Ramban’s Newly Discovered Prayer
Nachmanides was a tireless Jewish leader 800 years ago - his newly discovered prayer can inspire us today.
“In the ways of repentance instruct me…” This beautiful line is from a prayer written nearly a millennium ago by one of the greatest sages in Jewish history, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman. It’s only recently been discovered for the first time in generations, and translated into English. Coming to light just before Yom Kippur, this heartfelt prayer can help Jews around the world put their yearning into words once again.
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman had an incredibly eventful life, and his work still influences Jews around the world today. He was born in the town of Girona, in Spain – very close to today’s border with France – in 1194. At the time, Girona had a flourishing Jewish quarter. The Jewish district, known as El Cali, still stands today; it’s one of the best-preserved Jewish quarters in all of Europe and a major attraction of Girona. The narrow, twisting Medieval streets that Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman once walked still stand, though the Jewish community that once filled the area with bustling life is long gone.
The Jewish Quarter, El Cali
Young Moshe was born into a famous rabbinic family, and he studied with some of the most renown rabbis of France and Spain. It soon became obvious that Moshe was no ordinary student: he was one of the most brilliant minds of his age, and soon mastered enormous bodies of Jewish and secular knowledge. He wrote two major works on Jewish practice when he was only 15 years old, Hilchos Nedarim and Hilchos Bechoros. He earned rabbinic ordination, and became known as “Ramban”, an acronym of his initials: Rabbi Moshe Ben (son of) Nachman.
Ramban soon was known as one of the most acomplished rabbis in all of Spain; Jews from across the country and abroad wrote him letters inquiring about his views and opinions and asking advice about matters of Jewish law. He also studied medicine, and worked as a doctor. He gained prominence not only in Jewish circles but also in non-Jewish circles, even gaining the trust and admiration of King James of Aragon, the Medieval ruler who expanded the kingdom of Aragon in today’s Catalan region of Spain.
In 1263, King James ordered Ramban to take part in a disputation. These were horrible events in Medieval Europe, and pitted learned Jews against non-Jews to publicly debate their faiths. Disputations could be deadly: Jews were ordered to defend Jewish beliefs but were forbidden from insulting Christian doctrine. Any Jew who was accused of denying principles of Christian faith could be tortured and killed.
Ramban was ordered to debate a Jew who’d converted to Christianity. King James and his entire royal court attended the disputation, enjoying every twist and turn of the arguments. When it was finished, the king declared Ramban the winner, having defeated his Christian opponent, and awarded the rabbi three hundred coins.
Soon, however, some Dominican Catholics began spreading the rumor that Ramban had, in fact, lost the disputation and that his Christian opponent had “proved” the illegitimacy of the Jewish faith. Ramban responded by writing down an exact account of the disputation. With his brilliant mind, he managed to recall in perfect detail every question he and his opponent had been asked and record their exact responses. His resulting book, Sefer HaVichuach, provided a blow by blow account of the wide-ranging debate.
Dominican authorities seized on the book as corroboration of the charge that Ramban had insulted Christianity. They presented highly edited versions of the work to King James, who was outraged. Ramban pointed out that everything in his book he’d already said publicly in the presence of the king and been rewarded for his words. King James acknowledged this, and spared Ramban’s life. Sefer HaVichuach would be banned and burned, but the great rabbi himself was allowed to leave Aragon and become an exile, instead of being burned at the stake.
From France to Israel
Ramban settled in present-day France where he continued to study Jewish teachings, including mysticism. He wrote a commentary on the Torah which is still read widely today, and provides penetrating insights into the Torah’s texts and ideas.
All his life, Ramban had longed to see Jerusalem and the rest of the Jewish land of Israel. Three times a day, he prayed facing East towards Jerusalem. Every time he prayed, like all Jews he prayed for the privilege of returning to the Jewish homeland. In 1266, at the age of 72, he decided to leave France and move to the land of Israel. It wasn’t easy, and his journey was full of hardship and hazards, but in 1267, he landed in the port of Acre, a port city the north of present-day Israel.
Ramban arrived in the Holy Land a little before the High Holidays, and he travelled to Jerusalem to spend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When he got there, a scene of horrible devastation met him. For years, Jerusalem had been fought over and seen horrific battles. The Crusaders had sacked Jerusalem in 1099, massacring its inhabitants, both Muslim and Jewish. In 1187, the Muslim ruler Saladin wrested control of Jerusalem away from the Crusaders, and allowed the Jewish community to continue living in Jerusalem. In 1229, European Crusaders once again sacked the city and massacred many of the inhabitants. In 1244, Jerusalem was invaded by Tartar forces. In 1259 Mongol raiders sacked the city and killed Jews indiscriminately. Many Jews fled. In 1260 Mamluks – a tribe of former slaves from Egypt – conquered Jerusalem. They allowed Jews to live in Jerusalem in relative peace, though by then the Jewish community was traumatized and decimated.
When Ramban arrived in Jerusalem, he was welcomed by the small Jewish community. With so many synagogues destroyed, Jerusalem’s Jews prayed in a private house. The Jews he encountered were impoverished and afraid. Ramban wrote a letter to his son, who was still living in Aragon, describing the Land of Israel. “Many are its forsaken places,” he described, “and great is the desecration. The more sacred the place, the greater the devastation it has suffered. Jerusalem is the most desolate place of all.”
Ramban Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem
Ramban decided to reestablish an official synagogue in Jerusalem. He chose a lovely house that had been ruined by invaders, but still had beautiful marble pillars, for his synagogue. During the Mongol invasion many of Jerusalem’s Torah scrolls had been brought to the nearby city of Shechem (also known in the present day as Nablus) for safekeeping. Ramban brought them back to Jerusalem for use in the synagogue he was setting up. Within three weeks, Ramban’s synagogue was ready. Jews heard about Ramban’s leadership and flocked back to the city. On Rosh Hashana, Ramban delivered a speech during services to his new community urging Jews to remain in Jerusalem from now on.
Ramban stayed in Jerusalem to set up a yeshiva, which also drew Jews back to Jerusalem to study. (His synagogue flourished until the year 1589, when Jerusalem’s Arab Governor, Abu Sufrin, ordered it turned into a warehouse to satisfy Muslim calls to shut down the Jewish house of worship. It was further ruined when Jordanian forces captured Jerusalem in 1948, but was restored after Israel recaptured the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967. Today, the Ramban synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City continues to welcome worshippers. A second synagogue also named after Ramban flourishes a few miles away, too, in Jerusalem’s new city.)
Ramban later moved to Acre, which was a center of Torah study at the time. There, he completed his Torah commentary, and built a school with many disciples. He died in 1270 in the Land of Israel.
For hundreds of years, Jews all over the world have studied and gained inspiration from Ramban’s many books and letters. Now, Dr. Idan Perez, the head of the Rare Books Department at the National Library of Israel, has pieced together a previously unknown prayer written by Ramban. Dr. Perez has spent years working on his book Sidur Catalunya, a volume that brings together prayers from the vibrant Medieval Jewish community of Catalonia – which included Aragon, where Ramban lived.
The Spanish Inquisition brought a bloody end to centuries of Jewish life in Spain in the year 1492, when all Jews were expelled from Spain on pain of death. Before that, many Jews prayed using prayers called bakashot, or supplications. Spanish Jews would often recite these supplementary prayers either before or after formal services. Dr. Perez combed libraries across Europe and across the world to find and piece together these beautiful bakashot.
In Rome’s Casanatense Library, Dr. Perez made an incredible discovery: a bakasha prayer written by Ramban himself. It seems he wrote it soon after being forced to leave Aragon, and that his beautiful prayer was recited by the Jews in his new home in France. “The texts content and style, along with the fact that the manuscript’s author prefaced it with the words ‘A Bakasha of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman,’ all seem to indicate that this bakasha was, in fact, written by the Ramban himself,” explained Dr. Perez.
The prayer is eloquent and poetic. “The words of God are pure words,” it begins, and continues: “Please with your unseen, refined and pure power, establish my thoughts in your service, in awe, in trembling and in reverence. You have brought to light every mystery. Make me wise to know your commandments, as a hawk soars over its prey, allow me to understand and guide me in the path of your commandments...”
Today, as Jews around the world turn to God in this period of the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, this beautiful new prayer can give voice to all our longings and hopes. Just as Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman inspired a generation of Jews over 800 years ago to overcome their fear and inertia and work to build a beautiful new community, so too can his words inspire us today.
Ramban lived an eventful, energetic life that was completely devoted to strengthening Jewish identity, helping Jews learn Torah and connect with God. May his tireless example – and his newly rediscovered prayer – continue to motivate us now.
Ramban’s entire newly discovered prayer can be viewed at the National Library of Israel website here: https://blog.nli.org.il/en/lbh-rambans-prayer/.