Abraham ben David
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Abraham ben David (c. 1125 – 27 November 1198), also known by the abbreviation RABaD (for Rabbeinu Abraham ben David) Ravad or RABaD III , was a Provençal rabbi, a great commentator on the Talmud, Sefer Halachot of Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi and Mishne Torah of Maimonides, and is regarded as a father of Kabbalah and one of the key and important links in the chain of Jewish mystics. He was born in Provence, France, and died at Posquières.
He was the son-in-law of Abraham ben Isaac of Narbonne Av Beth Din (known as the RABaD II). He was the father of Rabbeinu Isaac the Blind, a Neoplatonist and important Jewish mystical thinker. The teachers under whose guidance he acquired most of his Talmudic learning were Rabbeinu Moses ben Joseph and Rabbeinu Meshullam of Lunel (Rabbeinu Meshullam hagodol).
RABaD remained in Lunel after completing his studies, and subsequently became one of the rabbinical authorities of that city. He went to Montpellier, where he remained for a short time, and then moved to Nîmes, where he lived for a considerable period. Rabbeinu Moses ben Judah ("Temim De'im", p. 6b) refers to the rabbinical school of Nîmes, then under Rabbeinu Abraham's direction, as the chief seat of Talmudic learning in Provence.
Family origins and life
The RABaD's maternal grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak b. Yaakov Ibn Baruch of Mérida (1035–1094), who had compiled astronomical tables for the son of Shemuel ha-Nagid, was one of five rabbis in Spain renowned for their learning. Concerning the oral history of his maternal grandfather's family and how they came to Spain, the RABaD wrote: "When Titus prevailed over Jerusalem, his officer who was appointed over Hispania appeased him, requesting that he send to him captives made-up of the nobles of Jerusalem, and so he sent a few of them to him, and there were amongst them those who made curtains and who were knowledgeable in the work of silk, and [one] whose name was Baruch, and they remained in Mérida."
The center of the RABaD's activity was Posquières, after which place he is often called. The town is known as Vauvert today. It is difficult to determine when he moved to Posquières; but about 1165 Benjamin of Tudela, at the outset of his travels, called upon him there. He spoke of the Ravad's wealth and benevolence. Not only did he erect and keep in repair a large school-building, but he cared for the material welfare of the poor students as well. To this date in Vauvert a street exists with the name "Rue Ravad." His great wealth brought him into peril of his life because, to obtain some of it, Elzéar, the lord of Posquières, had him cast into prison, where, like Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, he might have perished, had not Count Roger II of Carcassonne, who was friendly to the Jews, intervened, and by virtue of his sovereignty banished the lord of Posquières to Carcassonne. Thereupon the Ravad returned to Posquières, where he remained until his death.
Among the many learned Talmudists who were his disciples in Posquières were Rabbeinu Isaac ha-Kohen of Narbonne, the first commentator upon the Yerushalmi; Rabbeinu Abraham ben Nathan of Lunel, author of "Ha-Manhig"; Rabbeinu Meir ben Isaac of Carcassonne, author of the "Sefer ha-'Ezer"; and Rabbeinu Asher ben Meshullam of Lunel, author of several rabbinical works. The Ravad's influence on Jonathan of Lunel also is evident, though the latter did not attend his lectures.
The Ravad was a prolific author. He not only wrote answers to hundreds of learned questions—which responsa are still partially preserved in the collections "Temim De'im", "Orot Hayyim", and "Shibbole ha-Leket" — but he also wrote a commentary on the whole Talmud and compiled several compendiums of rabbinical law, as also a chronicle entitled "Sefer HaKabbalah le-Ravad."
Most of his works are lost, but some survive, such as the "Sefer Ba'alei ha-Nefesh" (The Book of the Conscientious), a treatise on the laws relating to women, published in 1602, and his commentary on Torath Kohanim, published in 1862 at Vienna.
The title of "Ba'al Hasagot" (Critic), given him frequently by the rabbis, shows that they viewed the direction in which his ability lay. Indeed, critical annotations display his powers at their best, and justify his being ranked with the Rif, Rashi, and the Rambam (Maimonides).
The Ravad did much for the study of the Talmud. Without accusing the Rambam of intending to supplant the study of the Talmud itself by means of his compendium, the Mishneh Torah, it is nevertheless a fact that if the Rif and Rambam had not encountered such keen opposition, rabbinical Judaism may have degenerated into an exclusive study of the legal code, which would have been fatal to any original intellectual development in a considerable portion of the Jewish people.
This danger was not so imminent for those Jews who lived in lands where Arabian culture ruled; for there the study of the Hebrew language and poetry, and especially of the sciences and philosophy, would always have afforded a wide field for intellectual development. It was, therefore, sufficient that the leading rabbis domiciled in Moorish countries should devote much attention to furnishing a clew to the labyrinth of the Talmud, intricate and perplexing as the latter had become by the addition of the copious post-Talmudic literature of law and custom. Some sort of guide had become imperatively necessary for the practical application of this voluminous and intricate material. But in Christian countries like France and Germany, where the largest communities of Jews existed, throughout the Middle Ages there was no such outlet for Jewish intellectuality as the culture of literature or of the sciences that existed in Moorish Spain. Their own religious law was the only field open to the intellects of the Jews of Germany and northern France.
Rashi and the Ravad
In his commentary, Rashi furnished a well-paved road to the Talmud; while the Ravad, by his acute criticism, pointed out the way intelligently and with discrimination. This critical tendency is characteristic of all the writings of the Ravad. Thus, in his commentary upon Torath Kohanim (pp. 41a, 71b), we find the caustic observation that many obscure passages in rabbinical literature owe their obscurity to the fact that occasional explanatory or marginal notes not tending to elucidate the text have been incorporated.
Attitude as a critic
The strength of Ravad, may be shown by his criticisms of the works of various authors. The tone he employs is also characteristic of his attitude toward the persons under criticism. He treats the Rif with the utmost respect, almost with humility, and refers to him as "the sun by whose brilliant rays our eyes are dazzled" ("Temim De'im", p. 22a). His language toward Rabbeinu Zerachiah ha-Levi, the Baal Hamoer is harsh, almost hostile. Though only eighteen years old, this scholar possessed the courage and the ability to write a sharp criticism upon the Rif, and the Ravad refers to him as an immature youth who has the audacity to criticize his teacher. (compare Gross, l.c., 545, and Reifmann, "Toledot," p. 54).
Maimonides (Rambam) and Ravad
The Ravad's criticism of the Rambam's code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, is very harsh. This was not due to personal feeling, but to radical differences of view in matters of faith between the two greatest Talmudists of the twelfth century.
The Rambam's aim was to bring order into the vast labyrinth of the Halakha by presenting final results in a definite, systematic, and methodical manner. But in the opinion of the Ravad this very aim was the principal defect of the work. A legal code that did not state the sources and authorities from which its decisions were derived, and offered no proofs of the correctness of its statements, was, in the opinion of the Ravad, entirely unreliable, even in the practical religious life, for which purpose the Rambam designed it.
Such a code, he considered, could be justified only if written by a man claiming infallibility - by one who could demand that his assertions be accepted without question. If it had been the intention of the Rambam to stem the further development of the study of the Talmud by reducing it to the form of a code, the Ravad felt it his duty to oppose such an attempt, as contrary to the free spirit of rabbinical Judaism, which refuses to surrender blindly to authority.
Abraham Zacuto brings down an anecdote in his seminal work, Sefer Yuchasin, whereby he claims that Rambam, during his lifetime, eventually conceded to the correctness of his disputant, the Ravad, saying of him, “In all my life, no one has ever beaten me, except a certain artisan.”
Judaism a Religion of Deed, not of Dogma
RABaD was thus an opponent to the codification of the Halakha; but he was even more strongly opposed to the construction of a system of dogmas in Judaism, particularly according to the method followed by Maimonides, who often set up the concepts of the Aristotelian philosophy as Jewish theology.
Abraham ben David is particularly severe on the attempts of Maimonides to smuggle in his philosophic views under cover of Talmudic passages. To cite one example: Sorcery, according to both Biblical and rabbinical law, is, under certain conditions, an offense punishable with death. The opinions in the Talmud on the various acts coming under the category of sorcery differ widely, owing, no doubt, to the fact that it was not practicable to look upon every superstitious practise, from which Talmudic Judaism itself was not entirely free, as a heinous offense.
Maimonides, who, from the point of view of his philosophy, looks upon sorcery, astrology, augury, and the like as pure absurdities, decides that even the innocent actions Scripture narrates of Eliezer (Gen. 24:14), and of Jonathan (I Sam. 14:8-10) are to be considered as falling under the ban.
Here RABaD is not content with merely correcting the statement of Maimonides, but he declares that, in his opinion, Maimonides deserves the ban for the calumnious views he expresses concerning these Biblical personages (Yad. 'Akum, xi. 4). This suffices to explain the principle that actuated Abraham ben David in his intense opposition to Maimonides, and particularly to his "Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah," which David himself designates as a great achievement (Kilayim, vi. 2).
Ravad as a Kabbalist and Philosopher
Many Kabbalists view the Ravad as one of the fathers of their system, and this is true to the extent that he was inclined to mysticism, which led him to follow an ascetic mode of life and gained for him the title of "the pious." He frequently spoke of "the holy spirit disclosing to him God's secrets in his studies" (chasidim regard this as a reference to the direct presence of Elijah in the court of the Ravad) (see his note to "Yad ha-Chazakah", Lulav, viii. 5; Beth ha-Bechirah, vi. 11), great mysteries known only to the initiated ("Yesodei ha-Torah", i. 10).
The Ravad was not an enemy to science, as many deem him. His works show that he was a close student of Hebrew philology; and the fact that he encouraged the translation of Rabbeinu Bahya ibn Paquda's Chovot ha-Levavot shows that he was not hostile to philosophy. This philosophic work argues strongly against the anthropomorphistic conception of the Deity; and the favor with which the Ravad looked upon it is sufficient ground on which to acquit him of the charge of having held anthropomorphistic views.
Some of his works show acquaintance with philosophy; for instance, his remark on "Hilchoth Teshuvah", v., end, is a literal quotation from Honein ben Isaac's "Musre ha-Philosophim," pp. 11, 12—or Loewenthal, p. 39, below—which is extant only in Al-Charizi's translation.
The Ravad had many descendants, several hundred of whom today are named Raivid, Rayvid, Ravid, and Ravad. Family records indicate they made their way to Spain, where they appeared in Toledo and Barcelona and were reputedly advisers in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. After the Inquisition, they were exiled to Italy, from whence they made their way to northern, and then later eastern, Europe, where they served as rabbis in Telšiai, Lithuania, and teachers in its Telshe yeshiva. Before the First World War, they emigrated to Brazil, Canada, England, Israel, Ireland, South Africa, and the United States, where they reside today.
- Abraham Zacuto, Sefer Yuchasin, Cracow 1580 (Hebrew), p. 262 in PDF. He is said[clarification needed] to have died on the Sabbath eve of Hanukkah in the year ,959 anno mundi, a year corresponding with 1198 CE.
- Seder Hakabbalah Le'Ravad (printed in the edition which includes the books, Seder Olam Rabbah and Seder Olam Zuta), Jerusalem 1971, pp. 43–44 (Hebrew).
- Abraham Zacuto, Sefer Yuchasin, Cracow 1580 (Hebrew), p. 262 in PDF.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Abraham ben David of Posquieres". Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.