Sunday, 17 February 2019


The mid-1500s rogue (and cheaper) edition of Mishneh Torah by the Giustiniani Printing House.



The printing press had just been invented. In Italy, newly established printing houses were vying with each other for a share in a very lucrative market. The printing of Hebrew books was no exception. 

In this article, we will look at the inside story behind what appeared to be the innocent printing of an early edition the of 12th- century Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, by Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen, known as the Maharam of Padua in the mid-16th-century.

I have drawn from the research of Professor Neil Weinstock Netanel[1] and also refer the Reader to a previous article Daniel Bomberg – The Story behind the Tzuras haDaf.

Additionally, I shall suggest a possible context to show how this story played out against the classical backdrop of tension between the rationalist followers of Maimonides (known as Rambam 1135-1204) and the mystics who followed the Kabbalah.


In 1550, the Maharam of Padua (1482-1564) invests his own money and effort in preparing the text of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah – and writes a commentary on it together with his son. He then has it printed by a Christian printing house in Italy, known as the Bragadini Press. He does this because Italian Jews are not allowed to own printing presses.

Meanwhile, the Bragadini Press discovers that a rival company, the Giustiniani Press had copied the Maharam’s commentary without permission, undercut the price, and - for the cheaper price - even offered a criticism of his commentary!

The Maharam of Padua, understandably upset and faced with a financial loss from his investment (and after getting no support from the Italian Rabbinate) writes to a relative in Poland, the famous R. Moshe Isserless (known as Ramo[2]) in an early attempt at creating some form of copyright protection.[3]

R. Isserless, in response, forbids the purchase of the rival Giustiniani’s publication - on pain of excommunication - until Bragadini’s stocks had been sold out.


That is the quintessence of the story. 

However, lurking behind the scenes, there may have been another factor at play here which appears to have been ignored by many historians:

Both Maharam and R. Moshe Isserless were rationalists and loyal to Rambam.

Professor Netanel makes this point:

“The Maimonidean controversy continued to reverberate in the sixteenth century, with Katzenellenbogen and Isserles serving as leading proponents of Maimonides’ rationalism.

Katzenellenbogen virulently opposed the propagation of the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah.

And due to his intellectual prowess and commitment to the study of science, Isserles came to be known as the ‘Maimonides of Polish Jewry.’ ”
In 1558, the Maharam signed two bans against the study of Kabbalah[4]. He also opposed the printing of the Zohar[5].

As for R. Moshe Isserles, although he was well versed in Kabbalah, he also studied history and Aristotle (which he said he learned from Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed). When another relative of his, Maharshal rebuked him for basing some of his rulings on Aristotle, he replied that ‘it is better to occupy oneself with philosophy than to err through Kabbalah.’[6]

On R. Isserless’ tombstone is written the epithet: “From Moses [Maimonides] to Moses [Isserless] there was none like Moses.” This was a not so subtle crib on the same epithet found on Rambam’s tomb.

Clearly, the Maharam and R. Isserless were supporters of Rambam’s philosophy.


Having given some context to the rivalry, it would be interesting to explore just who was financing the cheaper edition of the fourteen volumes of Mishneh Torah by the Giustiniani Press which contained the additional bonus of a criticism of the Maharam, and whose commentary had now been moved to the back of the publication[7].

The reason why the Maharam chose Bragadini over Giustiniani in the first place is generally described as ‘unknown’.[8]

I would suggest a possible reason as to why the Maharam may have chosen Bragadini over Giustiniani:[9]


Could this saga have been part of the ongoing feud between the Kabbalists and the Rambamists, with the Kabbalists financing or at least encouraging the rival Giustiniani Press? Had Giustiniani just printed a cheaper edition, one could put it down to competition as he was known to have adopted cutthroat tactics in his business affairs. At one stage he put both the Bragadini and even the Bomberg printing houses out of business.

Giustiniani’s printers-mark had an image of a depiction of the Temple in Jerusalem over which in an unrolled scroll, appeared the words, “The glory of this latter House will be greater than that of the first,”[10] alluding to his vision of his Printing House overshadowing the other Printing Houses.
However, the addition of the criticism of the Maharam, the relegation of his commentary to the back of the work, and the fact that many Italian rabbis did not support the Maharam - may imply some further ideological agenda in addition to commercial ‘sour grapes’.

In fact, when Giustiniani published his rival edition, he wrote that certain unnamed ‘leading scholars’ had convinced him to hurriedly put out a better edition of the Mishneh Torah as opposed to the ‘second-grade’ Bragadini edition by ‘one rabbi from Padua[11] who longed to stand among the greats.’

Also (perhaps coincidence or perhaps relevant), in 1545 the very first work to be printed by Giustiniani was Nachmanides’ commentary on the Torah which has been described as “...basically a mystical work against Maimonides...[whose writings] he and his colleagues believe to be sheer heresy.”[12]

By contrast, Bragadini’s first printed work was Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, and more tellingly, in 1551 he even printed Rambam’s controversial rationalist writings of The Guide for the Perplexed.[13] This, again, may show the general persuasion of those behind the publishing house. 


One must also consider the historical reality at that time:

The Spanish Inquisition resulted in the expulsion of Jews from Spain, just decades earlier, in 1492. This triggered a mass exodus of Jews from Western and Central Europe and by 1550, the central and northern Italian peninsula had become home to tens of thousands of Jewish refugees, and was virtually the only part of Western Europe where Jews remained.

Many of the Jews would have brought with them their mystical bias and strong Kabbalistic traditions from Spain. It is obvious that these tensions would have played out in Italy when they confronted people like the Maharam, who had banned the mystical Zohar.


Furthermore, Christians were showing interest in Jewish mysticism and, as we saw during the earlier Maimonidean controversies, Jews and Christians sometimes formed expedient alliances against the Jewish rationalists who followed Rambam. [For more see: The Maimonidean Controversies.]

This too may have had some bearing on why the issue of the rival printing presses eventually found its way to the Pope.

One account says Giustiniani told the Pope that Rambam’s book was “a blasphemous work that should be banned for its defamations of the true Christian religion.”[14] It is highly probable that Rambam’s rationalism (which included a non-literal way of understanding angels, and which had no room for the notion of evil spirits and demons etc.) may have been considered blasphemous even by the Church.


After R. Isserless had issued his verdict which effectively banned Giustinani’s publication of Mishneh Torah, the latter retaliated by going to the Pope for support. Giustiniani countered R. Isserless’ edict by encouraging apostate Jews to denounce the Maharam’s commentary as “objectionable to the Church.[15] The Pope appointed six cardinals to oversee the investigation.

Both Bragadini and Giustiniani were represented by Jews who had converted to Christianity, and unfortunately, the tribunal soon ‘deteriorated to a general attack on the Talmud’.[16]


The ruling of the panel was to burn all copies of the Bavli and Yerushalmi Talmud! All copies of the Talmud had to be surrendered within eight days. And for the next ten years, no Hebrew books were to be permitted to be printed in Venice.

On Rosh Hashana 1553, the edict was carried out and all copies of the Talmud were burned in Rome, and later elsewhere as well.


Of course, historically, this was not the only example of the Church burning Jewish books. If ever there was a case of history repeating itself, this must be it:

Three hundred years earlier, the Talmud was also burned, although not in Italy but in France. After Rambam’s death in the early 1200s, “the ‘Guide for Perplexed’ was...burned publicly by Jews and non-Jews. There were Jews in France who informed against the book to the Catholic Church, saying that it made slights against Christianity.”[17]

At first, the Jews themselves burned Rambam’s books and just ten years later, in 1242, the Church burned all available copies of the Talmud. This incident was sparked by Rambam's work, the Guide for the Perplexed, which had been translated into French. [See The Dangers of Translating Hebrew Texts.]

This is an earlier example of how anti-Maimonidean Jews had denounced the writings of Rambam to the Christians in France which resulted in Jews burning manuscripts of Maimonides on the same square as, a decade later, the Talmud was then burned by the Dominican Christians.

Clearly, this was a ‘tried and tested’precedent for Jews to convince the Church that Rambam’s writings were too rational and too heretical even for the Church.

At that time, R. Yona Gerondi (1180-1263), the teacher of Rashba and a cousin to the father of modern Kabbalah Nachmanides, went to the Christians - the Franciscans and then the Dominicans - pleading:
“Look, most of our people are heretics and unbelievers, because they were duped by R. Moses of Egypt [Maimonides] who wrote heretical books. 

You exterminate heretics, exterminate ours too.”[18]


Back to Italy in the mid-1500s: The devastation was such that after the Italian burning of the Talmud, the Maharam of Padua wrote that people should not rely on his opinion anymore because there were no copies of Talmud left for him to reference.[19]

In Italy, as a consequence of the burning of the Talmud, the emphasis of Torah study now changed to other areas where books were available and still permitted to be printed. These included Halachik works and, of relevance to our discussion: “The period also saw a rise in the study of Kabbalah, the first editions of its main sefarim appearing at that time, although the question of its study was a matter of fierce controversy among the Rabbanim of Italy.”[20]


Whether by design or accident, the long term effects of the Bragadini-Giustiani controversy resulted in a victory for the mystics, with Kabbalah rising to a position of pre-eminence.

Taking all this into consideration, it is difficult to accept that the Bragadini-Giustiani conflict - usually just described as a business deal gone wrong - was disconnected from the deeper and latent conflict between the mystics and the rationalists. 

[1] See: Maharam of Padua v. Giustiniani; the Sixteenth-Century Origins of the Jewish Law of Copyright
[2] Ramo wrote the notes (haMapah) to the Shulchan Aruch of R. Yosef Karo.
[3] According to some opinions, rivalry over the Mishneh Torah was not the cause of the conflict, since three years had passed since its printing. Instead, it was over the rival editions of the Talmud from these two printers.
According to another opinion, the dispute was over ‘anticipated rival editions of the Talmud by these printers.” (Edict Ordering the Confiscation and Burning of the Talmud, Library of JTS.)
[4] Shlomo Tal, Meir ben Isaac Katzenellenbogen, in Encyclopedia Judaica.
[5] In Defence of Preachers by David Darshan, p. 17.
[6] Responsa No. 7. However, more recently, another aspect of R. Isserles’ complex personality has surfaced with the publication from a manuscript of his commentary to Zohar. Also, he often quoted Kabbalistic sources for his Halacha and wrote that the “words of the Zohar... were given at Sinai” (Mishor 2010 p. 50.)
[7] Further studies in the Making of the Early Hebrew Book, by Marvin J. Heller, p. 308.
[8] See The Printers Feud and the Burning of the Talmud, by R. Akiva Aaronson. Or according to Netanel: “When Katzenellenbogen decided to publish a new annotated edition of the Mishneh Torah, he approached Giustiniani to handle the printing, but, for whatever reason, the two did not come to terms.” [Emphasis mine.]
See also The Makers of Hebrew Books in Italy, by David Werner Amram, p.255: “For reasons unknown to us Giustiniani did not satisfy the rabbi...” [Emphasis mine.]
[9] This is pure speculation as I have not seen this recorded anywhere. However, most of the writers (excluding Netanel), have been historians and obviously not interested in the hashkafic relevance of connecting this story to the ongoing Maimonidean conflict - which was so fundamental in influencing the future of Judaism, up to this very day.
[10] Chaggai 2:9.
[11] The Ramo had referred to the Maharam as the ‘Rabbi of Padua’.
[12] Jewish Virtual Library: Maimonidean Controversy.
[13]Titolo: Tracing the Hebrew Book Collection of the Venice Ghetto, p.31.

[14] Stop the Presses, by Eliezer Segal. See also: The Venetian Ghetto: The History of a Persecuted Community, by Riccardo Calimani, Chapter 7.

[15] Gardens and Ghettos, Jewish Museum, p. 250.  The ‘deterioration’ from antagonism towards Mishneh Torah to the Talmud may be explained by the fact the Mishneh Torah was effectively a summary of the Talmud – and the two might have become regarded as two sides of the same coin.
[16] Further studies... Ibid.
[17] Jewish History, Maimonides, by R. Berel Wein.
[18]  Iggerot Kena’ot III, 4c. (Leipzig 1859).
[19] She’erit Yosef 1.
[20] The Printers Feud...ibid.

Sunday, 10 February 2019


An early manuscript of Rashi's commentary found under the cornerstone of the old synagogue in Mainz when it was demolished in 1850 to make way for the new synagogue.


In Torah literature, we sometimes find that a work ascribed to a certain author, was in fact authored by someone else. Other times, the author is not the exclusive author and the work may have been the result of multiple authors.

We see this with classical books like Halachot Gedolot[1] and even the more contemporary Mishna Berura[2].

It is, however, most surprising to discover that perhaps the same may be said about sections of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah.

In this article, I draw extensively from the research of Dr Deborah Abecassis[3] who spent five years researching various versions of Rashi’s commentaries in over thirty different Rashi manuscripts and in over fifty manuscripts of the Tosafists which contained texts of Rashi. I also draw from Rabbi Dr Shnayer Leiman[4] and his profound research on the Rashi texts.

The research shows that Rashi’s commentary may be a lot more complicated than most would imagine. It appears that Rashi’s commentary continued to expand and develop during the two generations after Rashi’s death, and that significant portions were apparently added by the Tosafists who succeeded him.

[The term Tosafists generally relates to the rabbis of Northern France and Germany. Their period of influence lasted about two hundred years after Rashi - encompassing the 12th and 13th centuries, and ending with R. Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293).]


Unfortunately, Rashi’s original manuscript does not exist.

The earliest extant manuscript of Rashi’s commentary is dated as late as 130 years after his death.
This gap of 130 years is concerning because the direct link back to Rashi is not there.


Rashi’s popularity did not help matters either. So many people wanted to read his commentary and as a result, manuscript copies spread far and wide in a very short time. More than any other commentary text, Rashi manuscripts were well circulated in all communities.

Many of these copies were not intended to be accurate versions of the commentary because they were used for practical study purposes - as opposed to transmission documents. Some included the private notes of his students and other scholars. As the process progressed, scribes continued to produce more copies, until a point was reached where “additional comments and explanations were often blindly incorporated into the body of the text.”

This created a problem. Rashi’s original writings were becoming less and less distinguishable from the additional commentary.

The challenges presented by enthusiastic students and scribes were obviously not unique to Rashi but they became more extreme and acute because of the popularity and ubiquitous nature of his commentary.

Professor Yaakov Spiegel[5] writes that the people of Ashkenaz (Germany) were known to have taken great liberties when it came to copying texts, even those of the Talmud itself and “the possibility of losing the original texts of these works was a genuine fear.”

This was obviously an issue because even before Rashi’s time, Rabbenu Gershom (950-1028) - who lived in Mainz, Germany and who headed the Ashkenaz community - felt motivated to issue a decree that no one should add to or ‘correct’ a text they were copying.


Following the invention of the printing press in the 1400s, Rashi’s commentary on the Torah was the very first Hebrew book to be printed. This added to his popularity.

If the earlier proliferation of manuscripts created problems, the mass production of printed versions created even more difficulties because it highlighted the innumerable differences between the printed versions and the hundreds of earlier Rashi manuscripts.

And, the first printing of Rashi took place more than 350 years after his passing.

Rabbi Leiman illustrates just how variant the early printed versions of Rashi were, by comparing nine editions of the first printings of Rashi on the same verse:

(The dates of printing and the names of the manuscripts are on the left, with the various Rashi texts on the right:)

Rabbi Leiman makes the startling point that in this case, no two editions printed the same text!

The printer, R. Moshe Alkabetz[6] wrote, in the colophon[7] of the 1476 edition of Rashi’s commentary, that he ‘relied on logic’ to eliminate errors. Unfortunately, there is no record of what changes he made and this again added to the complexity of an already complex matter.

Along similar lines, in 1482, R. Yosef Chaim who was the son of R. Aaron Strassbourg wrote is his colophon:

“I was careful to correct the commentary of Rashi, to restore it to its pristine glory, as much as possible...Because the words which were obscured...from so many errors, will now a light.”

Again, we just don’t know what changes were made, because he didn’t inform his readers. Nor it is clear just how he knew how to restore all of Rashi’s commentary back it to its ‘pristine glory’.

Dr Abecassis points out that while a student using a manuscript would clearly see corrections or amendments written by hand in a different ink or style, these would no longer be apparent in the printed versions. And, to compound matters even further, the wide distribution especially of the printed Rashi texts, would have lent them an air of unmistakable authenticity:

“Despite its tenacious popularity, few of the commentary’s readers are aware of the questionable nature of the text...

Even the modern printed editions that minimally provide alternate versions in the notes, do not express to the reader the true degree of uncertainty and unreliability in the text.

Most students of the printed commentary had and have no concept of how a text evolved through its transmission...”

[For more on the early printing of Torah books, see Daniel Bomberg – The Story behind the Tzuras haDaf.]


Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam (and others), attest that Rashi’s original commentary had maps and diagrams. These only exist, to some extent, in a limited number of printed versions.

Professor Mayer Gruber[8] explains that originally the scribe would have used a copy of Rashi’s commentary which included diagrams. In some manuscripts, the scribe would write ‘kazeh’ or ‘like this’ before leaving a blank space for an artist to later fill it in. However, that space was often left blank. Then, when they were copied again, the spaces were left out and the word ‘kazeh’ was removed as it was now redundant.


Professor Hananel Mak from the Department of Talmud at Bar Ilan University shows, as an example, how a well-known section of Rashi’s commentary may not have existed at the time of Rashi.

In Genesis 32:5, Jacob, tells his twin brother, Esau, that he had dwelt or sojourned with their mutual uncle Lavan.

Rashi comments that ‘sojourned’ (garti) comes from the root ger which means ‘stranger’.  Thus Jacob is subtly suggesting that he did not rise to a position of great status while living with Lavan and therefore there is no reason for Esau to hate him because their father’s blessing (that Jacob will dominate Esau) was not fulfilled.

Then the commentary continues with a ‘davar acher’ (another interpretation): ‘Sojourn’ (garti) has the numerical value of 613 (corresponding to the 613 commandments) – implying that although Jacob sojourned with wicked Lavan, he did not learn from his evil ways and he continued to maintain his righteousness by observing all the commandments. This was Jacob’s implicit warning to his brother Esau not to attack him because his (Jacob’s) righteousness was still intact.

Hananel Mak shows, however, how the second segment of Rashi’s comment could not have been part of his original commentary. The second section, beginning with ‘another interpretation’, did not exist in six of the most authoritative Rashi’s manuscripts which Mak consulted. It only began circulating during the 16th century (which is four centuries after Rashi’s passing).[9]

Yet, once it got printed in the Mikraot Gedolot editions of that same century it became indistinguishable from the other Rashi commentaries.


Although much of the populace was generally blissfully unaware of issues with the printed versions of Rashi’s commentary, there have been individual scholars who have attempted to study the earlier manuscripts to get closer to the original Rashi.

In the early 1500s, Avraham Baqrat collected early manuscripts and tried to collate them but his methodology was rather haphazard. He had access to manuscripts that may no longer be extant but the criterion for his selection of the variant texts is unclear.
In 1866, R. Avraham Berliner also tried to find a more accurate Rashi text and published a new edition of the commentary.

In 1982, Mosad haRav Kook, in an attempt at improving on R. Berliners’ work, published a new edition of Rashi’s commentary under R. Charles Chavel. This edition had access to editio princeps or first publications of Rashi, which the Berliner edition, although earlier, did not have.

These attempts acknowledged that Rashi texts were problematic in that so many different versions existed. However, it has been suggested that the most accurate way of trying to reconstruct a text as close as possible to Rashi’s actual text would be to examining the writings of the Tosafists.


Generally speaking, the Tosafists wrote anonymously[10]. Many of them were part of Rashi’s family, or students of students. They considered their work to be the extension of their teacher Rashi, and felt comfortable with adding comments here and there in furtherance of the culture of scriptural elucidation.

This created a milieu which over time made it very difficult to know exactly what Rashi wrote himself and what was added later and by whom. This, as mentioned was compounded when the printed versions began to appear.

Abecassis writes:

“Patterns in Rashi’s use of peshat and derash [literal and Midrashic][11] interpretations -  when he included both forms of exegesis, or when he cites only one, and why one precedes the other – cannot be determined from the printed editions...”

Put very poignantly:

“Rashi the eleventh-century French exegete, will remain an enigma until the text of his commentary is restored to a version as close as possible to the one he wrote.”

According to Abecassis,

“...the text of Rashi utilised by the Tosafot was significantly different from the [later][12] printed versions.

Examples show that portions of the printed interpretations attributed to Rashi are actually explanations and criticisms offered by the Tosafot that, through various processes, were attributed to the master himself.”

Interestingly, although the Tosafists inadvertently contributed to much of the confusion surrounding the original Rashi manuscripts, they could - nevertheless - be part of the solution to recapture aspects of the authentic Rashi texts.

It is possible to reconstruct a version of Rashi’s commentary, based on the citations of Rashi which are found in the writings of the early Tosafists. These citations would record the most accurate versions of Rashi’s commentary as they are the closest to his lifetime.

Rabbi Leiman makes a similar point that if one wants to sort out the interpolations from the original Rashi, then, quoting Leopold Zunz:

“[one] must make a comparative study of all the early manuscripts...and the citations in related commentators.”[13]

But of course, even if and when this work is done comprehensively, it is unlikely that it will ever gain acceptance in the wider community as they have come to trust the text they have always known in the popular printed editions they are familiar with from childhood.


Part of the challenge of understanding Rashi is that although he said that he only came to expound on the simple and literalpeshat’ of the Torah[14] - the fact is that around three-quarters of his text is Midrash (non-literal).

One way to reconcile what Rashi says about only expounding on the peshat, with what is actually printed, is to suggest that some of the later commentators included Midrashic material which later got conflated with his original commentary.

However, it’s not as simple as that because Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam writes that his grandfather told him that had he had more time, he would have written other comments more in keeping with the literal peshat!

This implies that he was aware and fully cognizant of the large Midrashic content within his commentary - unless he was hinting that already in his time he knew of the ‘additions’ to his text.

This last suggestion may not be so farfetched because as Rabbi Leiman writes: “...numerous glosses were added by others to all the...manuscripts of Rashi’s commentary (a practice already initiated during his lifetime).”

Either way, the true story behind the original text of the most popular commentary on the Torah, remains to be discovered.

But sadly, as Rabbi Leiman puts it: “ is unlikely that we will ever know with precision what Rashi really wrote.”

[1] Where, although it is assumed that Shimon Kayarra compiled it - it may instead have been authored by Yehudai Gaon. See here.
[2] Where, although it is assumed that the Chafetz Chaim authored the entire Mishna Berura exclusively, his son contributed certain sections as well. Just how much is uncertain.  See here.
[3] See: Reconstructing Rashi’s Commentary on Genesis from Citations in the Torah Commentaries of the Tosafot, by Deborah Abecassis.
[4] See: Was Rashi’s Torah Scroll Flawed?  by Shnayer Leiman.
[5] Amudim beToldot haSefer haIvri, by Yaakov Spiegel.
[6] Not to be confused with the author of Lecha Dodi, R. Shlomo Alkabetz.
[7] A colophon was used in the early printed books and still followed the tradition of handwritten manuscripts where the printer attested to the authenticity of the text.
[8] See: What Happened to Rashi’s Pictures? The Bodleian Library Record 15.2, by M. Guber.
[9] According to Mak, the Midrash about the numerical value of garti only begins to appear three Midrashic works (Lekach Tov, Bereshit Rabati and Midrash Aggada) from the 11th or 12th century. And although other pre-sixteenth-century commentators quote it, not one of them claims to have read in Rashi’s commentary, although they usually acknowledge Rashi by name.
[10] Besides the well-known Tosafist commentators like Rashbam, Yosef Kara, and Bechor Shor.
[11] Parenthesis mine.
[12] Parenthesis mine.
[13] Geschichtr und Literatur, Zunz, Berlin 1845, p.64.
[14]vaAni lo bati elah lipeshuto shel mikra

Sunday, 3 February 2019


Rashi (1038/40-1105), regarded as the foremost commentator on the Torah.


The American Civil War could be said to have had a parallel in the complex Maimonidean controversies of the thirteenth century, in the sense that the nation was divided and brother was pitted against brother.[1]

In this article, we shall look at how Rashi’s authority as the quintessential commentator, may have been used as a form of ‘leverage’ during what became known as the Maimonidean conflict.

It must be remembered that Rashi had passed away about thirty years before Rambam (Maimonides) was born, so obviously, he was not personally involved in the confrontation. Rather his legacy was used (and perhaps abused) by both sides.

Rambam (1135-1204), influenced by science and the philosophy of Aristotle was a radical rationalist. It has been suggested, ironically, that Rambam inadvertently paved the way for a resurgence in the mystical or Kabbalist movement which gained huge impetus soon after his death – because it was feared that future Judaism might follow a rationalist path. 

In order to counter those who followed Rambam’s rational school of thought, it was felt necessary to emphasize the mystical tradition.
An ideological conflict broke out between the mystics and the Maimonidean camps. 

The repercussions of this conflict are still very much active to this day. It may be said that much of the underlying currents of present-day hashkafic world view are still extensions of the Maimonidean conflict.


Rambam passed away in 1204. Just thirty-six years later R. Moshe de León was born. Through him, the first sections of the mystical Zohar began to emerge and the modern Kabbalist Renaissance[2] was born.

There is much debate as to whether R. Moshe de León simply revealed a thousand-year-old document - the Zohar - written by R. Shimon bar Yochai, or whether he compiled it himself. [See Mysteries Behind the Origins of the Zohar.]
Either way, what amounted to a ‘theological civil war’ soon erupted between the mystics and the rationalists.

Rambam was questioning the way the Jewish populace understood, for example, the nature of Angels, Life after Death, the Revival of the Dead, Providence and the way Midrashim were taken literally – while the mystics were promoting a more supernatural and literal view of such matters.

The two schools locked horns and:

“Ḥerem [ban] was hurled against counter-ḥerem...

Emissaries of both camps traveled about, rallying their supporters.

A profusion of letters and counter-letters, sermons and counter-sermons, commentaries and counter-commentaries poured out...

[Eventually,] Maimonides' books were burned by the Dominicans in 1232.”[3] 

The reasons for this outbreak of controversy are many and varied. It was more than just a case of mystics against rationalists.

Some believed Rambam was ‘anti-Talmud’ because his summary of key rulings in Talmud was now conveyed in his work Mishneh Torah, which was perceived as a means of side-stepping the Talmud as a future source of reference.

Others felt that Rambam had intentionally side-lined the rabbinical establishment in that their role as Halachic decisors was diminished because the Mishneh Torah (like the internet today) could simply be consulted (it even had the novel addition of an index) – and people would no longer need to consult their rabbinic leadership for guidance.

Rambam may also have aroused the ire of some of the rabbinic leadership whom he criticized sharply about their claim that Jews must financially contribute to help people study Torah. [Quite evidently, though, he lost that battle.]

Rambam wrote:

“All this is wrong. There is not a single word, either in the Torah or in the sayings of the [Talmudic] sages, to lend credence to it [i.e. fundraising]... for as we look into the sayings of the Talmudic sages, we do not find that they ask people for money, nor did they collect money for the honorable and cherished [Torah study] academies.”[4] 
Looking at this in the contemporary idiom, imagine a rabbi suggesting - today - that the ubiquitous industry of fundraising within the Torah world is wrong! - It unlikely that such a person would get the support of the leadership of that community.


Historians have identified four stages in this controversy which continued intensely until about a century after his passing.

In 1232, R. Shlomo of Montpellier[5] managed to persuade the rabbis of Northern France[6], also known as the Tosafists [see Mystical Forays of the Tosafists] to issue a total ban against Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed. The anti-Maimonidean camp thus turned to the rabbis of Northern France who had never been acquainted with Aristotelian philosophy and for whom this type of thinking was foreign.

Some say it included a ban against his Halachic writings of Mishneh Torah as well.

At the same time, there were many letters which were exchanged between the various factions, some of which are recorded in Iggerot Kena’ot or Letters of Zealotry.


Nachmanides or Ramban, who is regarded as a relatively ‘moderate’ opponent to Rambam, writes to the rabbis of Northern France whom he considers to be loyal traditionalists who are “nourished in the bosom of [true] faith, [and] planted in the courts of tradition.

He tries, initially, to get them to understand that there is a role for Rambam and his rationalism because many Jews were assimilated and “have [already] filled their belly with the foolishness of the Greeks [i.e. philosophy]...they...make fun... of the trusting souls... -But [were it not] for the words [of Rambam]...they would have slipped away almost entirely.

In other words, there is space for rational theology within Judaism for those who whose minds draw them in that direction.

However, Nachmanides the ‘moderate statesman’ assumes a very different persona in his commentary on the Torah where “his true temper and the temper of the entire anti-Maimonidean camp is revealed.”

Nachmanides’ commentary on the Torah is described as:

“...basically a mystical work against Maimonides and Abraham Ibn Ezra...[whose writings] he and his colleagues believe to be sheer heresy.”[7]

Or put more diplomatically:

“While Nachmanides tried somewhat to steer a middle course between radical proponents and detractors and sincerely admired the vast erudition of Maimonides, he may be said to have sided ultimately with the anti-Maimonidean position.”[8]

Most importantly though, for the purposes of our discussion, is Ramban’s attempt at displacing Rambam’s new influence with the more conservative views of Rashi.


In Ramban’s introduction to his Torah commentary, he clearly elevates Rashi and the rabbinic school of Northern France to a position of supreme authority.

He writes:

“But what can I do, when my soul longs for the Torah...but to go forth in the footsteps of the early write like them contextual explanations [peshatim] of scriptural passages as well as midrashim...And I will place as a light before my face...the commentaries of our Rabbi Solomon [Rashi]...- his is the most honoured place.”[9]

It must be remembered that Ramban was one of the early and leading kabbalists and mystics. He continues:

“We have a mystical tradition [kabbalah shel emet] that the entire Torah is names of the Holy One...[see Zohar Yitro 87:1] - that words may be separated into (Divine) names...”

Ramban is clearly nailing his colours to the mast and opening up Torah interpretation to ‘hidden meanings’ which, like Rashi, include Midrashim and this was something which Rambam was opposed to. [See: The Challenge of Midrashic Amplification]

And significantly we see that Rashi’s legacy and authority were brought to bear on this matter, in support of the anti-Maimonidean camp. The future Torah world must follow Rashi and not Rambam.


According to Eric Lawee, the rabbis of Northern France:

“...demanded[10], during the heated conflicts over rationalism in the 1230s, scriptural and aggadic exegesis in conformity with Rashi...

Bahya ben Asher...cast Rashi as a ‘great luminary’ who exemplified contextual biblical its best.

The Zohar’s author drew on Rashi’s exegetical patrimony.”[11]

I thank Professor Visi[12] for referring me to a letter sent by R. Asher ben Gershom to the rabbis of Northern France, where R. Asher writes that he is amazed how the anti-Maimonidean camp could have:
“...decreed that one may only study the Torah, Prophets, Writings and [even] Talmud only with the commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo [Rashi]...”

[I am grateful to Professor Visi for communicating with me and clarifying the fact that our medieval sources are insufficient to accurately reconstruct historical events, and many details are therefore obscure. Apparently, no concrete evidence of the original bans issued by the anti-Maimonidean camp has survived.

Instead, our information comes from ‘indirect testimonies’ from the Maimonidean camp itself, which are extant. From these Maimonidean responses, we can infer what the anti-Maimonidean stance must have been in the first place. He does suggest, though, that there is no reason to doubt the reality of the ban against following other authorities over Rashi.[13]]


Although there is much debate as to whether the following letter from Rambam to his son Avraham, is a forgery, he cautions his son to negate Rashi in favour of commentaries by rabbis like Ibn Ezra:

“And now, my son, trust me when I instruct you not to bother your mind with any commentary other than Ibn Ezra...and look into his commentaries with great depth.”

The letter continues with a lightly veiled reference to Rashi:

"Especially keep yourself away from the words of most of the books by the people of Tzarfat, Francia..."

Although Shem Ton Ibn Shaprut, as well as Ibn Kaspi, quoted from this letter and although it is printed in Iggerot veShe'elot uTeshuvot (a collection of letters from Rambam) – Visi believes it is probably a forgery. Nevertheless, he writes that:

“...[it] could have been a Maimonidean response to the Tosaphists’ declaration in the early 1230s that forbade anyone from relying on anybody’s authority in biblical exegesis except Rashi’s under threat of excommunication.”


In 1305, the Rashba (R. Shlomo ben Aderet) issued a ban against:

“...any member of the [Barcelona] community who, being under the age of 25 years, shall study the works of the Greeks[14] on natural science or metaphysics, whether in the original language or in translation.”[15]

Against this ban, R. Menachem Meiri issued a counter declaration rejecting Rashba’s claim that philosophy causes heresy. He brings support from Talmudic rabbis who were students of science and philosophy. He believed that:

“Each individual will search for what suits him [intellectually] according to his natural inclination.”

Yediah haBedersi wrote an appeal to the more conservative rabbis of the anti-Maimonidean camp to remove their bans against Rambam:

“Please, my rabbis, look into the mighty pattern of the benefits of philosophy to all of us, even to those who despise it... Relinquish your ban for the heart of this people will not turn away from philosophy and its books as long as there is breath in their frame and soul in their bodies, especially as together with it [i.e., with devotion to philosophy], they are true to Torah and commandments.

Even if they had heard it from the mouth of Joshua bin Nun they would never have accepted it, for they intend to do battle for the honor of the great teacher [i.e., Maimonides] and his works; and for the holiness of his teaching they will sacrifice fortune, family, and soul as long as there is a breath in their bodies. And thus they will teach and command their children in generations to come.”

Read carefully, this letter to the Tosafists of Northern France was both an appeal as well as a reminder, or threat, that the Maimonidean camp would be prepared to ‘sacrifice fortune, family and soul’ for their cause.


The Sefardi Chacham, Jose’ Faur has done some very interesting research into the ferocity of the conflict, in his aptly titled Anti-Maimonidean Demons.

He makes the very controversial point that:

“...historians have failed to take into consideration the connection between the triumph of the anti-Maimonideans, the rise of Qabbala, and the decay of Jewish learning and leadership leading to mass conversions and culminating in the Expulsion of 1492...mass apostasy to Christianity took place after not before the ban against Maimonides...Responding to a mimetic impulse, the anti-Maiomonideans went on a witch-hunt in the pursuit of Jewish ‘heretics’, precisely as Christians had engaged in the persecution of men of the stature of...Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-1274).”

The witch hunt against Thomas of Aquinas took place during the exact same period as the Maimonidean conflict.

He supports this interesting thesis with a quote from Rashba, who says that even the Christians would want to persecute the Maimonideans as heretics:

“Go into the far away lands inhabited by Canaanites [a code term for ‘Christians’] and all gentiles! They would condemn them [the Maimonideans] as heretics, even for a single heresy and abomination that they had written in their books...and they would tie them up in vine branches and incinerate them till they turn to ashes!”

Faur continues:

“A mark of the anti-Maimonidean ideology (whereby zeal displaces halakhah) is the sanction of violence as a legitimate means for the implementation of ‘religion’...not yet fully explored by historians...”

R. Yona Gerondi (the teacher of Rashba) went to the Christians - the Franciscans and then the Dominicans - pleading:

“Look, most of our people are heretics and unbelievers, because they were duped by R. Moses of Egypt [Maimonides] who wrote heretical books. 

You exterminate heretics, exterminate ours too.”[16]


It does seem that Rashi's legacy was used as 'football' between both contending parties. 

If Rashi's approach was right, then the mystics would be vindicated. The rationalists, on the other hand, had to try and show that Rashi's way was not the only way.

A fascinating question for further study - "not yet fully explored by historians" - would be Faur's suggestion that the anti-Maimonidean camp mimicked the Christianity of its day, and used ''violence as a legitimate means for the implementation of 'religion'." 

[1] This article was inspired by some of the interesting comments and issues raised as a result of the previous post.
[2] As opposed to the earlier Heichalot form of mysticism.
[3] Jewish Virtual Library: Maimonidean Controversy.
[4] Commentary to Avot 4:5
[5] Also known as Shlomo min haHar.
[6] The Tosafist period - spawned by Rashi (1040-1105) - lasted about two hundred years, encompassing the 12th and 13th centuries, and ending with R. Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293). The term Tosafists generally refers to the rabbis of the early period of the Rishonim (1038-1500) who lived specifically in Ashkenaz (Northern France and Germany).
[7] Jewish Virtual Library. Ibid.
[8] A History of Biblical Interpretation, Vol. 2: The Medieval Though the ...edited by Alan J. Hauser, Duane F. Watson, p. 157. 
[9] Ramban goes on to say that as for people like Ibn Ezra (and Rambam), there will be ‘open rebuke and hidden love’ (Proverbs 27:5).  Some scholars have remarked that they have seen the ‘open rebuke’ but not the ‘hidden love’.
[10] Emphasis mine.

[11] Eric Lawee - The Reception of Rashi's Commentary on the Torah in Spain: - Jewish Quarterly Review 97:1, p.37.

[12] In communicating with Professor Tamas Visi, who authored Ibn Ezra, a Maimonidean Authority, and he kindly referred me to this Hebrew article by Joseph Shatzmiller, which deals with R. Asher ben Gershom’s letter. Incidentally, I was rather surprised to see that Professor Visi appears to have adopted a ‘softer’ approach to the Maimonidean conflict than what I had expected and does not necessarily see the conflict as a battle royale between the mystics and rationalists as he points out that the Tosafists were quite rational in their application of the Halacha.
[13]Again, Visi seems to understand the ban in as being more of an affirmation of Rashi than an outright and absolute ban against other commentators, although the tenor of R. Asher ben Gershom’s letter does seem to indicate an outright ban.

[14] A possible veiled reference to Rambam.
[15] Responsa of Rashba 1, no. 416.

[16] Iggerot Kena’ot III, 4c. (Leipzig 1859).