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Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel (Abarbanel)

(1437 - 1508)


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Rabbi Don Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (Abarbanel) was a Portugese rabbi, scholar, Bible commentor, philosopher, and statesman.

Abravanel was born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1437. He studied both Talmud, philosophy, and secular studies. He was one of the first Jewish scholars to be influenced by Renaissance writers. He was a major thinker and prolific Jewish scholar. He wrote a commentary on Joshua in sixteen days. His commentary to the Prophets, while prolix, provided added insights into his 15th century society because he compared the monarchies described in I Samuel to the monarchies of his day. He focused philosophically, on the importance of prophecy, disagreeing vociferously with the beliefs of RaMBaM.

In three treatises, he predicted that the Messiah would come in the near future.

Abrabanel is best-known, however, for his brilliance as a financier and as a diplomat.

His political career started in Portugal, where he served as the personal agent of King Alfonso V. As treasurer, Abravanel took the unusual position of frequently using his own monies as well as the state's. In 1471, when 250 Jews were held for ransom by Alfonso, Abravanel helped raise the required monies. He was tremendously influential among the wealthy Christians in Portugal and remained a powerful figure in the Portuguese court.

However, with the accession of John II in 1481, anti-Jewish sentiments in the church and the legislature which were suppressed during the reign of his father found a sounding board. Due to his fear that the Duke of Braganza was conspiring with Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain against him, he had the Duke executed and almost did the same to Abravanel, who was able to sneak over the border into the Spanish town of Segura de la Orden in 1483.

Hurt by this ingratitude, Abravanel resolved to dedicate the rest of his life to Jewish scholarship and writing. It was not to be. In 1484 King Ferdinand invited him to be the collector of royal revenues, even though it was illegal for a Jew to hold such a high position AND the Spanish Inquisition was in full swing. Abravanel accepted the job, not only because finance was his field of expertise, but also because he felt that such a close relationship with Ferdinand might prove useful in protecting the Jews from Torquemada. This is not to say that the position did not also serve him well. Although he was probably able to have smuggled some of his fortune out of Portugal, by 1488 his tax-farming activity must have brought him considerable gain, because from that year on we have repeated evidence of huge loans — comprising millions of maravedis — which he made to the queen and to the war treasury of the state.

Although he was a tax farmer in the leading districts of south and central Castile, this was not the extent of his influence in Spain. He served as the queen's private, business, and financial agent and fulfilled the many tasks which this entailed. Many historians cite his loan of 1,500,000 maravedis to Queen Isabella to further the Spanish war effort in Grenada as an indicator of both his fortune and his ability to mobilize it for the fulfillment of the aims of the crown.

For all of his power, though, Abravanel's position in Spain never equaled that which he had enjoyed under the Portuguese kings. In Portugal, he was a decision-maker, while his sphere of influence was severely checked in Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella limited his influence and his actions to finance, although he also was allowed to play the role of spokesman for Jews in Spain.

This became eminently clear in 1492. After having provided Ferdinand and Isabella with the monies needed to take Grenada, Abravanel was shocked to learn that they had decided to expel all Jews from Spain. He (and maybe Abraham Senior) offered a huge bribe to rescind the edict, but they failed.

In May, 1492, Abrabanel found himself under tremendous pressure to convert and retain his status in the Spanish court. He refused, managed to smuggle his young son out of the country, and headed for Naples. He was permitted to take a thousand gold ducats with him but had to renounce his claim to other money which he had given the king in advance of actually getting the revenues through tax farming. He was also able to get bills of exchange for much of his fortune, softening the financial blow of his departure.

In Naples, he planned to concentrate on writing his commentary to the Bible. However, he was again employed by the king to be the prime tax collector. He and the king had to flee from the French. Abravanel lost his library. He finally settled in Venice in 1503.


Sources: Gates to Jewish Heritage; Chabad; The Columbia Encyclopedia

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