Portaleone, Abraham ben David II

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PORTALEONE, ABRAHAM BEN DAVID II (1542–1612), Italian physician and author. After graduating in philosophy and medicine at the University of Pavia in 1563, he was admitted to the College of Physicians in Mantua in 1566, and was authorized to practice in his father's place; in 1573 he was appointed body physician to the ducal house. Three years later he escaped from an assassination attempt. In 1591, he received papal authorization to attend Christian patients not withstanding the current restrictions. He built up a considerable practice both among Jews and non-Jews and enjoyed a great reputation. At the duke's request he composed a Latin work containing medical guidance (consilia medica) as well as Dialoghi tres de duro (Venice, 1584) on the application of gold in medicine. He also mentions his volume of selected remedies. When in 1605 he had a stroke and was half-paralyzed, he composed for the use of his children his great work Shiltei ha-Gibborim ("Shields of the Mighty"; Mantua, 1612), the first Hebrew book using European punctuation. In this, he attempted to elucidate the details of the Temple, its service, and everything pertaining to it, in order to make the prescribed daily recitals of the relevant passages more intelligible. His treatment is so discursive as to make the work a compendium of all branches of science known in his day, in which all of the 10 languages which he knew were amply used.

He begins by describing the architecture of the Temple, this serving as the basis for discussing the architectural measurements and scales and the relationships of parts of a building and their proportions. In discussing the songs of the Levites in the Temple service and the musical instruments they used, he deals with music in general and instrumental music in particular, as well as poetic meter. The division into priests, Levites, and Israelites offers him the opportunity to discuss the social order and general structure of an ordered society or "political unit." Returning to a discussion of Temple sacrifices, he touches upon the cubic measurements of solids and liquids, their weights and the relationship between the two, and attempts to clarify it through his own experiments. For example, he determines the specific gravities of liquids such as wine, oil, and honey, and solids such as wheat, sifted wheat flour, and barley flour (e.g., the Omer). The salting of the sacrificial meat gives him an opportunity to give a lengthy description of salts in general, which, together with precious stones and medicinal herbs, were his favorite topics. Salts interested him also as ingredients of explosives, and he therefore describes in detail how saltpeter was produced, and also how to prepare gold salts and silver salts and their use in medicine, and the use of other salts in medicine. The chapter on salts thus becomes a kind of pharmacopeia.

Having completed his scientific excurses, Portaleone returns to his main topic… urging his children to be sure to recite the account of the sacrificial service and the incense burning included in the daily prayers, and he gives in three of the "shields" the order of sacrifices for each day, the passages for evening study of the Torah for each day in the year, arranged according to the days of the week and according to the weekly Scriptural portions, as well as a complete list of the chapters from Pentateuch, Prophets, Hagiographa, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar. Finally, as a kind of introduction to the list of errata, Portaleone discusses reading, writing, and all aspects of the art of printing, and alphabets, Hebrew as well as others. His method of linking different subjects resulted in confusing the important with the trivial in the light of the goal he set himself, but this very confusion increases the importance of his book as a cultural-historical document, both Jewish and general, in addition to its value as a biographical document. He combines the faith of his forefathers and the traditional Jewish intellectual preoccupations with the theories and accomplishments of the technology and science of the Renaissance and the Italian humanism of his time.


C. Roth, Jews in the Renaissance (1959), 315–9; D. Kaufmann, in: jqr, 4 (1892), 333–41; 10 (1898), 455; Oẓar Neḥmad, 3 (1860), 140–1; N. Shapiro, in: Ha-Rofe ha-Ivri, 33 (1960), 137ff.

[Meir Hillel Ben-Shammai]