Abrabanel, Isaac (Abravanel)

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Portuguese rabbi, biblical scholar, and philosopher; b. Lisbon, 1437; d. Venice, 1508. Born in a rich Jewish family, Isaac ben-Judah Abrabanel received an excellent education and entered politics. He was the minister of finance, first of King Alfonso V of Portugal (143881), and then of King Ferdinand V of Castile. The edict of 1492, which expelled all the Jews from Spain, drove him into exile. At first he was welcomed in Naples, where he held an important post at the court of Ferdinand I (145894) and Alfonso II (149495), but the French invasion forced him to take refuge in Sicily and later in Corfu. After a short stay in Apulia, he finally settled in Venice.

Despite these numerous changes of abode, Abrabanel wrote many works that are as varied as they are original. With his brilliant mind, encyclopedic knowledge, and noble and generous heart, he was an outstanding exception to the general decadence that marked the disastrous end of the Judeo-Spanish epoch. He once said of himself that he was "a descendant of Jesse of Bethlehem, a scion of the royal house of David"; and there was in fact something princely about him.

His numerous writings show him to have been well versed in Christian and Muslim, Greek and Hebrew literatures, a creative thinker, a careful and exact student of the Bible. While in Portugal, he wrote a commentary entitled Merkebet Ha-Mishneh (The Chariot of Deuteronomy); in Castile, he wrote commentaries on Joshua, Judges, and Kings. In Naples, he composed a commentary on Daniel and a sort of ritual on the Passover sacrifice. In Corfu, he wrote a work on Isaiah; in Venice, commentaries on the other Prophets and on the first four books of the Pentateuch. His dissertations on the Messiah influenced the messianic movements among the Jews of the 16th and 17th centuries (see shabbataiÏsm).

Among his works are also the Migdol Yeshuot (Tower of Saving Deeds) on the evidence of God's grandeur as shown in His miraculous interventions, the Lahaqat Nebiim (The Company of the Prophets), and the Ateret Zeqenim (The Crown of the Ancients). As a philosopher, Abrabanel brought to a close the line of Jewish Aristotelian thinkers. He knew and respected Christian scholasticism, especially the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose treatise De spiritualibus creaturis he translated from Latin into Hebrew.

In his biblical exegesis he followed in the footsteps of rashi and Kimchi, avoiding both a mystical and a rationalistic interpretation of the text, in favor of a natural and simple explanation. He was regarded as an authority in learned matters among the Jews, who called him Hakam (the Sage) and Nasi (the Prince). His erudite introductions to the Scriptures rendered considerable service to biblical criticism also among Christian scholars. Richard Simon did not hesitate to write emphatically: "We can gain more from him than from any other of the rabbinical scholars for a better understanding of the Scriptures. His clarity and eloquence in Hebrew are not less than Cicero's in Latin." Yet this is tantamount to admitting that he was more of a rhetorician than an exegete. Besides, it must be conceded that his ideas were often oversubtle and his language too prolix, and that he indulged too much in violent diatribes against Christianity.

See Also: jewish philosophy.

Bibliography: b. netanyahu, Don Isaac Abravanel, Statesman and Philosopher (Philadelphia 1953). j. sarachek, Don Isaac Abravanel (New York 1938). a. melinek, Don Isaac Abrabanel: His Life and Times (London 1952). j. b. trend and h. m. j. loewe, eds., Isaac Abravanel (New York 1938). e. i. j. rosenthal, "Don Isaac Abravanel: Financier, Statesman and Scholar, 14371937," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 21 (1937) 445478. j. baer, "Don Isaac Abravanel and His Relation to Problems of History and Politics," Tarbiz 8 (1937) 241259, in Heb. m. h. segal, "R. Isaac Abravanel as Interpreter of the Bible," ibid. 260299, in Heb. e. e. urbach, "Die Staatsauffassung des Don Isaak Abrabanel," Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 81 (1937) 257270. j. bergmann, "Abrabanels Stellung zur Agada," ibid. 270280. h. finkelscherer, "Quellen und Motive der Staatsund Gesellschaftsauffassung des Don Isaak Abravanel," ibid. 496508. l. ginzberg, The Jewish Encyclopedia (New York 190106) 1: 126128. i. landman, Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (New York 193944) 1:5354. s. a. horodezky, Encyclopedia Judaica: Das Judentum in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Berlin 192834) 1:588596.

[a. brunot]