The Disputation at Barcelona and the Mortality of Man  

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The history of the Jews has not been an easy one by any stretch of the imagination. Persecution, forced conversions, slaughter, discrimination, ridicule -- all generations have experienced these things to some degree. But in His kindness, G-d allows the Jews a period of time during which they can rebuild and restore themselves after each tragedy. For example, Columbus set sail and discovered America at around the same time as the Spanish Expulsion. (In fact, he sailed during the very same week that the last of the Jews left Spain.) His discovery of America eventually gave the Jews another opportunity to escape the oppression in Europe.

I recently learned about the history of Spanish Jewry in school, and I decided to read The Disputation of Barcelona. It is the written account by Ramban (Nachmanides) of the debate between himself and an apostate named Pablo Christiani in the summer of 1263 in Barcelona. It was held in front of King James I of Aragonia and other Christian nobles. Debates such as these were common in mediaeval Europe, where Christians, seeking to prove the validity of their religion, forced prominent Jews to participate. The Church would then declare that the Christian had won the debate, although it was usually obvious that that was not at all the case. It was as a result of this that Ramban had to leave Spain. The Church published their own version of the debate at Barcelona, but the only surviving account of the event now is that of the Ramban (translated into English by Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel). Although it is only 42 pages, it is a fascinating read, and I would recomment it to anyone (and especially to those who have doubts about the truth of Judaism). You can purchase it here, or try finding it in your local Jewish library or bookstore.

One of the things that I found very interesting was what he said about mankind's original immortality:

"Behold, the first man lived 930 years. Scripture explains that he died because of his sin and that had he not sinned, he would have lives many more [years] or [perhaps] forever. All of us, gentiles and Jews, admit that the sin and pubinshment of the first man will be voided in the era of the Messiah. If so, death will cease from all of us [ordinary mortals] after the coming of Messiah. As far as the Messiah himself is concerned, death is completely inoperative against him. Thus, it is fitting that Messiah live for thousands of years or [even] forever."

(p. 16)

So according to this, man had the potential to live even longer than a millenium, if not forever. But because the first man, Adam, sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, his life was cut short and he could no longer be immortal.

Ramban went on to explain, in answer to the king's question about the whereabouts of the Messiah:

The answer is clearly written in Scripture. The first man was placed in the Garden of Eden, which is upon the earth. When he sinned, it is stated, And the Eternal G-d sent him forth from the Garden of
. If so, this one, who is free from the punishment of man, abides there in the Garden of Eden.

(p. 16)

What Ramban is saying is that since Adam's sin and punishment had no effect on the Messiah, he could both be immortal and dwell in the Garden of Eden. Adam was only expelled from it as a punishment for eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

The Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez, a commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Yaakov Culi (1689 - 1732), has a fascinating explanation of why exactly Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden for his sin. He was punished thoroughly for that sin -- his stature was reduced, his beauty was diminished, he had to work hard for his food, etc. In all, Adam was given ten curses. What I found interesting though was that this commentary connected the curse of mortality to the curse of being banished from the Garden of Eden.

One of the trees that as in the Garden of Eden was the Tree of Life. G-d never forbade Adam from eating the fruit of that specific tree, and according to the Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez:

"G-d would have not minded if Adam had eaten from it and gained immortality; creation was originally set up in such a manner that no creature would die. It was only after Adam sinned that he was banished from the Garden of Eden so that he could not gain immortality by eating from the Tree of

(p. 278, The Torah Anthology - Genesis I 1.)

G-d wanted Adam to be able to live forever, and Adam did indeed have that opportunity. Not only was G-d watching over him to make sure no harm came to him, but Adam was also permitted to eat from the Tree of Life, which would extend his life. Therefore, when G-d wanted to curse Adam by making him mortal, He also had to banish him from the Garden of Eden, so that Adam would not be able to prolong his life by eating from the Tree of Life. The Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez shows that Adam's expulsion from the Garden of Eden was because of his curse of mortality, which was the punishment for his sin. It was a direct, logical result.

Going back to what Ramban said about the Messiah's immortality, we can apply the Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez's explanation to it. The Messiah can reside in the Garden of Eden, because he is supposed to be immortal.

And when the Mashiach comes to gather our scattered nation and redeem us, we will also have the gift of immortality that we were originally meant to have and would then logically be permitted to experience being in the Garden of Eden.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 17, 2009 at Tuesday, November 17, 2009 and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Wow. Pretty good "vort". Probably first one so far on the blog. To comment:

"(In fact, he sailed during the very same week that the last of the Jews left Spain)"- 1) As far as I understand it's been proven that he set sail on the very same day. 2) Almost half the Jews decided to stay in Spain. Many became what was known as "Marranos".

"The Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez...has a fascinating explanation of why exactly Adam was banished..."- As far as I understand he wasn't the originator of any of the ideas he wrote there.

November 19, 2009 at 2:46 AM

Thank you. There are a lot of other Torah thoughts I wanted/want to blog about, so hopefully this is something my readers will be seeing more often.

1) Yes, that is what I heard as well. I know that the Jews were decreed to leave Spain by July 31st, 1492, but the date was pushed forward to August 2nd. But according to various sources, Columbus set sail in the 3rd. I wrote that the two events took place during the same week just to be safe.

2) Yes, I am aware that many Anusim (forced converts) remained in Spain (and some even set sail with Columbus), but I was writing about the open practicing Jews.

The quote I used from the Me'am Lo'ez was based on the Toldot Yitzchak, according to a note at the back of the book. Just because he was not the originator of the ideas does not mean he doesn't provide the explanations.

November 19, 2009 at 6:55 PM

Dust says: I was just reading the disputation myself, it's quite interesting. I wonder what wasn't included because it is obvious that the debate was longer than it appears in this format. I wonder if that's just because the Ramban didn't see fit to cite some of his opponents' ideas?

It is interesting that he does not dismiss the midrash about possibility of the Moshiach being able to atone for the sins of others just specifies that this might occur in a spiritual manner he just hints that the punishment is watching the sadness of the world until his arrival.

December 7, 2009 at 12:22 AM

His rejection of original sin is particularly intriguing. The whole part about souls being responsible for there father's as much as a person's is for Pharoh's.

December 7, 2009 at 12:31 AM

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