The Spanish-born Jewish scholar Nahmanides (1194-1270), also called Moses ben Nahman, was the first outstanding rabbi to declare that resettlement in the land of Israel was a biblical precept binding upon all Jews.
Nahmanides was born in Gerona and educated in Spanish rabbinic schools. He became the leader of Spanish Jewry, which was centered at Gerona. His studies and his natural frame of mind inclined him toward a mystical interpretation of the Bible and toward the philosophic doctrines of the Cabalists.
Nahmanides's chief achievements lay in two directions. First, he reorganized and revivified the study of the Talmud in Spain. He produced a series of short works, each of which consisted of a selected passage from the Talmud that he analyzed and commented upon. In fact, Nahmanides inaugurated this form of rabbinic literature. Second, Nahmanides profoundly influenced Jewish biblical theology through his exegetical work. It was in this area that his mystical leanings and Cabalistic traits appeared. Nahmanides believed that the ultimate and complete meaning of the Bible was a mystical one to be penetrated through enlightened faith and through the science of the Cabalistic masters. Respecting reason within its limits, Nahmanides nevertheless opposed the rationalizations and philosophizings of Maimonides. He denied that human reason could answer all questions, and as a result his exegetical work, a commentary on the Pentateuch, was heavily loaded with mystical references. Nahmanides employed both literal meanings and Haggadic and Halakic interpretations; but he usually pointed to the mystic meaning as most significant.
The rabbi's circle of students and followers issued a wide range of scholarly works. Sefer Temuna (Book of Image) describes each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet as an image of God. Nahmanides also explained the various periods of world history in the light of these images.
Nahmanides formed part of the Spanish school of Cabalists, which also included Judah ben Yaqar, Ezra ben Solomon, Azriel, and Jacob ben Sheshet. They were all steeped in Neoplatonic speculation, which intruded into the Gnostic type of mysticism that had hitherto reigned in Jewish mysticism. This Gnostic mysticism had originated in a rabbinic gnosis of the 1st and 2d centuries A.D. It had centered on the throne (Merkabha) of God as described in Ezekiel I. The Neoplatonic trend of Nahmanides's mysticism centered on the sefirot, or "soul" or "inner life," of the hidden transcendent God. On this basis Nahmanides formed his mystical theory of history and thus became a forerunner of the mystical historical doctrines of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Nahmanides was the outstanding Jewish protagonist in the famous Barcelona Disputation of 1263, in which his adversary was the anti-Jewish agitator Pablo Christiani. The Christian hierarchies commonly organized disputations of this sort as a form of public entertainment in the Middle Ages. Generally, they involved a converted Jew who challenged one of his former coreligionists. In the Barcelona Disputation, Nahmanides won the victory and received as a reward a purse of money from King James I of Aragon, in whose presence the disputation had taken place. In 1267 Nahmanides moved to Palestine. He died in Acre 3 years later.
Further Reading on Nahmanides
Information on Nahmanides is in Gershom G. Scholom, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1946; 3d rev. ed. 1954).