Jewish statesman, philosopher and financier
1. First, a word about the Abravanel family, one of the oldest and most distinguished families of Iberia, tracing their origin back to King David. Don Judah Abravanel (1284-1312) was treasurer and tax collector to the court; Samuel of Seville, known for his wisdom and goodness, was royal treasurer (1388); the family fled to Portugal after having been forcibly converted to Christianity – and then returned to Judaism. His son, Judah, was the father of Isaac. He, too, was in financial service, to the Portuguese court.
2. Don Isaac Abravanel was born in Lisbon in 1437. His scholarly promise showed early, as he studied Jewish philosophy and rabbinic literature. Not surprisingly, he had a superb understanding of financial matters, which caught the attention of the King of Portugal, who employed him as royal treasurer.
3. Wealthy in his own right and by virtue of his family, he was generous to the Jewish poor and spearheaded an effort to raise funds to free 250 Jews taken captive in Morocco. After their redemption, he supported them as they settled in a new place.
4. Upon the death of the Portuguese king, he was accused of conspiracy and had to flee to Toledo, leaving much of his fortune to be confiscated. Initially, he undertook Biblical studies there, in a scant six months producing extensive commentaries on the books of Joshua, Judges and Samuel. To each book he provided a general introduction and discussion of its date of composition and authorship – an innovation at the time.
5. He entered the employ of the court of Castile, again dealing in financial matters and eventually lending the king money to pursue the Moorish war. All this did not prevent the banishment of the Jews from Spain in 1492, though Abravanel did his best to persuade the king otherwise by both arguments and bribery.
6. He went to Naples and entered the service of the king there, but then war forced him to go to Messina; from there he went to Corfu, then to Monopoli, and finally to Venice, where he lived the rest of his life, starting over again and rising again to wealth and prominence.
7. His philosophy dealt with science and its relation to Judaism. He was not a rationalist, not a Kabbalist, but knew both streams of thought, as well as midrash, which he quoted liberally. He believed that the Torah is a revelation from God, and therefore not subject to human science. Christian scholars readily took up his work because of its accessibility (more about that below) and its focus on Messianic ideas. Abravanel fiercely defended the Jewish idea of the coming of the Messiah.
8. It was a time of hopelessness and despair for Jews from the Iberian peninsula. Under this pressure, with the danger of their Judaism disappearing, Abravanel made his works accessible to the common reader. His introductions were an innovation; in them, he listed questions that he sought to answer in his commentary. He compared the social structures in Biblical time with social and political conditions facing the Jews in his own time. This is perhaps his chief characteristic – the use of scripture to discuss contemporary Jewish problems.
10. He died in 1508. The Abravanel family has continued to produce scholars, physicians, writers and outstanding practitioners of the sciences and the arts up to the present.
Find Abravanel Street in Jerusalem between the Knesset and the YMCA, parallel to Rambam.