Alemanno, Johanan ben Isaac

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ALEMANNO, JOHANAN BEN ISAAC (1435/8–after 1504), philosopher, kabbalist and biblical exegete. A descendant of an Ashkenazi family expelled from France, his father married an Aragonese Jewess, and the family came to Italy because of his grandfather's (Elijah) mission to the Pope.

Alemanno himself was born in Mantua and was reared in Florence in the house of Jehiel of *Pisa, where he acquired a thorough education in several disciplines, especially philosophy. Later he taught in various cities in Italy. At the age of 35 he settled in Mantua where he was among the guests of Luigi llI Gonzaga, and studied with R. Yehudah Messer Leon. In 1488 he returned to Florence, where he again stayed with the family of Jehiel of Pisa until they left Florence in 1497. In the house of this patron Alemanno spent some quiet years and was able to complete the works he had begun and to embark on new ones. The most important of these works are the following:

(1) Ḥeshek Shelomo, a philosophical commentary on the Song of Songs, which Alemanno began at the age of 30. In 1488 he read portions of his manuscript to Giovanni *Pico della Mirandola who urged him to complete it. The work, thus far never printed in its entirety, is extant in manuscripts (Bodleian, 1535, British Museum 227, Ms. Moscow-Guensburg). A substantial part of Alemanno's introduction to it was published by Jacob Baruch under the title Sha'ar ha-Heshek (Leghorn, 1790) in a very imperfect edition, which was reprinted in Halberstadt (c. 1862) without change. In addition, some fragments of the work were published in various places. The introduction constitutes almost half of the book, and opens with a lengthy section, Shir ha-Ma'alot li-Shelomo, glorifying King Solomon, as a philosopher, Kabbalist and magician. Alemanno goes on to discuss the content, character, form, and significance of the Song of Songs. In his opinion, the book in its simple sense treats of earthly love, although allegorically Solomon sought to depict divine love.

(2) Einei ha-'Edah an unfinished philosophic-kabbalistic commentary on the Pentateuch still in manuscripts. The general line of thought resembles that of the Ḥeshek Shelomo.

(3) Ḥei ha-Olamim is Alemanno's chief work, on which he labored from 1470 until 1503. One manuscript is found in the library of the Jewish community of Mantua, and another in the Jewish Theological Seminary (Rab. 1586). The work deals with the problem of how man may attain eternal life and rise to communion with God. The introduction prescribes a twofold method of instruction to be followed by every teacher: for the masses, a simple method readily understandable to all; and for the learned and informed, a logical one calculated to remove doubt. In this work Alemanno makes use of both methods. He introduces two characters, the Meliẓ Yosher al-Leshono ("the felicitous interpreter") who presents each subject in succinct and simple words; and the Dover Emet bi-Levavo ("one who speaks the truth in his heart") who engages in elaborate proofs. The author charts the career of the ideal man; he describes man's physical life from conception to maturity and indicates the preparations one should undertake at every stage of his life to attain perfection. Then he discusses man's spiritual development through the perfection of his moral and intellectual capacities. The final goal is the attainment of the perfect love of God and union with Him. The work constitutes an encyclopedia of the knowledge of Alemanno's time.

(4) Likkutim are various notes and reflections, among them, those of the years 1478 and 1504, which Alemanno had intended to later incorporate into his other work. It is extant in manuscript (Bodleian 2234). The material preserved in this compilation reflects the wide scope of his reading and his acquaintance with philosophical, Kabbalistic, magical and astrological traditions of Spanish extraction, and they serve as the main source of inspiration for his later works.

Alemanno often mentions a work of his entitled Ha-Me'assef; perhaps the reference is to the Likkutim. (The name Likkutim was originally used by Abraham Joseph Solomon Graziano in the 17th century.) Alemanno presumably wrote annotations to the Ḥai ben Yoktan by Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl found in manuscript (Munich 59). Another work by Alemanno, Zeh Kol ha-Adam, is also occasionally mentioned; it is probably identical with Ḥai ha-Olamim. In addition, he probably wrote Pekah Ko'ah, which has been lost. The works Melekhet Muskelet – a book of magic translated from Greek into Latin and extant only in some Hebrew fragments from the circle of Alemanno – and Peri Megadim have been erroneously ascribed to him. Alemanno was well-versed in Greek and Arabic-Jewish philosophy and familiar with the Latin literature of antiquity and the Middle Ages. His erudition and writings were held in such high regard in his day that a scholar such as Pico della Mirandola wished to become his student in Hebrew literature. The hypothesis that Alemanno was the same person as Dattilo or Mithridates, both of whom moved in the circle of Pico della Mirandola, is unfounded. Alemanno's son Isaac was the teacher of Giovanni Francesco, the nephew of Pico della Mirandola. Alemanno influenced a series of Jewish Italian thinkers, more notably R. Isaac de Lattes and R. Abraham Yagel.

Alemanno was well-acquainted with Italian Jewish Kabbalah: mostly Abraham Abulafia's prophetic Kabbalah, and Menahem Recanati's writings, and he was part of a revival of interest in this lore evident among Jews and Christian in the Florentine Renaissance. He conceived magic as a high form of activity, even higher than Kabbalah, and described it as Ḥokhmah ruḥanit, "the spiritual lore". He studied a number of Jewish and other type of magical books, like Sefer ha-Levanah and a Sefer Raziel translated from Latin, and resorted to astromagic views, under the impact of the tradition of Abraham ibn Ezra and his many commentators in 14th–early 15th century Spain, whose writings he often quotes. This synthesis between Kabbalah and magic is evident also in Pico della Mirandola's thought. The affinities between Alemanno's thought and that of his Florentine Christian contemporaries still waits for detailed investigations. It is possible that Alemanno arrived in Jerusalem in 1522.


A. Altmann (ed.), Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies (1967), 190, 328; U. Cassuto, Gli Ebrei a Firenze… (1918), 301–17, 403f., 427f., Heb. trans.: Ha-Yehudim be-Firenzi bi-Tekufat ha-Renaissance (1967), index, s.v.Yohanan Alemann; Perles, in: rej, 12 (1886), 244–57; H. Pflaum, Die Idee der Liebe (1926), 67–70; Reggio, in: Kerem Hemed, 2 (1836), 48–53; Vogelstein-Rieger, 2 (1896), 75–77. add. bibliography: M. Idel, "The Anthropology of Yohanan Alemanno: Sources and Influences," in: Topoi, 7 (1988), pp. 201–10; idem, "The Study Program of Rabbi Yohanan Alemanno," in: Tarbiz, 48 (1979), 303–30 (Heb.); idem, "The Concept of Sefirot as Essence and as Instruments in Kabbalah in the Renaissance," in: Italia, 3 (1982), 89–111 (Heb.); idem, "The Magical and Neoplatonic Interpretations of Kabbalah in the Renaissance," in: B.D. Cooperman (ed.), Jewish Thought in the Sixteenth Century (1983), 186–242; idem, "Magical Temples and Cities in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: A Passage of Masudi as a Possible Source for Yohanan Alemanno," in: Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, 3 (1981/82), 185–89; idem, "Astral Dreams in R. Yohanan Alemanno's Writings," in: Accademia, 1 (1999), 111–28; F. Lelli, Yohanan Alemanno, Hai ha-Olamim (L'Immortale) (1995); idem, "L'educazione ebraica nella seconda meta del '400, Poetica e scienze naturale nel '400, Poetica e scienze naturali nel Hay Ha-`Olamim di Yohanan Alemanno," Rinascimento, 36 (1996), 75–136; A. Lesley, "The 'Song of Solomon's Ascents', Love and Human Perfection according to a Jewish Associate of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola" (doctoral dissertation, Berkeley, 1976); A. Melamed, "The Hebrew Encyclopedias of the Renaissance," in: The Medieval Hebrew Encyclopedias of Science and Philosophy (2000) 441–64; idem, "The Hebrew 'Laudatio' of Yohanan Alemanno in Praise of Lorenzo il Magnifico and the Florentine Constitution," in: Jews in Italy (1988) 1–34; idem, "Yohanan Alemanno and the Development of Human Society," in: World Congress of Jewish Studies, 8c (1982), 85–93 (Heb.); C. Novak, "Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Jochanan Alemanno," in: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 45 (1982), 125–47; E. Rosenthal, "Yohanan Alemanno and Occult Science," in: Y. Maeyama and W.G. Saltzer (eds.), Prismata, Naturwissenschaftsgeschichtliche Studien, Festschrift fuer Willy Hartner (1977), 349–61.

[Umberto (Moses David) Cassuto /

Moshe Idel (2nd ed.)]

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Alemanno, Johanan ben Isaac

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