Wherever you may find yourself in the city of Girona, as you make your way towards the city’s Cathedral, you may wonder about the history of the ancient streets surrounding you. It is at this very moment that the winding streets will begin to take you back into the past. Regardless of your beliefs, Girona is a place where buildings, streets and ideas have an enticing history behind them.
Reaching the highest point of the Cathedral Square, the magnificent gothic building will stand in front of you, inviting your approach. Here you will be faced with a decision: to either descend towards the Cathedral down a monumental stairway or to thread your way gently through the narrow Força Street. If you opt for the latter, you’ll unknowingly be heading towards the gateway to the ‘Call’ of Girona, the entrance into a world where the revolution of medieval Jewish thought began.
Political circumstances and similarities in the languages spoken on either side of the Pyrenees favored a particular exchange among Jewish communities. As exchange students do today, avid young scholars crossed the Pyrenees back and forth throughout the twelfth century at a time when Talmudic schools like Narbonne and Lunel were experiencing a mystical renaissance. These rationalist teachings, based on the works of Maimonides years prior, are known until today as Kabbalah.
A doctrine based on myths (many false) and lessons of wisdom, the Kabbalah is an interpretation of the nature of G-d, the world and the mysteries of creation through the linguistic interpretation of sacred texts. But perhaps you can better understand the meaning of the Kabbalah by climbing up the enigmatic street of Sant Llorenç, where the cracks of an iron door will lend you a peek into a beautiful private patio, which belonged to none other than the famous kabbalist Isaac ‘the blind’; a prominent figure of his time and the father of the ‘New Kabbalistic Principles’ which fused the flame of religious and philosophical Jewish discourses during the middle ages.
At a time when Kabbalistic doctrine had often been kept secret, in Girona it was in full display as kabbalists would live in close spiritual union based on a unanimous conception of the world. Two extraordinary men led the kabbalist circle: Azriel of Gerona and the great Moses ben Nahman (רבי משה בן נחמן), also known as Nahmanides, Rambam or Bonastruc ça Porta, and after whom Girona’s Museum of Jewish History was named.
Nahmanides, or Ramban as he was known among scholars, emerged as the head spiritualist and highest Talmudic authority of his generation. He would lead the Kabbalistic circle of Girona, creating and extensive religious and philosophical body of work based upon meditation and interpretations of the Torah and the Talmud. His prestige was such that the Jewish communities of the crown designated him as their representative to intervene in the most controversial dispute of the Spanish golden age, ‘The Disputation of Barcelona’, which ended tragically…but then, that’s another story.
[accordion title=”Historical notes”]1. Moses ben Nahman (Girona 1194 – Israel 1270), called Nahmanides (רבי משה בן נחמן), known in Judaism with the acronym Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman) and quoted in the Christian documents as Bonastruc ça Porta, was the greatest rabbinical authority of his time. He excelled as a philosopher, Talmudist and Kabbalist. He heads the foundation of the Girona Kabbalistic school interpreting and writing important commentaries such as ‘The Commentary on the Pentateuch’. As a Talmudist he wrote ‘The Laws of Kings and Wars’ in defense of the codification of Al- Fasi as well as numerous Justinian novels and Talmudic treatises, clarifications and observations on particularly difficult and important religious issues. He was also the author of moralistic works such as ‘Iggueret Ha-Kodesh’ ( אגרת הקודש ) or the ‘Epistle of holiness’, dedicated to two of his children, and ‘Torat Ha-Adam’ ( תורת האדם ) or ‘The Law of man’.
As for his public life, he stands out for his performance in a famous public debate that took place in 1263, in Barcelona, in the presence of James I and Ramón de Peñafort . Nahmanides refuted and defended Judaism against Christian Pablo Christiani, a converted Jew. Both opponents were considered victorious in the controversy, but Nahmanides was sentenced to exile, and in 1267 immigrated to the Holy Land of Israel. He spent a few years in a then devastated Jerusalem and settled in Acre. He died in 1270, at the age of 76 and is buried in Haifa.
2. Yitzhak Saggi Nehor (רַבִּי יִצְחַק סַגִּי נְהוֹר), also known as “Isaac the Blind” (Girona, 1160 – Posquière 1235) was a famous writer on Kabbalah. He is credited with the authorship of the Sefer ha-Bahir, or “Book of Brightness”, an ancient text of Kabbalah published in the Middle Ages, around 1200 AD. C., in France. [/accordion]