Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Don’s Commentary

Don Isaac Abrabanel (1437-1508) was one of the greatest statesmen of his time (the second half of the 15th century). A financial genius who served in the royal courts of Portugal, Castile (until the expulsion of the Jews in 1492), Naples and Venice. (For more on this aspect of his life, please see last year’s Treat: ”The Great Don”.)

Don Isaac Abrabanel was also one of the greatest Jewish minds of his generation. In fact, he is most commonly referred to among scholars simply as “Abrabanel.” After his arrival in Toledo (Castile) at the age of 46, he dedicated himself to studying and writing commentaries on the Torah. In a six month period he wrote commentaries on the Books of Joshua, Judges and Samuel. Abrabanel’s commentaries, which include works on the Pentatuch and the Prophets, are unique in several ways: (1) before each chapter of commentary, the Abrabanel presented a list of questions/difficulties that would be answered, (2) he integrated socio-cultural and historical information into his commentaries, and (3) he wrote extensively about the concept of the Messiah.

Abrabanel also produced philosophical works, even though he opposed many of the common philosophical viewpoints of his times. For instance, whereas Maimonides attributed some aspects of prophecy to the imagination, Abrabanel believed that they were always complete Divine communications.

Being a wealthy and pious Jew, Abrabanel was dedicated to helping his brethren. When Arzilla, Morocco, was conquered by Arab raiders, Abrabanel raised the money (donating generously himself) to redeem the 250 Jews from slavery. He then resettled them in Portugal and helped support them while they adjusted to their new country. Alas, while he tried, numerous times, to use his wealth to prevent the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, he was unable to counter the influence that Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, had on King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

On this yarhtzeit of Don Isaac Abrabanel, Jewish Treats pays tribute to a man who rose to great power but never relinquished his greatest treasure, the Torah.

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