Maimonides’ Learned and Acerbic Provençal Critic

January 23, 2023 | Tamar Marvin
About the author:

Best remembered today for his commentary on Moses Maimonides’ code of Jewish law, Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquières (ca. 1125–1198)—known to posterity by the acronym Ra’avad—was one of the great talmudists of his day. Much of his extensive oeuvre appears to have been lost to the ravages of time, and several of his extant works remain little-studied, but he nonetheless left an enduring mark on the development of Jewish law. Tamar Marvin tells his story:

Ra’avad was both shaped by medieval Provençal Jewish culture and a major influence on its trajectory. What Jews have traditionally called “Provence” refers to the whole swathe of land between the Pyrenees and Italy, approximately the southern third of present-day France, which in the Middle Ages was distinguished linguistically [from the neighboring regions]. It sits at the crossroads of Europe and has its own unique culture infused with both Ashkenazi and Sephardi ideas. For example, in the 12th century, when Ra’avad lived, Jewish Provence was a hotbed of kabbalistic thought even as it was nurturing the beginnings of what would become a proud rationalist philosophical traditionall the while steeped in distinctive traditions of Torah scholarship made famous in the academies of Narbonne, Lunel, and Béziers.

Since the first publication of Ra’avad’s hasagot [critical glosses] to the Mishneh Torah in the 16th century, they have been a frequent accompaniment to Maimonides’ code and the source of Ra’avad’s reputation as a fiery traditionalist. Take for example the gloss on Hilkhot Talmud Torah 6:14: . . . “On my life and mind! There is no great analysis here.” In another gloss, he says of Maimonides: “This comes out of the mess he made of these things, confusing these and those and likening in his mind matters that are discrete and entirely distinct.” His independence of mind is notable, but so too is the respect he gave to his younger contemporary by anticipating the magnitude of his impact and deciding to comment on his work.

Though Rabbi Abraham himself wrote no kabbalistic works, he was clearly at the center of early centers of Kabbalah that bubbled up prominently in Provence, in interesting and creative ways, in the 12th century. Both of his sons, Rabbi David and especially Rabbi Isaac the Blind, were renowned Kabbalists whose thought and traditions were transmitted across the Pyrenees . . . in the following century.

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