R. Ovadyah Sforno – Intellectual Profile

R. Ovadyah Sforno
R. Ovadyah Sforno
ר' עובדיה ספורנו
WorksCommentaries on Torah, parts of Nakh, and Pirkei Avot, Ohr Ammim
Exegetical CharacteristicsHumanist
Influenced byRambam, Ramban
Impacted on



  • Name – R. Ovadyah b. R. Yaakov Sforno2
    • Hebrew name – ר' עובדיה בן ר' יעקב ספורנו‎3
    • Latin name – Sphurnus4
  • Dates – c. 1470 – c. 1550
  • Location – R. Ovadyah was born in the Italian city of Cesena. He later moved to Rome and then to Bologna.
  • Occupation – After studying traditional rabbinics in his hometown, R. Ovadyah moved to Rome to study medicine and other fields.5 Sforno was an expert in Hebrew grammar who was once commissioned to compose a book of Hebrew grammar, and to translate it to Latin. He became an important Halakhic authority who sent responsa to communities throughout Italy.6 R. Ovadyah made his living as a physician.7
  • Family – R. Ovadyah had a brother Chananel,8 a son named Yaakov, and this son had a son also named Chananel.9
  • Teachers – Unknown
  • Contemporaries – R. Meir Katzenellenbogen, R. Eliezer Ashkenazi
  • Students – 
  • Notable events


  • Biblical commentaries – Torah,10 Shir HaShirim, Kohelet,11 Yonah, Chavakkuk, Zekharyah,12 Iyyov,13 Tehillim14
  • Rabbinics – Commentary on Pirkei Avot
  • Jewish thought – Ohr Ammim

Torah Commentary


  • Main body – A verse by verse commentary.
  • Index of Topics – A brief list of topics discussed in each Torah portion is printed after Sforno's commentary in the Venice edition. This list seems to have served as preliminary notes for the author's preparation of the commentary.15
  • Ma'amar Kavvanot HaTorah (Essay on the Objectives of the Torah) – This essay was printed in the Venice edition following the Index of Topics.16 It serves as a conclusion and summary for the Torah Commentary.17


  • Explaining Torah's organization – According to Sforno's introduction, one of his main objectives was to respond to attacks claiming that the Torah was not ordered sensibly. In the eyes of an enlightened Renaissance audience, the Torah seemed of inferior literary quality when compared with contemporary literature.
  • Explaining the purposes of the Torah – Sforno seeks to explain the objectives of the Torah and its commandments.18 This included an agenda to explain the need for the various kinds of Torah texts – theological, legal, and narrative.19
  • Concise – Sforno generally does not cite and discuss earlier opinions, but simply states his opinion in a concise manner.20
  • Peshat-oriented with minimal focus on grammar – Sforno was an expert in Hebrew grammar, but chose to rely on the work of earlier commentators in this regard in order to focus on the broader purposes of his commentary.21
  • Philosophical/Maimonidean – Sforno had a broad general education, and, under the strong influence of Rambam, Sforno was one of the last Jewish Aristotelian thinkers.22 Nevertheless, he maintained that some Aristotelian views (such as the eternity of the universe) were incompatible with Torah, and that, in fact, one can refute Aristotle based on the Torah.23 Despite his own educational background, Sforno viewed Torah as entirely self-sufficient and as a source for refuting incorrect philosophical views.24


  • Methods of Explaining Torah's Purposes and Organization
    • Broad Scope Overviews
      • Introduction to Torah Commentary – In his introduction, Sforno briefly explains the main messages of the Torah, surveying the contents of each of the Torah's five books. Sforno states in a general way that the Torah is meant to teach of God's power, righteousness, and goodness, and to explain God's purpose in creation and in choosing the Jewish people to receive the Torah.25
      • Ma'amar Kavvanot HaTorah – See outline above in the Parts of the Commentary section.
    • Structure of Entire Sections26
      • Theme of a series of sections – Sforno will sometimes posit a theme for a series of sections that at first glance seem random. Examples of such sections include: Vayikra 11-19,27 Vayikra 19-20,28 Vayikra 22-23,29 Bemidbar 1-9,30 Devarim 14-2531
      • Internal structure of section components – Sforno endeavors to explain the rationale behind collections of seemingly arbitrary details within a section. Examples of such collections include: Shemot 34:17-26,32 Vayikra 19,33 Vayikra 20.34
    • Explanation of juxtapositions through cause and effect – The content of the second section is somehow caused by the content of the preceding section. Sforno's cause and effect explanations often imply ethical or spiritual lessons.
      • Cause and effect in juxtaposed narratives35
      • Cause and effect in juxtaposed commandments36
    • Apparent non-sequitur that makes a narrative point – See for example Sforno's commentaries to Bereshit 35:21-22 (Reuven's sin),37 and Shemot 6:14-27 (partial tribal genealogy)38
  • Reasons for the commandments (Ta'amei HaMitzvot)39 – Explaining the reasons and purposes of the commandments in a rational manner forms a major component of Sforno's exegetical work. Sforno's purview included even apparently irrational mitzvot often viewed as chukim.40 Sforno's motivation may have been to respond to contemporary Jewish heretics who ridiculed the Torah, and to Christian critique that saw no value in the Torah's practical commandments.41 Sforno, as a Maimonidean thinker, would in any case likely have been interested in ta'amei hamitzvot, as Rambam repeatedly emphasized the need to rationally investigate the reasons for the mitzvot.42

    Types of explanations - Sforno's approach to the mitzvot is rationalistic. Among other types of interpretations, Sforno explains that some mitzvot are pragmatic (even medical),43 some are symbolic acts meant to remind the Jew of certain religious ideas,44 some are acts of imitatio dei,45 some are intended to perfect a person's personality traits,46 and some are meant to engender certain religious feelings and attitudes.47 Sforno may have also had anti-Christian polemical interests in explaining the commandments.48

  • Attitude to Rabbinic exegesis49 – Sforno rejects non-peshat Aggadic readings while utilizing Rabbinic ideas for his own peshat exegesis. Sforno's commentary generally ignores Midrash Halakhah, discussing Halakhic details only when relevant to broader exegetical issues.50 Examples:51 the quarrel between the shepherds of Lot and Avraham52, the infant Moshe and the maidens of Paroh's daughter 53
  • Repetitive clauses and verses should be interpreted differently54 – Sforno tried to explain ostensibly repetitive sections, verses, and clauses as each having a unique message.55
  • Punctuation of the Ta'amei HaMikra (cantillations) is not binding56 – Sforno did not feel bound to punctuate verses in accordance with Ta'amei HaMikra. While most of his interpretations fit with the traditional punctuation, he differs from it more often than did his medieval predecessors.57 Beyond re-punctuation of phrases within verses, Sforno will sometimes read through an end-of-verse mark, or even split a verse in half, with the first half belonging to the previous verse, and the second half belonging to the following verse. 58


  • Ideal states, deteriorations, and restorations of the ideal – The Divine Plan to bestow the ultimate good upon mankind adjusts to human failure. This entails changes in the natural world, the divine historical plan, and the laws of the Torah.
    • After Adam's initial state of human perfection,59 humanity deteriorated over the course of the generations – through Adam's sin, and the generations of the flood,60 and Tower of Babel61 – until the Patriarchs attained a level of perfection akin to Adam's initial state.62
    • The Patriarchs' spiritual achievements culminated in the formation of a nation worthy of receiving the Torah at Sinai. Sinai marked the restoration of the Eden ideal,63 but in a more limited fashion – only for one nation, not for all of humanity. The Divine Presence was originally intended to rest upon all of Israel in this state, and not just in the Mishkan.64
    • The sin of the Golden Calf marked the fall of the Israelites from the sublime level they had reached, and in the aftermath of the sin God commanded them to build the Mishkan and set up their camp in an appropriate manner so as to enable the Divine Presence to reside in the Mishkan.65 Another significant result of the sin was the institution of sacrifices, which were not necessary in the Israelites' pre-sin ideal state.66
    • Were it not for the sin of the spies, the Israelites would have entered the Land of Israel without war, with the gentiles simply fleeing before them. Due to the nation's post-sin spiritual level, it became necessary to conquer the land in a natural manner.67 This new level also required the institution of the commandment of the challah tithe for the people to be worthy of divine blessings on their households.68
    • In messianic times, the Jewish people will be restored to the ideal state briefly experienced by Adam at his creation, and by the Jewish people at Sinai.69 The influence of the Divine Presence will not be limited to one place (as in the Mishkan after the sin of the Golden Calf), and the people will live eternally, in fulfillment of God's original plan for mankind.70
  • God does not abandon Israel – Despite sin and exile, God never abandons the Jews. This is a motif of Sforno's introduction to his commentary, and he continues to mention the theme with some frequency throughout his commentaries.71 While he does not engage in outright polemic, Sforno's emphasis of this theme serves to counteract Christian claims that God rejected the Jewish people because they sinned.
  • Humanism – Sforno conveys in his writings an appreciation for the value of all of humankind, even in places where the biblical text seems to be emphasizing a Judeo-centric particularism. When God states "And you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples," Sforno stresses that all humans are dear to God.72 He understands the Jews' special status as a "kingdom of priests" as a responsibility to guide all of humanity to the true worship of God.73 Sforno may have been influenced in these views by the humanistic milieu of Renaissance Italy, and by his personal contacts with non-Jews. He personally taught non-Jews Jewish studies, and sent some of his works to gentile acquaintances.74
  • Anti-Christian polemic – Fighting Christian ideology, and the inroads it was making in the Italian Jewish community, was a focus of Sforno's exegetical activity (though there are usually no explicit references to Christianity). In the introduction to his commentary, Sforno mentions Christian critique as part of his motivation to explain the Torah. Also his commentary to Iyyov was partially intended to refute certain Christian views.75 Sforno's efforts at explaining the purposes of Torah and reasons for the commandments (see sections above) also may have been connected with an anti-Christian agenda.76
  • Reward and punishment as a guiding principle in understanding history – Sforno tends to view major historical developments and shifts as resulting from reward and punishment, even in cases where the biblical text leaves room for the moral neutrality of the people involved.77
  • Spiritual reward – Sforno states that one of the purposes of his commentary was to address critics of the Torah's apparent emphasis on physical reward. He takes the position78 that the physical blessings promised by God for fulfillment of the Torah are merely means to enable unfettered spiritual development, and not the ultimate reward, which is actually eternal spiritual bliss.79

Textual Issues

  • Manuscripts80 – There exist differences among the manuscripts of Sforno's Torah commentary. The manuscripts also contain additions and corrections in the margins. It appears that Sforno prepared the first draft of his commentary while still in Rome (before moving to Bologna), and made extensive changes and additions over the years.
  • Printings – The first printing (Venice, 1567) took place approximately 17 years after Sforno's death.81 This edition was based on the manuscript held by R. Ovadyah himself during the last years of his life.82
  • Textual layers – 


Significant Influences

  • Earlier Sources – Rambam, Ramban
  • Teachers – 
  • Foils – 

Occasional Usage

Possible Relationship


Later exegetes