Rabbi Isaac (“Don Isaac”) Abarbanel was born in Lisbon in the Kingdom of Portugal in 1437 and died in Venice, Italy in 1508. His family was among the aristocratic families of Spanish Jewry, perhaps even one of its founders. There are several theories about the meaning of the name “Abarbanel” (as well as differences in its spelling). Abarbanel studied Torah in his youth, which he complemented with philosophy. At a young age, he began working on a commentary of Merkevet HaMishneh for the book of Deuteronomy, but he put his literary pursuits on hold to embark on an illustrious career in public service.
Don Isaac succeeded his father, Don Judah, as treasurer to King Alfonso V of Portugal. In 1471, he used his position, connections and considerable wealth in order to raise the funds necessary to free hundreds of Jewish captives from imminent slavery in the wake of the Portuguese conquest of the city of Arzila in Morocco. With Abarbanel’s intervention, they resettled in Spain.
Jewish history is full of stories about the dangers faced by Jews close to power. Many times such proximity did not end well. In 1483, after King Alfonso’s death, the new King John II suspected Abarbanel of being part of a conspiracy to overthrow him. Abarbanel fled to the city of Toledo in Castile, and his vast fortune was confiscated and handed over to the Portuguese king’s treasury.
Don Isaac returned to his Bible studies and in a short time wrote commentaries on several of the books of the prophets. However, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Castile-Aragon soon heard of his great financial expertise and quickly appointed him their treasurer, a position he held for eight years. However, this post, too, ended in personal and national tragedy.
Abarbanel tried his best to prevent the expulsion of Spain’s Jews, including attempting to sway the sovereigns by donating huge sums to the royal coffers. Eventually, the influence of chief inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada prevailed, and the decision to expel the Jews from Spain was confirmed. Abarbanel hinted at this in the preface to his commentary on the Book of Kings. After the expulsion, Abarbanel reached the city of Naples in Italy, where he again served as treasurer, this time under King Alfonso II until 1495, when he fled to Sicily following the city’s conquest by the French. After many wanderings, during which he managed to compile his famous commentary on the Passover Haggadah, Zevaḥ Pesaḥ, he arrived in Venice in 1503, where he helped in negotiations on behalf of Portuguese merchants. He died in Venice in 1508 at the age of 71. Though buried in the city of Padua, about a year later, during a siege of the city, his tomb was destroyed along with many other Jewish graves, and his exact burial place remains unknown. One of Don Isaac's sons, Rabbi Don Judah, became an important Jewish philosopher in his own right.
Don Isaac Abarbanel was a colorful and unique figure in Jewish history. He was a scholar, rabbi, biblical commentator and philosopher who devoted most of his professional career to the service of European monarchs. Perhaps most of all, Isaac Abarbanel is remembered as a Jewish patriot, who always used his talents, position and connections for the benefit of his fellow Jews.
Written by Zvi Leshem