This week marks the anniversary of the death of one of the greatest Jewish figures of the past five centuries, a man whose scholarship and public service were so breathtaking in scope that despite the passage of many generations, he continues to stand out in the annals of our people.
It was on the Tishrei 29 in the year 5269 on the Hebrew calendar (or 1508 on the Gregoria), that Isaac Abarbanel, rabbi, exegete and royal financier, returned his soul to his Maker after an extraordinary and turbulent career.
In recalling this heroic figure, whose philosophical works and biblical commentaries are still studied today, it is worth highlighting a prophetic forecast that he made, one that he reiterated a number of times and which is now at last coming to pass before our very eyes: the return of the Spanish and Portuguese Bnei Anusim, or forcibly converted Jews, to the people of Israel.
The Abarbanel, as he is known, was born in 1437 and raised in Lisbon, Portugal, where he proved to be prodigious student, penning complex Jewish philosophical treatises while still a young man. His intellect and vast knowledge of various subjects caught the attention of Portuguese king Alfonso V, who appointed him to serve as treasurer to the monarchy.
In 1483, after the king’s death, the Abarbanel learned of a plot being hatched against him and fled to safety in Spain, where he rebuilt his life and once again was courted by royalty. The scholar-turned-statesman helped King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella finance the Granada War, which culminated with the defeat and expulsion of the Muslim Moors from Iberia after seven centuries of occupation.
But shortly thereafter, the Spanish monarchs issued their infamous Edict of Expulsion in 1492, in which they resolved “to order the said Jews and Jewesses of our kingdoms to depart and never to return or come back to them.”
The Abarbanel wasted little time in trying to get the decree overturned, admonishing the king and queen to reverse course, but they adamantly refused.
In the introduction to his commentary on the Book of Kings, which he completed shortly after leaving Spain, the Abarbanel movingly described the disaster that befell Spanish Jewry.
“In the ninth year of the reign of the king of Spain,” he wrote, “which coincides with the Jewish year 5252, the king issued an edict which required the Jews to choose between conversion or expulsion from the lands of Spain, Sicily, Majorca and Sardinia. When the Jews heard this edict, they immediately cried and tore their clothing in grief, fearing for their lives.”
“And 300,000 of them left,” he continued, “young men and old, women and children. All left on that fateful day, exhausted, from the king’s lands and with the spirit of G-d before them they traveled in all directions.”
The exile of Spanish Jewry was a subject that he returned to numerous times throughout his extensive writings.
As an eyewitness to the destruction that befell Spanish Jewry, the Abarbanel was also keenly aware of the plight of the Bnei Anusim (Hebrew for “the progeny of those who were coerced”), whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marranos” and who were forced to stay behind when the Jews departed.
With great passion, he affirmed in his biblical exegesis that despite the tribulations they endured, those forced to convert would one day return to the Jewish people out of the depths of spiritual and physical exile.
For example, in his commentary to chapter 20 of the Book of Ezekiel, the Abarbanel states that the Ingathering of the Exiles will include not only those who are part of the community of Israel, but also those who were “compelled to leave the faith,” for all of God’s sheep “shall return to the flock.”
“In the End of Days,” he wrote, “the prophet foresaw that G-d would awaken in the hearts of the Anusim a desire to return to Him.”
Similarly, when he expounds on chapter 30 of Deuteronomy, the Abarbanel is equally adamant, stating that a time when will come when the Anusim “will return to G-d in their heart... And when they return to G-d and follow Him... everyone according to his status and his ability, he promises that the exalted God will bring them close to Him.”
The Abarbanel undoubtedly wrote these words to provide comfort and hope to the Anusim, many of whom continued to practice Judaism in secret and longed to return to the Jewish people.
But what makes his predictions so astounding are the dire circumstances in which they were written. Bear in mind that he penned these words shortly after his entire world, and that of Spanish Jewry itself, had come crashing down.
As a result of the expulsion, Spanish Jewry in all its glory had been destroyed, scattered to the winds by the cruel decree, and the Anusim had been left behind, seemingly fated to disappear.
But the Abarbanel was convinced, based on his reading of Scripture, that regardless of how impossible it might seem, the Anusim would not be lost to the Jewish people in the depths of exile.
Although the great man did not live to see his prognostication come to fruition, as he passed away in Venice just 16 years after leaving Spain, his predictions are now coming true, as growing numbers of Bnei Anusim throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world are returning to their roots.
As remarkable as it may sound, the descendants of the victims of the forced conversions and the Inquisition are emerging from the shadows of history, knocking on our collective door and seeking to be welcomed back into our midst.
Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, has worked with the Bnei Anusim for nearly 15 years, and I believe we have a historical responsibility to reach out to them and to facilitate their return.
Centuries ago, the Catholic Church devoted enormous resources to tearing them away from the Jewish people, and nearly succeeded.
Our task now should be to reach out to them with the same determination and facilitate their return, just as the Abarbanel foretold.
The writer is the founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people. It is the largest and oldest organization in the world working with Bnei Anusim, with emissaries in more than half a dozen countries.