Who was Don Isaac Abravanel?

Who was Don Isaac Abravanel?


Rachel LaVictoire
Rachel LaVictoire

This week, we read parshat Noach, the second parshah of the Torah.

It’s a well known story: G-d saw that the people of the earth had been corrupted, so He instructed Noah to build an ark to protect Noah, his family, and all the animals of the world from a flood that G-d was sending to destroy the Earth.

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Noah builds, the storm comes, the storm goes, Noah and his family are safe, and G-d makes a covenant with Noah never to destroy the Earth again.

Yes, the story is important and I have no doubt that this week rabbis everywhere will be delivering an impressive variety of sermons on Noach to their congregations.

But as I began thinking about the portion – one often referred to as “the second creation story” – I began thinking about the cycles in life. It was while riding this train of thought that I came across an interesting fact: Oct. 3 is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel.

It’s a name I’d never heard before, but the short note I stumbled on mentioned that the rabbi had lived from 1437 to 1508, was a leader of Spanish Jewry at the time of the 1492 expulsion, and wrote commentaries on the Torah.

Now, here’s something you should know about me: I am, as a friend once said so eloquently, an “information hoarder”. I was thrilled to stumble upon this little factoid.

So, who was Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel?

He was a man born in Lisbon, Portugal. As the son of a Portuguese treasurer, he grew up in an affluent family that provided him with an excellent Jewish education. In addition, Abravanel, at a young age, became interested in his father’s line of work and eventually became the treasurer for King Alfonso V of Portugal.

And that was only the beginning.

Rabbi Abravanel was also responsible for freeing Jewish Moroccan slaves, using large portions of his own money to provide for them. When Alfonso died, his successor, King John II, threatened Abravanel. So the rabbi and his family fled to Toledo.

It was there that he began his commentaries on the Torah.

His work was interrupted, however, when the rabbi began working at the house of Castile. But just two years later, Isabelle and Ferdinand expelled the entire Jewish community from Spain. So, yet again, Abravanel and his family picked up and moved, this time to Naples.

The pattern repeated itself once more: Rabbi Abravanel began working for the king of Naples until the city was taken by the French, then he moved his family to Venice, where he lived until his death in 1508.

So, what’s the point?

I mentioned only briefly Rabbi Abravanel’s passion for Judaism – he was a student of Rabbi Joseph Hayyim in Lisbon, and was well versed in the teachings of the Talmud. Around the age of twenty, before starting his career in politics, Abravanel wrote extensively on religious questions, covering everything from nature to prophecy.

His life as a perpetual refugee influenced his work a great deal.

He didn’t like change and it was something that set him apart from the more famous Judaic scholars being followed in his time. Specifically, he disagreed with Maimonides, and his Thirteen Principles of Faith.

In fact, Rabbi Abravanel wrote a book, “The Principles of Faith”, that argues, in a very philosophical style, his specific objections to these principles.

I found the book in my school’s library. Here’s an excerpt:

“They said that insofar as the word ikkar ‘is a term applied to a thing upon which the existence and duration of another thing depends and without which it cannot endure,’ like a tree whose existence is dependent upon its roots, it is difficult to understand why Maimonides posited all thirteen of the beliefs he listed as principles and cornerstones upon which the whole Torah depended . . . This is the first objection.”

Now, I can in no way speak to how this specific passage is related to or is representative of Rabbi Abravanel’s overall perspective, but it’s certainly interesting to see Judaism discussed in such a formal and argumentative way.

Why is he important?

I realize how arbitrary it might seems for me to spend so much time on the story of this one man, who lived so long ago; a man and who didn’t even make an appearance in my Jewish-day-school curriculum. I guess that that’s the point.

We go through these cycles, day after day, year after year, and ultimately generation after generation. It’s frightening at times, which is why so many of us become concerned with creating a legacy, and leaving some mark on the world.

Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel was probably a relatively average person who came home from work, kissed his wife and played with his kids. He was a regular man with some interesting perspectives about a religion that he cared very strongly about.

Sure, he was never a “great philosopher,” one to be quoted at dinner parties or studied in class, but he is a person no less and I feel it’s important to keep people’s stories alive.

About the writer

Rachel LaVictoire (rlavictoire@wustl.edu) is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. She was recently named to the board of St. Louis Hillel.




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