Don Yitzchak ben Yehuda Abravanel
Isaac ben Judah or Yitzchak ben Yehuda Abravanel (1437 - 1508) (Hebrew:
יצחק בן יהודה אברבנאל) was a Jewish statesman, philosopher, Bible
commentator, and financier. He was a scion of the Abravanel family. In
many works he is referred to solely by his last name, which is variously
spelled as Abravanel, Abarbanel, and Abrabanel. Many Torah and Talmud
scholars today, simply refer to him as "The Abarbanel".
He was born in Lisbon, Portugal. He died in Venice and was buried in Padua
next to Rabbi Judah Minz, Rabbi of Padua.
The Abravanel family (also Abarbanel and Abrabanel) is one of the oldest
and most distinguished Jewish Iberian families; they trace their origin
from the biblical King David. Members of this family lived at Seville,
where dwelt its oldest representative, Judah Abravanel
Abravanel was a pupil of Joseph Chaim, rabbi of Lisbon. Well versed in
rabbinic literature and in the learning of his time, he devoted his early
years to the study of Jewish philosophy. When only twenty years old he
wrote on the original form of the natural elements, on religious
questions, on prophecy, etc. His political abilities also attracted
attention while he was still young. He entered the service of King Afonso
V of Portugal as treasurer, and soon won the confidence of his master.
Notwithstanding his high position and the great wealth he had inherited
from his father, his love for his afflicted brethren was unabated. When
Arzila, in Morocco, was taken by the Moors, and the Jewish captives were
sold as slaves, he contributed largely to the funds needed to manumit
them, and personally arranged for collections throughout Portugal. He also
wrote to his learned and wealthy friend Jehiel, of Pisa, on behalf of the
After the death of Afonso he was obliged to relinquish his office, having
been accused by King John II of connivance with the Duke of Braganza, who
had been executed on the charge of conspiracy. Abravanel, warned in time,
saved himself by a hasty flight to Castile (1483). His large fortune was
confiscated by royal decree.
At Toledo, his new home, he occupied himself at first with Biblical
studies, and in the course of six months produced an extensive commentary
on the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel. But shortly afterward he
entered the service of the house of Castile. Together with his friend, the
influential Don Abraham Senior, of Segovia, he undertook to farm the
revenues and to supply provisions for the royal army, contracts that he
carried out to the entire satisfaction of Queen Isabella.
During the Moorish war Abravanel advanced considerable sums of money to
the government. When the banishment of the Jews from Spain was ordered
with the Alhambra decree, he left nothing undone to induce the king to
revoke the edict. In vain did he offer him 30,000 ducats ($68,400, nominal
value). With his brethren in faith he left Spain and went to Naples,
where, soon after, he entered the service of the king. For a short time he
lived in peace undisturbed; but when the city was taken by the French,
bereft of all his possessions, he followed the young king, Ferdinand, in
1495, to Messina; then went to Corfu; and in 1496 settled in Monopoli, and
lastly (1503) in Venice, where his services were employed in negotiating a
commercial treaty between Portugal and the Venetian republic.
Several times during the mid-to-late 1400s, he personally spent large
amounts of his personal fortunes to bribe the Spanish Monarchy to permit
the Jews to remain in Spain. It is claimed that Abrabanel payment offered
them 600,000 crowns for the revocation of the edict. It is said also that
Ferdinand hesitated, but was prevented from accepting the offer by
Torquemada, the grand inquisitor, who dashed into the royal presence and,
throwing a crucifix down before the king and queen, asked whether, like
Judas, they would betray their Lord for money. In the end, he managed only
to get the date for the expulsion to be extended by two days.
After his departure from Spain, he moved first to Genoa, then to Corfu,
and finally to Venice. His riches exhausted, he died, in what he himself
described as "exile", in 1508, in Venice, Italy.
Isaac Abravanel developed many works during his lifetime which are often
categorized into three groups: exegesis, philosophy, and apologetics.
Exegesis refers to biblical commentary, his philosophy dealt with the
sciences and how the general field relates to the Jewish religion and
traditions, and apologetics defends the Jewish idea of the coming of the
Messiah. Abravanel’s exegetic writings were different from the usual
biblical commentaries because he took social and political issues of the
times into consideration. He believed that mere commentary was not enough,
but that the actual lives of the Jewish people must be deliberated on as
well when discussing such an important topic as the Bible. He also took
the time to include an introduction concerning the character of each book
he commented on, as well as its date of composition, and the intention of
the original author, in order to make the works more accessible to the
Christian scholars appreciated the convenience of Abravanel's
commentaries, and often used them when preparing their own exegetical
writing. This may have had something to do with Abravanel’s openness
towards the Christian religion, since he worked closely with Messianic
ideas found within Judaism. Because of this, Abravanel’s works were
translated and distributed within the world of Christian scholarship.
Abrabanel primarily composed commentaries on the books of the Major and
Minor Prophets. His exegetical writings are set against a richly-conceived
backdrop of the Jewish historical and sociocultural experience, and it is
often implied that his exegsis was sculpted with the purpose of giving
hope to the Jews of Spain that the arrival of the Messiah was imminent in
their days. This idea distinguished him from many other philosophers of
the age, who did not rely as heavily on Messianic concepts. Abravanel's
major peshat works are the Ma'yanei ha-Yeshu'ah (“The Wellsprings of
Salvation"), which is a commentary on the Book of Daniel; Yeshu'ot Meshiho
(“The Salvation of His Anointed"), an interpretation of rabbinic
literature about the Messiah; and Mashmi'a Yeshu'ah (“Announcing
Salvation"), a commentary on the messianic prophecies in the prophetical
books. These three books are considered the separate parts of a larger
work entitled “Migdal Yeshu'ot” (“Tower of Salvation”).
His commentaries are divided into chapters, each of which is preceded by a
list of questions or difficulties that he sets out to explain over the
course of the chapter. Not only did this make it easier for scholars to
find the answers they were looking for, but these lists of difficulties
aided the average student in studying Abravanel's work. In his commentary
on the Pentateuch these questions have no fixed number, sometimes
amounting to over 40, but in his commentary to the Prophets he limits
himself to six. Abrabanel rarely forayed into the world of grammatical or
philological investigation in the vein of Maimonides or David Kimhi before
him, instead focusing on a content-based investigation of the Scripture at
Occasionally Abrabanel digresses from the subject under discussion,
particularly in his commentary on the Pentateuch. His style and
presentation is prolix and often repetitive. Some of his interpretations
derive from homilies delivered in the synagogue. He vehemently fought the
extreme rationalism of philosophical interpretation as well as
interpretations based on philosophical allegory. At the same time he
himself had recourse, especially in his commentary on the Pentateuch, to
numerous interpretations based on philosophy.
His opposition to philosophical allegory must also be ascribed to the
conditions of his time, the fear of undermining the unquestioning faith of
the simple Jew, and the danger to Jewish survival in exile. This also
explains Abravanel's faith in the Messianic concepts of Judaism, as well
as his need to make his work accessible to all Jews instead of writing
merely for the scholars of his time. Although he eschewed kabbalistic
interpretations, Abrabanel nonetheless believed that the Torah had a
hidden meaning in addition to its overt significance, and thus he
interpreted passages in the Torah in various ways. Side by side with
philosophical concepts (entitled “the analytical way,” “the scientific,”
or “the method of wisdom”) he gives “the way of the Torah,” i.e., the
moral and religious tenets to be derived from the text.
He quoted extensively from the Midrash, but allowed himself to criticize
his source when, in his view, it did not accord with the literal meaning
of the text. He explains, “I shall not refrain from pointing to the
weakness inherent in their statements where they are homiletical in nature
and are not accepted by them as authoritative” (Introduction to Joshua).
At times, he points to errors and moral failings in the heroes of the
Bible. For example, he criticizes certain actions of David and Solomon and
points out some stylistic and linguistic defects of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Overall, Abrabanel's exegetical writings are notable for the following
* His comparison of the social structure of society in biblical times with
that of the European society in his day (for example, in dealing with the
institution of monarchy, I Samuel 8). He had wide recourse to historical
interpretation, particularly in his commentaries to the Major and Minor
Prophets and to the Book of Daniel, but in numerous instances his
interpretations are anachronistic (for example, Judges 18).
* Preoccupation with Christian exegesis and exegetes. He generally
disputed their christological interpretations, especially those of Jerome.
But he did not hesitate to borrow from them when their interpretation
seemed correct to him. “Indeed I regard their words in this matter to be
more acceptable than those of the rabbis to which I have referred” (I
Kings 8, reply to the sixth question).
* His introductions to the books of the prophets, which are much more
comprehensive than those of his predecessors. In them he deals with the
content of the books, the division of the material, their authors and the
time of their compilation, and also drew comparisons between the method
and style of the various prophets. His investigations are made in the
spirit of medieval scholasticism. He may consequently be considered as a
pioneer of the modern science of Bible propædeutics.
However, the major characteristic that separated Abrabanel from his
predecessors was his unflagging commitment toward using the Scripture as a
means of elucidating the status quo of his surrounding Jewish community;
as a historical scholar, Abrabanel was able to contemporize the lessons of
the historical eras described in the Scripture and apply them successfully
in his explanations of modern Jewish living. Abrabanel, who had himself
taken part in the politics of the great powers of the day, believed that
mere consideration of the literary elements of Scripture was insufficient,
and that the political and social life of the characters in the Tanakh
must also be taken into account. Due to the overall excellence and
exhaustiveness of Abrabanel's exegetical literature, he was looked to as a
beacon for later Christian scholarship, which often included the tasks of
translating and condensing his works.
Abravanel's Jewish predecessors in the realm of philosophy, whoever, by no
means received the same amount of tolerance at his hands as the Christians
did. Men like Albalag, Palquera, Gersonides, Narboni, and others, were
denounced by Abravanel as infidels and misleading guides for assuming a
comparatively liberal standpoint in religio-philosophical questions.
Abravanel was essentially an opponent of philosophy, despite his authority
on the subject, because his entire understanding of the Jewish religion
was based on God’s revelation in Jewish history. There is a common
misconception that Abravanel agreed with Maimonidean views; while
sometimes their ideas matched up, most of Abravanel’s thoughts strongly
disagreed with those of Maimonides.
A characteristic instance of his vacillation is afforded by his most
important religious work, the "Rosh Amanah" (The Pinnacle of Faith), based
on Cant. iv. 8. This work, devoted to the championship of the Maimonidean
thirteen articles of belief against the attacks of Crescas and Albo, ends
with the statement that Maimonides compiled these articles merely in
accordance with the fashion of other nations, which set up axioms or
fundamental principles for their science. However, he holds that Judaism
has nothing in common with human science; that the teachings of the Torah
are revelations from God, and therefore are all of equal value; that among
them are neither principles nor corollaries from principles.
Abravanel agrees and supports some of Maimonides ideas; however he assails
Maimonides' conception that the prophetic visions were the creations of
imagination. Abravanel will not hear of this explanation, even for the bat
kol of the Talmud, which, according to him, was a veritable voice made
audible by God — a miracle, in fact (commentary on Gen. xvi.).
In like manner Abravanel exceeded all his predecessors in combating
Maimonides' theory of the "Heavenly Chariot" in Ezekiel, and commentary on
the Guide for the Perplexed, part III:71-74.
Abravanel felt deeply the hopelessness and despair which possessed his
brethren in the years following their expulsion from Spain, and set
himself, therefore, to champion the Messianic belief and to strengthen it
among his desponding brethren. With this aim he wrote the aforementioned
three works: "Ma'yene ha-Yeshu'ah" (Sources of Salvation), completed Dec.
6, 1496; "Yeshu'ot Meshikho" (The Salvation of His Anointed), completed
Dec. 20, 1497; and "Mashmia' Yeshu'ah" (Proclaiming Salvation), completed
Feb. 26, 1498. All of these were about the Jewish messiah.
The first-named of these is in the form of a commentary upon Daniel, in
which he controverts both the Christian exposition of and the Jewish
rationalistic approach to this book. Curiously enough, in opposition to
the Talmud and all later rabbinical tradition, he counts Daniel among the
prophets, coinciding therein—but therein only—with the current Christian
interpretation. He is impelled to this by the fact that Daniel furnishes
the foundation for his Messianic theory. The remainder of his commentary
is devoted to an exhaustive and caustic criticism of the Christian
The second work is probably unique in being an exposition of the doctrine
concerning the Messiah according to the traditional testimony of Talmud
and Midrash. His third apologetic work contains a collection of Messianic
passages of the Bible and their interpretations, in the course of which
latter Abravanel criticizes the Christian interpretation of these
* "The Crown of the Ancients"
* "The Pinnacle of Faith"
* "The Wellsprings of Redemption", in the form of a commentary on Daniel,
* "The Salvation of His Anointed"
* "The Herald of Salvation", in which are collected and explained all the
* "Inheritance of the Fathers"
* "The Forms of the Elements"
* "New Heavens"
* "Deeds of God"