Books: New, Authoritative Edition of the Abarbanel

Studying the Abarbanel was always a most challenging experience. This new edition has made the briliant scholar-finance minister's work accessible - and includes even the parts the Christian censor removed.

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Hillel Fendel,

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ערוץ 7

Abarbanel: Horev Publishing House, Jerusalem, 5713 (2013)

With the publication of the new edition of the Abarbanel's 15th-century commentary to the Torah, another well-known story that is often repeated at Jewish get-togethers when the subject turns to learning the Parshah has now become obsolete. The anecdote in question tells of good, simple Jews who became apikorsim (heretics) because they would sit down on Shabbat afternoon to study the Abarbanel; after reading his customary list of questions and apparent contradictions on and in the Parshah, they would be too tired to read the answers, and would fall asleep with a host of unanswered question marks.

Now, however, the Horev Publishing House in Jerusalem has come out with a new, handsome, scientific edition of the Abarbanel – with quarter-Twitter sized notes on the sides of the pages summing up the questions, answers, and other important notes – and even the drowsiest of would-be Bible scholars will have trouble evading the Abarbanel's explanations before dropping off.

The current edition, a beautiful, five-volume set that comes complete with Rashi, Siftei Chachamim, and Unkelos –all vowelized! – was published just several weeks ago. It turns learning the Abarbanel into an entirely different experience. The subject matter is now completely accessible, as the commentary has been paginated according to the verses – no easy task, given the Abarbanel's uneven style, in which some verses receive no commentary at all while others are treated for pages and pages.

The commentary on each Parshah opens with a clearly laid-out list of questions that the Abarbanel feels require elucidation, and each question is concisely summed up in the side notes. Then begin the answers, accompanied by the Abarbanel's interesting and important philosophical insights - and these, too, are succinctly highlighted in side notes. It becomes easy to search for and find answers to the specific questions that the reader wishes to understand.

All this, thanks to publisher and initiator Michael Ze'ev of Jerusalem; Rabbi Avishai Shotland of Jerusalem and Rabbi Yehuda Shaviv
Abarbanel began writing his Torah commentary as a result of a searing question that gave him no peace: Was Deuteronomy, which is mostly Moshe Rabbeinu's parting speech to Israel just before he died, written by Moshe – or was it Divinely dictated to him word by word as were the other Chumashim?
of Alon Shvut, who not only wrote the side notes but also pored over the manuscripts and early printed editions to determine the correct readings; and the Divine Providence that allowed the Abarbanel to complete his writings despite living through some of the absolutely most difficult periods of our Exile.

Don Yitzchak Abarbanel began writing his Torah commentary as a result of a searing question that gave him no peace –even after he asked many of the Torah scholars of his generation. His question concerned the Book of Deuteronomy (Dvarim): Was this book, which is mostly Moshe Rabbeinu's parting speech to Israel just before they were to enter the Promised Land, written by Moshe – or was it Divinely dictated to Moshe word by word as were the other Chumashim?

Abarbanel served, at various times, as Finance Minister to three European kings some 500 years ago. He began writing in Portugal around the year 1480 while running the treasury of King Alfonso V. But he was soon forced to escape to Spain in the face of charges of treason; his property was confiscated, including his precious manuscript of his commentary to Dvarim. He was well-known to Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and they appointed him their Finance Minister; though he had their ear, his efforts to convince the Spanish royalty not to expel the Jews of Spain did not succeed. How different Jewish history would have been without the Expulsion of 1492!

In any event, Don Yitzchak Abarbanel, too, was included in the decree, and he made his way to Italy – where he was joyously and miraculously reunited with his manuscript on Dvarim; details of how this occurred are not known.

His reunion with his prized work gave him the push he needed to complete the job; he had already finished several other books of the Tanach while in Spain. It is incredible to contemplate the genius of a man who could write scholarly commentaries while simultaneously serving as a top government official in several countries and escaping persecution and experiencing exile.

The current edition is based on original manuscripts, and the fruits of the labors are felt most substantially in Dvarim. Rav Shotland worked mainly from two manuscripts: the earliest version, known as the Sabbioneta manuscript – and the Venice version, from which most editions of the Abarbanel over the years have been printed, complete with changes demanded by the Christian censors and other major errors.

Needless to say, the current edition restores the passages removed by the censor – for instance, an entire page disparaging Christianity's belief in a man-god – and incorporates many hundreds of corrections In addition, Dr. Binyamin Richler, Director of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, discovered parts of the original manuscript – that which the Abarbanel first wrote, lost, and then miraculously found – and provided a copy of it to Rav Shotland. The Abarbanel later rewrote it, and so its importance was not in its very essence, but in the aid it provided in clarifying unclear words or points.

More than just a commentary to the Torah's words and verses, the Abarbanel's writings are a treasure of his approach to other Rabbinic commentaries, historio-sophical reflections, insights on national politics and diplomacy (a topic of particular interest to him, given his career), ideas on Jewish thought, and much more. In the current edition, the doors to the treasure house have been opened to all.