters is derived from the three verses: And he went,51 And he came,52 And he stretched out.53 It is for this reason that a Scroll of the Torah in which a mistake has been made in one letter's being added or subtracted is disqualified [even though the literal meaning remains unchanged] , for this principle [that the whole Torah comprises Names of the Holy One, blessed be He], obligates us to disqualify a scroll of the Torah in which one letter vav is missing from the word otham - of which there are thirty-nine fully-spelled ones in the Torah - [despite the fact that the same word appears many times without a vav] , or if he [the Scribe] were to add a vav to any of the other deficient ones [that is, words which could be written with an additional vav but are not so written]. So it is in similar cases even though it matters not one way or another on cursory thought. It is this principle which has caused the Biblical scholars to count every full and defective word in the Torah and Scripture and to compose books on the Masoretic text, going back as far as Ezra the Scribe and Prophet,54 so that we should be heedful of this, as the Sages derived it from the verse, And they read in the book in the Law of G-d, distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.55

It would appear that the Torah "written with letters of black fire upon a background of white fire" was in this form we have mentioned, namely, that the writing was contiguous, without break of words, which made it possible for it to be read by way of Divine Names and also by way of our normal reading which makes explicit the Torah and the commandment. It was given to Moses our teacher using the division of words which expresses the commandment, and orally it was transmitted to him in the rendition which consists of the Divine Names. Thus masters of the Cabala56 write the letters of the Great Name I have mentioned [namely, the Name containing seventy-two letters] all close to each other, and then these are divided into words consisting of three letters and many other divisions, as is the practice among the masters of the Cabala.

And now, know and see what I shall answer to those who question me concerning my writing a commentary of the Torah. I shall conduct myself in accordance with the custom of the early scholars to bring peace of mind to the students, tired of the exile and the afflictions, who read in the Seder57 on the Sabbaths and festivals, and to attract them with the plain meanings of Scripture and with some things that are pleasant to the listeners and which give grace58 to the scholars. And may the gracious G-d be merciful unto us and bless us59 so that we shall find grace and good favor in the sight of G-d and man.60

Now behold I bring into a faithful covenant and give proper counsel to all who look into this book not to reason or entertain any thought concerning any of the mystic hints which I write regarding the hidden matters of the Torah, for I do hereby firmly make known to him [the reader] that my words will not be comprehended nor known at all by any reasoning or contemplation, excepting from the mouth of a wise Cabalist speaking into the ear of an understanding recipient.61 Reasoning about them is foolishness; any unrelated thought brings much damage and withholds the benefit. Let him not trust in vanity, deceiving himself, 62 for these reasonings will bring him nothing but evil as if they spoke falsely against G-d, which cannot be forgiven, as it is said, The man that strayeth out of understanding shall rest in the congregation of the shades.63 Let them not break through unto the Eternal to gaze,64 For the Eternal our G-d is a devouring fire, even a G-d of jealousness.65 And He will show those who are pleasing to Him wonders from His Torah. Rather let such see in our commentaries novel interpretations of the plain meanings of Scripture and Midrashim, and let them take moral instruction from the mouths of our holy Rabbis:66 "Into that which is beyond you, do not seek; into that which is more powerful than you, do not inquire; about that which is concealed from you, do not desire to know; about that which is hidden from you, do not ask. Contemplate that which is permitted to you, and engage not yourself in hidden things."

 

NOTES

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(1) Exodus 24:12. (2) Deuteronomy 31::26. (3) Gittin 60a. The name of the authority is Rabbi Yochanan. (4) When a section was declared to Moses, he immediately wrote it down. When all the sections were completed, he compiled them together into one Torah. Rashi, Ibid. (5) Resh Lakish is the authority who maintains that Moses wrote the whole Torah at one time after all sections had been given to him intermittently during the forty years and were properly systematized in his mind.

(6) Deuteronomy 51:19. (7) Ezekiel 3:16-17; 12:1, etc. (8) Jeremiah 1:4. (9) Exodus 6:2. (10) Deuteronomy 3:23. (11) Ibiat, 9:26. (12) Ibich, 1:1. (13) Shabbath 88 b. (14) Yerushalmi Shekalim 13 b. See also Rashi on Deuteronomy 33:2.

(15) Deuteronomy 34:12. (16) Jeremiah 36:18. Bausch, Jeremiah's scribe, is explaining the manner in which he wrote down his master's prophecies: he Ueremlah] P'onounced all these words, etc. (17) Ezekiel, Chapter 1. (18) The rational soul in man is not subject to destruction. Hence Ramban writes of "those of them that are destroyed," not all. (19) Rosh Hashanah 21 b. (20) Psalms 8:6.

(21) See Ibn Ezra's commentary on Deuteronomy 32:2, which states that the body is the palace of the soul. (22) Heichaloth Rabboth 1:3. f 23) "Masters"; in Heichaloth Rabboth: "kinds." (24) Since the fiftieth gate of understanding was never transmitted to any created being, how could the Sages say that fifty "were created"? The answer is that the statement relates to the majority of the gates, (25) Leviticus 23:15:Se~en weeks shall there be complete.... (26) Ibid. 25:8. (27) Menachoth 29 b.

(28) Ibid. Moses said to G-d: "Show me this man." G-d showed him Rabbi Akiba sitting with eight ranks of disciples. Moses sat down in the eighth rank but was not able to follow the discussions, a fact which deeply grieved him. But then he heard the disciples asking Rabbi Akiba, "Whence dost thou know this?" See now in- text of Ramban. (29) Now Moses was content. Ibid. (30) Not found in our text. See, however, Shir Hashirim Rabbah 3:3, and see also my Hebrew commentary, p. 4, for further reference on this matter. (31) Isaiah, Chapter 39. (32) 1:28. (33) Deuteronomy 4:13. (34) The interpretation is based upon the similarity between the words b *iyah (creation) and b'ritho (His covenant). (35) "Ten for Scripture and ten for Talmud." Thus the Oral Law is made equal to the Written Law. The basis for the interpretation seems to be the extra word la'asoth (to perform) , which is taken to refer to the Oral Law since it teaches us how to perform the commandments.

(36) Job 32:2. (37)Ibhi, 40:15. See following note. (38) Ibid., 40:25. The Behemoth and the Leviathan are mentioned in G-d's response to Job (Chapter 40) and are not found in Elihu's speeches. Rabbi David Luria (in his notes to the Midrash) amends the text of the Midrash to read: "the secrets of the winds and the rains." These are mentioned by Elihu in Chapter 37. (39) Song of Songs 1:4. (40) I Kings 5:13. (41) One of the books of the Apocrypha. In Weisel's Hebrew edition, Verses 4-6 in Chapter 7 come close to the text here mentioned.

(42) I Kings 5:10. (43) Isaiah 2:6. (44) Pesikta of Rabbi Kahana, Parah. Bamidbar Rabbah, Chapter 19. (45) Mentioned in Rambam's Moreh Nebuchim III, 29-30. Ramban also mentions it further,11:28. Abraham ibn Ezra refers to it in his Commentary to Exodus 2:10. (46) Tanchuma, Kedoshim 10. (47) Psalms 50:2. (48) Ecclesiastes 2:5. (49) Zohar Yithro 87a: "The whole Torah is the Name of the Holy One, etc." See also my Hebrew commentary,p. 6 for a broader discussion of this matter.

(50) Sukkah 45 a. (51) Exodus 14:19. (52) Ibid., Verse 20. (53) Ibid., Verse 21. (54) Megillah 15 a. Malachi (the prophet) is identical with Ezra. (55) Nehemiah 8:8. The Sages' interpretation is found in Nedarim 37 b: "And they read in the book in the law of G-d, this means the written text; distinctly, this is the Targum [translation] ; and they gave the sense, this has reference to the division in verses; and they caused them to understand the reading, this means the punctuating signs [or accents] , and some Rabbis say that this is the Masoreth [the traditions regarding the full or defective words] ."

(56) Literally, 'reception." In the Talmud the word cabala denotes the whole body of the oral tradition in contrast to the written word of G-d, the Torah. Here, however, as well as in later Hebrew usage the word denotes the system of mystic lore and philosophy which constitutes a distinctive body of esoteric thought. (57) The portion of the Torah assigned for reading on a particular Sabbath or festival. (58) The Hebrew word chein (grace) - is here

an abbreviation for the Hebrew words chochmah nistarah [the hidden

wisdom or the Cabala]. (59) Psalms 67:2. (60) Proverbs 3:4.

(61) The Hebrew is Mekabel mevin, which may also mean "an understanding Cabalist," thus suggesting that the recipient too has already been initiated into these mysteries to a lesser degree. (62) Job 15:31. (63) Proverbs 21:16. (64) Exodus 19:21 and 24. (65) Deuteronomy 4:24. (66) Bereshith Rabbah 8:2.