R. Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel, EJ 2:103-109.


ABRABANEL, ISAAC BEN JUDAH (1437–1508), statesman, biblical exegete, and theologian. Offshoot of a distinguished Ibero-Jewish family, Abrabanel (the family namealso appears as Abravanel, Abarbanel, Bravanel, etc.) spent 45 years in Portugal, thenpassed the nine years immediately prior to Spanish Jewry’s 1492 expulsion in Castile. Atthat time an important figure at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, he chose Italian exile over conversion toChristianity. He spent his remaining years in various centers in Italywhere he composed most of his diverse literary corpus, a combination of prodigious biblical commentaries and involved theological tomes.

Like his father Judah, Abrabanel engaged successfully in both commerce and statefinance while in Lisbon. After his father died he succeeded him as a leading financier atthe court of King Alfonso V of Portugal. His importance at court was not restricted to hisofficial sphere of activities. Of a loan to the state of 12,000,000 reals raised from bothJews and Christians in 1480, more than one-tenth was contributed by Abrabanel himself.When in 1471, 250 Jewish captives were brought to Portugal after the capture of Arcilaand Tangier in North Africa by Alfonso v, Abrabanel was among those who headed thecommittee which was formed in Lisbon to raise the ransom money.

Abrabanel launched his literary career in Lisbon as well. In addition to a shortphilosophic essay entitled “The Forms of the Elements” (Zurot ha-Yesodot), he wrote hisfirst workof biblical exegesis, a commentary on a challenging section in the Book ofExodus (Ateret Zekenim(“Crown of the Elders”)), and began a commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy (Mirkevet ha-Mishneh (“Second Chariot”)) as well as a work on prophecy (Mahazeh Shaddai (“Vision of the Almighty”)). He was also in touch with cultured Christian circles. His connections with members of the aristocracy were not founded only on business but also on the affinity of humanism. His letter of condolence to the count of Faro on the death of the latter’s father, written in Portuguese, provides a striking example of this relationship.

The period of tranquillity in Lisbon ended with the death of Alfonso V in 1481. His heir, João II (1481–1495), was determined to deprive the nobility of their power and to establish a centralized regime. The nobles, led by the king’s brother-in-law, the duke of Bragança, and the count of Faro, rebelled against him, but the insurrection failed. Abrabanel was also suspected of conspiracy and forced to escape (1483). Although denying guilt, he was sentenced to death in absentia (1485). He evidently managed to transfer a substantial part of his fortune to Castile, and stayed there for a while in the little town of Segura de la Orden near the Portuguese border. Thereafter, Abrabanel quickly established himself as a leading financier and royal servant. By 1485, he had relocated to the Spanish heartland at Alcalá de Henares in order to oversee tax-farming operations for Cardinal Pedro González de Mendoza, the “third king of Spain.” The initial total involved was the vast sum of 6,400,000 maravedis, with Abrabanel earning 118,500 maravedis per year as commission. As collateral he put up, without restriction, all that he owned. Abrabanel also supported the campaign of Ferdinand and Isabella against Granada, Islam’s last Iberian citadel, offering extensive loans.

Ferdinand’s and Isabella’s signing of an order of expulsion against Jews in Spain and her possessions took Abrabanel by surprise. After the edict of expulsion had been signed, on March 31, 1492, Abrabanel was among those who tried in vain to obtain its revocation. Abrabanel relinquished his claim to certain sums of money which he had advanced to Ferdinand and Isabella against tax-farming revenues, which he had not yet managed to recover. In return he was allowed to take 1000 gold ducats and various gold and silver valuables out of the country with him (May 31, 1492).

Though occupied with worldly affairs, Abrabanel continued to pursue scholarship and produce works in Spain. Most notably, he composed commentaries on Joshua, Judges, and Samuel soon after arriving in Castile. Among other things, these commentaries attest to Abrabanel’s novel approaches to questions concerning the authorship and origins of biblical books, some of which imply the impress of a humanist sense of historicity on his exegesis. Seen from this vantage-point, these commentaries offer perhaps the earliest example of Renaissance stimulus in works of Hebrew literature composed beyond Italy. After the 1492 expulsion, Abrabanel passed two years in Naples. Here he completed his commentary on Kings (fall 1493). But he was again prevented from devoting his time to study for long, eventually coming to serve in the court of Alfonso ii. Abrabanel tells of wealth recouped in Italy and renewed fame “akin to that of all of the magnates in the land.” Abrabanel’s fortunes turned again, however, when the French sacked Naples (1494). His library was destroyed. Before departing Naples, Abrabanel managed to complete a work on dogma (Rosh Amanah (“Principles of Faith”)) structured around Maimonides’ enumeration of 13 foundational principles of Judaism. Abrabanel now followed the royal family to Messina, remaining there until 1495. Subsequently he removed to Corfu where he began his commentaries on Isaiah and the Minor Prophets (summer 1495) and then to Monopoli (Apulia), where early in 1496 he completed the commentary on Deuteronomy which he had begun in Lisbon, as well as his commentaries on the Passover Haggadah (Zevah Pesah), and on Avot (Nahalat Avot). Of the same period are his works expressing the hopes for redemption which at times explain contemporary events as messianic tribulations – Ma’yenei Yeshu’ah, Yeshu’ot Meshiho, and Mashmi’a Yeshu’ah. Two other works addressed the problem of the world’s createdness, Shamayim Hadashim (“New Heavens”) and Mifalot Elohim(“Wonders of
the Lord”). In 1503, Abrabanel settled at last in Venice. He was engaged in negotiations between the Venetian senate and the kingdom of Portugal in that year, for a commercial treaty to regulate the spice trade. He now finished commentaries on Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Genesis and Exodus, and Leviticus and Numbers. In a reply to an enquiry from Saul ha-Kohen of Candia, he mentions that he was engaged in composing his book Zedek Olamim, on recompense and punishment, and Lahakat ha-Nevi’im, on prophecy (a new version of Mahazeh Shaddai which had been lost in Naples), and in completing his commentary on Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. Abrabanel died in Venice and was buried in Padua. Owing to the destruction of the Jewish cemetery there during the wars in 1509, his grave is unknown.

Abrabanel as Biblical Exegete

Though Abrabanel’s writings traverse many fields, they mainly comprise works of scriptural interpretation. It was in his role as a biblical interpreter that Abrabanel was most emphatic about his originality as a writer.

In his general prologue to his commentaries on the Former Prophets, Abrabanel spelled out some of his main procedures and aims as an interpreter of Scripture. To ease the task of explaining biblical narratives, Abrabanel would “divide each of the books into pericopes.” These would be smaller than the units devised by his 14 th century Jewish predecessor, Gersonides, but larger than the ones fashioned by “the scholar Jerome, who translated Holy Writ for the Christians.” Before explaining a pericope, he would raise questions or “doubts” about it. Overall, Abrabanel’s interpretive aim was twofold- explanation of the verses “in the most satisfactory way possible” and exploration of “the conceptual problems embedded therein to their very end.” In short, he would explore both Scripture’s exegetical and doctrinal-theological dimensions. Abrabanel warns that such interpretation yields lengthy commentary. 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. Despite the marked artificiality of this method, Abrabanel states that he chose it as a means of initiating discussion and encouraging investigation.

Abrabanel’s exegesis combines a quest for Scripture’s contextual sense (peshat) with other levels of interpretation. His repeated and emphatic statements about the primacy of peshat notwithstanding, Abrabanel incorporates midrashim into his commentaries often and occasionally digresses into detailed explanations of them. At the same time, he says that he describes Rashi’s overindulgence in midrashic interpretation as “evil and bitter.” Like some geonim and Spanish interpreters before him, Abrabanel distinguishes rabbinic dicta that reflect a “received tradition,” which he says are indubitably true and hence binding, from midrashim that reflect fallible human reasoning. The latter can be rejected. Abrabanel’s criticisms of individual midrashim can be unusually blunt (“very unlikely,” “evidently weak,” and so forth) even as Abrabanel often uses Midrash as a vehicle to extract maximal insight and meaning from the biblical word.

Abrabanel’s commentaries evince a dialogue with a wide variety of earlier commentators. The predecessor who most shaped his exegetical program was Nahmanides. Like this earlier Spanish scholar, Abrabanel devotes considerable attention to questions of scripture’s literary structure and argues for the biblical text’s chronological sequentiality wherever possible.

Abrabanel was ambivalent about philosophically oriented biblical interpretation as practiced by Maimonides and his rationalist successors. He vehemently fought the extreme rationalism of philosophical interpretation (for example in Joshua 10, Second Excursus) 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, as when he interprets the paradise story. Abrabanel refers to kabbalistic interpretation only rarely.

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.

Among the innovations in Abrabanel’s exegesis are the following-

(1) 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.

(2) Preoccupation with Christian exegesis. He disputed christological interpretations, but he did not hesitate to borrow from Christian writers when their interpretation seemed correct to him.

(3) 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 draws comparisons between the method and style of the various prophets. His investigations at once reflect the spirit of medieval scholasticism and incipient Renaissance humanism. Abrabanel’s commentaries were closely studied by a wide variety of later Jewish scholars, such as the 19 th -century biblical interpreterMeir Loeb ben Jehiel Michael (Malbim), as well as by many Christian thinkers from the 16 th through 18 th centuries, some of whom translated excerpts from his biblical commentaries into Latin.

Abrabanel’s Thought

The religious thought of Abrabanel appears in no single volume, but is distributed throughout his works. His religious teachings reflect ongoing dialogues with the major figures of earlier medieval Jewish theology, especially Maimonides. Abrabanel typically evaluates earlier views on a given issue, and then sets forth his own teachings. In doing so, he displays considerable philosophic depth and theological erudition. Among Abrabanel’s main theological concerns were the world’s creation, prophecy, history, politics, and eschatology.


God’s creation of the world ex nihilo stands as the Archimedean point of Abrabanel’s religious thought. This view, which alone conforms to the teaching of the Torah, is also sustained by arguments from reason. Abrabanel refutes a number of competing cosmogonies influenced by different streams in ancient and medieval philosophy- the idea of the visible world’s eternity, associated in the Middle Ages with Aristotle; the hypothesis of its creation from eternal matter, associated with Plato; and the doctrine of eternal creation. Abrabanel’s teaching that God voluntarily created the world from nothing informs his understanding of the universe as a place ruled by God’s infinite power in which the miracles of the Bible occurred according to their literal description.


Prophecy is another cornerstone of Abrabanel’s theology. The form in which Abrabanel discusses prophecy is influenced by the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology and the medieval Jewish philosophers who preceded him, particularly Maimonides. The influence of the latter was largely negative rather than positive, a stimulus that provoked a negative response, but which shaped the character of that response.

Abrabanel vigorously attacked the naturalistic view of prophecy and Judaism advanced by Maimonides, notably in his commentary on the Guide (2-32–45). According to this view, prophecy is a natural function of human beings that arises from an individual’s achievement of moral, and especially intellectual, perfection. By contrast, Abrabanel argues that prophecy is an essentially supernatural phenomenon in which the prophet is chosen by God. As the miraculous creation of God, prophecy supplies insight that is qualitatively superior to natural or scientific knowledge- the latter is probable and refragable, whereas the former is certain and infallible.


Abrabanel bases his understanding of history upon the Scriptures, which has been established as a perfect source of truth. This is the history of the universe as well as of man. The foundation is the personal God who creates the universe ex nihilo. As such, the universe presents no pre-existent nature to limit the absolute power of God. Neither does God relinquish control over the universe to nature, which, intervening between God and man, exercises a mechanical providence over humanity. Abrabanel thus rejects the naturalism of Maimonides and his followers adopted from the Neoplatonized Aristotelianism of medieval science. What befalls man is directly attributable to God, human freedom, or supernatural beings. The major outlines of Abrabanel’s theory of history correspond essentially with the rabbinic view. God created the universe according to a grand design which culminates in the salvation of righteous mankind and the vindication of Judaism. Adam was created by God and placed in Eden to realize his spiritual potentialities. Instead, he chose to disobey God by eating of the forbidden tree of knowledge. For this sin, Adam became subject to death and was condemned to live on an inhospitable earth. Ultimately, through Noah, Abraham, and Jacob, the people Israel was developed to continue God’s plan of salvation. God exercised a special providence over them, revealing the Torah and giving them the land of Israel, which was perfectly suited for spiritual realization and the reception of prophecy. Yet the Jews sinned against God, and after the destruction of the First Temple were sent into exile, which willcontinue until the advent of the Messianic Age when the history of this universe will come to an end.


Some of Abrabanel’s most trenchant ideas lie in the sphere of politics. The view of Abrabanel on government reflects his religious convictions. The need for the state is temporal, arising with the expulsion of Adam from Eden and ending in the Messianic Age. As a product of spiritual exile, no state is perfect, some are better than others, but none provides salvation. The best possible state serves the spiritual as well as the political needs of its people, as does the state based on the principles of Mosaic law. In his commentaries on Scripture, Abrabanel presents somewhat conflicting views of the optimum society. However, its basic structure along Mosaic lines is presented clearly in his comments upon Deuteronomy 16-18. Two legal systems are provided for, civil and ecclesiastical. The civil system consists of lower courts, a superior court, and the king; the ecclesiastical system consists of levites, priests, and prophets. The officials of the lower courts, which possessed municipal jurisdiction, were chosen by the people. The superior court or Sanhedrin, possessed national jurisdiction, and was appointed by the king, primarily from among the priests and levites. A significant feature of Abrabanel’s political convictions generally is seen in this structure- the diffusion of political power. Abrabanel’s distrust of concentrated authority is echoed in his intensely negative opinion of monarchy. He considered monarchy a demonstrable curse, and the insistence of ancient Israel upon human kings in place of God’s (theocratic) sovereignty, a sin for which it paid dearly. Monarchy’s inferiority as a form of government is demonstrable on philosophic and not only on scriptural grounds.


Abrabanel produced a substantial eschatological corpus several years after his arrival in Italy. As part of an exhaustive study of the classical (biblical-rabbinic) and medieval Jewish eschatological tradition, he set forth a powerful messianic message that included a specific forecast for the end of days, or for major events anticipating it- the year 1503. Spain’s expulsion of her Jews was one significant context for Abrabanel’s messianic writings. Christian missionizing based on christological interpretation of biblical and rabbinic sources was another. Just how convinced Abrabanel was by his undeniably vivid apocalyptic rhetoric is hard to say.

Abrabanel’s vision of the Messiah and of messianic times differs considerably from Maimonides’ naturalistic one. The Messiah will possess superhuman perfection. The days of the Messiah will see miracles in abundance such as unprecedented agricultural fertility. At that time the Jews will be revenged on their enemies in extraordinary ways, the dispersed Jews will return to Israel, the resurrection and judgment will take place, and all Jews will live in Israel under the Messiah, whose rule will extend over all mankind. Though it is often said that Abrabanel’s messianic speculations contributed significantly to the powerful messianic movements among the Jews in the 16 th and 17th centuries, there is little evidence to support this claim.

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