Isaac Abravanel

The Jewish philosopher and statesman Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (1437-1508), or Abarbanel, is noted for his biblical commentaries and for his attempt to prevent the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Isaac Abravanel, a descendant of an old and distinguished Spanish family, was born in Lisbon, Portugal. In addition to intensive religious training, he received a broad liberal education and acquired a thorough grounding in Greek, Latin, and Christian literature. Like his father, Isaac was highly successful in both his commercial and diplomatic careers. He served as treasurer under the Portuguese kings Alfonso V and John II. Falsely charged with plotting against the monarchy, Abravanel fled in 1483 to Castile, Spain. There he devoted himself to his commentary on several biblical books of the prophets.

In 1490 Abravanel was appointed treasurer to the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. But in 1492 Torquemada, the head of the Spanish Inquisition, persuaded the royal couple to expel the Jews from Spain. Despite Abravanel's important services to the Crown, his attempts to have the decree of expulsion revoked were unsuccessful. He went into exile with his fellow Jews and moved to Naples, where he was soon given a financial post in the government. In 1495 a French invasion forced him to leave Naples. After some years of intermittent wandering, he settled in Venice in 1503. He died there in 1508 and was buried in Padua.

His Writings

Abravanel's most important works are the commentaries which he wrote on almost all the books of the Old Testament. He employed what might be termed a critical or scientific approach in his biblical studies. He examined the historical episodes in the Bible in the light of economic, political, and social factors and often drew analogies to his own times. In dating biblical books, he often deviated from tradition, and he did not hesitate to consult the works of Christian scholars.

Abravanel also wrote a number of philosophical and theological works. His Rosh Amana (Pillars of Faith) and Sefer Mifalot Elohim (Book of God's Works) show the influence of the 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides. In general Abravanel developed a negative view of culture and civilization. He was influenced by the Stoics in his condemnation of luxurious living and by the Cynics in his criticism of the political state. His pessimism was balanced, however, by a firm belief in the miraculous coming of the Messiah, which he expounded in Maayene Hayeshuah (Founts of Salvation), Yeshuath Meshiho (Salvation of His Messiah), and Mashmia Yeshua (Proclaimer of Salvation). These works contributed to the subsequent rise of false messiahs.

Further Reading on Isaac ben Judah Abravanel

The major scholarly work on Abravanel is B. Netanyahu, Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman and Philosopher (1953), which contains an extensive bibliography. Specialized studies are Jacob S. Minkin, Abarbanel and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (1938), and the chapter on Abravanel in Joseph Sarachek, The Doctrine of the Messiah in Medieval Jewish Literature (1932; 2d ed. 1968). A brief general summary of Abravanel's life and thought is in Meyer Waxman, A History of Jewish Literature (4 vols., 1930-1931; 5 vols. in 6, 1960). Julius Guttman, Philosophies of Judaism (1933; trans. 1964), includes a brief discussion of his thought.

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