Abarbanel – The Lost-and-Found Commentary
And now for something completely different:
- Does that year sound familiar? Perhaps you can’t remember because you weren’t around then? (Unless you happen to be over 500 years old.) Well, the answer that pops in the head of most people is that 1492 is that wonderful year Columbus discovered America.
But that year was not so wonderful for the Jewish people. It was the year of the horrific “Spanish Expulsion,” when all Jews who chose to continue living as Jews, were forced to leave Spain.
Among those who were driven out of Spain was the author of one of the most amazing and highly creative explanations on the Chumash, Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel (1437-1508), a.k.a. the Abarbanel.
The Abarbanel’s life was similar to the story of the Jewish people – ups and downs – facing major challenges, persecution and suffering. Yet, even in the most difficult times, he flourished – he studied a lot of Torah and wrote important Torah books.
Born into a wealthy family in Portugal, the Abarbanel succeeded his father as the treasurer to Alfonso V, king of Portugal. When the king died, his wicked son became the new king, and the Abarbanel fled for his life. Off he went, without a penny to his name, and ended up in Toledo, Spain. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella heard of his great talents – and he became their royal treasurer. But then came the terrible decree, the Spanish expulsion – driving all the Jews out of Spain, including the Abarbanel.
On the 9th of Av, 5252 (July 30, 1492), the once-again penniless Abarbanel and his family were on the run, first to Naples in Italy, then the island of Corfu in the Mediterranean, and finally spending his last years in Venice, Italy.
Now, get ready for something fascinating about the Abarbanel commentary:
Unlike other commentaries on the Chumash that start from the beginning, from the Book of Bereishis, and continue on until the last book, Devarim (similar to Rashi or Ramban’s commentaries), the Abarbanel begins from the end – from the Book of Devarim!
That’s because he decided to write his “book of many questions” because of one BIG question in the Book of Devarim that bothered him so much: “What’s this book of Devarim, a.k.a. Mishneh Torah all about?” he asked. “What makes it different from the previous 4 Books – Bereishis, Shmos, VaYikra and Bamidbar?”
The Abarbanel, who was then a young man in Lisbon, Portugal, was so bothered by this question that he went to all the leading Rabbis of his time, asking these questions. And guess what? Each and every one of them answered something different and the Abarbanel did not like even one of them!
That’s what triggered him to compose his own work on the subject, and he began to write and write and write, starting from the point of his questions – Sefer Devarim. But then… TROUBLE. The Abarbanel was forced out of Portugal and his precious Chumash work got lost. The young Rabbi stopped writing his commentary on Devarim.
Around 20 years later, while living on the island of Corfu, he found his manuscript on Devarim. “I was filled with joy and happiness, as I held and kissed my precious work” he writes in his introduction. And then he continued writing his important commentary.
The final result of all his hard work was a wonderful commentary not only on the Book of Devarim but on the other 4 books of the Torah as well! It became known to all, simply as “the Abarabanel”. And it sure is long!