Remembering Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel

Rachel LaVictoire, 18, is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a freshman. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center. Rachel will be contributing regular commentaries and d’var Torah reflections, which will be posted on the Jewish Light’s website, — some of which will also be included in the Jewish Light’s print editions.

By 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 in ark, inside which Noah, his family, and the animals would be protected from the flood that G-d was sending to destroy the Earth. 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 to their congregations. But as I got to thinking about this parshah—one that’s often referred to as “the second creation story”—I, once again, began thinking about the cycles in life. It was while riding this train of thought that I came across an interesting fact: Thursday, October 3 is the yahrtzeit of a Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel. 

It’s a name I’d never heard before, but the short note I stumbled upon mentioned the following: he 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, something you should know about me: I am, as my friend once said so eloquently, an “information hoarder”; and as such, I was thrilled to stumble upon this little factoid.

So, who was Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel?

He was a man born in 1437 in Lisbon, Portugal. As the son of a Portuguese treasurer, he grew up in an affluent family that provided for him 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 (reign: 1477-1481). 

And that was only the beginning. Rabbi Don Isaac 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 at which point he and his family fled to Toledo. It was there that he began his commentaries. They were interrupted, however, when Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel began working at the house of Castile. But just two years later, Isabelle and Ferdinand declared the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and so Abravanel and his family once again picked up and left, this time to Naples. The pattern repeated itself once more: Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel began working for the King until the city was taken by the French, at which point he moved his family to settle in Venice, where he lived until his death in 1508. 

And, what does he have to do with Judaism?

I mentioned only briefly Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel’s passion for Judaism—he was taught by Rabbi Joseph Hayyim in Lisbon, and was well versed in the teachings in the Talmud. Around the age of twenty, before starting his career in politics, he 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 Don Isaac Abravanel wrote an entire book titled “The Principles of Faith” that argues, in a very philosophical style, his specific objections to these principles. 

In the nature of information hoarding, I found the book in our school library, so I’ll share with you 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 depends…. 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 this all seems for me to spend so much time on the story of this one man, who lived so long ago, and who wasn’t didn’t even make an appearance in my Jewish-day-school curriculum, but that’s just 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.