Sunday 3 February 2019


Rashi (1038/40-1105), regarded as the foremost commentator on the Torah.


The American Civil War could be said to have had a parallel in the complex Maimonidean controversies of the thirteenth century, in the sense that the nation was divided and brother was pitted against brother.[1]

In this article, we shall look at how Rashi’s authority as the quintessential commentator, may have been used as a form of ‘leverage’ during what became known as the Maimonidean conflict.

It must be remembered that Rashi had passed away about thirty years before Rambam (Maimonides) was born, so obviously, he was not personally involved in the confrontation. Rather his legacy was used (and perhaps abused) by both sides.

Rambam (1135-1204), influenced by science and the philosophy of Aristotle was a radical rationalist. It has been suggested, ironically, that Rambam inadvertently paved the way for a resurgence in the mystical or Kabbalist movement which gained huge impetus soon after his death – because it was feared that future Judaism might follow a rationalist path. 

In order to counter those who followed Rambam’s rational school of thought, it was felt necessary to emphasize the mystical tradition.
An ideological conflict broke out between the mystics and the Maimonidean camps. 

The repercussions of this conflict are still very much active to this day. It may be said that much of the underlying currents of present-day hashkafic world view are still extensions of the Maimonidean conflict.


Rambam passed away in 1204. Just thirty-six years later R. Moshe de León was born. Through him, the first sections of the mystical Zohar began to emerge and the modern Kabbalist Renaissance[2] was born.

There is much debate as to whether R. Moshe de León simply revealed a thousand-year-old document - the Zohar - written by R. Shimon bar Yochai, or whether he compiled it himself. [See Mysteries Behind the Origins of the Zohar.]
Either way, what amounted to a ‘theological civil war’ soon erupted between the mystics and the rationalists.

Rambam was questioning the way the Jewish populace understood, for example, the nature of Angels, Life after Death, the Revival of the Dead, Providence and the way Midrashim were taken literally – while the mystics were promoting a more supernatural and literal view of such matters.

The two schools locked horns and:

“Ḥerem [ban] was hurled against counter-ḥerem...

Emissaries of both camps traveled about, rallying their supporters.

A profusion of letters and counter-letters, sermons and counter-sermons, commentaries and counter-commentaries poured out...

[Eventually,] Maimonides' books were burned by the Dominicans in 1232.”[3] 

The reasons for this outbreak of controversy are many and varied. It was more than just a case of mystics against rationalists.

Some believed Rambam was ‘anti-Talmud’ because his summary of key rulings in Talmud was now conveyed in his work Mishneh Torah, which was perceived as a means of side-stepping the Talmud as a future source of reference.

Others felt that Rambam had intentionally side-lined the rabbinical establishment in that their role as Halachic decisors was diminished because the Mishneh Torah (like the internet today) could simply be consulted (it even had the novel addition of an index) – and people would no longer need to consult their rabbinic leadership for guidance.

Rambam may also have aroused the ire of some of the rabbinic leadership whom he criticized sharply about their claim that Jews must financially contribute to help people study Torah. [Quite evidently, though, he lost that battle.]

Rambam wrote:

“All this is wrong. There is not a single word, either in the Torah or in the sayings of the [Talmudic] sages, to lend credence to it [i.e. fundraising]... for as we look into the sayings of the Talmudic sages, we do not find that they ask people for money, nor did they collect money for the honorable and cherished [Torah study] academies.”[4] 
Looking at this in the contemporary idiom, imagine a rabbi suggesting - today - that the ubiquitous industry of fundraising within the Torah world is wrong! - It unlikely that such a person would get the support of the leadership of that community.


Historians have identified four stages in this controversy which continued intensely until about a century after his passing.

In 1232, R. Shlomo of Montpellier[5] managed to persuade the rabbis of Northern France[6], also known as the Tosafists [see Mystical Forays of the Tosafists] to issue a total ban against Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed. The anti-Maimonidean camp thus turned to the rabbis of Northern France who had never been acquainted with Aristotelian philosophy and for whom this type of thinking was foreign.

Some say it included a ban against his Halachic writings of Mishneh Torah as well.

At the same time, there were many letters which were exchanged between the various factions, some of which are recorded in Iggerot Kena’ot or Letters of Zealotry.


Nachmanides or Ramban, who is regarded as a relatively ‘moderate’ opponent to Rambam, writes to the rabbis of Northern France whom he considers to be loyal traditionalists who are “nourished in the bosom of [true] faith, [and] planted in the courts of tradition.

He tries, initially, to get them to understand that there is a role for Rambam and his rationalism because many Jews were assimilated and “have [already] filled their belly with the foolishness of the Greeks [i.e. philosophy]...they...make fun... of the trusting souls... -But [were it not] for the words [of Rambam]...they would have slipped away almost entirely.

In other words, there is space for rational theology within Judaism for those who whose minds draw them in that direction.

However, Nachmanides the ‘moderate statesman’ assumes a very different persona in his commentary on the Torah where “his true temper and the temper of the entire anti-Maimonidean camp is revealed.”

Nachmanides’ commentary on the Torah is described as:

“...basically a mystical work against Maimonides and Abraham Ibn Ezra...[whose writings] he and his colleagues believe to be sheer heresy.”[7]

Or put more diplomatically:

“While Nachmanides tried somewhat to steer a middle course between radical proponents and detractors and sincerely admired the vast erudition of Maimonides, he may be said to have sided ultimately with the anti-Maimonidean position.”[8]

Most importantly though, for the purposes of our discussion, is Ramban’s attempt at displacing Rambam’s new influence with the more conservative views of Rashi.


In Ramban’s introduction to his Torah commentary, he clearly elevates Rashi and the rabbinic school of Northern France to a position of supreme authority.

He writes:

“But what can I do, when my soul longs for the Torah...but to go forth in the footsteps of the early write like them contextual explanations [peshatim] of scriptural passages as well as midrashim...And I will place as a light before my face...the commentaries of our Rabbi Solomon [Rashi]...- his is the most honoured place.”[9]

It must be remembered that Ramban was one of the early and leading kabbalists and mystics. He continues:

“We have a mystical tradition [kabbalah shel emet] that the entire Torah is names of the Holy One...[see Zohar Yitro 87:1] - that words may be separated into (Divine) names...”

Ramban is clearly nailing his colours to the mast and opening up Torah interpretation to ‘hidden meanings’ which, like Rashi, include Midrashim and this was something which Rambam was opposed to. [See: The Challenge of Midrashic Amplification]

And significantly we see that Rashi’s legacy and authority were brought to bear on this matter, in support of the anti-Maimonidean camp. The future Torah world must follow Rashi and not Rambam.


According to Eric Lawee, the rabbis of Northern France:

“...demanded[10], during the heated conflicts over rationalism in the 1230s, scriptural and aggadic exegesis in conformity with Rashi...

Bahya ben Asher...cast Rashi as a ‘great luminary’ who exemplified contextual biblical its best.

The Zohar’s author drew on Rashi’s exegetical patrimony.”[11]

I thank Professor Visi[12] for referring me to a letter sent by R. Asher ben Gershom to the rabbis of Northern France, where R. Asher writes that he is amazed how the anti-Maimonidean camp could have:
“...decreed that one may only study the Torah, Prophets, Writings and [even] Talmud only with the commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo [Rashi]...”

[I am grateful to Professor Visi for communicating with me and clarifying the fact that our medieval sources are insufficient to accurately reconstruct historical events, and many details are therefore obscure. Apparently, no concrete evidence of the original bans issued by the anti-Maimonidean camp has survived.

Instead, our information comes from ‘indirect testimonies’ from the Maimonidean camp itself, which are extant. From these Maimonidean responses, we can infer what the anti-Maimonidean stance must have been in the first place. He does suggest, though, that there is no reason to doubt the reality of the ban against following other authorities over Rashi.[13]]


Although there is much debate as to whether the following letter from Rambam to his son Avraham, is a forgery, he cautions his son to negate Rashi in favour of commentaries by rabbis like Ibn Ezra:

“And now, my son, trust me when I instruct you not to bother your mind with any commentary other than Ibn Ezra...and look into his commentaries with great depth.”

The letter continues with a lightly veiled reference to Rashi:

"Especially keep yourself away from the words of most of the books by the people of Tzarfat, Francia..."

Although Shem Ton Ibn Shaprut, as well as Ibn Kaspi, quoted from this letter and although it is printed in Iggerot veShe'elot uTeshuvot (a collection of letters from Rambam) – Visi believes it is probably a forgery. Nevertheless, he writes that:

“...[it] could have been a Maimonidean response to the Tosaphists’ declaration in the early 1230s that forbade anyone from relying on anybody’s authority in biblical exegesis except Rashi’s under threat of excommunication.”


In 1305, the Rashba (R. Shlomo ben Aderet) issued a ban against:

“...any member of the [Barcelona] community who, being under the age of 25 years, shall study the works of the Greeks[14] on natural science or metaphysics, whether in the original language or in translation.”[15]

Against this ban, R. Menachem Meiri issued a counter declaration rejecting Rashba’s claim that philosophy causes heresy. He brings support from Talmudic rabbis who were students of science and philosophy. He believed that:

“Each individual will search for what suits him [intellectually] according to his natural inclination.”

Yediah haBedersi wrote an appeal to the more conservative rabbis of the anti-Maimonidean camp to remove their bans against Rambam:

“Please, my rabbis, look into the mighty pattern of the benefits of philosophy to all of us, even to those who despise it... Relinquish your ban for the heart of this people will not turn away from philosophy and its books as long as there is breath in their frame and soul in their bodies, especially as together with it [i.e., with devotion to philosophy], they are true to Torah and commandments.

Even if they had heard it from the mouth of Joshua bin Nun they would never have accepted it, for they intend to do battle for the honor of the great teacher [i.e., Maimonides] and his works; and for the holiness of his teaching they will sacrifice fortune, family, and soul as long as there is a breath in their bodies. And thus they will teach and command their children in generations to come.”

Read carefully, this letter to the Tosafists of Northern France was both an appeal as well as a reminder, or threat, that the Maimonidean camp would be prepared to ‘sacrifice fortune, family and soul’ for their cause.


The Sefardi Chacham, Jose’ Faur has done some very interesting research into the ferocity of the conflict, in his aptly titled Anti-Maimonidean Demons.

He makes the very controversial point that:

“...historians have failed to take into consideration the connection between the triumph of the anti-Maimonideans, the rise of Qabbala, and the decay of Jewish learning and leadership leading to mass conversions and culminating in the Expulsion of 1492...mass apostasy to Christianity took place after not before the ban against Maimonides...Responding to a mimetic impulse, the anti-Maiomonideans went on a witch-hunt in the pursuit of Jewish ‘heretics’, precisely as Christians had engaged in the persecution of men of the stature of...Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-1274).”

The witch hunt against Thomas of Aquinas took place during the exact same period as the Maimonidean conflict.

He supports this interesting thesis with a quote from Rashba, who says that even the Christians would want to persecute the Maimonideans as heretics:

“Go into the far away lands inhabited by Canaanites [a code term for ‘Christians’] and all gentiles! They would condemn them [the Maimonideans] as heretics, even for a single heresy and abomination that they had written in their books...and they would tie them up in vine branches and incinerate them till they turn to ashes!”

Faur continues:

“A mark of the anti-Maimonidean ideology (whereby zeal displaces halakhah) is the sanction of violence as a legitimate means for the implementation of ‘religion’...not yet fully explored by historians...”

R. Yona Gerondi (the teacher of Rashba) went to the Christians - the Franciscans and then the Dominicans - pleading:

“Look, most of our people are heretics and unbelievers, because they were duped by R. Moses of Egypt [Maimonides] who wrote heretical books. 

You exterminate heretics, exterminate ours too.”[16]


It does seem that Rashi's legacy was used as 'football' between both contending parties. 

If Rashi's approach was right, then the mystics would be vindicated. The rationalists, on the other hand, had to try and show that Rashi's way was not the only way.

A fascinating question for further study - "not yet fully explored by historians" - would be Faur's suggestion that the anti-Maimonidean camp mimicked the Christianity of its day, and used ''violence as a legitimate means for the implementation of 'religion'." 

[1] This article was inspired by some of the interesting comments and issues raised as a result of the previous post.
[2] As opposed to the earlier Heichalot form of mysticism.
[3] Jewish Virtual Library: Maimonidean Controversy.
[4] Commentary to Avot 4:5
[5] Also known as Shlomo min haHar.
[6] The Tosafist period - spawned by Rashi (1040-1105) - lasted about two hundred years, encompassing the 12th and 13th centuries, and ending with R. Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293). The term Tosafists generally refers to the rabbis of the early period of the Rishonim (1038-1500) who lived specifically in Ashkenaz (Northern France and Germany).
[7] Jewish Virtual Library. Ibid.
[8] A History of Biblical Interpretation, Vol. 2: The Medieval Though the ...edited by Alan J. Hauser, Duane F. Watson, p. 157. 
[9] Ramban goes on to say that as for people like Ibn Ezra (and Rambam), there will be ‘open rebuke and hidden love’ (Proverbs 27:5).  Some scholars have remarked that they have seen the ‘open rebuke’ but not the ‘hidden love’.
[10] Emphasis mine.

[11] Eric Lawee - The Reception of Rashi's Commentary on the Torah in Spain: - Jewish Quarterly Review 97:1, p.37.

[12] In communicating with Professor Tamas Visi, who authored Ibn Ezra, a Maimonidean Authority, and he kindly referred me to this Hebrew article by Joseph Shatzmiller, which deals with R. Asher ben Gershom’s letter. Incidentally, I was rather surprised to see that Professor Visi appears to have adopted a ‘softer’ approach to the Maimonidean conflict than what I had expected and does not necessarily see the conflict as a battle royale between the mystics and rationalists as he points out that the Tosafists were quite rational in their application of the Halacha.
[13]Again, Visi seems to understand the ban in as being more of an affirmation of Rashi than an outright and absolute ban against other commentators, although the tenor of R. Asher ben Gershom’s letter does seem to indicate an outright ban.

[14] A possible veiled reference to Rambam.
[15] Responsa of Rashba 1, no. 416.

[16] Iggerot Kena’ot III, 4c. (Leipzig 1859).


  1. Mishneh Torah (like the internet today) could simply be consulted (it even had the novel addition of an index)

    obviously MT didnt have an index . but it has the most extensive table of contents that one could ask for. However Rabeinu Saadia Gaon's Emunot v"Deot seems to be the first book to have an detailed table of contents , rather than just chapter headings.

  2. Everything has to be judged by a case by case standard.
    The characterization of quote 7 is that the Ramban saw the need for the Rambam yet the Rambam wasn’t able to agree with the mystical tradition. I don’t know how true quote 8 is.
    Mainstream mystics are the Ramban, raavad, r Yitzchak sagi nahor, and r Azriel. The rest the Arizal pretty much alienates. The Arizal holds in shaar hagilgulim that both the Ramban and the Rambam come from the right and left peyot of komat adam respectively. Go try to figure out the representations and conceptualization of that.


  3. The letter continues with a lightly veiled reference to Rashi:

    "Especially keep yourself away from the words of most of the books by the people of Tzarfat, Francia..."


    I have seen elsewhere (maybe shem gedolim) that rambam had never heard of Rashi. Evidence being that he did not quote his opinion even once.

    Are you confident he was referring to rashi as opposed to other French rabbis?

  4. Although it is often assumed it is referring to Rashi, I don't think one can claim it is conclusive because the fact is that in that letter, Rashi's name is not mentioned specifically.

    It should, however, be borne in mind that by the time of Rambam (born 30 years after Rashi's passing), Rashi's school of Tosafists would have dominated the communities of Northern France and Germany.

    The letter may also, as mentioned, be a forgery. [By the same token, Moreh Nevuchim and Ma'amar al Techiyat haMeitim are also claimed, by some, to have been forgeries.]

    At the end of the day, it probably shows, at least, an example of the feelings between Rambam and Rashi schools (if not individuals).

  5. Also (see next post) it is known that Rashi's texts spread like wildfire across the Jewish world - probably more than any other work. It is likely that Rambam would have been familiar with them as he passed away 99 years after Rashi's passing. During that 'century', he would have at least heard of Rashi from travelers if not seen his actual texts.

  6. More information about Rambam's knowledge of Rashi here.