The Iberian Peninsula (present-day Spain and Portugal) of the 14th century was a tumultuous place. Even before the harsh decrees of the Spanish Inquisition—which began in the following century—Christian persecution was rampant. The fate of the Jewish community hung by a thread; the whim of the king or a false accusation could (and did) shatter any short-lived period of peace.

Throughout these trying times, Rabbeinu Nissim of Gerona deftly navigated the various challenges that the Jewish community faced. Although he did not serve as community rabbi in an official capacity, by virtue of his reputation he was the de facto leader of Spanish Jewry in his time. His prominence was such that he attended the court of Peter IV of Aragon and served as one of his attending physicians.1

His accomplishments, however, extended beyond the communal sphere. His extensive written corpus spans the gamut of Jewish learning, covering Jewish law, Talmudic and Biblical commentary, responsa and theology. Indeed, his writings are studied by yeshiva students as part of their Talmudic curriculum to this day.

Early Influences

Rabbeinu Nissim—known simply by the acronym “Ran”—was born close to the turn of the 14th century in the Kingdom of Aragon, one of several countries that made up the Spanish territory during the Middle Ages. (It wasn't until the reign of the infamous Ferdinand and Isabella that Spain became a unified country under one monarch.) This period marked the conclusion of what is now known as the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, when Judaism and Torah scholarship flourished in the land of Sepharad.

Although we don't know for certain who his primary teachers were, it is clear from his own output that he drank from the waters of the great Sephardic authorities who preceded him, including Nachmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194–1270), the Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo ibn Aderet, 1235-1310), and the Ra'ah (Rabbi Aharon ben Joseph haLevi, 1235 – 1290). It is clear that his father, Reuven ben Nissim, was one of his primary teachers, quoted several times in his writings as “my father, my teacher.” It has been suggested that one of the Ran’s teachers was his contemporary, Rabbinu Peretz HaKohen, since he refers to him with certain honorifics. However, there is insufficient evidence to confirm that he was, in fact, one of his primary teachers.2

Renowned Halachic Authority

For most of his life, the Ran lived in Barcelona, one of the major centers of Spanish Jewry and a city that had been home to many distinguished rabbis, including the Rashba. Although it is unclear if he was born there or perhaps in the city of Gerona—from where his father hailed—he certainly headed a yeshiva and served as a judge at the rabbinical court of Barcelona for much of his life. Although he did not accept an official position as a rabbi in the city, he was the leading authority and any matter of weight landed on his desk. He was deeply involved in communal affairs and received halachic queries from well beyond the borders of Aragon.

In the Royal Court

Following the path set forth by the great Sephardic scholars such as Maimonides, Nachmanides, and the Rashba, the Ran did not wish to support himself by utilizing his Torah knowledge. As such, he studied medicine and became a renowned physician. In this capacity, and as an adviser to the king on various matters, he attended the court of Peter IV of Aragon. Records of a number of interactions between the Ran and members of the royal court still exist.3

One particular episode describes how the king wished to understand why Jews could not drink wine touched by a non-Jew. The king's Jewish physician—a possible reference to the Ran4 —called for water to be fetched, which was then used to rinse the king’s feet. The physician took a sip from the water, demonstrating that the issue with the wine was not due to some perceived impurity. Rather, it was strictly a concern that the wine may have been used for idol worship.5

The Black Death

In the spring of 1348, the “Black Death,” also known as the bubonic plague, reached Catalonia. Over the next few years, it would wreak havoc across Europe, killing approximately 50% of its inhabitants. Predictably, Jews were wrongfully blamed, with widespread rumors accusing them of poisoning the water wells.6 While the authorities (including Pope Clement VI) attempted to quell these false reports, their efforts were largely unsuccessful. On the 17th of May, 1348, a mob attacked the Jewish quarter of Barcelona. They ransacked the synagogue and murdered some 20 people.

After the communal leaders—including the Ran—petitioned the king, he dispatched soldiers to protect the Jews of Barcelona, and in 1349 he absolved them of any debt incurred as a result of the pogrom.7

The Ran Is Framed

In 1367, under uncertain circumstances, the Ran and a group of prominent community leaders—including Rabbi Chasdai ben Abraham Crescas, Rabbi Yitzchak bar Sheshet, and his brother Yehuda—were arrested and imprisoned. It seems that they were the target of trumped-up charges pushed by a group of disgruntled community members. Notwithstanding the fact that the Ran had been in good standing with the Royal Court, they languished in jail for some five months. Eventually, the charges were dropped and they were set free.

This incident is recorded by the Ran’s student, Rabbi Yitzchak bar Sheshet (the Rivash):

And this that you mentioned that I should have completed my vows without delay to answer in writing … I will answer that you sit securely in your tent, with your work done by others without fear, while I have (the responsibility of) the way of the land on me. In addition to this, about five months ago evil people arose from our midst and slandered Rabbeinu Nissim and six distinguished men of the community, among them Don Chisdai,8 myself, and my brother, and delivered us to the hand of the king … ”9

His Work

The Ran’s literary output is astonishing, particularly when considering that significant portions of his writings have not survived. For example, while approximately 70 of his responsa—published as Sheilot Uteshuvot Haran—are extant today, it seems likely that he penned close to 1,000 in his lifetime.10 The scant collection that survives serves as a bedrock for the decisions of later rabbis.

The Ran’s magnum opus, and arguably his most studied work today, is his Commentary to the Sefer Halachot of the Rif (Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi 1013–1103). The Rif’s Halachot was the first attempt to extract halacha from the Talmud in an organized way. It comprises almost solely the halachic sections of the Talmud, leaving out the debates and non-legalistic parts. The Rif’s work came to be known as the Talmud Katan (“Miniature Talmud”) and was often studied independently of the Talmud itself.

Indeed, precisely because of its popularity, the Ran deemed it to be the perfect backdrop for his own work. While a commentary on the Rif, the Ran will often expand on what the Rif has cited and quote others who disagree with the Rif’s position. The Rif and Ran are an integral element of the curriculum in yeshivot today, and are studied widely as Talmudic commentaries.

The Ran also penned a commentary on the Talmud, Chiddushim al Hashas. It seems likely that he wrote commentary on the entire Talmud, or a very significant portion of it, however only about 10 have survived. (There is some discussion regarding the authorship of novellae on a number of tractates that may have erroneously been printed in his name.) His commentary on Nedarim is considered the most popular and authoritative commentary to the tractate. In current editions of the Talmud Nedarim, this commentary appears opposite “Rashi’s,”11 where the Tosafot—which is relegated to the margin—would normally be.

In addition to his extensive corpus of halachic and Talmudic commentary, the Ran also composed a highly influential work on Jewish belief and ethics, Drashot Haran.12 This work comprises 13 lengthy sermons or homilies which articulate some of the basic tenets of Judaism.13

Lastly, he began a Commentary on the Torah but did not complete it, likely because he started toward the end of his life. This work has been published from a number of surviving manuscripts and covers the first five portions of the Torah, from Bereshit until Chayei Sarah.14

Students and Passing

Aside from his writings, Rabbeinu Nissim gifted the Jewish world with many students who continued to spread his teachings, among them: his children Don Chisdai and Don Reuven; the Rivash who we quoted before; the Rivash's brother, R' Yehuda ben Sheshet; and other prominent scholars such as Rav Chisdai Crescras (1340-1410), who authored the book Ohr Hashem; and Rabbeinu Yosef ibn Chaviv, author of the Nimukei Yosef.

Rabbeinu Nissim passed away in 1376, during a period of upheaval as rival brothers Henry and Pedro of Castile battled for control of the Spanish lands. Many Jewish communities throughout Spain were plundered and destroyed during these wars. The political situation eventually settled, but it can be argued that the Ran's passing marked the end of the Golden Age of Jewish Spain, with Spanish Jewry beginning a steady state of decline, which culminated in the 1492 expulsion.

The Mystery Torah

The Ran also wrote his own Torah Scroll.15

In recent history, some posited that this sefer Torah had survived the upheaval of the Spanish expulsion and eventually made its way to Brazil, where it was presented as a gift to Rabbi Yichye Dahan of Tiberius around 100 years ago.

However, many scholars have concluded that the Torah was not written by the Ran, evidenced by the calligraphy, which is a different style from the lettering used in medieval Spanish Torahs, as well as notable halachic issues, such as inscriptions on the outer parchment.

It would thus appear that the whereabouts of the Ran’s Torah is unknown.

Legacy of the Ran

Although the Ran lived in an era of Christian persecution, the Torah that he taught survived the animosity and hardships that the Jews of his generation endured, and his commentaries have become classics of the Torah library. In every yeshiva today, the words of Rabbeinu Nissim are studied and analyzed. His homilies continue to inspire Jews to connect with their heritage, serving as proof of the Torah’s timeless ability to triumph over every adversity.

“The righteous are called living, even after death.”16