"Guide me in your truth and fulfill me from its delights"
The Iberian Peninsula was in many ways the center of the Jewish world in the Middle Ages, leaving a sustained literary, religious and cultural legacy. Catalonia alone was home to some of the most significant figures of the period, perhaps most prominent among them being Rabbi Moshe son of Nachman, more commonly known as the Ramban or Nachmanides.
An intellectual giant whose commentaries on the Bible, the Talmud and countless other texts complemented an array of original works, the Ramban’s writings, composed in the 13th century, are widely studied and cited to this day.
He was also a leading Kabbalist, a persecuted defender of his faith, and (to use a modern term), an active Zionist. In his eighth decade of life, Rabbi Moshe was banished from his home following a religious disputation and decided to move across the world to the Land of Israel, where he helped rebuild Jewish communities and scholarship decimated by the Crusades, the Mongols and the passage of time. The Rabbi’s arrival in Jerusalem in 1267 CE marked the beginning of hundreds of years of uninterrupted Jewish settlement in the city, and the synagogue he established still stands.
A famous letter written from the Land of Israel to his son in Catalonia teaches that humility and constantly maintaining composure are key to leading a good life and continual spiritual growth. This letter, known as Iggeret HaRamban appears in many modern prayer books and certainly reveals something deeply personal about the sage’s inner thoughts and worldview.
Just last year, a prayer attributed to the Ramban was printed for the first time, appearing in Dr. Idan Perez’s Sidur Catalunya (see transcription in the comments section below). Perez’s work presents the first ever printed prayer book of the Catalonian liturgy and ritual used by the Ramban and the once thriving Jewish communities of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca, which were ultimately extinguished by the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion over 500 years ago.
The monumental project was completed by piecing together manuscripts and other source materials from institutions across the globe. The prayer attributed to the Ramban was found in a manuscript written just after the Expulsion, which was likely used by Catalonian exiles living in Provence. It is now held in Rome’s Casanatense Library, and is available online as part of “Ktiv”, the National Library of Israel-led initiative to open digital access to all of the world’s Hebrew manuscripts.
According to Perez, these types of prayers – referred to as “bakashot”, or “supplications” – were quite common among Iberian Jews of the period. Catalonian communities apparently recited them after the regular daily prayers, while other communities across the peninsula would say their bakashot before prayers.
“The text’s content and style, along with the fact that the manuscript’s author prefaced it with the words ‘A Bakasha of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman’, all seem to indicate that this bakasha was, in fact, written by the Ramban himself,” says Perez, who heads the Rare Books Department at the National Library of Israel.
To the modern Hebrew speaker, the Ramban’s poetic prayer – written some eight centuries ago – is surprisingly clear. It appears here in English for the first time, with a few notes and sources added in parentheses for clarification purposes:
Please, O Lord who creates without having a creator∙
And who conceived a thought and power from potential to action, brought forth light which illuminates all of the lights from the beginning until the end, for all of the illuminations∙
The words of God are pure words (Psalms 12:7)∙
Please, with your unseen, refined and pure power, establish my thoughts in your service, in awe, in trembling and in reverence∙
You have brought to light every mystery∙
Make me wise to know your commandments, and as a hawk soars over its prey (Job 29:36), allow me to understand and guide me in the path of your commandments∙
And in the ways of repentance (teshuva) instruct me∙
Because you are a God who desires the repentance of the wicked∙
And the spirit of grace flows forth onto those who know and those who do not know, and in the attribute of your beloved ones from ancient times, bless me with sublime favor, as my absolute light∙
And this is your favor that you shall do for me∙
And may I not tremble in fear of you (Job 13:21)∙
And raise me up on the balance of grace∙
And guide me in your truth and fulfill me from its delights∙
And from their great light, enlighten me∙
And like the mountain of your inheritance (Jerusalem), bring me and plant me∙
And between two cherubs, may your word come and console me∙
And desire me and receive me∙
And may the foundation of your world establish my soul and may it be bound up in the bundle of life, the pure soul you have placed within me, and in the great all-encompassing crown, may it be included∙
Include me in your exalted attribute of goodness, with every blessing and splendor∙
Please, with these crowns, which are ten in number∙
And in them lay the secret to everything∙
May my supplication come before you∙
And may your ear be inclined to my joy∙
And may my prayer come before the sanctuary of your holiness∙
And from the good oil of the two olives and the wellspring, pour upon the seven candles of the entirely gold menorah (Zechariah 4:3)∙
And shower upon he who longs for your kindness and sees your goodness through spiritual channels from higher wellsprings and lower wellsprings (Joshua 15:19)∙
And you are the one who knows that I do not unburden my plea before you due to my righteousness, but rather by the merit of my forefathers I have based it, and by the greatness of your mercy and your humility and the memory of your thirteen attributes∙
Many thanks to Dr. Idan Perez and colleagues at the National Library of Israel and the Ezra Fleischer Institute for the Research of Hebrew Poetry in the Genizah for their expertise and assistance with the translation. This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.