Abarbanel’s interpretation of the Naaman tale[1]


Shabbat and holiday synagogue Torah readings are followed by a recitation from one of the books of the prophets. The reading is called haphtarah or haphtarot in the plural. The name means conclusion,” and is so called because it follows and ends the Torah service. The portion of Tazria deals with the laws of leprosy, so a story from II Kings 4:42–5:19 was selected since it tells the story of the leper Naaman.


The story of Naaman

Naaman was a general of the army of the king of Aram. The Bible reports that God gave Aram victory through him. He was well-liked by the king and very successful, but he was a leper.

Naaman captured a young Israelite girl who told him that there was a prophet in Samaria (northern Israel) who could cure him of his leprosy. Naaman passed on this information to the king of Aram, who sent a letter to the king of Israel. The letter said that he was sending Naaman to the king of Israel “that you should heal him of his leprosy.” The letter had no mention of the prophet.


Naaman went to Israel with many gifts of silver, gold, and clothing for the prophet. When the king of Israel received the letter which did not mention the prophet, he thought that the king of Aram was seeking a pretext to attack his kingdom again. He knew that he had no power to heal anyone.


The prophet Elisha sent a message to the king of Israel that he could cure Naaman, and Naaman was sent to him. Naaman came to the prophet’s house, but the prophet did not go out to greet him. Instead, he sent a servant to tell Naaman that he should bathe in the Jordan seven times and he would be cured. Naaman was enraged and left, but his servants suggested that he comply with the prophet’s instructions. He did so and was cured.


He returned to Elisha and told him that he now knew that the God of Israel is the only God. He offered Elisha the huge gifts that he brought with him, but the prophet refused them. Naaman asked permission to take two mule loads of Israeli dirt back to Aram. Elisha told him to “go in peace.”


Who is Don Isaac Abarbanel?

Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437–1508) was a wealthy statesman who worked for several non-Jewish governments, a bible commentator and non-rational philosopher. He was born in Portugal and successfully served in several different government positions, including being the treasurer to the king. In 1483, he was suspected of being part of a conspiracy against a new king and had to escape to save his life. He settled in Spain with much of his wealth. Within a year, he took a government position under Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile.


He was expelled from Spain with the other Jews in 1492 and went to Naples. Again, within a year, he assumed a position with the king of Naples. Various difficulties occurred in this country, so he left and he finally settled in Venice where he also undertook governmental activities.


He wrote quite a few works on Jewish subjects, including commentaries on the Pentateuch, the Prophets, the Haggadah, and Pirke Avot, as well as books designed to convince Jews that the Messiah would appear in 1503. His general practice was to introduce his Bible commentaries with a list of questions, which he followed with lengthy answers.


He also wrote several volumes in which he expressed his strong disagreement with the rational philosophy of Moses Maimonides. He opposed extreme rationalism and the idea that many biblical tales are not true but are allegory because he was convinced that these ideas are wrong and because he feared that a rational approach would undermine the faith of simple unknowledgeable Jews. He contended that the Torah should be viewed as the word of God that strengthens the bond between humans and the divine.


Abarbanel rejected the Maimonidean views of miracles, prophecy, providence, angels, demons, and, in general, how God functions. He argued that the world does not operate according to the laws of nature as Maimonides contended: all that occurs in this world is directly attributable to God who makes decisions on everything every moment. Prophecy is not a natural higher level of human intelligence, as Maimonides suggests, but the miraculous communication of truth from God to righteous prophets. Angels and demons are not metaphoric expressions of natural forces, but actual existing beings that are involved in human lives. Midrashim are not invented stories designed to teach moral lessons or other truths, but they frequently record actual events. The Messianic Age is not a natural period of peace, but the coming of a miraculous Messiah who would rule over people of all nations and who would live during the time of the resurrection of the dead.


These anti-Maimonidean beliefs affected his interpretations of the biblical accounts, and are evident in his commentary on the Naaman story.


Abarbanel’s interpretation of the haphtarah

The aid that the prophet Elisha gave to Naaman, according to Abarbanel, was Elisha’s tenth miracle. Naaman was a very successful general of Aram because God had rewarded him, as the Midrash to Psalms 78 asserts, Naaman killed the evil Israelite king Ahab. Naaman and his king believed that the prophet Elisha had the miraculous power to cure him of his leprosy, but the king of Israel did not believe this.


When the Israelite king received the king of Aram’s message, he understood that Aram wanted the king himself to perform some kind of miracle. He knew that he lacked the power to do so, and feared that Aram was using this matter as a pretext to attack Israel again. When Elisha heard what had happened, he suggested that the king send Naaman to him for he had the power to create miracles and his performance of a miracle would bring glory to God. This idea that the prophet could perform miracles is contrary to Maimonides’s philosophy.


Naaman traveled to Israel with a large force and carried many gifts to impress the prophet. Elisha did not go out personally to greet the general because he wanted to make it clear that it was God and not he who would cure Naaman. Naaman did not know why Elisha seemingly ignored and insulted him. He expected that the prophet would stage some elaborate magic act, such as waving his hand over him while reciting mystical formula. Besides, he fumed, if water was a cure, there were two large rivers in Aram that he could use. They were bigger than the Jordan to which he was being summarily sent. So he felt degraded and decided to leave. However, his retainers appeased him and persuaded him to try Elisha’s treatment.


Abarbanel does not inform us why Elisha wanted him to duck in the Jordan seven times. Perhaps it was because the number seven was a significant spiritual number in both the Israel and Aram cultures, and would make an impression. In any event, the dunking was successful and Naaman returned to the prophet. He finally understood that his healing came from the God of Israel. The general offered the prophet the many gifts that he brought for him, but the prophet refused. This was another demonstration by Elisha that it was God, not he, who is involved in all that occurs on earth and who restored Naaman to health.


Naaman was so impressed that he decided that he wanted to worship God by bringing sacrifices to him even in his own country. He believed that a proper altar for God should be built from the earth of the land of Israel. He, therefore, requested earth of Israel from the prophet.



One of the great commentators of the Torah was Don Isaac Abarbanel, a non-rationalist. His explanations of Scripture are generally interesting even to those who do not accept his premises. Among other things, Abarbanel, like Yehudah Halevi, Nachmanides, and many others, believed that God is involved daily in all earthly affairs, there are daily miracles, prophets receive messages directly from God in a supernatural way, and the truth about certain matters can be found in midrashic stories. He used these beliefs to explain the unusual story of Naaman and Elisha in II Kings 4:42–5:19.



[1] A version of this essay appeared in my “A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary,” published by Urim Publications.