About the time when the Jews of Spain and Portugal suffered the great tragedy of being driven from their homes and beyond the borders of their lands, Jewish life in Italy took a turn for the better. In Spain, centuries of Jewish learning and culture came to an end; in Italy, Jews could still live and learn and write great books.
The family of the Sfornos had been well known in Italy for several generations. Many a great rabbi bore that name and was a faithful leader to his community. But the most famous of all the Sfornos was Rabbi Obadiah ben Yaakov.
Obadiah was born in Cesena, Italy. His father, Rabbi Yaakov (Jacob) Sforno, was a great scholar, and the boy's first teacher. Obadiah, while still very young, showed that he had a good head for the study of the Torah which he loved very much. At an early age, when other children were just beginning to study the Talmud, he astonished everyone with a wide knowledge of it. At the same time he began to study mathematics and philosophy, and to write his own commentaries on the TeNaCh.
When not quite twenty years of age, he left his hometown and went to Rome to study medicine. He did not wish to use his great knowledge of the Torah as a means of earning a livelihood, for the Torah was not given for profit. Instead, like the Rambam (Maimonides) and others, he wanted to earn his livelihood as a physician.
The presence of the young genius among the Jews of Rome was soon discovered. He was regarded with respect, and was consulted on most problems that troubled Italian Jewry at that time. Other great scholars, such as Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen and Joseph Colon, exchanged opinions with Rabbi Obadiah on questions of Jewish law, and Rabbi Israel ben Jechiel Ashkenazi sought his advice and guidance regarding communal affairs. Thus Rabbi Obadiah Sforno had a decisive hand in the shaping of Jewish life in Italy.
But not only Jews were among his friends. The fame of his great knowledge had soon spread to the large circle of scholars who gathered in Rome in those days. Through Samuel Zarfati, the great scholar and private doctor of the Pope, Rabbi Obadiah was introduced to these men and he gained their respect and recognition. Johannes Reuchlin, the famous non‑Jewish scholar, was then in Rome to perfect his mastery of the ancient languages, amongst them Hebrew, for he wanted to be able to read all the old masterpieces of literature in the original text, rather than in the inaccurate translations. He was especially interested in the Bible. With the aid of the Hebrew grammar and the dictionary of Rabbi David Kimchi, called "Michlol," and with the help of such as men as Rabbi Elijah Levita, he had acquired a basic knowledge of Hebrew. Yet he found himself insufficiently prepared for the great task he wanted to shoulder. Reuchlin therefore asked Cardinal Grimani, the main figure among the Vatican's scholars, for a teacher who would be able to help him to understand the more difficult Hebrew Bible. Grimani sent him to Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, and for the next two years (1498‑1500), the famous Christian scholar, who was revered in all Europe, "sat at the feet" of the young Jewish rabbi to study Hebrew. It may perhaps be due to Rabbi Obadiah's influence that Johannes Reuchlin became later one of the greatest friends and helpers of European Jewry. It was due to Reuchlin's friendly attitude that a serious tragedy was averted when the enemies of our people tried to have all Hebrew books, especially the Talmud, burnt publicly and banned from further printing. Reuchlin, being famous for his scholarship and knowledge of Hebrew, was appointed to be the judge who would decide whether the Talmud was "harmful." His favorable decision then saved German Jewry from a fate similar to that which had befallen the Jews of France two hundred years before, when the Talmud was burned and banned.
Rabbi Obadiah made friends with other distinguished residents and visitors in Rome. Among them was the future king of France, Henry II. Rabbi Obadiah kept a lasting friendship with him and exchanged letters with him on matters of philosophy.
When Rabbi Obadiah wrote his philosophical book, called "Or Ammim," he sent a translation of it to the king of France. In this work Rabbi Obadiah refuted the ideas and principles of non-Jewish philosophers who did not believe in G‑d. Rabbi Obadiah wrote this work in Hebrew, and then translated it into Latin, the language widely used by non-Jewish scholars in those days. He dedicated the Latin version to King Henry II of France. However, the book was not printed because the leaders of the Catholic church did not approve it, since it dealt with the Jewish point of view only.
Another work of Rabbi Obadiah Sforno discusses the eight books of Euclid's Geometry, and was supposed to be the most complete analysis of mathematics and geometry in those days. In the year 1525, Rabbi Obadiah left Rome to spend some time travelling about the continent to practice medicine at the various royal courts and to acquaint himself with the conditions of Jewish life in the various countries. His letters to his brother Rabbeinu Chananel, who spent all his time in Talmud study in Bologna, show that despite the troubles and hardships of traveling in those days, and despite his lack of funds, Rabbi Obadiah enjoyed the journey. It widened his horizons and gave him rich experiences. In his later years, he returned to Bologna and opened his own Yeshivah there to teach Torah to numerous pupils until his very last day.
To us, Rabbi Obadiah Sforno holds an important place among the great of the past because of his commentaries on TeNaCh. In his introduction to the commentary on the Torah, called "Kavonath Hatorah," he pays tribute to the previous great commentators like Rashi, Ibn Ezra, the Rashbam and the Ramban. His own method of interpretation was based upon a selection of the best methods of his predecessors. He does not depart from the literal text of the Tenach and applies a great philological (knowledge of languages) and philosophical knowledge in presenting the true meaning of difficult passages, rather than giving mystical interpretations. It is for the qualities of clearness and simplicity that the "Sforno" commentary has become a favorite among scholars and laymen. In addition to the commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Obadiah wrote commentaries on Shir Hashirim, Tehillim, and Koheleth. His commentary on Iyov (Job) was published under the title "Mishpat Tzedek," and his commentaries on Jonah, Habakkuk, and Zechariah were included in a larger collection of different commentaries. The Machzor printed in Rome contains his explanations to Pirkei Aboth. Other works, like a collection of his sermons and a Hebrew grammar, are preserved in the form of manuscripts which have not been published.
Despite his acquaintance with the most eminent scholars and nobility of his time, Rabbi Obadiah Sforno never lost his deep piety and modesty. His vision was always clear. He was able to see the deeper truth that is to be found in science and philosophy and recognized the false and mistaken ideas that were all too often accepted by others. In his works, he has left us a great treasure of knowledge and faith.
Thus, when Rabbi Obadiah Sforno died at the age of seventy‑five, his memory lived on. Many are the Chumashim in which the "Sforno" commentary is printed together with those of Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, and others. Rabbi Obadiah Sforno has, indeed, a place among the Great.