Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Remah and Rambam - A Transformation - Seeing the Light.

I happened to read over the weekend an interesting group of letter exchanges between Rabbi Meir Abulafia Halevi (Remah[1] – 1170 – 1244 of Burgos, Spain) and Rabbi Aharon Ben Meshulam of Lunel, France regarding Rambam’s position on Techyat Hametim (Resurrection of the dead). I am not planning to get into the meat of the discussion and the subject per se, but rather, describe the undercurrents and attitudes that I detect in these exchanges. I am extremely intrigued by, what I interpret as the Remah’s radical change of attitude from when he wrote the first letter and the time he wrote the poem in honor of Rambam’s death.

The first letter was written during Rambam’s lifetime and addressed to the Chachmei Lunel including Rabbi Yehonatan Hacohen (1135 -1210), a correspondent of the Rambam. It is an arrogant and very aggressive letter where Remah upbraids RY for his great regard for Rambam. Here are some excerpts (translated/paraphrased as usual) –

ועתה שמע נא יהונתן הכהן הגדול אתה ורעיך היושבים לפניך כי אנשי מופת המה. השי"ת ויתרומם נתנך כהן להיות פקיד בבית ה' לפלח לב נלוז בחיצי תוכחתךוללכוד רגלים נטו מני הדרך בשיחתך. ועתה למה לא גערת באיש אשר נטיו רגליו, מטעם המלך וגדוליו.

And now listen O Yehonatan the High Priest, you and your friends who sit with you, you are outstanding people![2] HKBH has made you a priest so that you should serve in the house of God, cleaving a wayward heart with the arrows of your admonitions and restraining with your speech straying feet. That being the case, why did you not rebuke the man who has strayed from the path of the King and his grandees? [He is asking why RY does not rebuke Rambam for his straying and waywardness].

וכי תאמרו איש הוא ואין בישראל כמוהו, גם עתה כדבריכם כן הוא. אכן אין תבונה ואין עצה, לנגד המסעף פֻארה במערצה. ולכן מהרו להוכיחו, וידוע תדעו את האיש ואת שיחו.

If you said [in the past] that he is a man with no equal among Israel, is that still so? [In other words, if you had him in high esteem until now, do you still think the same of him now after reading my arguments?] There is no choice but to oppose [a person] that cuts branches with a sickle. [Based on Yeshayahu 10:33[3] and a play on
קוצץ בנטיעות of similar meaning - a metaphor for heresy]. Therefore, hurry to admonish him [Rambam] and know the man and his talk [Beware of his heresy].

Addressing the high esteem Rambam was held as a Halachik Great, Remah writes –

אף לזאת יחרד לבי וימס בקרבי. בשמעי כי נפלא הספר הזה בעיניכם מאד, באמרכם איש אל רעהו כי יפלא ממנו דבר לאמר הגישה האפוד. ואולם כי התבוננתי בדברי הספר והנו נותן אמרי שפר. אך זאת שמעה אזני וַתָּבֶן כי אין בר בלא תָּבֶן

Furthermore, my heart trembles and melts inside me when I hear that you consider this sefer [the Mishne Torah] as extremely marvelous. You even go so far as to rely on it for every unknown [Halacha] saying, bring forward the Ephod[4]. However as I contemplated the book, though it is full of correct things, I know from experience that there is no hay without chaff [it is not flawless].

In other words, do not be impressed by the Halachik prowess found in Mishne Torah. Although it is a good work, it is not flawless; even there errors can be found.

These are certainly not words of restraint. This letter must have been written in the 1190’s when the Remah was in his twenties, a relatively young scholar. It is with this in mind that Rabbi Aharon ben Meshulam, apparently a leader of the Lunel community of scholars, writes back a scathing and accusatory letter.

In the opening RA portrays how he was looking forward to the letter from Remah who he held in high esteem for his love of knowledge and his background, the son of R. Todros, a great leader of his community. How deeply he was disappointed noting how it is filled with insults and lack of appreciation for the great Rambam. He then describes the greatness of Rambam. Here are some snippets –

מדוע אליו ריבוֹתָ, ועל דבריו בגאוה ובוז השׁיבוֹתָ. וחשבת צדיק כביר להרשיע, ודמית להשמיע. לכל פנה ואפס, כי דבריו אין ואפס. וכי גדול מנשוא עונו ומעלו. המקנא אתה לו. הברב כח חכמת התלמוד תריב עמו. הֲבאת עד נבכי ימיו והתהלכת בחקר תהומיו ועברת מי כביר זרמיו, התבוננת עד רחבי התלמוד וחדריו, להופיע עיפת ששת סדריו. החקר סוד אלוה תמצא, אם עד תכלית החכמה ידך תמצא, כי ירום לבבך ויתנשָּׂא. הנגלו לך שערי תעלומות חכמה ותושיה, לאמר הריני כבן עזאי בשוקי טבריא (עי' ערובין כט. וש"נ). הידעת חקות השמים ושמי השמים

Why have you chosen to fight with him, questioning his words with haughtiness and disdain, presenting a righteous person as evil? You tried to propagate in all corners that his words are naught and that his waywardness is unforgivable. Are you jealous of him? Are you fighting him based on your great knowledge of Talmud? Have you reached the depth of his thinking [literally: seas][5]? Have you researched his thinking and crossed his strong streams? [Have you grasped his thinking?] Have you contemplated the Talmud and its many rooms to the point that you can light up the darkness of its six Sedarim [parts]? [This is apparently a reference to Rambam’s Pirush Hamishna which he finished as he turned 30. I understand it as a barb comparing Remah and Rambam’s accomplishments at comparable ages.] Have you found the secrets of God? Has your reach extended to the ends of knowledge? [He is questioning his knowledge of philosophy and metaphysics]. [How dare you] be proud and haughty? Can you say that you are like Ben Azay, that the secrets of science and torah have been uncovered to you? Do you know astronomy [literally: the laws of heaven and earth]?

RA continues to compare Remah, his Rebbis and peers’ knowledge to the far greater breadth and depth of Rambam’s. He even threatens to excommunicate him if not for the respect he has for Remah’s father and lineage[6].

Remah responds with a much more respectful letter, quoting extensively from Tanach and Rabbinical literature, where it is clear that Techyat Hametim is the resurrection of the body and that it is part of Olam Haba. To the possibility that all this is allegorical, Remah relies on Rav Sa’adyah Gaon in his Emunot Vede’ot who argues that one should interpret metaphorically only in cases where there is no choice. [The difference between RSG and Rambam’s approach on this issue will be discussed in a future post BN]. Remah ends the letter with an extensive apology for attacking Rambam blaming himself for being too zealous in defending what he perceived as breaches in orthodox thought. In passing, he criticizes Rambam for opening the door to secular knowledge. However, the tone is now much more restrained and extremely respectful. Should one think that this newfound restraint is just a political retreat, Remah published a poem, a kina, after Rambam’s death. Rambam died in 1204 at which time Remah was about 34, in the prime of his life and activities. It is a beautiful and clearly heartfelt eulogy to a great man. Here are some excerpts –

עוּרָה רְאֵה חַכְמֵי זְמָן יַחַד עֲלֵי/ דַּלְתֵי תְבוּנָתָךְ כְּדַלִּים דָּפָקוּ

Wake and see the sages of all times will knock like paupers on the gates of your knowledge

יֶהְגּוּ בְּתוֹרָתָךְ וְיוֹם יוֹם יִלְקְטוּ /מִשְׁנֵה תְעוּדוֹת[7] שָׁם כְּזָהָב זֻקָּקוּ

They will learn your Torah and daily will gather from the laws that you purified like gold.

יִרְאוּ בְמוֹרֶה הַנְּבוּכִים חַרְבוּת/ שֵׂכֶל בְּמַחְשַׁכִּים בְּרָקִים בָּרָקוּ

Minds that are destroyed will find in Moreh Hanevuchim lightening that will illuminate their darkness.

Remah has now come to accept MN although it is full of Greek philosophy. Apparently, he has muted his earlier objections. More surprising is the following stanza -

מִלִּים כְּתַפּוּחִים יְצוּקִים מִזְּהַב/ חָכְמָה בְּמַשְׂכִּיוֹת תְּבוּנָה חֻשָּׁקו

Words like golden apples, knowledge that is presented in vessels of wisdom.

Anyone that reads Rambam’s introduction to MN knows the metaphor he uses for describing Midrashim as allegorical – apples of gold in vessels of silver. Remah is clearly alluding to that and apparently accepting Rambam’s position on the issue.

He is full of remorse for his earlier attacks – [I am too lazy to translate this part].

מִי - יִתְּנֵנִי כַדְּרוֹר אָעוּף אֱלֵי /קִבְרוֹ וְעֵינַי לַדְּמָעוֹת יִשְׁרָקוּ
אַשְׁקֶה בְדִמְעוֹתַי עֲפָרוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר/ פַּלְגֵי תְעוּדוֹתָיו לְבָבִי שׁוֹקָקוּ
אוֹ אֶשְׁחֲקָה אַבְנֵי זְמָן בָּם כַּאֲשֶׁר /מֵימֵי תְלָאוֹתָיו אֲבָנִים שָׁחָקוּ

מַה - יַּעֲנוּ יָמִים אֲרוּרִים עוֹד וּמַה -/ יִתְאוֹנֲנוּ עַל - זֹאת וּמַה - יִצְטַדָּקוּ
הַעוֹד בְּפִיהֶם לַתְּנוּאוֹת מַעֲנֶה /אוֹ יַחֲטִיאוּנוּ לְמַעַן יִצְדָּקוּ
הַאִם עֲוֹנוֹת מֵי מְרִיבָה נִפְקְדוּ/ הַיּוֹם וְעוֹדָם אַחֲרֵינוּ יִדְלָקוּ

Remah apparently had a complete change of heart.

[1] Not to be confused with the Remah, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the author of the Mapah on the Shulchan Aruch.
[2] This is a play on Zechariah 3:8 -
שְׁמַע-נָא יְהוֹשֻׁעַ הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל, אַתָּה וְרֵעֶיךָ הַיֹּשְׁבִים לְפָנֶיךָ--כִּי-אַנְשֵׁי מוֹפֵת, הֵמָּה:
[3] הִנֵּה הָאָדוֹן יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, מְסָעֵף פֻּארָה בְּמַעֲרָצָה
[4] A play on the Ephod which contained the Urim and Tumim.
[5] Based on Iyov 38:16.
[6] . ואלמלא בן טדרוס אתה נשיא ורבי נגיד ורב תבונות, וחתן המלך רב ברכות איש אמונות. נדיב קם על נדיבות, אשר שמעו הולך בכל המדינות, ושמו הטוב כמור עובר לכל הלשונות, וכבוד משפחת יולדתך ובית אבותיך נשיאים ראשי המחנות, גוזרני עליך במושב זקני וחכמי על אשר מעלת וחללת שר שרי קודש, להתנהג כל ימיך כמעשה דר' יהושע על דברי בית שמאי בפרק חומר בקודש (חגיגה כב ב

[7] This is a play on Mishne Torah. תְעוּדוֹת as in Ruth 4:7.


  1. Why couldn't they just write letters and eulogies in normal prose?

  2. I don't mean to sound like a phillistine but it seems excessive and it makes reading and decoding the texts much more laborious.

  3. RJM I know and then we were saddled with Pyutim which to a non artistic soul like me are really a turn off. But I always feel guilty when I think it, what about Mishlei, Tehillim (some chapters). Kohelet, Shir Hashirim (to a lesser degree)? To a lesser degree(?) the Shirot in the Torah? I guess it will remain a mystery.

    However I did have fun translating with the concordancia in my hand. These guys really knew their Tanach!

  4. David,

    How do you understand the Bais Yosef writing a whole sefer on his conversations with a Maggid (not to mention all the seforim that came out of sefas that dealt with gilgul not just in concept but entire seforim that dealt with great figures in tanach and after and who they were in a previous gilgul)? According to the Rambam would this be possible? Extending this question, how can one believe hold like the Rambam without thinking that the Mekubalim were c"v delusional (which would be nearly impossible to believe considering the greatness of many mekubalim). On the other hand, if one agrees to the ideas of the mekubalim, it would seem that the Rambam, as great as he was, was lacking knowledge in a very important area of Jewish belief.

    I know that you have touched on this previously, but I would like to hear a more comprehensive viewpoint that covers all of the above.

    I do not think that it is feasible to say that you hold like one but understand the other shitah as you would in a question of sevarah or halacah. These are fundamentals as to how G-D runs the world.

  5. All my days so far the only good thing I heard about the practices of mekubalim is the Kaduri's modesty but I have doubts for his motivations.