selection from The Ramban (author).
CHAPTER SIX: INVESTIGATIONS INTO TORAH
The drops of a recent autumn rain sparkled on the tree leaves and the river flowing through Gerona was swollen and peat-colored with sediment.
Rabbi Moshe walked through the woods outside Gerona, stepping along the path that ran through fronds of yellow fern. Brilliant green foliage sparkling about him, and thick, hairy vines twisting about the gnarled and veined trees.
A man leaped out at him from a thick clump of bushes.
Rabbi Moshe smiled. "Don Juan!"
"I have good news for you, Rabbi." Don Juan was a middle-aged man with a spongy, ginger beard and fine wrinkles about his eyes. He gazed up at the sky. Rabbi Moshe looked up and saw a flock of distant birds, looking like a handful of graphite dust. "But some of our friends are coming! Quick, into the blind!"
The little man turned and squeezed his way into the thick clump of bushes, and Rabbi Moshe followed. This was a hut, cunningly disguised with thatches of branches and living vines. Don Juan gazed at the approaching flock of birds, and when they were almost directly overhead, he ducked his head inside and pulled at a vine that hung through a hole in the roof.
"What's that for?" Rabbi Moshe asked.
"I have some pigeons tied to a branch above us. When I pull the vine, I wave the branch up and down, and--look!"
Rabbi Moshe peered up. The pigeons, tied to a low branch, began calling and flapping their wings, and the wild pigeons swooped down from their flight above the trees.
"Now look here," don Juan whispered. He bustled over to the window at the other side of the hut. An area a few yards square had been smoothed over, and birdseed been spread over it. Moments later, a flock of thirty birds landed on the spot, pecking eagerly at the seed, cooing and fighting with each other over the grain.
"Now!" said don Juan. He gave a pull on a rope that hung at his side. A large, weighted net fell on the feeding spot trapping all but a few of the birds, who fluttered away. The other birds fought against the strands of the net, as Rabbi Moshe followed don Juan out. One by one, don Juan removed the birds and thrust them into a sack. "Good, plump birds these are. They'll make some delicious salmis!
"I haven't forgotten you, Rabbi Moshe. I got exactly what you asked me for. But just wait a moment."
Don Juan carried his two sacks bulging with pigeons down the path, and Rabbi Moshe followed him to a glen, where a narrow, stone dovecote with shale tiles stood raised above the yellow and white flowers. "Now wait here."
Don Juan climbed up a rickety ladder into the dovecote, and a moment later backed out of the narrow entrance, carrying a cage in his left hand, in which two small, black birds struggled against the bars. But even as they did, they turned to beat at each other.
"The zarzir!" Rabbi Moshe exclaimed. "And just look at them fight! I see that the folk saying is true: 'Two starlings can't sleep together on one ledge.'"
"There's more!" Don Juan said gaily.
He scurried up the ladder and a moment later came down with another, smaller cage, this one holding a large, black bird. "As you requested," he announced, holding the cage up, "one crow!"
"Thank you so much!"
Rabbi Moshe took leave of Don Juan and hurried home with the two cages. In his office, he examined the birds. "Fascinating!" he thought, looking at the crow. "According to what I see here, Rabeinu Tam can't be right in his statement...It appears that Rashi is correct!" Rabbi Moshe had examined other birds as well: the bas yaanah, vultures, and a type of bird that he wasn't able to name, with eyes looking forward like a man's and having the appearance of a jaw. "On the basis of these examinations," Rabbi Moshe wrote, "I cannot deny the evidence of my eyes, and I am forced to retract my earlier opinion and agree with Rabbi Moshe ben Rabbi Yosef..."
Rabbi Moshe let the crow free, and turned his attention to the two starlings. Later in the afternoon, he had a student kill the birds and dissect them. Examining the organs, Rabbi Moshe realized that the version of the Gemara that he had, dealing with this bird, must be corrupt. On the basis of his examination, he wrote down a corrected version of that passage in the Gemara (Chullin 62b).
Other times, Rabbi Moshe used other unusual techniques to help clarify questions in the Torah. One day, Rabbi Moshe sat with Rabbi Shmuel in the beis medrash, learning Gittin, when they came to a knotty problem concerning the observance of the yovel year. The question was whether in the lifetime of Hillel any of the laws of yovel applied--or perhaps all of them--at least according to rabbinical law (mederabbanan). There were strong arguments on both sides of the question.
"I think I know how to solve this," Rabbi Moshe said. "Come with me."
"Come with you where?"
Rabbi Moshe led Shmuel to his office, a small room off to the side of the beis medrash. "Are you familiar with this?" He pulled a thick book off a shelf and held it up for Rabbi Shmuel to see.
"Yosiffon? The book by Yosef ben Gurion? What good will a history book do us?"
"You are thinking too narrowly, Shmuel," Rabbi Moshe chided him. Rabbi Moshe flipped through the pages, until he came to the passage that he was looking for. Shmuel stepped over and looked over his shoulder. "According to this, the yovel was celebrated in the days of one of the Chashmonai kings. So that neatly answers our question."
"Yes," said Shmuel. "But is it proper to look for an answer to a Torah question from a book of history? After all, the Torah contains everything!"
"Did you eat today?" Rabbi Moshe asked.
"What?" Rabbi Shmuel was confused. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"First answer my question, Shmuel."
"Of course I did."
"But I don't understand," Rabbi Moshe chided him. "If the Torah contains everything, why do you eat? You should be getting everything from the Torah!" Rabbi Shmuel didn't say anything. "Certainly, everything is contained in the Torah," Rabbi Moshe continued. "But G‑d gave us other resources too. And if we really want to search for true answers in Torah, we can't disdain from using whatever G‑d has put at our disposal."
Rabbi Moshe went even further than examining birds and reading history books to help him understand the Torah.
It was a damp, stone room that Rabbi Moshe entered one day. The man and woman of the house stood at the doorway, gazing at him apprehensively.
"What brings the rabbi here?" the man asked.
"I heard that a Mr. Gioso lives here?" Rabbi Moshe replied.
"My wife's grandfather. He's in his room. What do you want him for?" The man seemed both belligerent and frightened, and his wife gazed at Rabbi Moshe in silence, her left hand holding her chemise tight at her neck.
"Just to talk with him," Rabbi Moshe said. "Is he awake?"
"I'll go see," the woman said in a surprisingly deep voice. She turned around and disappeared through a narrow doorway.
"We haven't done anything wrong."
Rabbi Moshe remained silent.
"He hasn't done anything in three years, since his stroke.
Why don't you leave an old man alone?"
"I'm not out to bother him. I only want to ask him a few questions."
The man of the house stared at Rabbi Moshe with intense, watery eyes, his adam apple working below his stubbled chin. His wife came back into the room. "My grandfather will see you now."
Rabbi Moshe stepped past the woman. "I can find my way." Rabbi Moshe stepped into a disheveled bedroom. On a large bed lay a feeble, white-haired man, his mouth sunken over toothless gums. Brown age spots spotted his forehead. He didn't turn his head at Rabbi Moshe's appearance, but only shifted his pale eyes over to look at him.
"My name is Moshe ben Nachman," Rabbi Moshe said. "Your daughter said that you would be willing to answer a few of my questions."
"Yes--sit down." The words slurred out of the man's mouth, and Rabbi Moshe could understand them only with difficulty. The man raised a hand with an effort and pointed at a chair next to the bed.
Rabbi Moshe sat. "I know it's hard for you to talk. But I just have a few short questions I want to ask you. If you can answer me, you will be helping me clear up some questions I came across in my Torah learning."
The old man nodded slightly.
"I came to you because I've heard that when you were younger, you were a baal sheidim--a person who's mastered the art of dealing with demons."
Again, the man nodded.
"It's like this," Rabbi Moshe said. "There's a controversy in the Gemara about sheidim. The sages say that demons can't create anything smaller than a lentil--meaning that demons can create things larger than a lentil. But Rav Papa disagrees. He says that demons can't create anything at all--whether smaller than a lentil or as large as a camel. And then Rav Papa says that instead of creating things, demons only assemble pre-existing material that was scattered."
The old man nodded.
"Well, my question is--this seems so artificial. Is this your experience--that demons cannot make things smaller than a lentil?"
There was a pause, and then the old man spoke with great difficulty. "Yes. They don't like working--with small things. They find it very--unpleasant."
"All right," Rabbi Moshe said. "But that leads to another problem. Pharaoh's magicians tried to make lice--the third plague--but they couldn't, and they said that this was because of the 'finger of G‑d.' But that means that these magicians believed that, with the help of demons, they would ordinarily have been able to make lice--and lice are of course smaller than lentils.
"So if what you said before is correct--that demons can't make things smaller than lentils--how come Pharaoh's magicians thought that they would?"
"It is not--impossible--for a demon to make something smaller--than a lentil," the man forced out the words. His hands, lying at his sides, trembled as he painfully spoke. "But it is--very hard. They won't do it--unless--they are put under--great strain; only if--the king of demons himself--forces them" (Toras Hashem Temimah, p. 146).
Rabbi Moshe stood up. "Thank you. You have cleared my questions."
The old man gazed back at Rabbi Moshe with watery eyes.
Rabbi Moshe went out of the room and back into the front room. The man of the house, who had evidently just stopped pacing up and down, glared at him defiantly.
"Can we honor the rabbi with a drink?" the woman said. Her long chemise was soiled at the hem, where it trailed on the floor.
"You are very kind," Rabbi Moshe said. "But no thank you." He stepped to the door and let himself out of the stifling house.