DON YITZCHAK ABARBANEL
DIPLOMAT, FINANCIER, MYSTIC; A TORAH SCHOLAR
FOR OUR OPEN SOCIETY.
This Torah scholar, diplomat, financier, mystic and leader of his people,
although living some 5 centuries ago, is particularly pertinent to the
modern open society and global village in which we live, in a way that no
other scholar seems to be. He is probably the last person to combine
within his person 4 major and long existent Jewish traditions;
philosopher, states-man, torah scholarship and cabbalist. His commentary
on the Torah seems particularly suitable to those of us who earn our
livelihoods, engage in business or professions and willy-nilly are
confronted with the challenges of living globally, for the first time
since his period, in free societies.
Faced with the challenges inherent in the cultural and religious free
market of his time 15th century Spain, his knowledge of Torah,
philosophy, both Jewish and that of classical Greece and European
Renaissance, and mystical sources, he presents a commentary suitable to us
living in a similar assimilatory prone, open and spiritually free society.
As a scion of traumatic Jewish expulsion, persecution and suffering, his
ideas of galut, redemption and messianism are extremely relevant to our
post holocaust generation.
Adopting a special Socratic style of detailed questions and answers, he
produces a commentary on the Chumash and the Nach that is familiar and
convenient for us trained as we are, knowingly or unknowingly, in Greek
methods of thought and those of science and technology. Furthermore, he
constantly refers to the classical commentators who preceded him- Rashi,
Rambam, Ibn Ezrah, Ralbag and Ramban, but has a different perspective.
He was born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1437, into a family descended from
King David that ranked in the forefront of the Jews of the Iberian
Peninsula. They were distinguished by their financial, political and
Jewish communal leadership achievements.
In addition they were known as a family that loved scholarship, and piety,
and had strong moral convictions. All these as well as their commercial
and financial strengths Don Yitzchak inherited. Then in 1483, with the
ascension of the anti Semitic king Joao, he was forced to flee to Spain,
where he re-established himself till the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in
1492. Ultimately he made his way to Italy, where he lived in Naples and
Venice till his death in1508.
In addition to his commentary on the whole Tanach, he wrote commentaries
on Pirkei Avot and the Pesach Haggadah, and a trilogy, Mayanot Hayeshua,
Mevaser Hayeshua and Yeshuat Messicho- his great work on Galut and
It is fascinating to find in this scholar, some 400 years before Darwin, a
sort of Darwinism when he discusses the sequence of the creatures created
during the 6 days of creation. He too points out the progression from the
simple to the most complicated and developed form of life, but in contrast
to the Darwinists, he sees this progression not as merely physical and
determined by the survival of the fittest but primarily spiritual in
nature and importance, decreed by Divine Will.
The inanimate things in G-d’s world are spiritually at the lowest level,
having neither life nor ability to act on their own. Fishes and birds,
the physically simplest and least developed species of the living world,
are at a higher spiritual and religious level than the inanimate yet are
spiritually the weakest of that world. Apart from anything else, they can
only reproduce by means of the hatching of eggs, a mechanical and
disinterested process. In contrast, in the mammals including Adam, the
continuation of the species is through the actual body of the female, an
indication of a certain nobility flowing from feelings, creativity and
An indication of the spirituality attached to this ability to reproduce a
continuation of the species that is a replica of the species is shown by
Abarbanel when he comments on the naming of Adam’s first born. The text
makes it clear that the naming of Cain was done by Chava who said, “
kaniti” [from the root to acquire or to take possession] a man with the
help of the Lord” (Bereishit, 4:1). She herself had been formed by G-d
from Adam, however, she, together with the Lord, had created this son.
Despite this, of all the other parts of Creation the text says, “let the
Earth bring forth” whereas regarding Adam the Torah says, “And G-d
said, ‘Let us make Man’ or ‘G-d created Man’”, thus demonstrating a closer
and special relationship between him and Hashem, that is radically
different qualitatively and spiritually from the rest of creation. Adam
alone had elements of the heavenly beings and of divinity. So his creation
was a special and constructive act rather than something mechanically
called forth from the earth and this despite his being taken from the
Adamah and his common source with the rest of the creation. Nevertheless,
there is no special day set aside for his creation as befits one who is
created in G-d’s image, otherwise Adam would have thought that he was a
god. So Adam was created on the 6th day together with all the other
animals and beasts, who like him, procreate their species. This is further
strengthened by the text using the phrase ‘kedmuteinu’ ‘after our
likeness’ but not in our likeness (Bereishit.I: 26).
However, in addition to his earthy source, Adam also had the intelligence,
wisdom and understanding that, being of Divinity, is lacking in the other
beings. Above all, Mankind alone has the free will to choose between good
and evil that is the hallmark of the image of G-d.
The duality that Abarbanel speaks of does not mean the existence of two
competitive natures, destined to struggle against each other, but rather a
balance whereby the divinity gives Adam free will so that the earthy can
be educated and refined; this is the distinguishing mark of Mankind.
Abarbanel’s answer to 2 questions regarding the Generations of Heaven and
Earth (Bereishit 2: 4), can serve as an example to his method of
commentary as well as this concept of a balance between the earthy and the
heavenly dualism in Mankind.
“ And Adam became a ‘nefesh chaya’” (Ber.2: 7). Abarbanel questions all of
the commentators who see in the term; ‘ nefesh chaya’ a reference to some
sublime characteristic of Man, whether having the power of speech
(Onkelos), the soul as evidence of his spiritual nature (Ibn Ezra), the
sum total of his intellectual-spiritual-rational nature (Guide to the
Perplexed) or the superiority of the soul of Man over the soul of the
animal who are also referred to as ‘nefesh chaya’ (Rashi). In contrast
Abarbanel sees this verse as expressing the common source that Man has
with the animals, that guides him unless he is able to use his spiritual
wisdom to guide his free choice. This idea is supported by the verse, “Man
is glorious but if he does not understand, he is likened to the animals
that perish” (Tehilim, 49:21), or “Because of the sons of Man that G-d may
sift them that they may see that they are but as beasts” (Koheleth, 3:18).
That is why Nefesh Chaya is followed by the creation of Gan Eden.
Abarbanel questions why the Torah tells us that there was no rain before
Adam was created on the 6th day, so that there was no growth of plants ad
trees, even though we were told that these were created on the 3rd day. He
rejects Rashi’s comment that this is because before Adam there was nobody
who could thank G-d for the rain. Surely the whole of creation including
the trees, shrubs and flowers would have been thankful for the rain so
that they could have grown without Adam? So he explains that then they
could only flourish and grow by the virtue of the nature inherent in them;
this would similarly apply to the animal nature of Man. However, Adam was
created from the mixture of earth with the rain that came from heaven; a
mixture that enables him and through him the rest of creation to grow and
develop according to the Divine Will. Gan Eden was then created to
emphasize for Adam that the penalty for transgressing that Divine Will was
a return to the dust from which he was formed- a return to the non growth
that existed before that mixture of earthiness and spirituality from which
Adam was created.