Ramban on the Torah: The Ark’s Size

God’s Instructions to Noah outline the ark’s dimensions: three hundred amot long, fifty amot wide and thirty amot high (Bereishit 6:15). Ramban (commentary on 6:19) notes that such a structure can not possibly hold the various items Noah brought aboard the ark. The animal kingdom includes a vast array of different species, some of considerable size. A pair from every species takes up an immense amount of space. Add a year’s supply of food for all those creatures and the ark as described will simply not do. Ramban explains that a miracle enabled the vessel to contain all things needed. Ibn Ezra (commentary on 6: 16) provides an alternative solution claiming that the amot described regarding the ark are bigger than our amot since they measure the body size of Noah, a person larger than contemporary humans. Ramban rejects this approach arguing that the Torah always employs the term amot to refer to the same measure. Furthermore, If Noah and his children were physically larger, so were the animals of their time and the problem of the ark’s size remains intact.

God’s Instructions to Noah outline the ark’s dimensions: three hundred amot long, fifty amot wide and thirty amot high (Bereishit 6:15). Ramban (commentary on 6:19) notes that such a structure can not possibly hold the various items Noah brought aboard the ark. The animal kingdom includes a vast array of different species, some of considerable size. A pair from every species takes up an immense amount of space. Add a year’s supply of food for all those creatures and the ark as described will simply not do. Ramban explains that a miracle enabled the vessel to contain all things needed.

Ibn Ezra (commentary on 6: 16) provides an alternative solution claiming that the amot described regarding the ark are bigger than our amot since they measure the body size of Noah, a person larger than contemporary humans. Ramban rejects this approach arguing that the Torah always employs the term amot to refer to the same measure. Furthermore, If Noah and his children were physically larger, so were the animals of their time and the problem of the ark’s size remains intact.

If the ark’s mission depended upon a miracle, why did God make Noah dedicate considerable effort to building such a larger structure? Expand the miracle a bit and Noah need not work nearly as hard. Ramban explains that God wanted Noah’s contemporaries to notice his efforts, ask Noah about them, and learn about the impending deluge. Perhaps they will repent. This idea has particular resonance in light of Chazal’s portrayal of Noah as someone who did not try to save others from calamity, in sharp contrast to Avraham who prays for Sodom. According to Rambam, God set up such a role for Noah but Noah was unable to achieve this goal.

Ramban also suggests a different answer. The Torah prefers to minimize the miraculous and demand mankind’s maximum input. Even when God must bend the laws of nature to ensure the world’s survival, He still asks that man give his utmost towards that goal.

This point has significant implications. Many think of Ramban as a rabbinic authority who emphasizes the miraculous component within Judaism. Ramban’s analysis of the ark clarifies that he rejects a notion of divine involvement which lessens the need for human effort and initiative. God did not create world in which He miraculously provides for all our needs. Rather, He created a world in which human striving, sometimes enhanced by divine aid, can achieve amazing results.

Rambam teaches a dual message about righteousness. The most profoundly righteous are not content with saving themselves; they also want to help others. Secondly, authentic righteousness does not simply rely on Hashem; it calls for the utmost in human effort.

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Rabbi Avi Weinstein taught at Yeshivat Hamivtar and Michlelet Bruria from 1979 until 1984. He also has been a talmid of Rabbi Brovender since 1975. He is currently the Head of Jewish Studies at The Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas. He blogs frequently at: scorchintorah.com and invites you to come and join him at your convenience.

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