November 27, 1198, is the day that the medieval rabbinical sage Abraham ben David died. Known by the Hebrew acronym for his name, Rabad, Ben David was a contemporary – and critic -- of Maimonides (1135-1204), the Rambam, who personified another school of Jewish thought.
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Rabbi Abraham ben David was born in about 1125 in Provence, France. He was a student of the two great rabbis Moses ben Joseph and Meshullam ben Jacob of Lunel. After spending time in Lunel, Montepellier and Nimes, the Rabad opened a Torah academy in Posquieres (today called Vauvert), where he remained for the rest of his life. The traveler Benjamin of Tudela, for example, describes him as being in Posquieres in 1165.
The 12th century was a period when French Jewry was just beginning to open up to the non-rabbinic and even secular schools of thought that were being imported from Spain, as refugees from the oppressive Almohad rule emigrated from there. Rabbi Abraham commented frequently in his writings that he was “among the inferior creatures that God created, and did not achieve success in any of the simple sciences that are accessible to wise men, because of the dullness of my nature.”
Aside from being the common deprecation of the scholar’s familiar self-deprecation, this may indeed have been an acknowledgment of the limits of his education, rather than an expression of hostility toward the secular sciences.
The Rabad excelled as a commentator on Talmud, and he himself wrote that in all of (Jewish) Provence, his word was the law.
By about 1180, the Rambam had completed the Mishneh Torah, his codification of Jewish law. The Rabad criticized this important work on two essential grounds: He didn’t like the omniscient tone of the book, which did not provide proofs or evidence of its statements of fact; and he feared that Jews, in relying on a digested code of law, would neglect direct study of Talmud itself.
He also objected to the idea of collecting Jewish dogma into a simple text, something that Maimonides did in his 13 Principles of Faith.
Rabbi Abraham was financially well-off, and was able to support his students when necessary. As a result of his wealth, he found himself taken captive by the lord of Posquieres. He was only released after he was ransomed by Count Roger II of nearby Carcassone.
The works of the Rabad that are still extant today including three volumes of rabbinic responsa, a commentary on the entire Talmud, and several compendiums of law related to specific themes. He also was known as a kabbalist, and is traditionally seen as the maker of the diagram of the Sefirot (celestial spheres), which characterize the different attributes of God.