Nachmanides, Abarbanel: Giants Of Sephardic Jewry
By RABBI ALON TOLWIN
Jews have lived on the Iberian
Peninsula since before the
destruction of the Second Temple
(100 BCE) and have produced some
of the greatest leaders the Jewish
nation has known.
Probably the greatest name
associated with that area is the
Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben
Maimon (Maimonides). The
Rambam was born in Cordoba but
fled at the time of his bar mitzvah
with his family in the year 1148
when the northern area of Spain
was being overrun by fanatic
Two other personalities from
Spain, perhaps less famous, yet
invaluable, are the Ramban, Rabbi
Moshe ben Nachman
(Nachmanides) and Don Yitzchok
Nachmanides was born in
Gerona, Northern Spain, in 1195. At
this time clouds of the Inquisition
were beginning to form as the
Church was confiscating more and
more territory from the Moslems.
This was to present great
challenges to Nachmanides and
would culminate in the Jewish
expulsion in 1492.
At the age of 16, Nachmanides
had already embarked on a long
and prolific writing career. He soon
became known as a fierce
spokesman for the truth of Torah.
From his writings and letters we
learn about the times, lives and
issues that confronted Spanish
Two works of Nachmanides
stand out in this regard. The first is
a letter to the Rabbis of France
concerning the works of the
Rambam (Maimonides). Due to a
perceived Aristotelian influence in
the Rambam's writings, he had not
yet enjoyed universal acceptance by
the Rabbis of France. The Ramban,
in his letter, stood up for the
Rambam's reliability in all aspects
of Halachah, Jewish law, and
Hashkafah, Jewish philosophy.
The second work is the
dialogue of the famous debate
which took place in Aragon in the
year 1250. Pablo Christiani, an
apostate, wished to actively
missionize to the Jews. As he
realized that his efforts were not
being productive, he forced a
debate with Nachmanides. He
figured that if he could convince the
Jewish shepherd, the flock would
Nachmanides was in a no-win
situation. If he suppressed his true
views, he would give the impression
that Christianity had some
credibility. If, on the other hand, he
Ferdinand and Isabella, under
Church influence, decreed that all
Jews had to leave Spain or convert.
Don Yitzchok was given
dispensation to stay. He chose to
leave with his people and settled in
Italy. He was finance minister for
the King of Venice until his death in
Don Yitzchok Abarbanel wrote
major works commenting on the
Tanach, history and philosophy. He
is quoted in several major halachic
works as well.
Dov Yitzhok Abarbanel
stated the truth he stood to
endanger the Jewish population. He
decided that truth must prevail and
demanded that he be given freedom
of speech. So it was.
The debate opened on July 20,
1263. It lasted four days and was
attended by King James of Aragon.
In the end the King proclaimed that
never in his life had he heard
someone so articulate, rational and
forceful, and yet so wrong! Fearing
that the contents of the debate
would be misconstrued and
publicized by the Church,
Nachmanides wrote an account of
the debate. This incurred the wrath
of the Church and he was forced to
flee. He decided to move to the
Holy Land. After much hardship, he
arrived in Jerusalem and started to
rebuild the Jewish community there.
That community has lasted,
uninterrupted, from then until our
Nachmanides died in 1270.
The second personality lived
nearly 200 years after the passing
of the Ramban. The fact that Don
Yitzchok Abarbanel rose to such
prominence is a clear indication that
Jews still experienced relative
freedom in the Iberian Peninsula.
By the age of 20 Don Yitzchok
was known as a learned and
prominent member of the Lisbon
Following his father's path, he
too, entered government service.
Don Yitzchok wrote frequently of the
dissatisfaction which came with
serving mortal kings when one
prefers to spend his time serving
the King of all Kings. Yet he had
frequent opportunity to intercede on
behalf of Jews in distress
throughout the domain of the king.
In 1482 he had to flee Portugal
and settle in Castile. There, he
again entered Royal service.
The Spanish Inquisition had
been functioning for many years. Up
until this point, however, its focus
was the Marannos or others who
were not good Christians. Jews
were, by and large, left alone.
In 1492, this changed.
Like the Rambam,
Nachmanides and the Abarbanel
were giants of the spirit. In tradition
of Sephardic Jewry, they blended
with great confidence, the sanctity
of Torah and the prevalent culture in
which they lived. They were
eloquent spokesmen and defenders
of Judaism, never compromising
Jewish law, even at the risk of great
Rabbi Tolwin is educational director
of Aleynu/Aish HaTorah.
Share Many Customs
Among Ashkenazim, it is customary to have a party on the Friday
night after the birth of a boy. Usually, one invites friends for a little
gathering with snacks and songs. This is not generally practiced among
Brit Milah -- Circumcision
As mentioned before, Sephardim recite the "Shehechiyanu",
Ashkenazim do not. Other variations in what is said at the ceremony
Naming A Child
Ashkenazim name a newborn child only after a deceased relative,
while Sephardim will also often name after a grandparent or other
relative who's still alive.
Among Sephardim a special ceremony called the "Tefillin" takes
place usually on Thursday before the Bar Mitzvah Shabbat. It is the first
time the boy officially puts on his new set of tefillin and has his first
aliyah to the Torah. This is not Ashkenazic practice. Also Sephardim
wear a prayer shawl from this time on, while Ashkenazim wear theirs
only after marriage.
Historically there have been a number of important variations.
Beginning in the 10th century, there were edicts forbidding polygamy or
divorcing a woman against her will. Initially, these decrees were
accepted only by Ashkenazim although over the generations they've
become accepted by Sephardim as well. An interesting exception until
recently were the Jews of Yemen. When they immigrated to Israel en
masse (1948-49), many brought more than one wife with them. There are
various differences in the ketubah, marriage document, and in the
ceremony as well.
The get, divorce document, differs in the forms of the letters,
spelling of names and the text itself.
There are differences regarding the form of prayer in the house of
the mourner. The custom of a son saying kaddish after a departed
parent's death for 11 months originated with the Ashkenazim and
eventually spread to the Sephardim. Generally Ashkenazim use an
upright tombstone on the grave while Sephardim use a flat stone. Being
called up to the Torah, acting as chazzan and reciting the kaddish on
the yahrtzeit day as well as kindling a yahrtzeit light also originated
THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS