Saturday 26 November 2022

407) Nachmanides vs Rashi on the authority of Tradition

Nachmanides' commentary on the Torah


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Shalem Yahalom,[1] discusses the differences in interpretative style between Nachmanides (or Ramban, 1194-1270) and Rashi (1040-1105). Rashi was prepared to cite Midrashim and use them verbatim because he considered Tradition as sufficient proof of authenticity. Nachmanides, however, disputed such a claim and instead went out of his way, sometimes quite creatively, to show textual proof or bring arguments as a means of establishing authority. In his Torah commentary, Nachmanides does not merely repeat earlier exegetical (interpretative) traditions, as Rashi does with his reliance on Midrash, but rather:

“asserts the importance of analyzing all information critically” (Yahalom 2020:207).

Nachmanides begins his Torah commentary full of praise and respect for Rashi:

“In his words will I meditate, and in their love will I ravish…”

But then immediately he proclaims:

“and with them [Rashi’s commentary][2] we will have discussions, investigations and examinations, in his plain explanations and Midrashic interpretations, and every difficult Aggadah which is mentioned in his commentaries.”[3]

In both Nachmanides’ Torah commentary as well as his Talmud commentary, Chiddushei haRamban, he frequently challenges the commentaries of Rashi.

“Rashi viewed the mere existence of an accepted norm transmitted through the generations as a halakhically binding source. Nahmanides, on the other hand, insisted on finding a written source for the accepted norm” (Yahalom 2020:209).

Tefillin outside of Eretz Yisrael

The following example will show how Rashi typically relied on accepted practices while Nachmanides was more interested in establishing written sources for those practices. As to whether or not one has a legal obligation to wear Tefillin outside of the Land of Isreal, or whether it is a mitzvah that specifically relates to the Holy Land and is not applicable in the Diaspora, the Talmud Bavli informs us that we do don Tefillin outside of the Land of Israel (as is common practice today):

וַהֲרֵי תְּפִילִּין וּפֶטֶר חֲמוֹר דִּכְתִיב בָּהֶן בִּיאָה וְנוֹהֲגִין בֵּין בָּאָרֶץ בֵּין בְּחוּץ לָאָרֶץ

“Tefillin…applies both in the Land and outside the Land” (Kidushin 37a).

However, the technical mechanism of interpretation behind this simple statement is fundamentally different in both Rashi’s and Nachmanides’ thinking:

Rashi maintains that the statement is very simple and obvious. He notices that the sages wore Tefillin outside of the Land and therefore, by adhering to common practice and tradition, it must certainly be correct to do so.

Nachmanides, on the other hand, is not satisfied with an approach relying solely on precedent and  ‘because it was always done so.’ Instead, he finds textual evidence and a textual source in the Talmud Yerushalmi:

“Phylacteries … are practiced in the land of Israel and outside the land, Rashi explains that this is found among the Amoraim of Babylon, who practiced tefillin … but this is incorrect … the true explanation is from the source in the Jerusalem Talmud …”[4]

Nachmanides’ language is very strong, claiming that the approach of Rashi to simply rely on common practice or living traditions is “incorrect” and the “true explanation” is one based on concrete textual evidence.

“in several Talmudic discussions, Nahmanides located the unknown source in a written text, where Rashi holds it was preserved in an oral tradition: [As one example, Nachmanides writes:][5] “Rashi wrote ‘I do not know where it appears,’ but it is a baraita in Sifri on Parashat Naso” (Yahalom 2020:220).

This shows how important locating exact sources was to Nachmanides as he was not prepared to leave things in a vague oral tradition.

Innovative sources

Yahalom, however, points out that although Nachmanides offers textual support for his critical arguments against Rashi, many of his commentaries and views are sometimes highly original and innovative, yet he cleverly cloaks them within his ‘textual  evidence:’

“Nahmanides, under the guise of a conservative scholar, guardian of tradition, constructed an original, creative spiritual world in the areas of exegesis, halakha, and kabbalah” (Yahalom 2020:209).

Thus, we begin to see a picture of a man who presents as a conservative and critical textual scholar yet is open to original thinking, but certainly not to relying solely on traditional practices.

Moshe as Transmitter or Legislator?

Yahalom brings other examples of this discrepancy between Rashi’s trust in tradition and Nachmanises’ trust in (sometimes innovative) sources. But there is another discrepancy that is of immense interest. This has to do with how each exegete (biblical commentator) viewed the role and function of Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher).

According to Rashi, Moshe would never innovate something he was not commanded by G-d to do. Moshe is an ‘eved ne’eman’ or trusted servant who never deviates from his mission. Nachmanides, however, allows for Moshe to express a degree of autonomy.

An example of this can be seen in the biblical narrative of the death of Aharon’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu who burned incense without being commanded to do so:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן הוּא֩ אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֨ר ה׳  לֵאמֹר֙ בִּקְרֹבַ֣י אֶקָּדֵ֔שׁ וְעַל־פְּנֵ֥י כׇל־הָעָ֖ם אֶכָּבֵ֑ד וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן׃

“Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what Hashem said by saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.’ And Aaron was silent” (Vayikra 10:3).

The question is where did G-d say this? According to Rashi it was in Shemot:

וְנֹעַדְתִּ֥י שָׁ֖מָּה לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְנִקְדַּ֖שׁ בִּכְבֹדִֽי׃

“and there I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence” (Shemot 29:43).

On this verse, Rashi comments:

וּמִדְרַשׁ אַגָּדָה אַל תִּקְרֵי בִּכְבֹדִי אֶלָּא בִּכְבוּדַי – בִּמְכֻבָּדִים שֶׁלִּי – כָּאן רָמַז לוֹ מִיתַת בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן בְּיוֹם הֲקָמָתוֹ

“A Midrashic comment is: Read not here בִּכְבוֹדִי “by My Glory”, but בִּכְבוּדַי, “through My honoured ones”. Here He gave him some slight intimation of the death of Aaron’s sons on the day when it (the Tabernacle) would be erected.”

Nachmanides completely rejects this conjecture (remez) of Rashi. Nachmanides asks the same question as Rashi – where did G-d say this? But his answer is very different from Rashi’s Midrashic reference to Shemot (29:43). Nachmanides quotes Rashi and then remarks:

“In my opinion there is no need for all this [conjecture].”

According to Rashi, tradition is paramount. But according to Nachmanides, G-d did not have to have spoken. Moshe is allowed the freedom to improvise and express the tenor of what he felt G-d would have intended. Nachmanides explains that:

“the term ‘speaking’ is used with reference to all these [autonomous innovations of Moshe].”

This is interesting because Nachmanides is usually the stickler for source-based references as he does not rely on mere usage or tradition. In this case, he actively rejects Rashi’s “source” because it is not a valid source for him as it originates in Midrash and is not a critical textual analysis.

But there is, additionally, something more subtle going on here:

“Rashi viewed Moses as a transmitter of the commandments…so that everything he did was a result of overt or concealed commandments. Nahmanides, on the other hand, emphasized the autonomous, creative aspect of Moses’ activity. In Nahmanides’ view, examining God’s commandment and conduct led Moses to arrive at his own conclusions and to developing personal insights” (Yahalom 2020:219).

All this leads to the conclusion that Rashi fears innovation and relies on and seeks out Tradition as the basis of every aspect of Judaism. Nachmanides, however, is perhaps more of a critical thinker, relying more on text-based sources than popular practice and allowing for Moshe’s innovative inputs.

As neat as this categorisation is, we are not finished yet.

Between conservativism and innovation

Yahalom makes a fascinating point: A cursory reading of Nachmanides reveals that he does not want to present himself as innovative. He goes out of his way to convey the image of a conservative scholar. He claims, for example, to follow the Gaonic traditions, but his students and those who knew him, understood that he was indeed an innovative thinker:

“It appears that, frequently, the formula is mere lip service to the Geonic tradition, while in practice, Nahmanides prefers his own understanding. The formula embodies Nahmanides’ complex attitude toward the chain of tradition. On a declarative level, Nahmanides continues the Geonic tradition, but in practice he is frequently drawn to the independent and comparative study of the various texts. It was his students who fully understood his writings” (Yahalom 2020:223).

Thus we see a complicated picture of Nachmanides beginning to emerge:

“Nahmanides concealed his attitude of uncertainty regarding tradition behind statements about the importance of the tradition transmitted from one generation to the next, while ruling against these traditions in practice” (Yahalom 2020:224).

Nachmanides the Kabbalist

A study of Nachmanides’ mystical writings reveals that he considered himself to resemble Moshe. Nachmanides was even referred to by R. Yitzchak of Acre as “the faithful teacher,” a term connected to Moshe Rabbeinu. This was typical of many Kabbalistic writers during that time of the emergence of the Zohar. The Zohar first appeared in around 1290, twenty years after Nachmanides’ passing.

Nachmanides was, like his depiction of Moshe Rabbeinu, also an innovative thinker who could move away from tradition merely for tradition’s sake. Even in the sphere of Halacha:

“Nahmanides did not repeat the existing sources of Rabbinic tradition but created exegetical and halakhic insights on his own” (Yahalom 2020:220).

If Nachmanides was prepared to innovate in the legal areas of Halacha, he could certainly also be innovative in the realm of mysticism and Kabbalah:

“likening himself to Moses suited Nahmanides’ life’s work as the original creator of a new Torah…It should be noted that Nahmanides…does not mention the name of the master from whom he received his esoteric teachings” (Yahalom 2020:228).

Perhaps it is in this sense that Nachmanides writes in his own words:

“In the name of the great God, and the fearful, I will begin to write new interpretations on the explanation of the Torah.”[6]


Unlike Rashi who leaned on earlier Midrashim, oral traditions and observation of common practices, Nachmanides behind his projected image of a conservative thinker was open not just to innovation but to “new interpretations”. Nachmanides has been called the Father of Jewish Mysticism. Perhaps there was good reason for this – he was an innovative mystic and he did not reveal his teacher’s identity.

Yet, at the same time, he had a rather academic and creative approach to Talmud, Halacha and Torah study. He also regards Moshe, to whom he compared himself, as more of an ‘original’ legislator than a pure mechanical transmitter. Was this to set himself up and to give him license to act as a mystical innovator or ‘legislator’ considering that we are unsure how his mysticism was transmitted to him? Did he present a face of conservatism to shield these innovative tendencies?

Nachmanides will remain a fascinating and complex personality as we try to locate him somewhere on the spectrum between a mystic and critical thinker somewhere between an ostensible defender of conservative tradition and a bold innovator.

[1] Yahalom, S., 2020, ‘Nahmanides’ Disputes with Rashi as a Gateway to His Worldview’, The Review of Rabbinic Judaism, 23, Brill, 207–228.

[2] Parenthesis is mine.

[3] Ramban, Commentary on the Torah, Genesis, tran. Charles B. Chavel, Shilo Publishing House, New York, 5.

[4] R. Moses ben Nachman, Chiddushe Kiddushin, 37a.

[5] Parenthesis is mine.

[6] Ramban, Commentary on the Torah, Genesis, 3


  1. “the term ‘speaking’ is used with reference to all these [autonomous innovations of Moshe].”

    The brackets are unwarranted and taken out of context. The Ramban is saying that "God spoke" means that this is what God decreed, not that God specifically said that it would happened. It doesn't mean Moses decided anything autonomously or invented something in God's name.

    The Ramban says in his introduction to the Torah:
    אבל זה אמת וברור הוא שכל התורה כולה מתחלת ספר בראשית עד לעיני כל ישראל מפיו של הקב״ה לאזנו של משה
    which leaves little room for anything like autonomous legislation.

  2. I would read that Ramban exactly as he says: The whole Torah was certainly transmitted from G-d's mouth to Moshe's ears! To Moshe's ears! Of course, he heard everything. The question is whether it went to Moshe's pen - and that is the debate between Ramban and Rashi.

  3. That reading is wrong. He says that what Moses heard is כל התורה כולה מתחלת ספר בראשית עד לעיני כל ישראל - that is, the entire Torah from beginning to end, the same one we have. There is no way to read this as saying Moses wrote something other than what he heard from God.

    Secondly, the Rambam (Laws of Teshuvah 3:8) defines this opinion as heresy. The Ramban does not always agree with the Rambam (though always he gives much weight to his opinion), but this is something that can't be taken lightly. In this case, he actually does, explicitly, agree with the Rambam, as I pointed out from his introduction to the Torah.

    Finally, there is simply no evidence at all to the contrary. There is no debate between Ramban and Rashi on this point. The debate is what "what God said" means, and the Ramban understands it more broadly than Rashi, as "what God decreed." That doesn't make it a creative act by Moses. The essential difference between their interpretations, in this case, is literal vs. figurative language, not a difference in Moses' role.

  4. According to Ramban, Moshe was quite creative during the seven days of the inauguration of the Mishkan.
    Moshe sprinkled the shemen hamishcha on the mizbeach. He was not told to do so in Shemot 29 when the instructions were given. Even Rashi says he didn’t know where Moshe was told to do so. According to Ramban, Moshe himself created the obligation he observed.
    Ramban also believed that Moshe burned the incense on his own volition: “All the seven days of the installation Moses burned the incense on the golden altar, and even though he was not specifically told to do so” (Ramban on Shemot 40:27).
    I do agree that “G-d speaking” refers in our case to “G-d decrees” because Ramban actually says that in so many words. But still, with Nadav and Avihu, Rashi believes (inferred by the Midrash) that it was actual speech whereas Ramban claims Moshe inferred it was a decree. In this sense Moshe was indeed innovative.
    Yahalom, I believe rightly maintains: “In Nahmanides’ view, examining God’s commandment and conduct led Moses to arrive at his own conclusions and to developing personal insights.” If this observation of a commentary warrants a charge of heresy, it must be directed against Ramban.

  5. Neither does he say that he burned the incense of his own volition. To quote more fully: “All the seven days of the installation Moses burned the incense on the golden altar; and even though he was not specifically told to do so, he inferred it from all the other services...” If there is any autonomy here, it is as an interpreter of a law, not as the author of a law.

    If the claim were that Moses acted autonomously in interpreting God's commands, that wouldn't be such a problem. But phrasing like "his own volition," "autonomous innovation," "original legislator," connoted to me the kind of legislation that reflects the will of the legislator, not the revealed will of God; if this wasn't what was meant then I have been misunderstanding it.

    But even the lesser claim (i.e. that Moses was an original interpreter of God's laws) has to be tempered by the fact that according to the Ramban, the Torah was literally dictated to Moses. If we want to imagine the Ramban viewing himself as having a Moses-like role, he still would not have total freedom of interpretation.

  6. I think we agree in principle but perhaps differ in degree and adjectives.

    Using the term “autonomy” can mean different things to different people. Of course, the ‘devil’ always lies in the degree. Ramban was not as creative as some of the following rabbis:

    Abravanel wrote to R. Yosef Hayyun asking him “whether Moses himself composed Deuteronomy in order to expound what he understood of the divine intent in the elucidation of the precepts?”
    R. Hayyun responded: “There are many… passages in the Torah that Moses absolutely must have said himself.”

    Ibn Ezra wrote that only in the first set of Ten Commandments are “the words of God [presented] without any additions or deletions,” but the second set was “Hashem’s words…mixed with Moses’ interpretations.”

    The Tosafist R. Yosef Bechor-Shor suggested that Moshe sometimes made his own contribution to the composition of the Torah.

    And here’s an interesting comment from the normally conservative Vilna Gaon: “The first four Books were heard directly from the mouth of the Holy One…through the throat of Moses. Not so Deuteronomy. Israel heard the words of this Book the same way they heard the words of the prophets who came after Moses. The Holy One…would speak to the prophet today and on a later day he would go and make the vision known to Israel. Accordingly, at the time the prophet spoke to the people, the word of G-d had already been removed from him. So, too, the Book of Deuteronomy was heard from the mouth of Moses himself.”

    To make matters worse, R. Shlomo ben Shmuel, a student of R. Yehudah heChasid maintains that the word Azazel in Vayikra wasn’t even written by Moshe. He writes: “Do not be surprised at what I say, that another wrote it, because this is not unique, and there are many [verses] which Moshe did not say.”

    And R. Avigdor Katz, the teacher of Maharam miRothenburg wrote that there are sections of the Torah inserted by Yehoshua and the Anshei Kneset haGedolah (and he mirrors a similar statement by R. Yehuda heChasid).

    I would certainly agree that statements like these define "autonomy" to a far greater degree than when used in the context of Ramban.

    Thank you, as always, A W for your learned contribution.