Sforno, R. Obadiah ben Jacob
R. Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno is considered among the foremost Bible commentators. Author of several commentaries on the Bible and philosophic books, Sforno is best remembered for his Be’ur al ha-Torah, a commentary on the Torah (Pentateuch) and his most important work. The Be’ur has been reprinted numerous times and is included in every Mikraot Gedolot (Rabbinic Bible). The Or Ammim, a philosophic work, is in opposition to those tenets of Aristotelian philosophy in conflict with Jewish religion. Well trained in several fields, apart from his rabbinic learning, Sforno’s scholarship was recognized in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles.
Born in Cesena, Italy, Sforno acquired a thorough rabbinic education and studied mathematics, philology, and philosophy prior to traveling to Rome, where he taught the Talmud, and studied, and afterward practiced medicine. His rabbinic learning was recognized by such prominent figures as R. Meir Katzenellenbogen and R. Joseph Colon, both of whom refer to him in their responsa. His standing as a scholar was also acknowledged by Cardinal Domenico Grimani, who recommended Sforno to the humanist Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1522). When the latter sought to improve his knowledge of Hebrew literature and grammar, Sforno wrote and then translated into Latin a work on Hebrew grammar for him. He left Rome in 1525, traveling to Italy, before settling in Bologna, the residence of his brother Hananel, who supported him financially for some time. He founded a yeshivah in Bologna which he headed until his death.
The Be’ur al ha-Torah, Sforno’s commentary on the Torah (Pentateuch), is his most important work. It is possible that the first draft of the Be’ur was written while Obadiah was still in Rome, where he was studied medicine and gave lectures on the Torah. The first edition (Giovanni Gryphio: 40: 92 ff.) was printed 17 years after his death in Venice (1567). It is based on a manuscript in his possession in the last years of his life, and is therefore the final version of the commentary. The manuscript was edited by his brother Hananel.
The Be’ur is completed with a table of the subject matter of the commentary by weekly Torah readings, and Kavvanot ha-Torah (a discourse on the intentions of the Torah). The table is not a listing of the contents in the normal sense of the word; it was prepared by Sforno as an outline of the points he wished to emphasize prior to writing the Be’ur. Written in a succinct manner, they serve as questions for the reader. The Kavvanot ha-Torah is, to some extent, a supplement and completion to Sforno’s Or Ammim (Gottlieb and Zev 1980). The subject matter is the structure of the Torah, the rationale of the precepts, with emphasis on the Temple and sacrifices, and the deeds of the patriarchs.
Sforno uses a clear and lucid style and is concerned with the literal meaning of the text. Although it is known that he was familiar with kabbalistic works, here he eschews mystical interpretations. He addresses ethical and philosophical issues, referring to both the halakhah and aggadah in the commentary. He is not reluctant to suggest innovative and even controversial interpretations. His varied sources, in addition to the Bible, Babylonian Talmud, and Midrashim for the Be’ur, reveal his extensive mastery of earlier commentators, among them the Rashi, Abrabanel, Ba’alei Tosafot, Bekhor Shor, Hizzekuni, ibn Ezra, R. Moses ben Nahman (Ramban), R. Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, and others. Be’ur al ha-Torah has proven to be a popular commentary and was utilized by latter commentators, frequently reprinted, and included in every Mikraot Gedolot (Rabbinic Bible).
Sforno also produced commentaries on several other books of the Bible, on Avot, and Or Ammim, as well as works still in manuscript. The Or Ammim (Light of the Nations, Gottlieb and Zev 1980, 40: 64 ff.) is a philosophical work in defense of Judaism written in opposition to those tenets of Aristotelian philosophy in conflict with Jewish belief. In the introduction, he states that he wrote this work because even such a great personage Maimonides had expressed belief in the correctness of many of Aristotle’s theories. Among the Aristotelian positions, he attempts to refute, utilizing not only biblical but also Aristotle’s own teachings, are those on the eternity of matter, God’s omniscience, and the universality of the soul.
Sforno opposes the position that the Torah is based on belief rather than knowledge; a person must inquire, not being content with mere belief. The Scriptures provides a clearer and reliable exposition of truth than philosophy. Only the Bible instructs on the central role of man in the universe, which has been created and exists for man, who, made in God’s image, is endowed with free will. Man’s purpose is thus to become like his Creator. That is why the righteous man who fulfills God’s will is more precious to the Creator than the entire universe and all the heavens. Sforno is considered the last of the Jewish scholastic scholars, as reflected in the subject matter and methodology of Or Ammim.
- Gottlieb, Zev, ed. 1980. Be’ur al ha-Torah le Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, 10–23. Jerusalem: Hebrew.Google Scholar