One of the oldest and most distinguished Spanish families, which traces its origin from King David. Members of this family lived at Seville, where dwelt its oldest representative, Don Judah Abravanel. Samuel Abravanel, his grandson, settled at Valencia, and Samuel's son, Judah (or perhaps he himself), left Spain for Portugal. Isaac, the son of Judah, returned to Castile, where he lived till the time of the great expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Then, with his three sons, Judah, Joseph, and Samuel, Isaac went to Italy. Their descendants, as well as other members of the family who arrived later from the Iberian peninsula, lived in Holland, England, Turkey, and elsewhere during and since the sixteenth century.

Pedigree.Isaac Abravanel:

Statesman and Bible commentator, son of the Portuguese treasurer, Dom Judah, was born in the year 1437 at Lisbon, and died at Venice in 1508. He was buried in Padua.

Abravanel received a careful education and was a pupil of Joseph Ḥayyim, rabbi of Lisbon. Well versed in Talmudic literature and in the learning of his time, endowed with a clear and keen mind, and full of enthusiasm for Judaism, he devoted his early years to the study of Jewish religious philosophy,and when scarcely twenty years old wrote on the original form of the natural elements, on the most vital religious questions, on prophecy, etc. His political abilities also attracted attention while he was still young. He entered the service of King Alfonso 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 Arzilla, 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, in behalf of the captives. After the death of Alfonso he was obliged to relinquish his office, having been accused by King John II. of connivance with the duke of Bragança, 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 decreed, 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 (Zurita, "Historia del Rey Don Fernando el Católico," v. 342a).

Abravanel Coat of Arms.(From the Archives of the Amsterdam Portuguese Congregation.) M. K.As Author and Exegete.

Abravanel's importance, however, lies not only in his changeful and active career. Although his works can scarcely be said to be of an absolutely original character, they contain so much instructive material, and exerted so wide an influence, that they demand special attention. They may be divided into three classes, referring to (1) exegesis, such as his commentary upon the entire Bible with the exception of the Hagiographa; (2) philosophy, dealing with philosophy in general and particularly with that of the Jewish religion; (3) apologetics, in defense of the Jewish doctrine of the Messiah. Characteristic of Abravanel's exegetic writings is his accurate estimation of the historical standpoint in the ancient annals of the Jewish people. All preceding Jewish exegetes had been too far removed from the tumult of the great world to possess a proper estimate of the historical epochs and episodes described in Scripture. Abravanel, who had himself taken part in the politics of the great powers of the day, rightly perceived that mere consideration of the literary elements of Scripture was insufficient, and that the political and social life of the people must also be taken into account. He recognized also the value of prefacing the individual books of the Bible with a general introduction concerning the character of each book, its date of composition, and the author's intention; he may consequently be considered as a pioneer of the modern science of Bible propædeutics. These excellences of Abravanel's commentaries were especially appreciated by the Christian scholars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. No less than thirty Christian writers of this period—among them men of eminence, like the younger Buxtorf, Buddeus, Carpzov, and others—occupied themselves with the close study of Abravanel's exegetical writings, which they condensed and translated, and thus introduced to the world of Christian scholarship. Possibly somewhat of this appreciation of Abravanel by Christians was due to the latter's tolerance toward the Christian, exegetes—Jerome, Augustine, and Nicholas de Lyra —all of whom were closely studied by him and quoted without prejudice, receiving praise or disapprobation as the case demanded.

Isaac Abravanel.(Traditional portrait.)As Philosopher.

Abravanel's Jewish predecessors in the realm of philosophy, whoever, by no means received the same amount of tolerance at his hands. Men like Albalag, Palquera, Gersonides, Narboni, and others, were roundly denounced by Abravanel as infidels and misleading guides, for venturing to assume a comparatively liberal standpoint in religio-philosophical questions. Although he was the last Jewish Aristotelian, Abravanel was essentially an opponent of philosophy, for his entire conception of Judaism, opposed to that of Maimonides and his school, was rooted in a firm conviction of God's revelation in history, and particularly in the history of the selected people. Had Abravanel not been misled by the "Guide" of Maimonides, for whom he shared the traditional veneration, he might havegiven an exposition of his views on the relations of philosophy and religion. As it is, however, these views are confused, being at one and the same time Maimonistic, anti-Maimonistic, and, in a measure, even cabalistic. 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; but that the Jewish religion 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: which certainly is rather a lame conclusion for a work purporting to be a defense of Maimonides. It would not be just, however, to assert that Abravanel makes a pretense of championing Maimonides, while being actually opposed to him. Abravanel is no hypocrite; wherever he thinks that Maimonides deviates from traditional belief, he does not hesitate to combat him strenuously. He thus 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 ("'Aṭeret Zeḳenim," xxiv., and commentary on the "Moreh," part iii. 71-74, ed. Warsaw). Indeed the most noteworthy feature of all Abravanel's philosophical disquisitions is the success with which he demonstrates the weak points in the Maimonidean system.

As Apologete.

One point of Maimonides' system, however, and one that was not strictly in the line of tradition, found in Abravanel a zealous imitator: the belief in a Messiah. He 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 following three works: "Ma'yene ha-Yeshu'ah" (Sources of Salvation), completed Dec. 6, 1496; "Yeshu'ot Meshiḥo" (The Salvation of His Anointed), completed Dec. 20, 1497; and "Mashmia' Yeshu'ah" (Proclaiming Salvation), completed Feb. 26, 1498—all of them devoted to the exposition of the Jewish belief concerning the Messiah and the Messianic age. The first-named of these is in the form of a commentary upon Daniel, in which he controverts both the Christian exposition and the Jewish rationalism of 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 exposition.

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; it is valuable for its exhaustive treatment and clearness of presentation. Of no less importance is his third apologetic work, which contains a collection of all the Messianic passages of the Bible and their interpretations, in the course of which latter Abravanel very frequently attacks the Christian interpretation of these passages. It contains (pp. 32c-34b, ed. Amsterdam) a description of the Messianic age as conceived by the Jewish orthodoxy of the Middle Ages. These apologetic works of Abravanel were widely read by his coreligionists, as is evidenced by their frequent republication, and they contributed undoubtedly to the reassurance of many of his brethren as to a better future for Israel.

The following list of Abravanel's works is arranged alphabetically, according to the Hebrew alphabet, the date of the first edition being given in each case:

(1) "'Aṭeret Zeḳenim" (Crown of the Ancients), Sabbionetta, 1557; (2) "Yeshu'ot Meshiḥo" (The Salvation of His Anointed), Karlsruhe, 1828; (3) "Maamar Kaẓer" (Short Treatise), Venice, 1574; (4) "Ma'yene ha-Yeshu'ah" (Sources of Salvation), Ferrara, 1551; also at Naples, no date, possibly ed. princeps; (5) "Mashmi'a Yeshu'ah" (Proclaiming Salvation), Salonica, 1526; (6) "Mif'alot Elohim" (Works of God), Venice, 1592; (7) "Mirkebet ha-Mishneh" (Second Chariot), Sabbionetta, 1551; (8) "Naḥlat Abot" (The Paternal Inheritance), Constantinople, 1505; (9) "Perush" (Commentary) on the Pentateuch, Venice, 1579; (10) "Perush" on the Earlier Prophets, Pesaro, 1511 (doubtful); (11) "Perush" on the Later Prophets, Pesaro, 1520 (?); (12) "Perush" on Maimonides' "Moreh Nebukim," Karlsruhe, 1831; (13) "Rosh Amanah" (The Pinnacle of Faith), Amsterdam, 1505; (14) "Shamayim Ḥadoshim" (The New Heavens), Rödelheim, 1828; (15) "Ẓurot ha-Yesodot" (Forms of the Elements), Sabbionetta, 1557; (16) "Teshubot" (Responsa), addressed to Saul ha-Kohen of Candia, Venice, 1574. See also Arama, David; Bibago, Abraham.

  • Autobiographical notices are given in the introduction to his commentaries on Joshua, Kings, and Deuteronomy and in his Teshubot;
  • Baruch , preface to Abravanel's Ma'yene (is of great value);
  • Carmoly, in Jost's Annalen, 1839, p. 101;
  • also an anonymous writer, ib. p. 181;
  • Luzzatto, ibid. 1840, pp. 17, 24;
  • Jost, Gesch. d. Israeliten, iii. 104-109;
  • Grätz, Gesch. d. Juden, viii. and ix., see index;
  • M. H. Friedländer, Chachme ha-Dorot, Brünn, 1880, pp. 136-150;
  • Schwerin-Abarbanel, in Berliner's Magazin, 1891, xviii. 133-145, 235-241;
  • Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. No. 5302;
  • Fürst, Bibl. Jud. pp. 11-15;
  • The American Israelite (Cincinnati, O.), 1862, pp. 212, 220, 228, 236, 244, contains a translation (incomplete) of the Rosh Amanah.
L. G.Isaac Abravanel:

1. Son of Joseph Abravanel, and grandson of the Bible-commentator; was distinguished for his philanthropy and his devotion to science. He lived at Ferrara, Italy, where he died in 1573. He entrusted the education of his children to Isaac de Lattes in 1567. Amalus Lusitanus was in friendly intercourse with him and a frequent visitor at his house. 2. A rich and highly respected man who lived at Venice in 1668.

Jonah Abravanel:

1. Poet; flourished at Amsterdam in the seventeenth century; died there Aug. 11, 1667. He was the son of the physician Joseph Abravanel, and a nephew of Manasseh ben Israel. He wrote "Elegio em Louvar da Nova Yesiba, institudo por o Senhor Yshac Pereira, de que he Ros Yesiba o Senhor Haham Menasse ben Israel" (Amsterdam, 1644). He wrote also elegies upon the martyrs Isaac de Castro Tartas (1647) and the Bernals (1655). He published with Dr. Ephraim Bueno, after 1630, ritualistic works and "Psalterio de David . . . transladado con toda fidelidad" (Amsterdam, 1644). 2. A learned and highly respected man who lived also at Amsterdam, wherehe died Feb. 19, 1707. 3. Son of Manasseh Abravanel; was a member of the Talmudical Academy 'Eẓ Ḥayyim in Amsterdam, 1710.

Joseph Abravanel:

1. Physician and scholar; son of Isaac Abravanel; born at Lisbon in 1471; died about 1552. He lived at Venice and later at Ferrara, and enjoyed a great reputation. 2. A physician, brother of Manasseh Abravanel; flourished at Amsterdam in the seventeenth century; died about 1620. 3. A member of the Academy 'Eẓ Ḥayyim at Amsterdam, in 1706.

Judah Abravanel:

1. Receiver of customs at Seville, Spain, in 1310. He rendered substantial service to the grandees of Castile. The infante Don Pedro, in his will, dated Seville, May 9, 1317, ordered that Judah be paid: (1) 15,000 maravedis ($36,000) for clothes delivered; (2) 30,000 maravedis ($72,000) as part of a personal debt, at the same time requesting Judah to release him from paying the rest. Judah had been in great favor with King Alfonso the Wise, with whom he once had a conversation regarding Jews and Judaism. 2. Grandson of the preceding; Portuguese treasurer about 1400. He managed the financial affairs of the infante Dom Fernando, who assigned to him, in 1437, over half a million reis blancos. 3. See Leo Hebræus. 4. The grandson of Judah Abravanel, or Leo Hebræus, bore also the name of Judah. He was a much respected man, who died Dec. 15, 1583, at Ferrara, at the age of fifty. He lived with his brother Jacob Abravanel and another Judah Abravanel, who was renowned for his wealth and for his philanthropy.

Samuel Abravanel:

Son of Judah Abravanel of Seville; settled in Castile. He became a patron of learning. He supported the scholar, Menahem ben Zerah, and had him elected rabbi of Toledo. As a mark of his gratitude Menahem dedicated to Abravanel his work, "Ẓedah la-Derek" (Provision for the Journey). During the persecution of 1391 he submitted to baptism and was named, according to Zacuto, Juan of Seville. He soon, however, returned to Judaism. See also Abravalla, Samuel.

Samuel Abravanel:

Youngest son of Isaac Abravanel, and grandson of Judah; was born in 1473, at Lisbon. His father sent him to Salonica to pursue his Talmudic studies, where he became the pupil of Joseph Fasi. He lived at Naples, and was employed as financier by the viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo. He made the best possible use of his great wealth, which amounted to more than 200,000 gold zecchini or sequins (about $450,000). The poet Samuel Usque said that he deserved the surname "Tremegisto," that is, "thrice great": great in scholarship, great in name (ancestry), and great in wealth. "He generously employs his wealth in promoting the welfare of his coreligionists. He enables many orphans to marry, supports the needy, and endeavors strenuously to free captives, so that in him are combined all the great qualities which make one fitted for the gift of prophecy." By his contemporaries he was surnamed "Nasi" (Prince), and was much respected. His second wife, Benvenida Abravanela, a woman of prudence, culture, grace, piety, and charity, nobly seconded his efforts. The viceroy of Naples permitted his daughter Leonora, later grand duchess of Tuscany, to be on friendly terms with Benvenida and even to become her pupil. Leonora looked up to her with filial love and respect.

Samuel Abravanel was a patron of Jewish learning. His house was a favorite resort for Jewish and Christian scholars. The Portuguese refugee, David ben Yaḥya, whom Samuel succeeded in placing as rabbi at Naples, and the cabalist Baruch of Benevento, were his intimates. Following in the footsteps of his father, and aided by his noble wife, Samuel was always ready to defend his brethren in faith. When Charles V. issued an edict to expel the Jews from Naples, Benvenida, with the assistance of Leonora, intervened in their behalf so effectively that the decree was revoked. But several years later, when Charles V. ordered the Jews either to leave the land or to wear the badge, the Abravanels settled in Ferrara, where Samuel died in 1551, and Benvenida three years later.

The following were also prominent members of the family: the wealthy and learned "Prince" Ḥiyya Abravanel, who lived at Salonica with the preacher Senior Abravanel (died 1620); Hirsh Abravanel, who was head of the rabbinate at Lissa, Prussia (died 1863).

  • Usque, Consolaçam, p. 206;
  • Grätz, Gesch. d. Juden, ix. 47 et seq., 327 et seq.;
  • Kayserling, Gesch. d. Juden in Portugal, p. 264;
  • idem, Die Jüdischen Frauen, pp. 77 et seq.
M. K.