See C. B. Chavel, Ramban (1960).
Nahmanides studied medicine which he practiced as a means of livelihood; he also studied philosophy. During his teens he began to get a reputation as a learned Jewish scholar. At age 16 he began his writings on Jewish law. In his Milhamot Hashem (Wars of the Lord) he defended Alfasi's decisions against the criticisms of Zerachiah ha-Levi of Girona. These writings reveal a conservative tendency that distinguished his later works — an unbounded respect for the earlier authorities.
In the view of Nahmanides, the wisdom of the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, as well as the Geonim (rabbis of the early medieval era) was unquestionable. Their words were to be neither doubted nor criticized. "We bow," he says, "before them, and even when the reason for their words is not quite evident to us, we submit to them" (Aseifat Zekkenim, commentary on Ketubot). Nahmanides' adherence to the words of the earlier authorities may be due to piety, or the influence of the northern French Jewish school of thought. However, it is thought that it also may be a reaction to the rapid acceptance of Greco-Arabic philosophy among the Jews of Spain and Provence; this occurred soon after the appearance of Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed. This work gave rise to a tendency to allegorize Biblical narratives, and to downplay the role of miracles. Against this tendency Nahmanides strove, and went to the other extreme, not even allowing the utterances of the immediate disciples of the Geonim to be questioned.
In a letter addressed to the French rabbis, he draws attention to the virtues of Maimonides and holds that Maimonides' Mishne Torah – his Code of Jewish Law – not only shows no leniency in interpreting prohibitions within Jewish law, but may even be seen as more stringent, which in Nahmanides' eyes was a positive factor. As to Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, Nahmanides stated that it was intended not for those of unshaken belief, but for those who had been led astray by the non-Jewish philosophical works of Aristotle and Galen. (Note that Nahmanides's analysis of the Guide is not the consensus view of modern scholars.)
"If," he says, "you were of the opinion that it was your duty to denounce the Guide as heretical, why does a portion of your flock recede from the decision as if it regretted the step? Is it right in such important matters to act capriciously, to applaud the one to-day and the other tomorrow?"
To reconcile the two parties Nahmanides proposed that the ban against the philosophical portion of Maimonides's Code of Jewish law should be revoked, but that the ban against the study of the "Guide for the Perplexed", and against those who rejected allegorical interpretation of the Bible, should be maintained and even strengthened. This compromise, which might have ended the struggle, was rejected by both parties in spite of Nahmanides' authority.///..
For Nahmanides, divine revelation is the best guide in all these questions, and proceeds to give his views on Jewish views of the afterlife. He holds that as God is eminently just, there must be reward and punishment. This reward and punishment must take place in another world, for the good and evil of this world are relative and transitory.
Besides the animal soul, which is derived from the "Supreme powers" and is common to all creatures, man possesses a special soul. This special soul, which is a direct emanation from God, existed before the creation of the world. Through the medium of man it enters the material life; and at the dissolution of its medium it either returns to its original source or enters the body of another man. This belief is, according to Nahmanides, the basis of the levirate marriage, the child of which inherits not only the name of the brother of his fleshly father, but also his soul, and thus continues its existence on the earth. The resurrection spoken of by the prophets, which will take place after the coming of the Messiah, is referred by Nahmanides to the body. The physical body may, through the influence of the soul, transform itself into so pure an essence that it will become eternal.
His exposition, intermingled with aggadic and mystical interpretations, is based upon careful philology and original study of the Bible. As in his preceding works, he vehemently attacks the Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, and frequently criticizes Maimonides' Biblical interpretations. Thus he cites Maimonides' interpretation of Gen. 18:8, asserting that it is contrary to the evident meaning of the Biblical words and that it is sinful even to hear it. While Maimonides endeavored to reduce the miracles of the Bible to the level of natural phenomena, Nahmanides emphasizes them, declaring that "no man can share in the Torah of our teacher Moses unless he believes that all our affairs, whether they concern masses or individuals, are miraculously controlled, and that nothing can be attributed to nature or the order of the world." See further on this debate under Divine Providence.
Next to belief in miracles Nahmanides places three other beliefs, which are, according to him, the Jewish principles of faith, namely, the belief in creation out of nothing, in the omniscience of God, and in divine providence.
Pablo Christiani had been trying to make the Jews abandon their religion and convert to Christianity. Relying upon the reserve his adversary would be forced to exercise due to fear of wounding the feelings of the Christians, Pablo assured the King that he would prove the truth of Christianity from the Talmud and other rabbinical writings. Ramban answered the order of the King, but asked that complete freedom of speech should be granted. For four days (July 20-24) he debated with Pablo Christiani in the presence of the King, the court, and many churchmen.
The subjects discussed were:
Christiani argued, based upon several aggadic passages, that the Pharisee sages believed that the Messiah had lived during the Talmudic period, and that they ostensibly believed that the Messiah was therefore Jesus. Nahmanides countered that Christiani's interpretations were per-se distortions; the rabbis would not hint that Jesus was Messiah while, at the same time, explicitly opposing him as such. Nahmanides proceeded to provide context for the proof-texts cited by Christiani, showing that they were most clearly understood differently than as proposed by Christiani. Furthermore, Nahmanides demonstrated from numerous biblical and talmudic sources that traditional Jewish belief ran contrary to Christiani's postulates.
Nahmanides went on to show that the Biblical prophets regarded the future messiah as a human, a person of flesh and blood, and not as a divinity, in the way that Christians view Jesus. He noted that their promises of a reign of universal peace and justice had not yet been fulfilled. On the contrary, since the appearance of Jesus, the world had been filled with violence and injustice, and among all denominations the Christians were the most warlike.
He noted that questions of the Messiah are of less dogmatic importance to Jews than most Christians imagine. The reason given by him for this bold statement is that it is more meritorious for the Jews to observe the precepts under a Christian ruler, while in exile and suffering humiliation and abuse, than under the rule of the Messiah, when every one would perforce act in accordance with the Law.
As the disputation turned in favor of Nahmanides, the Jews of Barcelona, fearing the resentment of the Dominicans, entreated him to discontinue; but the King, whom Nahmanides had acquainted with the apprehensions of the Jews, desired him to proceed. The controversy was therefore resumed, and concluded in a complete victory for Nahmanides, who was dismissed by the King with a gift of three hundred gold pieces as a mark of his respect. The King remarked that he had never encountered a man who, while yet being wrong, argued so well for his position.
The Dominicans, nevertheless, claimed the victory, and Nahmanides felt obligated to publish the text of the dabates. From this publication Pablo selected certain passages which he construed as blasphemies against Christianity and denounced to his general Raymond de Penyafort. A capital charge was then instituted, and a formal complaint against the work and its author was lodged with the King. James was obliged to entertain the charge, but, mistrusting the Dominican court, called an extraordinary commission, and ordered that the proceedings be conducted in his presence. Nahmanides admitted that he had stated many things against Christianity, but he had written nothing which he had not used in his disputation in the presence of the King, who had granted him freedom of speech.
The justness of his defense was recognized by the King and the commission, but to satisfy the Dominicans, Nahmanides was sentenced to exile for two years and his pamphlet was condemned to be burned. He was also fined, but this was lifted as a favor to Benveniste de Porta, Nahmanides' brother. The Dominicans, however, found this punishment too mild and, through Pope Clement IV., they seem to have succeeded in turning the two years' exile into perpetual banishment.
It was to arouse the interest of the Israeli Jews in the exposition of the Bible that Nahmanides wrote the greatest of his works, the above-mentioned commentary on the Torah. Although surrounded by friends and pupils, Nahmanides keenly felt the pangs of exile. "I left my family, I forsook my house. There, with my sons and daughters, the sweet, dear children I brought up at my knees, I left also my soul. My heart and my eyes will dwell with them forever."
During his three years' stay in the Holy Land Nahmanides maintained a correspondence with his native land, by means of which he endeavored to bring about a closer connection between Judea and Spain. Shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem he addressed a letter to his son Nahman, in which he described the desolation of the Holy City, where there were at that time only two Jewish inhabitants — two brothers, dyers by trade. In a later letter from Acre he counsels his son to cultivate humility, which he considers to be the first of virtues. In another, addressed to his second son, who occupied an official position at the Castilian court, Nahmanides recommends the recitation of the daily prayers and warns above all against immorality. Nahmanides died after having passed the age of seventy-six. There is a disagreement as to his actual burial place. Some say that his remains were interred at Haifa, by the grave of Yechiel of Paris. Others say that they are as he requested, next to the building housing the grave sites of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hevron. Supporting this latter theory was the discovery of a small underground tomb by an expert in the use of divining rods in the exact place that his request mentioned, under the seventh step of the small stairs to the right of the building. This location is visited at times by people to give respect to this great Torah Master. Among the visitors is a 26th generation descendant living in Israel.
Nahmanides' known halakhic works are: "Mishpetei ha-Cherem," the laws concerning excommunication, reproduced in "Kol Bo"; "Hilkhot Bedikkah," on the examination of the lungs of slaughtered animals, cited by Shimshon ben Tzemach Duran in his "Yavin Shemu'ah"; "Torat ha-Adam," on the laws of mourning and burial ceremonies, in thirty chapters, the last of which, entitled "Sha'ar ha-Gemul," deals with eschatology (Constantinople, 1519, and frequently reprinted).
Nahmanides' writings in the defense of Simeon Kayyara and Alfasi also belong in the category of his Talmudic and halachic works. These writings are: "Milhamot HaShem," defending Alfasi against the criticisms of Zerachiah ha-Levi of Girona (published with the "Alfasi," Venice, 1552; frequently reprinted; separate edition, Berlin, 1759); "Sefer ha-Zekhut," in defense of Alfasi against the criticisms of Abraham ben David (RABaD; printed with Abraham Meldola's "Shiv'ah 'Enayim," Leghorn, 1745; under the title "Machaseh u-Magen," Venice, 1808); "Hassagot" (Constantinople, 1510; frequently reprinted), in defense of Simeon Kayyara against the criticisms of Maimonides' "Sefer ha-Mitzwoth" (Book of Precepts).