Abravanel, Isaac

views updated May 18 2018


ABRAVANEL, ISAAC (14371508), known as Abravanel, Abrabanel, and Abarbanel; Spanish-Portuguese biblical commentator, theologian, and philosopher. Born in Lisbon into a wealthy Jewish family from Seville, Isaac ben Judah Abravanel succeeded his father as the treasurer to Alfonso V, king of Aragon, but in 1483 for political reasons he had to flee to Castille, where he remained in the service of Ferdinand and Isabella until the expulsion of the Jews on May 31, 1492. He then moved to Naples in the service of King Ferrante I until a French invasion forced him to flee with the king to Messina in 1494. Isaac resided in Corfu until 1496; then moved to Monopoli (Apulia), and in 1503 settled in Venice, where he spent the last years of his life.

Isaac's earliest work, composed when he was in his teens, was Tsurot ha-yesodot (Forms of the elements). His next, completed around 1465, was ʿAteret zeqenim (Crown of the ancients). The first deals with ontology; the second covers divine providence and the nature of prophecy. Between 1483 and 1505 Isaac wrote commentaries on the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets. In 1496 he completed a commentary on Deuteronomy titled Mirkevet ha-mishneh (The second chariot); another on the Passover Haggadah, Zevah pesah (The sacrifice of Passover); and a third on the tractate Avot in the Mishnah, Nahalot avot (Paternal inheritance).

Between 1496 and 1498 Isaac composed a set of three books known as "The Tower of Salvation." The first, Maʿyenei ha-yeshuʿah (The fountains of salvation), is a commentary on the Book of Daniel. The second, Yeshuʿot meshiho (The salvation of his anointed), is a study of midrashim and passages from the Talmud that deal with the Messiah and the messianic age. The third, Mashmiʿa yeshuʿah (Announcing salvation), is a commentary on the messianic prophecies found in all of the books of the prophets.

Isaac wrote three books that deal specifically with the philosophy of Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon, 1135/81204): Roʾsh amanah (The principles of faith; 1494), a detailed commentary (1505) on Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed, and the Maʾamar qatser (Short treaties; 1505), which discusses at length what Isaac considered to be the most difficult problems in the Guide. In 1505 Isaac also completed two works on creation, Shamayim hadashim (The new heavens) and Mifʿalot Elohim (The works of God).

Isaac's last written works were answers to questions raised by Shaʾul ha-Kohen of Candia. These responsa refer to two lost books: The Inheritance of the Prophets, an essay against Maimonides' theory of prophecy, and The Justice of the Universe, which deals with divine providence.

The dominant theme of Isaac's writings is his opposition to what he considered to be the excessive rationalism of the Jewish Aristotelians who followed Maimonides, particularly Gersonides (Levi ben Gershom). Isaac was motivated by the fear that this kind of sophisticated Jewish thought, given the threats to Jewish survival present in the exile, would undermine the faith of the simple Jew. Isaac rejected the claims of both Hasdai Crescas and Yosef Albo that it is possible to single out fundamental principles of Judaism. Isaac argued that Judaism has no conceptual axioms; every law and every belief in the Torah is equally fundamental.

Isaac opposed naturalistic interpretations of prophecy. He argued that all prophecy is produced directly by God and that the events reported in prophetic visions actually occurred in the physical world. Furthermore, prophetic knowledge differs qualitatively from natural knowledge. Natural knowledge at best yields claims that are merely probable, whereas revealed knowledge is necessarily true.

Isaac drew his political theory from the political structures of ancient Rome, the Venice of his day, and the Torah. He claimed that a political state is required only because of the human imperfection that resulted from the sin of Adam. Consequently, no political state is perfect. The best political order is that of theocracy; the next best is a monarchy, limited by the national laws of a superior court or Sanhedrin and the local laws of elected municipal lower courts.

Two cosmological judgments underlie Isaac's view of history. One is his rejection of the Aristotelian conception of the spheres as living entities. The other is his affirmation of a literal understanding of the doctrine of creation out of nothing. What philosophers mistakenly believe to be natural law is God's will made manifest through the actions of angels (God's agents for rewarding human beings) and demons (God's agents for punishing human beings), and/or the willed choices of human beings. Nothing occurs through impersonal, natural forces.

Isaac pictured the course of human history as a circle that began when humanity separated from God and that will end when humanity returns to God. However, after Adam's initial fall that began history, there was, is, and will be continuous disintegration until the messianic age. The penultimate state of history will begin when a revived Muslim empire in alliance with the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel will conquer the Christians and retake possession of Jerusalem. Next, the Messiah, who is not Jesus of Nazareth, will appear, and the Muslims will turn over Jerusalem to him. At that time all of the Jewish people will return to the Land of Israel, and the Messiah will rule the world. Then a reign will follow during which humanity will progressively improve until, in the end, the physical, human world will give way to a spiritual world of pure souls who eternally will contemplate God's essence. The two dates that Isaac cited for the coming of the Messiah are 1503 and 1531.

See Also

Messianism, article on Jewish Messianism.


Guttmann, Jacob. Die religionsphilosophischen Lehren des Isaak Abravanel. Breslau, 1916.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Don Jizchak Abravanel. Berlin, 1937.

Levy, Solomon. Isaac Abravanel as a Theologian. London, 1939.

Minkin, Jacob S. Abarbanel and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. New York, 1938.

Netanyahu, Benzion. Don Isaac Abravanel. Philadelphia, 1953.

Sarachek, Joseph. Don Isaac Abravanel. New York, 1938.

Schmueli, Ephraim. Don Yitshaq Abarbanel ve-geirush Sefarad (Don Isaac Abravanel and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain). Jerusalem, 1963.

Trend, J. B., and Herbert Loewe. Isaac Abravanel: Six Lectures. Cambridge, U.K., 1937.

New Sources

Attias, Jean-Christophe. "Isaac Abravanel: Between Ethnic Memory and National Memory." Jewish Social Studies 2 (1996): 137156.

Feldman, Seymour. Philosophy in a Time of Crisis: Don Isaac Abravanel, Defender of the Faith. London and New York, 2003.

Gaon, Solomon. The Influence of the Catholic Theologian Alfonso Tostado on the Pentateuch Commentary of Isaac Abravanel. Library of Sephardic History and Thought, vol. 2. New York, 1993.

Norbert M. Samuelson (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 08 2018


ABRABANEL , family in Italy. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the three brothers, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, founders of the Italian family, settled in the kingdom of Naples. The family tree shows the relationships of the Italian Abrabanels. Because of their considerable wealth and capabilities the Abrabanel brothers reached a position of some power both in relation to the Naples authorities and their coreligionists. isaac was a financier, philosopher, and exegete; jacob led the Jewish community in Naples; and joseph dealt in grain and foodstuffs. All three were included among the 200 families exempted by the Spaniards when they expelled the Jews from the kingdom of Naples in 1511. Isaac had three sons, judah (better known as the philosopher Leone Ebreo); joseph, a noted physician who lived first in southern Italy where he treated the famous Spanish general Gonsalvo de Cordoba, then moved to Venice, and later to Ferrara where he died; and samuel, who married his cousin benvenida (See *Abrabanel, Benvenida), a woman of such talent that the Spanish viceroy in Naples, Don Pedro of Toledo, is said to have chosen her to teach his daughter Eleonora. Samuel, who commanded a capital of about 200,000 ducats, was such an able financier that Don Pedro used to seek his advice. When his father-in-law Jacob died, Samuel succeeded him as leader of the Naples community. In 1533, when Don Pedro issued a new edict expelling the Neapolitan Jews, Samuel managed to have the order suspended. However, his efforts were unavailing when the viceroy renewed the edict in 1540, and in the next year all the remaining Jews were compelled to leave the kingdom of Naples. Samuel now moved to Ferrara where he enjoyed the favor of the duke until his death. Benvenida continued her husband's loan-banking business with the support of her pupil Eleonora, now duchess of Tuscany, and extended it to Tuscany. To lighten her burden she took her sons jacob and judah and isaac, Samuel's natural son, into the management of the widespread business. Three years after Samuel's death in 1547, a struggle broke out over the inheritance among the three sons: Jacob and Judah (the recognized sons of Samuel and Benvenida) on the one hand and Isaac (the natural son) on the other. The struggle, which dealt with the legal validity of Samuel's will, involved some of the period's most famous rabbis: R. Meir b. Isaac Katzenellenbogen (Maharam), R. Jacob b. Azriel Diena of Reggio, R. Jacob Israel b. Finzi of Recanati, R. Samuel de Medina, R. Joseph b. David Ibn Lev, and R. Samuel b. Moses Kalai. The conflict was settled apparently by Maharam's arbitration in 1551. One of Benvenida's sons-in-law who became a partner in her business was jacob, later private banker of Cosimo de' Medici, and his financial representative at Ferrara. Following Jacob's advice, Duke Cosimo invited Jews from the Levant to settle in Tuscany in 1551 to promote trade with the Near East, granting them favorable conditions. Members of the family living in Italy, especially Venice, after this period, Abraham (d. 1618), Joseph (d. 1603), and Veleida (d. 1616), were presumably descended from the Ferrara branch.


Margulies, in: ri, 3 (1906), 97–107, 147–54; N. Ferorelli, Gli Ebrei nell'Italia meridionale (1915), 87–90 and passim; Baer, Spain, 2 (1966), 318, 433, 437; U. Cassuto, Gli Ebrei a Firenze (1918), passim; A. Marx, Studies in Jewish History and Booklore (1944), index; A. Berliner, Luḥot Avanim (1881), index; B. Polacco, in: Annuariodi Studi Ebraici, 3 (1963/64), 53–63. add. bibliography: C. Gebhardt, "Regesten zur Lebensgeschichte Leone Ebreo," in: Leone Ebreo (1929), 1–66; V. Bonazzoli, "Gli ebrei del Regno di Napoli all'epoca della loro espulsione," in: Archivio Storico Italiano 502 (1979), 495–559; 508 (1981), 179–287; C. Colafemmina, Documenti per la storia degli ebrei in Puglia nell'Archivio di Stato di Napoli (1990), 206–7, 212, 237, 277–78, 308, 311; H. Tirosh-Rotshschild, Between Worlds: The Life and Thought of Rabbi ben Judah Messer Leon (1991), 24–33, 52–54; D. Malkiel, "Jews and Wills in Renaissance Italy: A Case Study in the Jewish-Christian Cultural Encounter," in: Italia (1996), 7–69; A. Leone Leoni, "Nuove notize sugli Abravanel," in: Zakhor, 1 (1997), 153–206; F. Patroni Griffi, "Documenti inediti sulle attività economiche degli Abravanel in Italia meridionale (1492–1543)," in: Rassegna Mensile di Israel (1997), 27–38; R. Segre, "Sephardic Refugees in Ferrara: Two Notable Families," in: B.R. Gampel (ed.), Crisis and Creativity in the Sephardic World 1391–1648 (1997), 164–85; G. Lacerenza, "Lo spazio dell'Ebreo Insediamenti e cultura ebraica a Napoli (secoli xv–xvi)," in: Integrazione ed Emarginazione (2002), 357–427.

[Attilio Milano /

Cedric Cohen Skalli (2nd ed.)]


views updated Jun 27 2018

Abrabanel ( Abravanel). Isaac ben Judah (1437–1508), Jewish statesman, commentator, and philosopher. He succeeded his father as treasurer to the Portuguese king Alfonso V, but was compelled to flee to Spain when he was suspected of participating in rebellion against his successor. Although in the service of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, he failed to prevent the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, and went into exile, eventually settling in Venice where he died. By the age of 20 he had written Ateret Zekenim (The Crown of Elders) examining divine providence. In Rosh Amanah (The Principles of Faith) he defended Maimonides, although he also maintained that the isolation of some dogmas as seemingly more important than others is wrong, since the whole of Torah is a seamless robe. He wrote commentaries on many biblical books.

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Isaac Abravanel

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Isaac Abravanel