Israel Abrahams

The British Jewish scholar Israel Abrahams (1858-1925) wrote works on Jewish history, literature, and sociology. He aided immensely in the popularization of many areas of Jewish knowledge previously accessible only to scholars.

The son of a scholarly family, Israel Abrahams served both as student and teacher in Jews' College in London. He was reader in rabbinics and Talmudic literature at Cambridge as successor to Solomon Schechter, who came to the United States to head the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Abrahams's endeavors included founding of the Jewish Historical Society of London, editing (1888-1908) with Claude G. Montefiore the Jewish Quarterly Review, contributing to many encyclopedias, and lecturing in England and the United States. He enjoyed a felicity of style in the use of the English language, which made his writings very attractive to lay people who desired authoritative Jewish information.

One of Abrahams's major works is Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (1896). He presents much new information in this portrayal of medieval Jewish life—including the Jews' daily routine and basic beliefs and practices, as well as their relations with other Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Contrary to the opinion of other scholars who asserted that the Jews sought isolation from the Christian community in order to preserve their autonomy, Abrahams insisted that the Jews did not eschew contacts with the Christians whenever the political climate permitted. The book is not arranged according to countries but into sections that deal with the home, family relations, personal rites, synagogue and school, business dealings, and relations between Jews and non-Jews.

Another major work by Abrahams is Hebrew Ethical Wills (2 vols., 1926), in which he presents with English translations a vast array of spiritual wills prepared by Jewish saints and scholars over the ages. His other works include Chapters in Jewish Literature (1899), A Short History of Jewish Literature (1906), The Book of Delight (1912), an annotated edition of the Authorized Daily Prayer Book (1912), and Studies in Pharisaism (2 vols., 1917-1924). He was coauthor with David Yellin of a biography of Maimonides (1903).

Abrahams tended toward the Reform interpretation of Judaism. While he did not accept political Zionism, he was greatly devoted to the Hebrew language and worked for the introduction of the natural method in Hebrew language instruction. His departure from the orthodox philosophy of Judaism was undoubtedly responsible for otherwise inexplicable errors in his exposition of some Jewish ritual practices.

Pioneer endeavor like that performed by Abrahams in making English translations and interpretations of basic Jewish scholarly texts available to the large reading public stimulated the publication of Jewish classics for the general reader by organizations such as the Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia.

Further Reading on Israel Abrahams

Abrahams's own The Book of Delight (1912) is a collection of lectures, which reveal his interests and insights. A biography is Herbert Loewe, Israel Abrahams (1944).

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