Chapters On Jewish Literature
By Israel Abrahams

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Chapter XXII. Isaac Abarbanel

     Abarbanel’s Philosophy and Biblical Commentaries.–Elias
     Levita.–ZeŽna u-ReŽna.–Moses Alshech.–The Biur.

The career of Don Isaac Abarbanel (born in Lisbon in 1437, died in Venice in 1509) worthily closes the long services which the Jews of Spain rendered to the state and to learning. The earlier part of his life was spent in the service of Alfonso V of Portugal. He possessed considerable wealth, and his house, which he himself tells us was built with spacious halls, was the meeting-place of scholars, diplomatists, and men of science. Among his other occupations, he busied himself in ransoming Jewish slaves, and obtained the co-operation of some Italian Jews in this object.

When Alfonso died, Abarbanel not only lost his post as finance minister, but was compelled to flee for his life. He shared the fall of the Duke of Braganza, whose popularity was hateful to Alfonso’s successor. Don Isaac escaped to Castile in 1484, and, amid the friendly smiles of the cultured Jews of Toledo, set himself to resume the literary work he had been forced to lay aside while burdened with affairs of state. He began the compilation of commentaries on the historical books of the Bible, but he was not long left to his studies. Ferdinand and Isabella, under the very eyes of Torquemada and the Inquisition, entrusted the finances of their kingdom to the Jew Abarbanel during the years 1484 to 1492.

In the latter year, Abarbanel was driven from Spain in the general expulsion instigated by the Inquisition. He found a temporary asylum in Naples, where he also received a state appointment. But he was soon forced to flee again, this time to Corfu. “My wife, my sons, and my books are far from me,” he wrote, “and I am left alone, a stranger in a strange land.” But his spirit was not crushed by these successive misfortunes. He continued to compile huge works at a very rapid rate. He was not destined, however, to end his life in obscurity. In 1503 he was given a diplomatic post in Venice, and he passed his remaining years in happiness and honor. He ended the splendid roll of famous Spanish Jews with a career peculiarly Spanish. He gave a final, striking example of that association of life with literature which of old characterized Jews, but which found its greatest and last home in Spain.

As a writer, Abarbanel has many faults. He is very verbose, and his mannerisms are provoking. Thus, he always introduces his commentaries with a long string of questions, which he then proceeds to answer. It was jokingly said of him that he made many sceptics, for not one in a score of his readers ever got beyond the questions to the answers. There is this truth in the sarcasm, that Abarbanel, despite his essential lucidity, is very hard to read. Though Abarbanel has obvious faults, his good qualities are equally tangible. No predecessor of Abarbanel came so near as he did to the modern ideal of a commentator on the Bible. Ibn Ezra was the father of the “Higher Criticism,” i.e. the attempt to explain the evolution of the text of Scripture. The Kimchis developed the strictly grammatical exposition of the Bible. But Abarbanel understood that, to explain the Bible, one must try to reproduce the atmosphere in which it was written; one must realize the ideas and the life of the times with which the narrative deals. His own practical state-craft stood him in good stead. He was able to form a conception of the politics of ancient Judea. His commentaries are works on the philosophy of history. His more formal philosophical works, such as his “Deeds of God” (Miphaloth Elohim), are of less value, they are borrowed in the main from Maimonides. In his Talmudical writings, notably his “Salvation of his Anointed” (Yeshuoth Meshicho), Abarbanel displays a lighter and more original touch than in his philosophical treatises. But his works on the Bible are his greatest literary achievement. Besides the merits already indicated, these books have another important excellence. He was the first Jew to make extensive use of Christian commentaries. He must be credited with the discovery that the study of the Bible may be unsectarian, and that all who hold the Bible in honor may join hands in elucidating it.

A younger contemporary of Abarbanel was also an apostle of the same view. This was Elias Levita (1469-1549). He was a Grammarian, or Massorite, i.e. a student of the tradition (Massorah) as to the Hebrew text of the Bible, and he was an energetic teacher of Christians. In the sixteenth century the study of Hebrew made much progress in Europe, but the Jews themselves were only indirectly associated with this advance. Despite Abarbanel, Jewish commentaries remained either homiletic or mystical, or, like the popular works of Moses Alshech, were more or less Midrashic in style. But the Bible was a real delight to the Jews, and it is natural that such books were often compiled for the masses. Mention must be made of the ZeŽna u-ReŽna("Go forth and see”), a work written at the beginning of the eighteenth century in Jewish-German for the use of women, a work which is still beloved of the Jewess. But the seeds sown by Abarbanel and others of his school eventually produced an abundant harvest. Mendelssohn’s German edition of the Pentateuch with the Hebrew Commentary (Biur) was the turning-point in the march towards the modern exposition of the Bible, which had been inaugurated by the statesman-scholar of Spain.



Graetz.–IV, II.

I.S. Meisels.–Don Isaac Abarbanel, J.Q.R., II, p. 37.

S. Schechter.–Studies in Judaism, p. 173 [211].

F.D. Mocatta.–The Jews of Spain and Portugal and the Inquisition (London, 1877).

Schiller-Szinessy.–Encycl. Brit., Vol. I, p. 52.


Steinschneider.–Jewish Literature, p. 232 seq. BIUR.

Specimen of the Biur, translated by A. Benisch (Miscellany of the Society of Hebrew Literature, Vol. I).


Preface  •  Chapter I. The “Vineyard” At Jamnia  •  Chapter II. Flavius Josephus and the Jewish Sibyl  •  Chapter III. The Talmud  •  Chapter IV. The Midrash and Its Poetry  •  Chapter V. The Letters of the Gaonim  •  Chapter VI. The Karaitic Literature  •  Chapter VII. The New-Hebrew Piyut  •  Chapter IX. Dawn of the Spanish Era  •  Chapter X. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (I)  •  Chapter XI. Rashi and Alfassi  •  Chapter XII. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (II)  •  Chapter XIII. Moses Maimonides  •  Chapter XIV. The Diffusion of Science  •  Chapter XV. The Diffusion of Folk-Tales  •  Chapter XVI. Moses Nachmanides  •  Chapter XVII. The Zohar and Later Mysticism  •  Chapter XVIII. Italian Jewish Poetry  •  Chapter XIX. Ethical Literature  •  Chapter XX. Travellers’ Tales  •  Chapter XXI. Historians and Chroniclers  •  Chapter XXII. Isaac Abarbanel  •  Chapter XXIII. The Shulchan Aruch  •  Chapter XXIV. Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century  •  Chapter XXV. Moses Mendelssohn

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