Keeping Our Oldest Story Relevant - The Haggadah of Don Yitzchak Abarbanel

Storytelling[1] has been a part of Jewish history since the inception of the Jewish nation. One of the first commandments we received as a nation was a multi-part commandment to tell the story of the Exodus from slavery over to our children – “and you shall tell your son on that day saying…”[2] In the millennia since then, telling over this story of our emergence as a people and redemption from servitude has been a vital part of both Jewish ritual and Jewish identity. The stories reaches its apex with the commandment of sipur Yetzi’at Mitsrayim, telling over the story of exodus from Egypt, on the seder night, during which we are told to imagine as though we ourselves have been set free.

Over these same millennia, this story has been a beacon of hope, a light in the midst of despair, for Jews in times of trouble. Amidst the persecutions and expulsion and pogroms, Jews could think, “my ancestors have been here too, and experienced much worse, and just as God rescued them from the depths of their suffering, He will soon redeem us as well.” The haggadah is an excellent echo of – or perhaps even a counterpoint to –the experiences of a Jew suffering in the galut (exile).

Don Yitzchak Abarbanel, one of the most well-known of the biblical exegetes from the end of the era of the Rishonim, was one of those who saw within the story of the Exodus from Egypt parallels to the suffering and hardship which were so pervasive in his life as well as a message of hope. While he is deservedly well-known for his commentary to Tanakh, he also produced a haggadah shel Pesach, which he titled “Zevach Pesach.” Much like his commentary to Tanakh, the haggadah is comprised of lists of questions and answers, in this case one hundred of each. While the complaint has been made that Abarbanel’s peirushim may have been over-contextualized within his personal time and life story,[3] in the case of his haggadah it is nonetheless instructive to place the work in context of Abarbanel’s personal life.[4]

Much of the detail we have about Abarbanel’s life comes from his own writings, particularly the introductions to his commentary on the haggadah and some of his other Tanakh commentaries.[5] He was born in 1437 in Lisbon to a family of financiers who had fled there to escape massacres in Spain. Educated in both Jewish and secular subjects, Abarbanel soon became a wealthy and important financier to the king of Portugal; at this time, he also commenced writing his works on the Torah and developing a scholarly library. He was rich and successful, living what would end up being the happiest years of his life until his patron, King Alfonso V of Portugal, died in 1481. Abarbanel was subsequently forced to flee, somewhat ironically, to Spain in order to escape a purge of Portuguese nobles by Alfonso’s newly crowned son, Joao, whom Abarbanel describes as having been “tyrannical and seeking wealth.”[6] Though he left everything behind, Abarbanel’s skills as a financier were still in high demand, and he soon reestablished himself as a court financier to Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon and Castile. This new stage of life was a catalyst for increased productivity; it was at this time that Abarbanel was most prolific, writing over 400,000 words of Torah (mostly on Nevi’im and Ketuvim) in the 4 months before he attained his post. While Abarbanel may have hoped for more stability in his life, he soon was faced with the Inquisition and Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. As a valuable resource and friend to the throne, he personally was not forced to leave; however, Abarbanel refused to stay behind in Spain as his fellow Jews were expelled, after his pleas (and enormous bribes) for the decree’s reversal were rebuffed.

This was the beginning of a part of Abarbanel’s life in which, biographers note, he began to turn more toward the study of the redemption.[7] He witnessed Jews being herded onto airless, filthy boats with little food and emerging from them, Benzion Netanyahu compared, looking like survivors of German concentration camps.[8] He saw people who had run to Portugal for sanctuary be hit by the long arm of the Inquisition, and ultimately the Expulsion, there as well. Abarbanel himself wound up in Naples, Italy, where he briefly regained his status as a financier to the court only to lose it again to regional political strife. He moved throughout Italy and in his newfound free time wrote many of his Judaic works. In his new home of Monopoli, Eric Lawee writes, “Never was his mood more brooding or his literary timbre more tenebrous.”[9] Abarbanel had suffered incredible losses and was continually witnessing the suffering and hopelessness of his fellow Jews. It was in this time period that he wrote a three-volume series on redemption and the Messianic era – titled Ma’ayenei Ha-yeshu’ah, Mashmi’a Yeshu’ah and Yeshu’at Meshicho – which exceeded in scope anything written before on the topic. During this time he also wrote his commentary on Yeshayahu, which in part dealt with similar themes: conflicts between the nations; the Jews’ place within these conflicts; and the messianic spirit that engulfed the author as he and the people around him searched for answers for their suffering.

One of the smaller commentaries Abarbanel produced in this turbulent, messianic-intoned period, at a weary age 58, was a relatively small commentary on the haggadah, which he called Zevach Pesach.  While some of the aforementioned works are more famously connected to his despair and hope for the messianic era, it is very clear how much this particular commentary is a reaction to his suffering. Abarbanel makes this evident in the introduction, in which even as he observes and reflects on the pain so recently endured by him and his fellow Jews, he also clearly remembers better times and happier Pesach celebrations, when in Portugal and Spain he had been able to sit with his wife and children around him at a luxurious table. Even if he cannot have a Pesach feast this year, he writes, this commentary will hopefully be a substitute, a way to keep up his hopes and the hopes of fellow wanderers. Though during this Pesach he and his audience may still be enslaved, Abarbanel tries to open a window of hope to the future.[10]

However, the commentary also serves as an opportunity for repentance for earlier blame and despair. In his introduction, which is almost entirely composed of clever literary allusions to various verses in Tanakh, Abarbanel begins by mentioning the good fortune that he had been blessed with in a previous life. He then begins a cascade of expressions of his depression, loss and trauma, going through the various cycles of good and bad fortune he had experienced, as well as the general feelings of horror at the fate of the rest of the Jewish people. He puts the Inquisition and Expulsion into Hurban-esque terms, with sentences describing God’s “deciding to destroy the wall of the daughter of Zion,”[11] “the exile of Jerusalem that is in Sefarad,”[12] and describing an “expulsion of unlimited numbers,”[13] as well as other expressions of horror related to past destructions. As Dr. Avigail Rock points out, there are some very significant examples that illustrate Abarbanel’s angst.[14] He writes that “God was the enemy to destroy, kill and obliterate all of the Jews,” a clear allusion to the expression used by Ahashverosh and Haman in their campaign to annihilate the Jewish people in Megillat Esther – “letters shall be sent…to destroy, kill and obliterate all of the Jews.”[15] He also writes that he has seen God “battling with his nation”[16] and mentions many of God’s well-known expressions of anger, including those mentioned in the haggadah as He used against the Egyptians, to describe God’s current attitude toward the Jewish People. He uses clear imagery that assigns God as the enemy of His own people, mindfully going out to destroy those whom He cherishes with as much malice as their deepest enemies. In this cycle of brief spots of hope punctuated by periods of despair, Abarbanel expresses the question many Jews were asking at that time (as well as in all dark eras in Jewish history) – does God hate the Jewish People? Is there an end to our suffering, or has God simply turned His back on us as He did in the past to our enemies?[17]

Abarbanel then mentions how he had heard there, in Monopoli, people discussing the coming of Pesach, the holiday of redemption, and painfully remembers happy times of old with his family in Portugal. He discusses his pain and the decrees made against him by God and tries to justify it due to God’s inherently just ways. He decides to improve his spirits by expounding on the Torah, he writes, “because they are the source of the waters of life.”[18] His goal, despite the great negativity that his suffering has brought him, is to focus on the redemption, the ge’ulah and on the way that God will fulfill His promises – just as He did at the time of the Exodus. He selects the haggadah as a topic for a commentary to remind everyone of the stories told throughout the millennia and of the promise of redemption they contain. He decides to bring something new to the discussion, not like those who came before him, by specifically focusing upon the redemption.[19] In keeping with the work’s goal, he entitles his commentary Zevach Pesach, as it stands as a sacrifice “to God from a shattered spirit” at a time when there can’t be a real Pesach offering, or even a Pesach feast.[20] In a place and time when people felt like God had abandoned them, Abarbanel would interpret the haggadah, the quintessential story of redemption from hardship, to show that there was indeed hope for the future.[21]

In the haggadah, many of his interpretations, true to his introduction, were keyed into the challenges of the day: waiting for the redemption and living through the present. He asks questions of a sort that were bound to eat away at the minds of people living through their own personal enslavement: In the opening paragraph of maggid, we synopsize that we were slaves in Egypt, and God took us out from there – and were this to not happen, we would still be enslaved there.  But, Abarbanel asks, why are we grateful that we are no longer in Egypt when it’s very possible that the situation in which we are now is worse? And how can someone who is currently in exile feel as though he has left Egypt when for all meaningful purposes he is still there? The first question he answers hopefully, interpreting the three phrases that continue this section of the haggadah: “Kulanu chachamim,” – we are now wise enough to see how unique our relationship with God is; “kulanu nevonim,” – we understand the status that the Exodus and subsequent settlement in Eretz Yisrael gave us; and “kulanu yode’im et ha-Torah,” – we realize how much receiving the Torah – as the sequel to the Exodus – transformed us.[22] The second question he answers in a way that is simultaneously bleak, encouraging, and completely appropriate for his audience: if you are alive, in any conditions, to hold a seder and tell the story of the Exodus, you have lived through a miracle. He invokes Ramban’s comments first written in the chapters of the Exodus and applies them to his own time: every individual’s survival in the Spanish exile is because of hidden miracles from God.[23] This is exactly the kind of sentiment with which someone who, against all odds, had survived so many different expulsions and trials would identify.

Abarbanel’s experiences with the Inquisition also informed his understandings and interpretations of various elements of the haggadah. He explains the phrase “va-yera’u otanu ha-Mitzrim” to mean that the Egyptians saw the Jewish People as inherently evil and wrong, which led to their persecuting them – an idea that would be readily understandable to his fellow refugees from the Christian Inquisition.[24] In his explanation of “ve’et lahatzenu- zeh ha-dehak,” he emphasizes the stress inflicted on the Jews as they lived in secret and hid their children, and further, how these sorts of emotionally traumatizing stressors can be more harmful than actual physical injury.[25] This would be very familiar to his fellow survivors of the Inquisition, particularly those who were ex-conversos – like Abarbanel’s grandfather Samuel was two generations prior.[26] The incredible stress of hiding Jewish practices from the inquisitors while maintaining a good Christian facade, especially when it was known that being caught could mean being burned in an auto-da-fé , could be clearly paralleled with the stress in the haggadah, linking the two experiences in the minds of the Jews of Abarbanel’s time.

Predictably, Abarbanel ultimately promotes a positive outlook for the Jews – the fact that he compares the slavery of the expelled Jews with that of their enslaved ancestors could link as well the redemption their forefathers received with one that the Jews of his era could hopefully soon experience. He emphasizes the Heavenly hand that led Ya’akov and his children down to Egypt in the first place, that they were “anus al pi ha-dibur,” completely compelled by a decree from God.[27] This could stand as a parallel to the control that God has over the situation of the Jews of his era as well. He specifies that when the Jewish People say “blessed is He who guards His promise to Israel” they are not really declaring thankfulness to God keeping His promise, but rather for fulfilling His promise through them, even though He could have fulfilled it through Avraham’s other descendants. God chose the Jews in particular, and the Jews reciting the haggadah even in exile should remember their chosenness.[28] Abarbanel also expands on the traditional reason why “I love Him because He listens”[29] is recited: not only because God currently listens, but also because it is known that He listened in the past, and thus will soon listen again. Just as God listened to the Jews in Egypt when they cried out, He will listen again even in Abarbanel’s terrible situation. When he interprets “I believed when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted,’”[30] he draws an explicit parallel between the seder and his current situation: Just as every year Jews sit at the seder and remember the way the Egyptian suffering ended, soon Jews will be able to look back on the current exile and remember the way their suffering ended.[31]

Abarbanel stayed in Monopoli only for a few years after he completed his haggadah. He remained just as prolific until his final days in Venice, where he passed away in 1508 at the age of 70. He had lived through a turbulent and frightening time and was an anchor of hope, through his works, to many of his fellow Jews in similar situations who may have given up faith otherwise. Among all of his works, the haggadah stands out as linking the story told about the salvation in the past to the story of the tumultuous present to the story which hopefully will be told soon, with the coming of the redemption.

Chani Grossman (SCW ’18) is a junior studying biology and Jewish history. This is her first article for Kol HaMevaser.


[1] A tremendous amount of credit for the inspiration for and structure of this essay, as well as some ideas within it, goes to Dr. Avigail Rock’s pre-Pesach lecture on this topic at Stern College for Women, 2016. All research was my own.

[2] Shemot 13:8

[3] See Angel, Hayyim, “Abarbanel: Commentator and Teacher Celebrating 500 Years of his Influence on Tanakh Study,” Tradition 24,3 (2009)

[4] When writing, I referred to the text of the Mosad HaRav Kook edition of the Haggadah, put together by R Yisrael Meir Persser. All footnotes based on its pagination.

[5] For more information about Abarbanel’s life, see Minkin (Abarbanel and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain) and Netanyahu (Don Isaac Abravanel, Statesman and Scholar), among others.

[6] Abarbanel’s introduction to the Haggadah, page 67

[7] In addition to the mentioned biographies, see Feldman (Philosophy in a Time of Crisis: Don Isaac Abravanel-Defender of the Faith) and Lawee (Isaac Abarbanel’s Stance Toward Tradition- Defense, Dissent and Dialogue) for further discussion on this.

[8] Netanyahu, Don Isaac Abravanel, Statesman and Scholar

[9] Lawee, Isaac Abarbanel’s Stance Toward Tradition- Defense, Dissent and Dialogue p 21

[10] All examples in this paragraph from Abarbanel’s introduction, pages 70-71

[11] Translation is the author’s - the phrase is an allusion to Eicha 2:8

[12] Allusion to Ovadiah 1:20

[13] Allusion to Tehillim 40:13

[14] Pre-Pesach lecture of Dr. Avigail Rock at Stern College for Women, 2016

[15] Esther 3:13

[16] Allusion to Devarim 32:9

[17] All examples in this paragraph in Abarbanel’s introduction, pages 68-69

[18] Allusion to Yirmiyahu 2:13

[19] This focus on redemption can be seen in his other works written in Monopoli as well

[20] Allusion to Tehillim 51:19

[21] All examples in this paragraph can be found in Abarbanel’s introduction, pages 70-71

[22] Haggadah page 108

[23] Ibid page 245

[24] Haggadah page 176

[25] Ibid page 181-182

[26] See Netanyahu

[27] Haggadah page 164-166

[28] Haggadah page 139

[29] Tehillim 116

[30] Tehillim 116:10

[31] Haggadah page 163-164