28 Elul 5777
19 September 2017
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LSJS
London School of Jewish Studies

The Life & Times of Don Isaac Abarbanel

Next week on the 31st of May it will be 525 years since Don Isaac Abarbanel fled the Spanish Inquisition and headed for Naples.

Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel was born in Lisbon in 1437. At an early age he showed great intellectual ability and was well versed in Rabbinic literature and Jewish philosophy. At the young age of twenty he wrote Ateret Zekenim, dealing with Providence and Prophecy.

He followed in the footsteps of his father, Judah Abarbanel, and was successful in matters of business and finance. After his father’s death he succeeded him as treasurer of King Alfonso V of Portugal.

Like his father he also became the spiritual leader of the Portuguese Community. At this stage he had little time left for the further development of his scholarly qualities.

When King Alfonso conquered the city of Arzila in Morocco, many Jews were taken captive and were about to be sold as slaves. In his high position as royal treasurer, and with the great wealth he had inherited from his father, Abarbanel was able to free his fellow Jews. In 1483 his entire fortune was confiscated when he was forced to flee to Spain after being falsely accused of planning to overthrow King John II, King Alfonso’s successor.

Shortly thereafter King Ferdinand of Spain appointed Abarbanel as his financial adviser and Isaac Abarbanel was eventually able to regain his original wealth. As such he was able to give financial support to King Ferdinand during the war in Granada, which nevertheless led to the decree to banish all Jews. Although Abarbanel did everything in his power to convince King Ferdinand to revoke the edict, it led to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Abarbanel fled with his fellow Jews to Naples. There he resumed his studies and for a short period he was able to concentrate on his scholarly endeavours. A French invasion in 1494 sent him into exile and his private library was totally destroyed. In 1503 he settled in Venice where he wrote his commentary on the Torah. He died in 1508 and was buried in Padua.

In his Perush (commentary) on the Chumash, he would introduce each chapter of his commentary with questions, sometimes as many as forty! This method would encourage investigation and discussion. In his commentary on the Prophets he would limit his questions to a maximum of six.

In the Rare Book Room at LSJS, we have Abarbanel’s commentary on the Pentateuch, printed in Hanau by Yacov Bashuysen in1709. We also have his commentary on Nevi’im Acharonim printed in Amsterdam in 1642, a Latin translation of his commentary on Hose’a, the first of the 12 small Prophets, which was printed in Leiden by Joannis de Vivie in 1687 as well as the above mentioned work on Providence and Prophecy, printed in Amsterdam by the famous Proops family, in 1739.

All these precious books can be found in the Library of LSJS.