Abrabanel, Isaac

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Isaac Abrabanel

Lisbon, Portugal
Venice, Italy

Court official, scholar

"Let me make this matter perfectly clear to all present: I will not allow the voice of Israel to be stilled on this day."

Isaac Abrabanel quoted in Gates of Jewish Heritage. [Online] Available http://www.jewishgates.org/personalities/2abrav.stm, April 5, 2002.

Isaac Abrabanel (also spelled Abravanel) was a Portuguese-Jewish court official and scholar who contributed to the study of biblical texts during the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a cultural movement initiated by scholars called humanist, who promoted the revival of the human-centered literature and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome as well as new translations of biblical texts (Hebrew holy books and the Christian Bible). His significance to both Jewish history and the Renaissance period can best be understood in the context of events in Spain and Portugal during the fifteenth century.

Abrabanel was born in Lisbon, Portugal, into a distinguished Jewish family. As a youth he received an extensive education in the Talmud (Jewish laws), rabbinic (Jewish theological) literatures, and ancient Greek works. Known for his keen intellect and business ability, he attracted the attention of King Afonso V (1432–1481; ruled 1438–81) of Portugal. Afonso appointed Abrabanel treasurer of the royal court, a position he held until 1481. Abrabanel's presence at court caused a public sensation. People were shocked that a Catholic ruler would give such a high office to a Jew. The "court Jew" was not a new phenomenon, since Jews were becoming increasingly powerful in courts throughout Europe (see accompanying box). They were invaluable to rulers not only for their administrative expertise but also for their wealth, which helped monarchs wage wars and prop up sagging economies. Nevertheless, at that time on the Iberian Peninsula (the area occupied by Spain and Portugal) relations between Christians and Jews were extremely tense.

Jews targeted by Christians

The roots of these tensions dated back at least eleven centuries. Jews had arrived on the peninsula around a.d. 300, becoming both urban and rural dwellers. Christians immediately began pressuring Jews to convert to Christianity. The Jews therefore welcomed an invasion of the Moors in 711. (Moors were Muslim Arabs and Berbers from North Africa; Muslims are followers of the Islam religion.) The Muslim conquest was economically attractive to Jews, since it opened the markets of North Africa and the entire Muslim world as far away as India. Jews became highly influential during the tenth through the twelfth centuries, a period that is often called the "Golden Age" of Jewish history. During this time Jews not only produced great works of philosophy, poetry, liturgy (texts for worship services), theology (philosophy of religion), and literature, but they also served as the vital intellectual link between the Muslim Middle East and Christian Europe.

Eventually feuds and dynastic (ruling family) disputes arose among the Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula. In the eleventh century Christian states in the north of Spain, even though they were not unified, took advantage of Muslim unrest and set out to recapture territories conquered by the Moors. The Moors surrendered Toledo to the Christians in 1085. This was a disastrous development for Jews, who once again had to deal with discrimination under Christians. In 1233 Pope Gregory IX (before 1170–1241; reigned 1227–41) established the Inquisition (now known as the medieval Inquisition). This official church court was charged with finding and punishing pagans and heretics (those who did not adhere to the laws of the Catholic Church), namely Jews and Muslims, in Europe.

Court Jews

During the Renaissance many Jewish merchants and traders served on the courts of European rulers. Through their connections with Jewish traders in the Ottoman Empire, European Jews were ideally suited to supply armies with grain, timber, horses, and cattle. They also supplied rulers with diamonds, precious stones, and other luxury items. Jews were valued for their organizational skills. Rulers turned to individual Jews who were able to offer reliable, speedy, and extensive supplies of foodstuffs, cloth, and weapons for the army, the central instrument of the prince's power. Court Jews were often employed as tax administrators and court minters (those who made coins), and they engaged in secret and delicate diplomatic efforts on a ruler's behalf. Forming strong personal bonds with the ruler, court Jews were entrusted with arranging transfers of credit and providing assistance to the ruler.

Court Jews were especially prominent in the states of the Holy Roman Empire following the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), a conflict that involved all the major powers of Europe. The war had left the Holy Roman Empire seriously weakened, and rulers within the empire needed people who were loyal to them. Jews with extensive trading and political connections were attractive figures. Some rose to positions of unique influence and affluence and were regarded as indispensable by their ruler. A typical example was Samuel Oppenheimer (c. 1630–1703), who served under Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I (1640–1705; ruled 1658–1705), a member of the Habsburg dynasty based in Austria. In the early 1670s, only a few years after Leopold had expelled more than three thousand Jews from Vienna, Oppenheimer was called back to Vienna to help supply the Habsburg army. Awarded the title of imperial military factor, Oppenheimer developed an extensive operation that included many agents, contractors, and subcontractors throughout the empire and beyond. These connections enabled him to provide substantial supplies and foodstuffs to the Austrian armies and huge sums of money to the emperor. He also engaged in diplomatic activity on the emperor's behalf. Oppenheimer's activity, like that of some other court Jews, was performed in the face of adversity, as various forces within the Habsburg court plotted against him and tried to curtail his power.

During the Inquisition thousands of non-Christians were killed by mobs, while thousands more tried to save their own lives by converting to Christianity. Some Jews, called Marranos (also Conversos), pretended to convert to Christianity while continuing to still secretly practice Judaism (the Jewish religion). "Converted" Muslims who still practiced Islam were called Moriscos. Religious fanaticism soon intensified. For a time Jews' property was seized, but they did not receive any further punishment. The situation changed after 1474, however. At that time Pope Sixtus IV (1414–1484; reigned 1471–84) gave Spanish monarchs Ferdinand II (1452–1516) of Aragon and Isabella I (1451–1504) of Castile—called the Catholic Sovereigns—permission to conduct the Spanish Inquisition, which was to be separate from the medieval Inquisition.

Spanish monarchs expand Inquisition

The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella had united Aragon and Castile, large provinces in Spain. The monarchs now wanted to bring the remainder of the Iberian Peninsula under their control. To do this they had to crush opposition groups, centralize the government, and unify the Spanish kingdoms. Their most controversial actions involved Jews and Muslims. Isabella believed that only Catholicism could unite the separate provinces of Spain. In 1474 the king and queen started the Spanish Inquisition to enforce Catholicism as the sole religion of Spain. Their adviser was Tomás de Torquemada (pronounced tor-kay-MAH-thah; 1420–1498), a Dominican monk (member of a religious order founded by Saint Dominic). In 1487 Torquemada was promoted to grand inquisitor (supreme head of the court), and he set out to rid Spain of "converts" who did not actually practice Christianity. Those who did not confess their sins or undergo genuine conversion were severely punished or executed. Practicing Jews were segregated and forced to wear an identifying badge.

The campaign to drive out non-Christians reached a peak in 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the Muslim-held Spanish province of Granada. On March 30, 1492, the king and queen issued the Edict of Expulsion, ordering all Jews to leave Spanish territory by July 30. Those who chose to stay in Spain had to submit to baptism (a ceremony marking admission into the Christian religion) or be put to death. Jews were forbidden to take most of their possessions with them if they chose to leave the country. Expelled Jews went mainly to North Africa. About one hundred thousand fled to Portugal, but they soon had to leave because Portugal had entered an alliance with Spain.

Abrabanel resists expulsion

Abrabanel was serving at Afonso's court during the Spanish Inquisition. A Portuguese Inquisition was not started until 1536, so no official measures were taken against Jews in Portugal during his lifetime. After Afonso died in 1481, however, Abrabanel came under suspicion of conspiring with Afonso's grandson, Ferdinand, duke of Braganza, against the new Portuguese king, John II (1455–1495; ruled 1481–95). Ferdinand was executed in 1483, and Abrabanel barely escaped death by fleeing to Castile. In 1484, despite the Inquisition, he was appointed minister of state at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. Along with the court rabbi Abraham Senior (see accompanying box) he gave not only administrative service but also a substantial amount of his own money to the king and queen. Abrabanel remained at the Spanish court until 1492, when the monarchs issued the Edict of Expulsion. An unconverted Jew, Abrabanel vigorously resisted being expelled from the country. He vainly tried to have the order revoked. As part of a final effort Abrabanel made a formal response to Ferdinand and Isabella, which he claimed to deliver on behalf of Abraham Senior and other Jewish leaders. In his opening statement quoted from Gates of Jewish Heritage, he described the Jews as harmless people who were being mistreated by the king and queen:

Your Majesties, Abraham Senior and I thank you for this opportunity to make our last statement on the behalf of the Jewish communities that we represent… it is no great honor when a Jew is asked to plead for the safety of his people.

But it is a greater disgrace when the King and Queen of Castile and Aragon, indeed of all Spain, have to seek their glory in the expulsion of a harmless people.

I find it very difficult to understand how every Jewish man, woman, and child can be a threat to the Catholic faith. Very, very strong charges.

We destroy you?

It is indeed the opposite. Did you not admit in this edict to having confined all Jews to restricted quarters and to having limited our legal and social privileges, not to mention forcing us to wear shameful badges? Did you not tax us oppressively? Did you not terrorize us day and night with your diabolical Inquisition? Let me make this matter perfectly clear to all present: I will not allow the voice of Israel to be stilled on this day.

Influenced by humanism

Abrabanel's resistance was unsuccessful, and he finally chose to flee to Italy rather than convert to Christianity. He spent his remaining years in various centers in Italy, primarily Naples, Monopoli, and Venice. During this time he worked at the courts of Naples and Venice. He also composed most of his works, a combination of commentaries on the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament in the Christian Bible) and theological studies. Together they formed one of the largest and most diverse Hebrew literary collections of medieval or Renaissance times. The teachings, methods, and sources of Abrabanel's writings reflected Jewish scholarship of the late Middle Ages. Yet his works also addressed many Renaissance themes, such as humanist methods and intellectual concerns. Humanism was a movement that promoted the revival of ancient Greek and Roman culture, especially philosophical and literary texts, as well as the works of early Christian fathers. Humanists were instrumental in initiating the Renaissance, which started in Florence, Italy, in the mid-1300s and began spreading to the rest of Europe in the fifteenth century.

Abrabanel had been exposed to humanism at the court of Afonso V. While living in Castile, Abrabanel spent much of his time in the service of the house (noble family) of Mendoza. Among his employers was Cardinal Pedro González de Mendoza (1428–1495), a leading sponsor of Renaissance scholarship and architecture in Castile. In 1483 and 1484 Abrabanel wrote commentaries on the biblical books of Joshua, Judges, and 1 and 2 Samuel. These works reveal that he was interested in questions pertaining to the authors of scripture (text of the Bible), the dates when the texts were written, and the origins of biblical books. Abrabanel was following the new humanist methodology, which stressed analysis of the historical and social background of a literary work. Historians note that Abrabanel may have been the first

Abraham Senior

Abraham Senior (born 1412) served with Isaac Abrabanel on the court of Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. He was named court rabbi in 1476, most likely as a reward for arranging Ferdinand's marriage to Isabella. Their marriage resulted in the unification of Aragon and Castile, two large Spanish provinces. Abraham's appointment was protested by some in the Jewish community who charged that he did not have the qualifications to be a rabbi. Not only did he lack a scholarly background, they said, but he also did not observe Jewish traditions. Many Jews called him "Sonei Or" (Enemy of Light). Nevertheless, the king and queen continued to give him preferential treatment. In 1488 they appointed him treasurer-general of Santa Hermandad, a national militia (citizens army), which they used to put down revolts. Abraham had full control of all of Santa Hermandad's funds. One reason Abraham was given so much power was that, like Isaac Abrabanel, he provided a considerable amount of his own money to Ferdinand and Isabella.

In 1492 Abrabanel issued a blistering response to the Edict of Expulsion, noting that he spoke on behalf of Abraham Senior and other Jews. Yet historians are not certain how Abraham Senior reacted to the edict. According to unsubstantiated reports, he tried to negotiate with the king to prevent Jews from being expelled. It is a fact, however, that both Abraham Senior and his son-inlaw Meir Melamed, the court tax collector and rabbi (he replaced Abraham), were pressured to convert to Christianity. Abraham was severely criticized by most Jews for this act, but he may have been responding to Isabella's threat that if he and Melamed were not baptized, all the Jewish communities would be destroyed. Abraham Senior and Melamed were apparently not the only Jews to give in to such demands. After the Edict of Expulsion, the entire administration of Aragon was headed by converted Jews.

scholar outside of Italy to apply Renaissance concepts to Hebrew literature.

After the 1492 expulsion Abrabanel spent two years in Naples, a major Renaissance center, where he presumably met many influential people. Among them was Giovanni Pontano (1426–1503), head of the renowned humanist academy in Naples. Pontano was a senior member of the upper levels of the Neapolitan court, into which Abrabanel was quickly inducted. Also residing in Naples at this time was Judah Messer Leon, foremost among a number of Jewish-Italian scholars who were receptive to Renaissance trends. Abrabanel's early Italian Renaissance learning, however, was apparently most indebted to Yohanan Alemanno (c. 1435–c. 1504), a Jewish colleague of the celebrated Florentine humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (called Pico; 1463–1494). Historians suggest that although Abrabanel did not mention Alemanno in his writings, he most certainly encountered Alemanno's teachings in Pico's works. Abrabanel may also have had connection through his eldest son, Judah Abrabanel (known as Leone Ebreo; c. 1460–1521). Judah was the author of Dialoghi di amore (Dialogues on Love), a famous Renaissance work that was used by the Italian writer Baldasarre Castiglione (see entry) in Book of the Courtier.

Alemanno developed a philosophical system based on Islamic and Jewish medieval traditions, as well as the fifteenth-century humanists in Florence. According to Alemanno, love of God is the main factor that allows humans to return to their origin, the divine creator. The best model for this journey, he said, can be found in the Song of Songs (the book of Solomon) in the Bible. In the introduction to Heshek Shlomo, Alemanno described the perfection of King Solomon, the alleged author of the Song of Songs, who was a universal sage (wise man) according to humanist standards. Alemanno addressed Jews of his own time, pointing out that the doctrines humanists were trying to retrace in the Bible and other ancient texts actually were derived from God's revelation to Abraham, Moses, the Hebrew prophets, and all the people of Israel.

Abrabanel's familiarity with the Renaissance themes adopted by Alemanno appears in his commentaries on the biblical books 1 and 2 Kings, which he completed a year after his arrival in Italy. In later Italian works both Isaac and Judah Abrabanel expressed other Italian Renaissance concepts, such as a Jewish version of Pico's prisca theologia (ancient theology). According to Pico, it is possible to discover a single truth underlying the diverse works written in ancient times. Abrabanel also denied Christian claims of Jesus Christ as the Messiah (savior of the world), which was a dangerous position to take at that time. Abrabanel's works were read later in the sixteenth century by both Jewish and Christian scholars.

For More Information


Netanyahu, B. Don Isaac Abrabanel: Statesman and Philosopher, fifth edition, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Web Sites

Knight, Kevin. "Don Isaac Abrabanel." Catholic Encyclopedia. [Online] Available http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01050b.htm, April 4, 2002.

Lipman, David E. "Abraham Senior." Gates of Jewish Heritage. [Online] Available http://www.jewishgates.org/personalities/2senior.stm, April 4, 2002.

Lipman, David E. "Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel." Gates of Jewish Heritage. [Online] Available http://www.jewishgates.org/personalities/2abrav.stm, April 4, 2002.

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