Introduction to the Thought of the Ramban
by Rav Ezra Bick
Shiur #03: Ot
Our text for today's shiur is the lengthy comment of the Ramban to Shemot 13,16. The verse is the commandment of tefillin "You shall tie them as a sign on your arm and they shall be totafot between your eyes. The Ramban provides a general theory of "signs" in Judaism, and, inter alia, a summary of the essence of the purpose of signs and mitzvot in general. In fact, this is a summary of the purpose of human life and of creation. The two subjects the meaning of "signs" and the purpose of creation are closely intertwined in the Ramban, as we shall see. Since, as I stated at the beginning of the series, this is a reading seminar, please read carefully the entire comment of the Ramban, if you have not already done so.
After explaining some of the details of the mitzva of tefillin, the Ramban begins to explain the class of mitzvot to which tefillin belongs, the class of "signs."
And now I shall declare to you a general principle in the reason of many commandments. Beginning with the days of Enosh when idol-worship came into existence, opinions in the matter of faith fell into error. Some people denied the root of faith by saying that the world is eternal; they denied the Eternal, and said: It is not He [Who called forth the world into existence]. Others denied His knowledge of individual matters, and they say, How doth G-d know? And is there knowledge in the Most High? Some admit His knowledge but deny the principle of providence and make men as the fishes of the sea, [believing] that G-d does not watch over them and that there is no punishment or reward for their deeds, for they say the Eternal hath forsaken the land. Now when G-d is pleased to bring about a change in the customary and natural order of the world for the sake of a people or an individual, then the voidance of all these [false beliefs] becomes clear to all people, since a wondrous miracle shows that the world has a G-d Who created it, and Who knows and supervises it, and Who has the power to change it. And when that wonder is previously prophesied by a prophet, another principle is further established, namely, that of the truth of prophecy, that G-d doth speak with man, and that He revealeth His counsel unto His servants the prophets, and thereby the whole Torah is confirmed. This is why Scripture says in connection with the wonders [in Egypt]: That thou [Pharaoh] mayest know that I am the Eternal in the midst of the earth, which teaches us the principle of providence, i.e., that G-d has not abandoned the world to chance, as they [the heretics] would have it; That thou mayest know that the earth is the Eternal's, which informs us of the principle of creation, for everything is His since He created all out of nothing; That thou mayest know that there is none like Me in all the earth, which indicates His might, i.e., that He rules over everything and that there is nothing to withhold Him. The Egyptians either denied or doubted all of these [three] principles, [and the miracles confirmed their truth].
Accordingly, it follows that the great signs and wonders constitute faithful witnesses to the truth of the belief in the existence of the Creator and the truth of the whole Torah. And because the Holy One, blessed be He, will not make signs and wonders in every generation for the eyes of some wicked man or heretic, He therefore commanded us that we should always make a memorial or sign of that which we have seen with our eyes, and that we should transmit the matter to our children, and their children to their children, to the generations to come, and He placed great emphasis on it, as is indicated by the fact that one is liable to extinction for eating leavened bread on Passover, and for abandoning the Passover-offering, [i.e., for not taking part in the slaughtering thereof]. He has further required of us that we inscribe upon our arms and between our eyes all that we have in the way of signs and wonders. And to inscribe it yet upon the doorposts of the houses, and that we remember it by recital in the morning and evening just as the Rabbis have said: "The recital of the benediction Emet v'yatziv, [which follows the Sh'ma in the morning and which terminates with a blessing to G-d for the redemption from Egypt], is obligatory as a matter of Scriptural law because it is written, "That thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of thy life. And that we make a booth every year and many other commandments like them which are a memorial to the exodus from Egypt. All these commandments are designed for the purpose that in all generations we should have testimonies to the wonders so that they should not be forgotten and so the heretic should not be able to open his lips to deny the belief in [the existence of] G-d. He who buys a Mezuzah for one zuz [a silver coin] and affixes it to his doorpost and has the proper intent of heart on its content, has already admitted the creation of the world, the Creator's knowledge and His providence, and also his belief in prophecy as well as in all fundamental principles of the Torah, besides admitting that the mercy of the Creator is very great upon them that do His will, since He brought us forth from that bondage to freedom and to great honor on account of the merit of our fathers who delighted in the fear of His name. It is for this reason that the Rabbis have said: "Be as heedful of a light commandment as of a weighty one," for they are all exceedingly precious and beloved, for through them a person always expresses thankfulness to his G-d.
the purpose of all the commandments is that we believe in our
G-d and acknowledge Him for having created us, for we know of no other reason for the first creation, and G-d the Most High has no demand on the lower creatures, excepting that man should know and acknowledge to G-d that He created him. The purposes of raising our voices in prayer and of the service in synagogues, as well as the merit of public prayer, is precisely this: that people should have a place wherein they assemble and express their thankfulness to G-d for having created them and supported them, and thus proclaim and say before Him, "We are your creatures."
This is the intent of what the Rabbis of blessed memory have said: "And they cried mightily unto G-d. From here you learn that prayer must be accompanied by sound. The brazen overcomes the meek."
The Ramban lists a number of theological mistakes common in the world those who do not believe in the existence of God, those who do not believe in his omniscience, and those who do not accept His omnipotence, or providence. The answer to these heresies, claims the Ramban, is the occurrence of miracles. The miracle, an exception to the "way of the world and its nature," disproves publicly those false beliefs, for it proves that the world has a "creator-God, knowing, supervising, and capable." The Ramban makes the sweeping statement that this occurrence of a miracle, together with its being predicted in advance by a prophet, which demonstrates the truth of prophecy, serves to "establish the entirety of the Torah."
However, there is a problem. God will not perform miracles in every generation. The Ramban does not explicitly explain why not, but the expression he uses "God will not perform a sign and wonder in every generation in the eyes of every evildoer and heretic" implies that it is somehow improper, an affront to the dignity of God for His power to be displayed for the unworthy. (In the THT [p.150], he writes, "Since the great public miracles which can confound the weak in faith are not performed for every generation, for the generations are not worthy of that, or because there is no need for it to be performed"). In any event, the outcome is that miracles are a necessary part of the world, in order to demonstrate God's power and presence, but also a necessarily absent aspect of the world, in light of the unworthiness of humanity. The answer, according to the Ramban, is the "sign." We are commanded to make signs, remembrances, of that which "we" saw with our eyes, so that our children and all future generations, "to the end of time," should have the experience of the miracle specifically, the miracles which accompanied the exodus from Egypt.
In order to fully appreciate the significance of "signs," we have to examine the importance the Ramban grants to the message of the "signs." Aside from the fact that apparently error in these matters of theology is common, why is this area of mitzvot so central? The Ramban points out that a whole slew of mitzvot are defined in the Torah as being "in remembrance of the exodus," and that some of them are strengthened in a drastic manner, carrying the punishment of "karet" for non-fulfillment. In answer, the Ramban gives a short statement of the central importance of proper belief concerning God.
Therefore, (the Sages) said: Be as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, for all are very dear and beloved. For through them a man does every hour confess (or give thanks) to his God. And the purpose of all the mitzvot is that we should believe in our God and acknowledge to Him that He has created us. And that is the purpose of creation itself, for we have no explanation of creation, and the most high God has no desire in his creatures other than that man know and acknowledge to his God that He has created him.
The purpose of creation and the fulfillment of human potential is that Man know God and declare (l'hodot - to acknowledge, confess, and also, to thank) that God is his creator.
This may appear to resemble the goal of human existence defined by the Rambam to know God. But there is a crucial difference, highlighted by the word "creator" in the Ramban's definition. Although the Ramban uses the word "believe" (na'amin) at the beginning of his definition, he is not really interested in intellectual belief in God's existence, as the Rambam is. This is even clearer in the second formulation "that man know and acknowledge/thank his God that He has created him." Notice not that man know God, but that he know and acknowledge that God is his creator. Acknowledging God as one's creator is acknowledging a relationship, one based on the total dependency of man on God. The Rambam, as is well-known, strenuously avoided introducing creation into the knowledge of God. Providence (hashgacha) is not an element in the intellectual knowledge of God. The end-result of the knowledge of the Rambam and the acknowledgement of the Ramban is strikingly different. Through knowledge of God, one achieves, according to the Rambam, unity with God; according to the Ramban, proper knowledge and acknowledgement leads to a feeling of utter dependence. The ultimate knowledge necessary for man, according to the Ramban, is that he derives from God and is totally in God's hands, and this knowledge is, in fact, the goal of existence. It is what God created man for.
This difference may be illustrated by the different attitudes of the Ramban and the Rambam to the first topic of our section, miracles. The Rambam, as is well-known, had an ambiguous attitude to miracles. In terms of the knowledge of God, miracles were an impediment, since knowledge of God derived from the contemplation of the laws of nature, which were themselves an expression of the divine wisdom. A miracle, even if it were important for the immediate effect it would have in history, obscures the laws of nature, and therefore cannot be a subject of divine contemplation. Knowing God, the ultimate goal of human existence according to the Rambam, relates to God's wisdom, which is manifest is creation, and the rational laws of nature.
For the Ramban, on the other hand, the miracle is the chief vehicle for the knowledge of God that he is aiming at. Why? Because acknowledgement of God, the ultimate goal of human existence according to the Ramban, relates to God's power, not to His wisdom. In other words, the religious man, especially one who lives a life of mitzvot, lives in a world where God is manifest by His actions, by His supremacy over nature, where one feels and experiences the fact that He is the Creator, of everything, and especially of man himself.
We now have the key to understanding the special nature of mitzvot that are "signs" according to the Ramban. They are not merely reminders of facts that one is likely to forget. After all, despite the Ramban's introductory history where he shows that many nations have adopted faulty understandings of the nature of God and His relationship with the world, the Jews presumably have a true tradition concerning those matters. The opening chapters of the Torah spell out explicitly that God is creator why then is there a need for constant "reminders" and "signs" of that fact, through the agency of miracles? The answer is that we are not seeking intellectual apprehension but rather existential acknowledgement. Man's relationship with God takes place in a world where God's absolute power and beneficent providence is evident and manifest to the religious consciousness. The "signs" are not mere reminders, but living expressions of the miracles they represent. A person who has tefillin on his arm, a mezuzah on his door, who celebrates Pesach and sukkot, who twice daily verbalizes the exodus, and many other mitzvot which can be categorized as signs or remembrances, is facing the miraculous all-encompassing power of God in his daily life. He is confronting God, and his life is one of "knowing and acknowledging to his God that He has created him."
This point, the priority of the acknowledgement of God's creative power over the knowledge of His metaphysical existence, is made explicit by the Ramban in a short reference in the middle of this section. When listing the different "signs," he mentions that we are commanded to "mention (the exodus from Egypt) with out mouths morning and evening, as (the Sages) said, 'emet v'yatziv is de-oraita (Biblically mandated)'." The Ramban here is ruling that there is a de-oraita obligation to mention the exodus twice-daily, and this is accomplished by reciting the prayer emet v'yatziv after the shema. The Ramban here is not only claiming that there is a daily obligation to remember the exodus; i.e., God's miraculous power, but also hinting at the relative value of this commandment to the obligation to believe in God and His unity. The latter is what we normally associate with the mitzvah of kriat shema, and all of us know how important a mitzvah that is. The Ramban however and for this one needs to examine his opinion in his commentary to masechet Berachot - believes that the recitation of emet v'yatziv is more important than the recitation of kriat shema. Without going into the intricacies of the Talmudic discussion, we need only examine the parallel passage in Derashat Torat HaShem Temima (THT p.150). There the Ramban states explicitly, "To mention it with our mouths every day, as (the Sages) said in Berakhot, 'kriat shema is de-rabannan (a rabbinic ordinance); emet v'yatziv is de-oraita'." The Ramban is explicitly stating his belief that remembering the exodus is more important than the classic expression of faith, the shema, which the Rambam, not surprisingly, lists as a Biblical commandment.
The final section of the Ramban that I wish to address today consists of a curious and totally clear conclusion which he draws from the statements we have studied above. The Ramban concludes his exposition of the purpose of Man as the necessity to recognize that God is the Creator of all with an explanation of a particular halakhic practice.
The reason for the raising of one's voice during prayer, and the reason for synagogues, and the merit of public prayer is this that people should have a place where they can congregate and thank (acknowledge) God who has created them and brought them into existence, and they will publicize this and declare before Him, 'we are your creatures.' This is the meaning of what (the Sages) said, '"They called to God mightily" from here we learn that prayer must be out loud; for the brazen overcome the meek.'
This point is sufficiently important for the Ramban to repeat it in THT. I think the Ramban's point is as follows. If prayer were mainly a means of our expression, there would be no need to pray out loud, nor to pray with others. God can hear the single lonely soul as easily as the great mass of people, perhaps even better. But since the purpose of existence is to acknowledge God's power as Creator, this is expressed as prayer, where we declare that we are God's creatures. This is an even stronger expression of my point above. Knowledge of God in the Ramban is not inner apprehension, but declaration and acknowledgement. Here there is a further step true acknowledgement should be public, out loud, in order that it be more authentic and meaningful. It is clear that the purpose of creation, the acknowledgement of God, is not a moral obligation of man, but is a part of the status of the created world. The world should reflect the power of God, which is accomplished in the mouths of men.
We shall continue in the next shiur to examine the Ramban's theory of miracles, to which the final section of this comment (13,16) of the Ramban is devoted.