Rav Don Yitzchak Abarbanel ZT"L
5197/1437 - 10 Av, 5268/1508
by D. Sofer
In the summer of 5231/1471, Portugal celebrated the victory
of its king, Alfonso V, over the North African country
of Morocco. Large Moroccan cities like Tangiers had
fallen before him with ease, and the booty he had amassed
amply filled his royal coffers. The Moroccan captives in his
possession also added to his glory and, when sold in the slave
market, would bring in a hefty price.
Among the captives were 250 Jews. Knowing that Jews
would go to every extent to redeem their brethren, the captors
demanded astronomical prices for them. In addition, the Jews
were known for their loyalty and industry and were prized by
potential slave masters.
Fearing for the fate of the captives, Morocco’s Jews dispatched
an emissary to Lisbon to try and raise money to ransom
them. That emissary, Emmanuel ben Yitzchak, scion of a
prominent Moroccan Jewish family, had come to see the one
man who could raise so much money, Rav Yitzchak Abarbanel,
a great Torah scholar and the finance minister of King Alfonso.
"The situation of the captives," Emmanuel told Rav
Yitzchak, "is appalling, since the captors treat them even
worse than animals."
Raising enough ransom money from Lisbon’s Jews, though,
was no easy feat, since they themselves had been forced to pay
vast amounts of taxes to the king. Nonetheless, Rav Yitzchak
made indefatigable efforts to collect that sum, dispatching
urgent letters of appeal to Jews all over Portugal.
It took more time than expected to collect the money, and
Emmanuel, who stayed as Rav Yitzchak’s guest throughout
that entire period, nearly despaired.
When Rav Yitzchak finally amassed the money, he handed
two packets to Emmanuel. "One bundle," Rav Yitzchak said,
"contains ransom money to redeem the captives. The other
contains money to provide the captives with food, medicines
and all they need." That second packet was Rav Yitzchak’s
"Once you have redeemed them bring them here to my
house, and I will take care of them until they have recuperated
from their dreadful experience."
Emmanuel was stunned. He had known that Rav Yitzchak
Abarbanel was a great shtadlan (intercessor) who was very
active in redeeming Jewish captives. But he had never expected
him to host 250 infirm and unfortunate people in his home
for a number of months.
Rav Yitzchak Abarbanel was born in Lisbon in 5197/1437
and descended from an illustrious Sephardic family, which
traced its lineage all the way back to Dovid HaMelech. The
title ‘Don’ (Minister) was conferred on him when he served as
a minister of finance in the Spanish government, and he is
often referred to as Don Yitzchak Abarbanel.
Rav Yitzchak’s grandfather, Rav Shmuel, was a great Torah
sage who had originally lived in the Spanish city of Seville.
However, he was forced to leave there when the city’s
Catholics destroyed its Jewish quarter and butchered many of
its Jews. Rav Shmuel Abarbanel, whose home was well-fortified,
managed to escape and to flee to Portugal.
Rav Yitzchak’s father, Rav Yehudah, was a very successful
merchant, and influential in the royal court. Recognizing
Yitzchak’s unique capacities, Rav Yehudah hired the finest
teachers to study with him. One of them was Rav Yosef
Chayune, Lisbon’s rav and author of Milei d’Avos. Later on,
Rav Yitzchak went to Holland to study under Rav Yitzchak
Abuhav, author of Menoras HaMaor.
When Rav Yitzchak Abarbanel was only 20, he wrote his
first book, Ateres Zekeinim, which discuses such subjects as
prophecy and Divine Providence. At that time, he also began
to compile his famous commentary on the Torah.
Aware of Rav Yitzchak’s intelligence and business acumen,
Portugal’s king, Alfonso V, appointed him to the position of
royal finance minister. That involvement caused Rav Yitzchak
much sorrow, because he preferred to devote himself to Torah
study, and to completing his commentary on the Torah.
However, he used the prestigious position as finance minister
in order to help his fellow Jews.
Rav Yitzchak served Alfonso faithfully and was very helpful
to him. Whenever Alfonso needed money, Rav Yitzchak would
raise it for him, and even loan him vast sums.
Alfonso died in 5242/1482 and was replaced by his son,
Johan. Certain elements who opposed Johan’s rule rebelled
against him, and Rav Yitzchak was falsely accused of betraying
the king and fled.
Taking his family with him, he settled in Spain which was
ruled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
In Spain, Rav Yitzchak became one of the court’s tax supervisors,
a position he used in order to assist his fellow Jews. In
that capacity, he greatly increased the royal coffers. During the
brief period of tranquility which Rav Yitzchak enjoyed in
Spain, he focused on writing his commentaries and completing
his works on Nevi’im Rishonim - Yehoshua, Shoftim and
But that tranquility was not long lasting.
At that time, both Moslem and Christian provinces dotted the
Iberian Peninsula where Spain is situated. Seeking to gain total
sovereignty of the Iberian Peninsula and to unite all Spain
under Catholic control, King Ferdinand waged war against the
In these wars, Ferdinand was motivated by his desire for
power and wealth. His wife, Isabella, though, was motivated
by religious fanaticism, spurred by the priest Torquemada, to
whom she always made her confessions. Although
Torquemada was the mastermind of the Inquisition, he knew
quite well that Ferdinand needed the Jews because of their vast
contributions to the country’s economic stability.
In 5247/1487, Ferdinand and Isabella captured the Moslem
province of Malaga. After that, only one province remained in
Moslem control: Granada. Summoning Rav Yitzchak to the
royal court, Ferdinand appointed him as finance minister and
asked him to come forth with the vast sums needed to wage a
war against Granada. With the aid of Rav Yitzchak, Ferdinand
gained control of Granada too, and became the sole ruler of the
Iberian Peninsula, as well as the undisputed monarch of a united
Now that Spain was rid of the Moslems, Torquemada influenced
Ferdinand and Isabella to banish the Jews from the
Iberian Peninsula too.
However, Ferdinand was reluctant to take such a step
because he needed the Jews. Isabella, though, was totally dominated
When the Jews learned that the threat of expulsion loomed
over their heads, they did not believe that Ferdinand would
actually carry it out, especially since they had contributed vast
sums to the war effort and were still needed in Spain.
However, they were wrong. In March 5254/1492, an edict
was issued expelling the Jews from Spain. It was announced at
a gala reception held in Granada, in honor of Ferdinand’s conquest.
All of the king’s ministers were present at that meeting,
including Rav Yitzchak. Torquemada was there too.
At that meeting, Torquemada declared, "Now that we have
banished the Moslem infidels from the court, it’s time to banish
the Jews too!"
Even Ferdinand was stunned by this declaration, yet he cautiously
said, "This is a very serious subject, and we must listen
to the opinions of all of the other royal ministers before making
a final decision."
Rising to speak, Rav Yitzchak bravely responded, "As
Finance Minister of the court, I warn you that the expulsion of
the Jews from Spain will devastate the country financially. The
royal coffers are empty. Much money was exhausted by the
war effort, and it will take a long time for the economy to
recover. The estates of noblemen who engaged in battle for so
many years are totally neglected, and vast sums are required to
renovate them. The Christian populace though is depleted.
"Only the Jews are capable of boosting the economy at this
point. If they are expelled from the country, it is very doubtful
if Spain will ever be able to stand on its feet again."
Rav Yitzchak’s logical claim had a tremendous impact on the
other ministers and even on the king. However, Torquemada
became livid, and in his fanaticism screeched, "There are more
important things than money. What counts most is to preserve
the purity of our camp and to oust the infidels."
Startled, yet impressed by Torquemada’s cry, Ferdinand rose
and said, "We indeed want Spain to be a purely Catholic country.
From now on, Jews will have no right to remain in Spain -
unless they convert to Christianity." Then he and Isabella left
Even then, Rav Yitzchak did not despair, and thought that he
could still convince King Ferdinand to reverse the decree.
Shortly after that event, Spain’s Jewish leaders convened in
Rav Yitzchak’s home in order to devise ways of averting the
expulsion. All looked toward Rav Yitzchak, hoping that he
would indeed be able to change Ferdinand’s mind
At an audience with the king, he promised that the Jews
would provide the vast sum of 300,000 golden drachmas to the
royal court, if the decree was rescinded.
Then he attempted to rally as many noblemen as possible to
his side, and to persuade them to convince the king to change
his mind. Some agreed and tried to cancel the decree.
However, all this was to no avail since Torquemada’s influence
over the queen was so overpowering.
Having been the queen’s personal financial advisor, Rav
Yitzchak also approached her, but she refused to listen to him,
and did not cancel the decree. As he was speaking with her,
Torquemada burst into the room and screamed, "Judas sold his
master for thirty pieces of silver. You are no better!"
Although the decree remained in force, Ferdinand and
Isabella offered Rav Yitzchak the opportunity to remain in
Spain and to continue to officiate as its finance minister, without
having to betray his faith. But he refused, and chose to join
his people in their exile and wandering.
On Tisha B’Av of 5252/1492, 300,000
Spanish Jews left behind all of their wealth and prestige, and
set out into the unknown. They were led by Rav Yitzchak who
was a source of solace to them on their treks.
The scene of their leaving and expulsion is described in
Rabbi Berel Wein’s book Herald of Destiny. "Within the terms
fixed by the edict of expulsion, the Jews sold and disposed of
their property for a mere nothing; they went about asking
Christians to buy and found no buyers; fine houses and estates
were sold for trifles; a house was exchanged for a mule; and a
vineyard given for a little cloth or linen…. The rich Jews paid
the expenses of the departure of the poor, practicing toward
each other the greatest charity so that, except for a very few of
the poorest they would not become converts…. Rav Yitzchak
Abarbanel made the women and young people play on pipes
and tambourines to cheer the people and thus they left and thus
they left Castille and arrived at the ports of the sea…"
Out of the 300,000 refugees, only one-tenth managed to
reach safe shores. On the way, many died of starvation and
lack of medical aid. Some were sold as slaves; others were
tossed into the sea by greedy ship captains.
A large number of the fugitives turned to Portugal. However
only five years after their arrival there, they were banished
from that country too.
Others reached Turkey, where the Sultan Byazaid granted
them shelter and religious freedom. However, on the way to
Turkey, pirates took many captive.
Rav Yitzchak and his family found asylum in Naples, where
he completed his commentary on Melachim. He remained in
Naples for seven years. But his wanderings still hadn’t ended,
and when the French invaded Naples, he fled to Corfu. In
1503, he moved to Venice, which was then a republic ruled by
a senate, elected by the country’s citizens. The Senate recognized
his greatness and talents, and sent him on important missions
on behalf of the ruling authorities.
He remained in Venice for the rest of his life and finally completed
his commentary on the Torah.
His commentary on Torah and Prophets are his major works.
In addition to these, he also composed a commentary on the
book of Daniel, Mayenei HaYeshuah, and two books about the
coming of the Moshiach, Mashmia Yeshua and Yeshuas
Meshicho. Other works are: a commentary on Rambam’s
Moreh Nevuchim; Nachlas Avos on the Haggadah; a commentary
on Pirkei Avos; and Rosh Amana, a dissertation in defense
of the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of faith.
Having personally witnessed the suffering of the exiled Jews,
and fearing that their troubles might weaken their faith, he
devoted parts of his writings to encouraging them to remain
steadfast in their faith and to await the Geulah.
In one place, he writes: "Fortunate is he who waits. Fortunate
is he who bore the suffering of the exile with pride and accepted
the suffering and trials with love, remaining staunch in his
faith and in his anticipation of the imminent Geulah."
His commentaries on Tanach are unique. Before each chapter,
he presents challenging and pointed questions for the student.
Then, he answers them systematically in light of the parsha
or chapter to which they pertain.
In a letter written to Shaul HaCohen in 5267/1507, Rav
Yitzchak laments the fact that he had to spend so much time in
royal courts and palaces, instead of on his writings. However,
he also says that his sole purpose in occupying such positions
was to help klal Yisroel.
Rav Yitzchak was niftar in Venice in 5268/1508, and buried
in the old Jewish cemetery in Padua, beside Rav Yehudah
Mintz, av beis din and head of Padua’s yeshivah, who had
passed away five years beforehand.
News of the petirah of the great Torah sage and shtadlan
spread rapidly throughout the Diaspora, and all mourned the
May his memory be a blessing.
Re-Printed with permission from Yated Ne'eman. All rights reserved.