Arama, Isaac ben Moses

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ARAMA, ISAAC BEN MOSES (c. 1420–1494), Spanish rabbi, philosopher, and preacher. As a young man Arama taught at Zamora and subsequently served the small communities of Tarragona and Fraga in Aragon. He was later appointed rabbi of Calatayud, where he wrote most of his works. In order to counteract the effects of conversionist sermons to which the Jews of Aragon were compelled to listen, Arama delivered sermons on the principles of Judaism. These sermons became the basis of his later works and contain interesting data on the history of the Jews in Spain prior to their expulsion. Arama engaged in several public disputations with Christian scholars. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, in 1492 Arama settled in Naples where he died.


Arama is best known as the author of Akedat Yiẓḥak ("Binding of Isaac") which exercised great influence on Jewish thought. Written in the form of philosophical homilies and allegorical commentaries on the Pentateuch, the work consists of 105 "Portals." Each portal forms a complete sermon which is divided into two parts: derishah ("investigation"), and perishah ("exposition"). In the derishah, the author examines a philosophical idea in the light of his chosen texts, biblical and rabbinic, with which the sermon opens. In the perishah, the Scriptural commentary predominates and the difficulties which seem to appear in the text are solved with the aid of the central idea of the derishah. Thus, the gap between the two parts of the sermon is skillfully closed, and they merge into one harmonious whole. First published in Salonika in 1522, the Akedah has since been reprinted many times. Among Arama's other works are Ḥazut Kashah ("Grievous Vision"; Sabbionetta, 1552), a polemic dealing with the relation of philosophy and religion; a commentary on the Five Scrolls (Riva di Trento, 1561); and Yad Avshalom ("Absalom's Memorial"; Constantinople, 1565?), a commentary on the Book of Proverbs, dedicated to the memory of his son-in-law. It should be noted that the commentary on Esther, extant in all editions of Akedat Yiẓḥak since Venice, 1573, is actually the work of his son Meir *Arama. Isaac's own commentary on Esther was published in Constantinople, 1518. He also wrote several poems and a commentary on Aristotle's Ethics, apparently lost.


Although Arama composed his works in the form of philosophical homilies and commentaries on Scripture rather than as systematic treatises, he nevertheless integrated within this literary framework a treatment of the then-current major philosophical problems: the relation between Scripture and philosophy; faith and reason; the allegorical method; articles of faith; creation and structure of the world; miracles; providence; immortality of the soul; man's free will and God's foreknowledge; prophecy; ethics. Considering the relation of Scripture and philosophy, Arama seeks to demonstrate the superiority of divine truth over human reasoning, and the necessity of subordinating reason to Scripture whenever the two are in conflict. He brings into sharp relief the distinction between religion and philosophy by illustrating the difference between their respective conceptions of God. Discussing the problem of faith and reason, Arama criticizes Maimonides' rationalistic definition of faith, according to which faith is subordinated to reason. Arama describes faith as the voluntary assent to the teachings of Scripture in spite of intellectual uncertainty about them, and he cites the patriarch Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac as an example of this kind of faith. In his interpretation of Scripture, Arama uses the allegorical method, quoting in justification the Zohar's statement that Scripture should not be read literally. In opposition, however, to the extreme allegorical commentators among the philosophers, he emphasizes that the allegorical interpretation of Scripture should not deny its literal meaning. Arama analyzes and criticizes the lists of *articles of faith drawn up by Maimonides, Crescas, and Albo, and he presents six of his own. They are creation, miracles, revelation, providence, repentance, and immortality of the soul. Each of these, according to him, is embodied in a specific Mosaic law. In the case of miracles, Arama maintains that God possesses the power to suspend the laws of nature and perform miracles whenever necessary. He does not hesitate, however, to offer rational explanations of some of the miracles recorded in Scripture, maintaining that man was originally endowed with power over nature and was granted the means of establishing "cosmic harmony." He affirms man's freedom of will and discusses in great detail the nature and history of the problem of man's freedom and God's foreknowledge. He is critical of those philosophers who attempted to escape the dilemma by sacrificing either Divine omniscience or human freedom. He emphasizes that grace must be merited and criticizes the Christian doctrine that grace is given freely by God, a doctrine which, according to him, amounts to a denial of free will. In his treatment of ethics, and his attempt to formulate the Torah's conception of man, Arama assigns a central role to Aristotle's Ethics, citing this work with a frequency and intensity of engagement comparable only to his citations of biblical and talmudic literature. Arama declares the teachings of the Ethics to be true and in harmony with the Torah.

Akedat Yitzhak includes several important social and political discussions. Along with his discussions of various ideas espoused by preceding Jewish thinkers, Arama's political method also includes innovative elements. His socio-political thought is, for the most part, Maimonidean, yet it also includes neo-republican elements, foreshadowing the line of thought that would later be developed by R. Isaac *Abrabanel.

Concerning the essence of political society, Arama highly regards the existence of the political society, which is founded on law and order. The purpose of this society must be to ensure the personal security of each of its members and to maintain social and judicial justice, which is necessary for the optimal regularization of material life. This regularization is a precondition for the ability to achieve the ultimate goal of any society and state, i.e., enabling every individual to reach spiritual perfection, which Arama considers as the supreme purpose of existence. Any attempt to set a different goal as the purpose of society, such as the political order itself, is bound to fail.

Arama claims that real liberty is only the possession of whomever subordinates himself to a worthy authority. Thus, a truly free person is one who obeys the ideal legal system that the Torah dictates. Arama sees in the latter an eternal and ideal constitution adjusted to the nature of the universe. The Torah dictates social, judicial, and political order as well as how to acquire virtues and moral qualities. It also makes possible the acquisition of intellectual qualities, the immortality of the soul, and the creation of cosmic harmony.

Arama claims the Torah is a foundation for a society that is characterized by mutual aid and cooperation between all of its parts. Nevertheless, he considers certain exceptional deviations from religious law to be an imitation of divine justice. He invests the power to decide on such actions in the hands of the Great Sanhedrin, whose members he regards as gifted with the special qualities and knowledge necessary for making such decisions.

Arama expounds on the issue of social justice, while sharply criticizing injustices in this sphere. He claims that a legal system and an elected leader of a society necessarily reflect the character of their society and stresses the duty of every ruler, by definition, to ensure the well-being of his subjects. Thus, the ruler must enable each and every one of them to realize his or her spiritual and intellectual potential, by creating the optimal physical and material conditions necessary for that purpose. Arama demands that the ruler have noble moral, spiritual, and intellectual qualities, as well as political and administrative wisdom.

Arama stresses the importance of the proper function of the judicial system of any society and imposes its maintenance on the ruler. He also claims it is the public's responsibility, both as a whole and as individuals, to prevent injustices and various improper moral and spiritual phenomena. This responsibility is a necessary condition for the stability of the religio-social and public solidarity and unity, which enable the maintenance of the sovereign political framework.

Arama stresses the importance of peace as an expression of the principle of cosmic harmony, although he supports war against pagan nations. He objects to violence within society, as well as to cruelty during wars.

Arama presents an organic socio-political doctrine, from which derives the natural necessity of a strong central regime with a hierarchic administrative system in which every functionary has a defined role. All citizens are essentially equal, yet they differ from each other in their public function, which determines their social position. A ruler must ensure the existence of an enlightened legal system, the existence of public law and order, and national security. A Jewish king must act according to the "Law of the King" (Deut. 17:14–20) especially, and the laws of the Torah in general. Arama also claims that the Jews must appoint a king for his qualities and capabilities. On the occasion of forming a covenant between God, the king, and his people, the king must act for the good of the people and receive religious and public legitimacy for his reign from all of his subjects. Hence, his appointment will have no validity if he betrays the public mission that has been assigned to him. Therefore, the people may not banish the king as long as he has not betrayed one of the other parties to the covenant. Arama seems to object to the principle of dynastic succession and to support the principle of an elected ruler who must gain the public's confirmation of his appointment at fixed periods of time. Nevertheless, Arama adopts the ideal of the Davidian dynastic reign.

Arama describes the political notion of the messianic king as ideal and, in accord with the aforementioned criteria, giving it socio-political power and international status. Nevertheless, Arama draws a utopian vision of a later perfect period of the End of Days. At that time a change in humanity's nature will enable it to accept the reign of the kingdom of heaven spontaneously and there will no longer be a need for human government.

Arama tries to prove that the laws of Moses are the natural laws of the philosophers; that they are to be identified with the moral and intellectual virtues; that they contain additional virtues not mentioned in any of the lists drawn up by the philosophers; and that they lead to the happiness in which the philosophers find the highest good of man. This happiness consists in a spiritual life in this world and an eternal life in the world to come.


Arama's sermons met the needs of his own time superbly and influenced the style and character of Jewish preaching through the subsequent centuries. The Akedat Yiẓḥak became a classic work in Jewish homiletics and is widely read to the present day.

In the history of medieval Jewish philosophy, Arama's writings represent an attempt to articulate a conservative Jewish philosophy that could withstand the two-fold challenge of radical rationalism and Christianity. His criticism of the former was powerful, yet subtle, selective, and complex. His relation to natural reason is often dialectical as he searches to create a delicate and judicious balance between this reason and the religious faith. Much the same, Arama's attitude towards Maimonides is quite complex. Though he was not a Maimonidean, he knew well that his entire intellectual project would have been impossible without Maimonides.

Arama's philosophical influence is reflected primarily in the writings of Isaac Abrabanel, who incorporated many passages from the Akedah in his own writings. The work was also esteemed by Christian theologians. Anthon Julius van der Hardt, professor of theology at the University of Helmstedt, wrote a dissertation on it and translated Portal 62 into Latin (1729).


S. Heller-Wilensky, Rabbi Yiẓḥak Arama u-Mishnato ha-Filosofit (1956), 225–9 (bibl., 26, 225–9); H. Pollack, Akedat Yiẓḥak, 1 (1849), introduction; I. Bettan, Studies in Jewish Preaching (1939), 130–91; A.M. Habermann, in: Oẓar Yehudei Sefarad (1965), 92–104. add. bibliography: Y. Dan, Sifrut ha-Musar veha-Dreush (1975), 176–79; M.M. Kelner, "Gersonides and His Cultured Despisers: Arama and Abravanel," in: Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 6:2 (1976), 269–96; Ch. Pearl, The Medieval Jewish Mind (1971); A. Ravitzki, "Models of Peace in Jewish Thought," in: Al Da'at ha-Makom (1991), 13–33 (Heb.); idem, "Has Halakhic Thought Developed a Concept of a Forbidden War?" in: Ḥerut al ha-Luḥot (1999), 139–57 (Heb.); Sh. Regev, "Ratio-Mystical Thought in Fifteenth Century Jewish Philosophy, in: Meḥkerei Yerushalayim be-Maḥshevet Yisra'el, 5 (1986), 155–89 (Heb.); Sh. Rosenberg, "And Again: According to the Majority," in: E. Belfer (ed.), Manhigut Ru̮anit be-Yisra'el, Morashah ve-Ya'ad (1982), 87–103 (Heb.); A. Sagi, Yahadut: Bein Dat le-Musar (1998), 142–44 (Heb.); M. Saperstein, Jewish Preaching (1989), 2–3, 17–18, 95–96, 263–66, 392–93; D. Schwartz, Ha-Ra'ayon ha-Meshiḥi ba-Hagut ha-Yehudit Bi-Yemei ha-Beinayim (1997), 209–10 (Heb.); B. Septimus, "Yitzhak Arama and Aristotle's Ethics," in: Y.-T. Assis and Y. Kaplan (eds.), Jews and Conversos at the Time of Expulsion (1999), 1–24; H. Tirosh-Rothschild, "Political Philosophy in the Theory of Abraham Shalom: The Platonic Tradition," in: Meḥkerei Yerushalayim be-Maḥshevet Yisra'el, 9 (1990), 409–40 (Heb.).

[Sara O. Heller-Wilensky /

Michael N. Rony (2nd ed.)]