Seven hundred years before Israeli paratroopers restored the Old City of Jerusalem to Jewish hands, a great sage was rejuvenating Jewish life in the holy city, building the cornerstone for many generations to follow.
Nachmanides, also known as Ramban (an acronym of Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), was born in Spain in 1195. A physician by trade, he was best known for authoring brilliant biblical and Talmudic commentaries.
Nachmanides lived in an era during which the Land of Israel suffered a wave of rulers who conquered and wreaked devastation. These invasions left Jerusalem bereft of Jews and the city in ruins.
Meanwhile, in Spain, anti-Jewish sentiment was on the rise, and Jews were being pressured to convert. One technique favored by the Church was to “prove Judaism wrong” by holding a religious debate – a disputation – between a rabbi and a priest.
Such undertakings were fraught with danger. If the rabbi lost, Jews would be forced to convert en masse. If the rabbi won, things weren’t necessarily better: In one disputation, the rabbi won the dispute but copies of the Talmud were burned by the cartload anyway.
In 1263, King James of Spain authorized a disputation between Nachmanides and a Jewish convert to Christianity, Pablo Christiani. Nachmanides reluctantly agreed to take part, only after being assured by the king that he would have full freedom of expression.
The debate focused on a key difference between Judaism and Christianity: the identity of the messiah and whether or not he had already come.
Nachmanides won the battle but lost the war. His arguments earned the king’s respect (and a prize of 300 gold coins), but the Church ordered Nachmanides to be tried on the charge of blasphemy, and he was forced to flee Spain.
At age 72, he decided to move to the desolate ruins of Jerusalem.
Aware of the dismal situation in Israel, Nachmanides seemed to be planning Jerusalem’s revival before he arrived: Just prior to his departure, he delivered a sermon about the holiness of the land and the importance of giving charity.
In 1267, after a long and perilous journey, Nachmanides arrived at the port city of Acco. After a brief stay, he traveled to Jerusalem where he was struck by its desolation. Buildings were dilapidated and abandoned. There were so few Jews that he could not even find 10 men for a minyan.
In a letter to his son, he wrote: “Many are [Israel’s] forsaken places, 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.”
Yet Nachmanides saw hope. He recalled the Torah verses (Leviticus 26:32-33) in which God describes Israel during the period of exile: “So devastated will I leave the land, that your enemies who live there will be astonished.… Your land will remain desolate, and your cities in ruins.”
He wrote in a commentary on this verse:
That which God states here, “So devastated will I leave the land that your enemies …” constitutes a good tiding, proclaiming that during all our exiles, our land will not accept our enemies. This is a great proof and assurance to us, for in the entire inhabited world one cannot find such a good and large land which was always lived in, and yet is as ruined as it is [today]. For since the time that we left it, it has not accepted any nation or people, and they all try to settle it, but to no avail.
Indeed, during the many centuries of Israel’s exile from its land, no conqueror succeeded in permanently settling the land or causing the desert to blossom. In the ruins of Jerusalem, Nachmanides saw a fulfillment of God’s promise that the land was waiting for the Jews to return.
Nachmanides immediately set about rebuilding the Jewish community. He chose a ruined house outside the Old City walls on Mount Zion – one with marble pillars and a beautiful arch – and began construction of a synagogue. Torah scrolls that had been removed before the Mongol invasion, and transported to the city of Shechem, were returned.
Word of Nachmanides’s presence brought more residents to Jerusalem. In a mere three weeks the synagogue was ready for use, just as Rosh Hashanah arrived. And on that holy day, Nachmanides delivered a sermon urging the new arrivals to remain in Jerusalem.