Abrabanel was a remarkable figure combining within himself multiple talents including that of statesman, financier, Biblical Commentator, philosopher and protector of his people. He lived in the twilight years of the middle ages and his life and times reflected the transition between the middle ages and the modern period.
Abrabanel was born in Lisbon where he received a wide ranging education. In 1571 King Alfonso of Portugal captured 250 Jews in North Africa who were to be sold into slavery. Under the leadership of Abrabanel a huge ransom was provided to secure their release. He served as treasurer to King Alfonso until he was forced to move to Castile and eventually entered the service of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1484. Despite his political influence he was unable to prevent the expulsion in 1492 and refused the king’s offer to remain at his post, choosing instead to throw in his lot with his people. He then lived in Naples, Corfu and finally in Venice, where he died. Most of his writings were composed in his later years when he was free of governmental responsibilities.
Abrabanel’s commentaries on TANACH (the Hebrew Bible) are unique and represent a fresh departure in the depth of his questions and analyses and the originality of his interpretations. All subsequent commentators must take note of his questions even if they do not agree with his answers. He did not believe that appointing a king was a Mitzvah and was a strong opponent of monarchy.
He wrote a famous commentary on Maimonides’ “Guide to the Perplexed,” which he admired greatly, though he did not hesitate to criticize that work. He wrote works on the Pesach Haggadah and Pirkei Avot and several works on the Messianic period and the Messiah, and Rosh Amana, in defense of the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith.
He often bemoaned the excessive time he spent on worldly matters and in his last work, a letter written to Saul HaKohen in 1507 Abrabanel writes: “All these commentaries I wrote after I left my country. Before that, all the time was spent in the courts and palaces of the kings… my days in vanity and my years in getting riches and honor; and now these riches have perished… It was only after I had become a fugitive…without money, that I sought out the Book of the Lord…Therefore, I have limited myself to the contemplation of the “Guide to the Perplexed” and to the exposition of the Bible. These are the sources of all knowledge and in their wisdom all doubts and perplexities are dissolved.”