Albo, Yosef

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ALBO, YOSEF (fl. fifteenth century), Spanish Jewish philosopher. Albo was a student of the last major medieval Jewish philosopher, asdai Crescas (13401410), and a defender of Judaism in the Disputation of Tortosa (14131414). He is known for his Sefer ha-ʿiqqarim (The book of principles), which owes its popularity to an easy style (with multiple homiletical digressions) and a moderately conservative theological stance.

As its name indicates, Sefer ha-ʿiqqarim deals with dogmatics, a common theme in fifteenth-century Jewish thought. Albo took issue with Moses Maimonides (1135/81204), who had proposed thirteen principles of faith, and with Crescas, who had listed six. Apparently borrowing from his contemporary Shimʿon ben Tsema Duran (13611444), Albo reduced the principles of any divine religion to three: the existence of God, divine revelation, and reward and punishment. These major principles entail eight further derivative principles. The existence of God implies belief in his unity, incorporeality, independence of time, and freedom from defects. Revelation includes the principles of God's knowledge, prophecy, and the authenticity of God's messenger. Reward and punishment entail belief in individual providence. Thus, in reality, there are eleven principles of divine religion. In addition, Judaism teaches six specific articles of faith: creation ex nihilo, the superiority of Moses to other prophets, the continued validity of the Torah of Moses, the attainment of human perfection by the observance of even one of the commandments, resurrection, and the coming of the Messiah. An examination of the nature of these principles and beliefs forms the bulk of Sefer ha-ʿiqqarim.

Albo's work is best understood against the background of the physical and spiritual crisis of fifteenth-century Spanish Jewry. There were many Jews at that time who felt that no religion was rationally superior to another, and that loyalty to Judaism was therefore a superfluous encumbrance. Addressing himself to this attitude, Albo sets out to show that Judaism is preferable to Christianity. While reason cannot prove the truth of Judaism, it can demonstrate the falseness of Christianity; by examining the criteria that reason demands of any religion claiming to be divine, Albo attempts to demonstrate that Christianity falls short of the mark (especially in regard to God's unity and incorporeality) and hence cannot be considered a divine religion. In addition, Christians are required to hold beliefs that are logically impossible and, therefore, false. At most, Albo claims, Christianity is a conventional religion, one that promotes societal well-being but not individual immortality. Judaism, on the other hand, fits the requirements of a divine religion exactly, in that it adheres to the three principles as he has defined them. In addition, it includes no beliefs that are contrary to logic. Loyalty to Judaism is thus the reasonable course of action for the wavering Jew. Over and over, Albo subtly polemicizes against the majority religion and then, for good measure, devotes a lengthy chapter to a specific rebuttal of Christianity (which, despite its form, is not an account of an actual disputation).

In addition to its polemical value, Albo's work provides a summa of medieval Jewish philosophy, discussing all the major philosophical and theological issues that had been raised in the previous five hundred years. Albo was not a doctrinaire member of any particular philosophical school; he took liberally from his predecessors without fully adopting the system of any of them. On most questions Albo tends toward eclecticism and compromise. For instance, he first agrees with Maimonides that only active and negative attributes can be assigned to God, but then he switches to Crescas's view that there are some essential attributes also. Prophecy is totally dependent upon God's will (the traditional view), but the prophet must have the requisite rational faculties in order to prophesy (the philosophical view). Human perfection consists of the realization of intellectual potential (the philosophical view), but immortality depends on doing God's will as outlined in the Torah (the traditional view).

Albo's Sefer ha-ʿiqqarim has been published often and has maintained its popularity in traditional Jewish circles to this day.


Albo's major work was published in a critical edition of the Hebrew text with English translation, notes, and indexes by Isaac Husik under the title Sefer ha-ʿIkkarim: Book of Principles, 5 vols. (Philadelphia, 1929). Eliezer Schweid edited a condensed version of the book with a useful introduction (in Hebrew), Sefer ha-ʿiqqarim le-Rabbi Yosef Albo (Jerusalem, 1967), pp. 730. A discussion of Albo's attitude to natural law can be found in Ralph Lerner's essay "Natural Law in Albo's Book of Roots, " in Ancients and Moderns, edited by Joseph Cropsey (New York, 1964), pp. 132148. For further analysis of Albo's thought, see my article (in Hebrew with an English summary) "Joseph Albo's Theory of Verification," Daʿat 5 (Summer 1980): 512.

New Sources

Harvey, Warren Zev. "Albo on the Reasonlessness of True Love" (in Hebrew). Iyyun 49 (2000): 8386.

Rauschenbach, Sina. Josef Albo (um 13801444): jüdische Philosophie und christliche Kontroverstheologie in der frühen Neuzeit. Studies in European Judaism, vol. 3. Leiden and Boston, 2002.

Shatz, David Freedom. "Repentance and Hardening of the Hearts: Albo vs. Maimonides." Faith and Philosophy 14 (1997): 478509.

Daniel J. Lasker (1987)

Revised Bibliography