Sunday, September 25, 2011

Rabbi Avner the apostate in a Haazinu Torah Code

Summary: Except of course that it is a likely a bubbe mayseh, and it is no Torah Code.

Post: In Seder HaDoros, by Rabbi Yechiel ben Rabbi Shlomo Halprin, on page 56b, written about 1697, we read:

"And I have received a tradition that the Ramban had a student by the name of Rabbi Avner, who became a Sadducee {presumably, Christian; perhaps a Karaite?}. And his mazal cased him to become great, and he was awesome throughout the land. After these days, on Yom Kippur, he sent and brought the Ramban his teacher before him. He slaughtered by himself a pig, cut it up, cooked it, and ate it. And after he ate it, he asked the rav how many kareses he had violated. And the rav answered him that it was four. And he said that it was five. And thus, he wished to dispute with his teacher. And the Ramban cast his eyes upon him in anger, and that man fell silent, for he still retailed a bit of fear of his teacher. And in the end, the rav asked the man what brought him to apostasy. And he answered him that one time, he heard him {=the Ramban} darshen in parashat Haazinu that in that parashah were included all the mitzvos and all the things in the world. And since this was to him something impossible, he became another person. And the rav answered and said 'I still maintain this. Ask what you will.' And the man was extremely astonished and said to him, 'If so, please show me if my name name is written there.' And the Ramban answered, 'You have spoken well, that which you seek from me.' And immediately, he went into the corner and prayed, and the pasuk came to his mouth {Haazinu 32:26}, 

כו  אָמַרְתִּי, אַפְאֵיהֶם;  {ר}  אַשְׁבִּיתָה מֵאֱנוֹשׁ, זִכְרָם.  {ס}26 I thought I would make an end of them, I would make their memory cease from among men;

that the third letter of each word spells out the name of the man, which is R' Avner. And when he heard this matter, his face fell, and he asked his teacher if there was any cure to his hurt? And the rav said to him, you have heard the words of the verse. And the rav went on his way, and immediately, the man took a boat without sailors or oars, and went wherever the wind blew, and no more was known of him. (And see in Emek haMelech, shaar rishon, perek dalet.)"

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in telling this over -- see here at Shirat Devorah -- stresses that the rabbinic title, the R', was still present in his name. This is the sort of thing that the Rebbe, with his focus on kiruv rechokim, would notice and stress. I don't know that this was the intent, more than the focus on the negative message in the verse towards an apostate, as well as his path towards making amends.

This is an awesome story, in which we see the ruach hakodesh of the Ramban, the comeuppance of an apostate, and the message that the Torah is all-encompassing, and thus certainly relevant to our own lives. In addition, it seems to be a bolstering of the Torah codes, since someone as great as the Ramban put forth this Torah code.

Except, of course, it is not a Torah Code. There is no regular skip interval. Between the first few letters are six letters, but between the nun and the resh of Avner, there are only five letters. Rather, it is a more classic sort of kabbalistic derasha, finding the Xth letter of each subsequent word. This is the sort of thing we find regularly in Baal HaTurim. And Torah Codes proponents might well dismiss this sort of code as mathematically irrelevant, since it is not a priori. After all, one needs just look for any skip until one encounters one word, Avner. I say this just to stress the divide that exists between classic derashot of this sort and the Torah Codes. It is a different sort of derasha, where they make up their own, mathematically-grounded, rules.

Who was this Avner? If he really rose to such prominence and fame, shouldn't we have heard about him?

Well, it turns out that there was a famous apostate named R' Avner, in about the same time and place as the Ramban. The sefer Seder HaDoros does not identify him in particular, but it makes sense that he is referring to Avner of Burgos. The Ramban lived in Gerona and Avner was of Valladolid, both cities in Spain. Here is a bit about Avner, but read the whole article (drawn initially from JewishEncyclopedia):
Abner of Burgos (ca. 1270-ca. 1347, or a little later) was a Jewish philosopher, a convert to Christianity and polemical writer against his former religion. Known after his conversion as Alfonso of Valladolid.

As a student he acquired a certain mastery in Biblical and Talmudical studies, to which he added an intimate acquaintance with Peripatetic philosophy and astrology. He was graduated as a physician at 25, but throughout a long life he seems to have found the struggle for existence a hard one. In 1295, he reportedly treated a number of Jews for distress following their experiences in the failed messianic movement in Avila. As Abner reports in his Moreh Zedek/Mostrador de justicia, he himself "had a dream" in which a similar experience of crosses mysteriously appearing on his garments drove him to question his ancestral faith.

Not being of those contented ones who, as Moses Narboni says in his Maamar ha-Beḥirah (Essay on the Freedom of the Will; quoted by Grätz, p. 488), are satisfied with a peck of locust beans from one Friday to another, he resolved to embrace Christianity though at the advanced age of sixty, according to Pablo de Santa María (Scrutinium Scripturarum); according to other writers he took this step soon after he was graduated in medicine. According to the statements of his contemporaries, such as Narboni, he converted, not from spiritual conviction, but for the sake of temporal advantage. Something of the apostate's pricking conscience seems to have remained with him, however, although he was immediately rewarded with a sacristan's post in the prominent Metropolitan Church in Valladolid (whence he took the name of Alfonso of Valladolid). The argument that Abner converted for material gain is put in to question by the fact that his post as a sacristan was extremely modest and he never, throughout his long and public polemical career after conversion (ca 1320-1347) advanced in his post to something more lucrative.
The "problem" with this Avner being the student of the Ramban in question is that Abner of Burgos was born in 1270 in Spain, while Ramban died in 1270 in Eretz Yisrael. They would not have met, and so certainly he would not have been a student. Furthermore, there are no records of this Avner of Burgos repenting and going off on a boat, never to be heard from again. Still, I would stand by the identification, and say that whoever composed the story figured that this was someone who lived a generation after the Ramban in Spain, so it makes sense to make him a student of the Ramban. Also, because apparently Ramban did make a statement about everything in Jewish history being contained in Haazinu, so it just worked out so perfectly.

Rabbi Joshua Hoffman discusses this story here.
The Sifrei praises the shira, or poem, of Ha'azinu, because it includes the present, the past, the future, and the world to come. Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya both write that all of Jewish history is included in the parsha of Ha'azinu. Ramban, in fact, writes that it is called 'shira' because the Jews had a practice of reading it regularly as a song, with joy, and Rambam, in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer, 7:13, mentions a practice of reading Ha'azinu every day. Rabbi Yechiel Halperin,an eighteenth century ancestor of the famed Rabbi Gavriel Zev Margolis, whose seventieth yahrzeit was observed on the tenth of Elul this past year ( 5765), mentions, in his Seder HaDoros, a story regarding a student of the Ramban, Abner of Burgos. Abner became an apostate and told the Ramban that it was this teaching of his, that every person can find a hint to himself in parshas Ha'azinu, that led him to abandon the Jewish faith. Ramban then demonstrated to Abner that his name is, indeed, alluded to in the verse, "I said I will scatter them, I will cause their memory to cease from man" (Devorim, 32:26). Abner was so overwhelmed by this proof, so the story goes, that he sailed off alone on a boat, never to be heard form again. it [sic] While this story, as many of the stories found in Seder HaDoros, may be apocryphal, it bespeaks a profound truth, as we will see. 
(A bit about Rabbi Hoffman and his Netvort:
Netvort, founded by Rabbi Josh Hoffman in 1998/5758, is an essay on the weekly Torah portion ("parsha") that aims to find a message meaningful to the contemporary reader through use of rabbinic commentators from throughout the ages. Netvort currently has some 600 email subscribers.

Known for decades as "The Hoffer", the author studied in Skokie Yeshiva, Yeshivat Mercaz HoRav, and Brisk Rabbinical College, where he received semicha from Rav Aharon Soloveichik. He also studied under Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, as well as in YU's Kollel Elyon. He received an MA in Modern Jewish History at YU's Bernard Revel Graduate School, where he is currently pursuing a PhD.

Thus, he agrees with the identification of R' Avner with Avner of Burgos, and also that this story, along with many stories in Seder HaDoros, may be apocryphal. "Apocryphal" is the scholarly term. We would simply say that it is a bubbe mayseh.

If I had to guess, the story began as someone (a random person, perhaps a rabbi) finding a negative encoding of this sort for Avner in Haazinu. (Did this Avner ever criticize this rabbinic statement?) They promulgated this as a response to the apostate that everybody hated. And the story developed from there.

It is, perhaps, an effective story, to convey important lessons. Still, it would be nice if it were actually, you know, true.


Devorah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
joshwaxman said...

True enough that they didn't call it a Torah code.

Hidden messages in the Torah is better. But given how Torah codes employ a different methodology, it pays for me to be absolutely clear.

kol tuv,

S. said...

What I like about is the story is that in earlier times even if they were saying stuff that was just legendary they would put in stuff like this: " And immediately, he went into the corner and prayed, and the pasuk came to his mouth {Haazinu 32:26}, "

You here similar things about the Vilna Gaon and the Rambam, or R. Rafael Kohen of Hamburg and Mendelssohn, but since they are Gedolim they do not have to pray for inspiration, but they of course have ever passuk and its roshe tevot at their finger tips. The Ramban? Well, he has to pray.


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