Isaac Abrabanel, statesman and commentator (litho), Reid, Stephen (1873-1948), The Bridgeman Art Library International
Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel
Almost five hundred years after his death, Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) remains a legendary figure of Sephardic history, and above all of the Expulsion of 1492. There are numerous ‚Äúportraits‚Äù that have been painted of him by pre-modern and modern scholars. And still we hesitate and cannot discern which is the true one. Abravanel‚Äôs Portuguese and Hebrew letters open a unique window on a complex cultural process of assimilation and dissimulation of humanism among the fifteenth-century Jewish elite. On the one hand, they establish Abravanel‚Äôs assimilation of Iberian humanism and of major aspects of the Petrarchian consolatio; on the other hand, they point at the strategies used by him to dissimulate and adapt humanism to Jewish leadership. The duality of Jewish humanists like Don Isaac was obviously a great richness, but it indicated as well their difficulty in expressing themselves coherently and comprehensively in one of the two agoras – Jewish or Christian ‚Äì in which they were involved as literati and writers. The present edition and study of Abravanel‚Äôs Portuguese and Hebrew letters sheds a new light on the complexity of this new figure of the Jewish humanist.
Abrabanel was born in Lisbon, Portugal, into one of the oldest and most distinguished Jewish Iberian families who had escaped persecution in Castile during 1391.
A student of the rabbi of Lisbon, Joseph Chaim, he became well versed in rabbinic literature and in the learning of his time, devoting his early years to the study of Jewish philosophy. Abrabanel is quoted as saying that he included Joseph ibn Shem-Tov as his mentor. At twenty years old, he wrote on the original form of the natural elements, on religious questions and prophecy. Together with his intellectual abilities, he showed a complete mastery of financial matters. This attracted the attention of King Afonso V of Portugal who employed him as treasurer.
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 captured by the Moors, and the Jewish captives were sold as slaves, he contributed largely to the funds needed to free them, and personally arranged for collections throughout Portugal. He also wrote to his learned and wealthy friend, Vitale (Yehiel) Nissim da Pisa, on behalf of the captives.
After the death of King 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, Abrabanel 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. He died in Venice and was buried in Padua next to Rabbi Judah Minz, rabbi of Padua.