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Sforno, Obadiah Ben Jacob

SFORNO, OBADIAH BEN JACOB (c. 1470–c. 1550), Italian biblical commentator and physician. Born in Cesena, Sforno was especially attached to his brother Hananel, who for a time supported him financially. Nothing is known about his father. In Rome Obadiah studied philosophy, mathematics, philology, and, in particular, medicine, which profession he followed; there on Cardinal Grimani's recommendation he taught Hebrew from 1498 to 1500 to the Christian humanist Johannes *Reuchlin. He met David *Reuveni when the latter was in Rome (1524). After staying in various cities, he finally settled at Bologna, where he played an active role in resuscitating a Hebrew printing house and in organizing the community. He established a bet-midrash which he conducted until his death. His renown was such that Italian rabbis addressed halakhic questions to him, and his decisions were quoted in the responsa of Meir *Katzenelbogen, who referred to him in terms of great esteem (Resp. Maharam of Padua, nos. 48–49).

Obadiah's reputation rests chiefly on his commentary on the Pentateuch, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes, which first appeared in Venice in 1567; on Psalms (Venice, 1586), on Job (Mishpat Ẓedek, Venice, 1589) and on Jonah, Habakkuk and Zechariah which were published in the Rabbinic Bible, Kehillot Moshe (Amsterdam, 1724–28). While generally limiting himself to the literal exegesis of the biblical text and at times going beyond this to give an exposition in keeping with the contemporary scientific outlook (e.g., on the Creation), he avoids mystical and kabbalistic interpretations. He pays comparatively little regard to philology, being on the whole satisfied to elucidate the contents of a passage without entering into a philological analysis. He does not give historical explanations or identify places except in rare instances, availing himself, however, of his medical knowledge in his exegesis, e.g., Genesis 43:27, and in explaining the reasons for the commandments.

In his commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, as well as on the Pentateuch, he employs allegory, e.g., in expounding the reason for the injunction of the red *heifer. Instead of dealing separately with individual difficulties in a verse, he prefers to incorporate the solution in a brief running comment on the passage as a whole. He takes pains to emphasize the inner connection between different parts of a verse and to account for duplications in phraseology, e.g., Genesis 43:28. In many instances he deals with the motives that inspired acts of heroism. His explanation is at times extremely incisive, e.g., Genesis 39:19. While often quoting rabbinical statements in support of his views, he rarely makes use of historical aggadot.

He aimed at inculcating a love for mankind in general and not only for fellow Jews, the difference between them being quantitative and not qualitative (Ex. 19:5), and his commentaries contain frequent references to humanistic ideas. In line with this he quoted that "righteous gentiles are undoubtedly dear to Me" i.e., to God (loc. cit.), and "the whole of mankind is Thine own treasure" (Deut. 33:3). At times, however, he introduces his views in a somewhat artificial manner, e.g., Numbers 23:22–24.

His commentary on the Pentateuch is prefaced by an introduction entitled Kavvanot ha-Torah ("The inner meaning of the Torah"), in which he deals with the structure of the Pentateuch and the reasons for its precepts, in particular for the sacrifices, on which he dwells at some length. His wide learning is reflected in his other literary productions. Thus he wrote a philosophical work Or Ammim (Bologna, 1537), in which he sought to refute the views of Aristotle, which are in conflict with the principles of Judaism, by employing the basic elements of the Greek philosopher's own teachings. He translated the work into Latin, under the title Lumen Gentium, dedicating it to King Henry II of France (Bologna, 1548). He wrote a commentary on Avot (published in the Roman Maḥzor, Bologna, 1540–41), as well as other unpublished works: a translation of Euclid's eight books, a Hebrew grammar, some responsa, and smaller works on various subjects.


E. Finkel, Obadja Sforno als Exeget (1896); A.Z. Aescoly (ed.), Sippur David ha-Re'uveni (1940), 113–4 (first pagination); L.A. Wohlgemuth, in: Scritti… Sally Mayer (1956), 120–5 (Heb. section); J. Volk, in: Sefer Niger (1959), 277–302 (incl. bibl.); Laras, in: Sinai, 62 (1967), 262–7; Fuerst, Bibliotheca, 3 (1863), 319; Mortara, Indice, 61; Colorni, in: RMI, 28 (1962), 78–88; C. Roth, Jews in the Renaissance (1959), index.