Ramban on the Torah: The Five Books of the Chumash

By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, WebYeshiva

What is the significance of the division of Chumash into five books? Since we experience the Torah as distinct parshiyot read in shul each Shabbat, we tend not to think much about these larger divisions. However, the Chumash divisions date back to the giving of the Torah whereas the parsha breaks simply reflect a later attempt to divide up Chumash in such a way that we can complete it annually. If so, it behooves us to think more seriously about the five fold division.

Commentaries who focus on verse by verse explanation may sometimes not ask questions about larger units. Ramban, on the other hand, does raise such questions, beginning each Chumash with an introduction surveying the entire book. These introductions do far more than survey; they locate a unified theme running through each individual sefer. Sefer Shemot has a distinct message as does Sefer Vayikra. As we shall see, assuming a unified theme in each book influences Ramban’s understanding of particular narrative and legal sections within these books

Ramban views Breishit as the book of creation. Of course, the actual creation of the world constitutes a small part of the sefer, but the lives of our patriarchs were also a kind of creative force for their descendents. Perhaps this played a role in Ramban’s doctrine of ma’aseh avot siman le’banim. If our patriarchs’ actions set in motion later Jewish history, it becomes easier to see them as part of the basic structuring of our universe.

Sefer Shmot might be subtitled: “From Exile to Redemption”. Although the Jews leave Egypt before the book is half over, the authentic redemption is complete only after they receive the Torah and construct a mishkan. Once the divine presence dwells among them and they return to the stature of their forefathers, we can speak of redemption. The first and last verses of Sefer Shmot powerfully support Ramban’s reading. Shmot starts with Yaakov’s family descending to Egypt; it concludes with the divine presence filling the tabernacle. These two verses convey the theme of from exile to redemption.

Arguably, this assumption also impacts on Ramban’s understanding of the mishkan. He views the ark as the essential item in the mishkan due to its housing of the luchot. Placement of the tablets reflects the attempt to take the revelation at Sinai and make it, to some degree, part of the ongoing Jewish experience in the mishkan (see the first Ramban on Truma). This interpretive assumption draws a strong connection between the two halves of Sefer Shmot, thereby encouraging a unified view of the sefer.

Sefer Vayikra provides examples of the same phenomenon. Ramban contends that the entire book is about the priests and the sacrificial order. This theme works quite well for the first half of the sefer but less well for the remainder. Ramban explains that Vayikra includes other mitzvot due to some connection they bear with the sacrificial order. For example, the festivals are included (chapter 23) because we bring special sacrifices on those holy days. Here, Ramban stands on shakier ground. Chapter 23 does discuss the festivals but it does not emphasize the sacrificial component of these festivals. That actually appears in Sefer Bamidbar. Moreover, much of Parhsat Kedoshim lacks a korban connection. Regarding this sefer, we might prefer Abravanel’s approach. Vayikra deals with sanctity – the first half with the sanctity of the priests and the second half with the sanctity of Am Yisrael.

In any case, we see the impact that this broader thematic question has on our understanding of Torah.

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