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Hasdai Ben Judah Crescas

(c. 1340-1410/11)

CRESCAS (or Cresques), ḤASDAI BEN JUDAH (c. 1340–winter 1410–11), Catalonian rabbi, philosopher, and statesman. Crescas was born into an old Barcelonan family of rabbis and merchants. He studied Talmud and philosophy there under Rabbi *Nissim b. Reuben Gerondi (c. 1310–1376) and together with Nissim's other outstanding disciple, Rabbi *Isaac b. Sheshet (1326–1408). In the 1360s, he served as one of the ne'emanim or "secretaries" of the Jewish community. By the 1370s, he was recognized as an authority on talmudic law, was requested by King Peter IV of Aragon to adjudicate certain cases concerning Jews, and received legal queries from Jews throughout the Kingdom of Aragon and abroad. He wrote poetry, and in 1370 participated in a competition between the Hebrew poets of Barcelona and those of Gerona. With the accession in 1387 of King John I and Queen Violante, he became a familiar of the royal household. In 1389 he moved to Saragossa, seat of the main royal court, and served there as rabbi. In 1390 he was empowered by the throne as judge of all the Jews of the Kingdom of Aragon. During the anti-Jewish riots of 1391, he worked together with the king and queen to protect the Jewish communities of the kingdom, but with only partial success: hundreds of Jewish communities in Valencia, Majorca, and Catalonia were destroyed, thousands of Jews killed, and more than 100,000 were converted to Christianity; but the Jewish communities in Aragon and Roussillon were saved. Despite Crescas' efforts to have his family protected, his only son was murdered in Barcelona. Crescas prepared a Hebrew chronicle of the massacres addressed to the Jews of Avignon, dated October 19, 1391 (trans. in Fritz Kobler, Letters of the Jews through the Ages, London 1952, pp. 272–75). The chronicle was presumably intended to provide information for Jewish intercessors meeting with the Avignonese pope. Its terse Hebrew bears theological allusions: the desolated centers of Jewish piety and learning become Jerusalem; and Crescas' son, "my only son, a bridegroom, a lamb without blemish," becomes Isaac. In the wake of 1391, Crescas, supported by the king and queen, devoted himself to the reconstruction of the devastated Jewish communities of the Kingdom of Aragon. He also secured passage for thousands of *Conversos on ships sailing for places outside Christendom, like North Africa or the Land of Israel, where they could legally return to Judaism. He made efforts to reform the system of communal representation in Saragossa, and in 1396 framed regulations (no longer extant) for the community, which strengthened the powers of its administrators. Certain modifications were introduced to them in 1399 by Queen Violante, who extended the responsibility of the administrators and allowed the lower classes a greater share in the representation. Crescas helped to effect similar regulations in other communities. His influence was not confined to Aragon. Before 1391 he and Isaac b. Sheshet were approached for advice with regard to the succession of the chief rabbinate of France. Later his opinion was solicited by Joseph *Orabuena , chief rabbi of Navarre. In 1401 Crescas spent several weeks in Pamplona, perhaps to discuss with King Charles III the resettlement of Jews there. A document from Olite, the royal residence in Navarre, acknowledges the receipt of 40 florins from the king, and bears Crescas' signature in Hebrew and Spanish. After the martyrdom of his son, he received royal permission in 1393 to take a second wife, his first being no longer able to have children; and she bore him one son and three daughters. He died in Saragossa.

[Encyclopaedia Judaica (Germany) /

Warren Zev Harvey (2nd ed.)]


Crescas had limited time for writing, and what he did write was motivated by his commitment to salvage Judaism in Spain. As part of a campaign to combat the prodigious Christianizing literature aimed at Jews and Conversos he wrote his Refutation of the Christian Principles (1397–98) in Catalan (trans. D. Lasker, Albany, 1992). This work has survived only in Joseph ben Shem Tov's Hebrew translation entitled Bittul Ikkarei ha-Noẓerim (1451, 1860, 1904, 1990; trans. D. Lasker, Albany, 1992). He also composed at least one other Catalan work combating Christianity which is now lost, and he influenced Profiat *Duran to write his Kelimmat ha-Goyim ("Dis-grace of the Gentiles"), another work criticizing Christianity. The Refutation is a non-rhetorical logical critique of ten principles of Christianity: original sin, redemption, the Trinity, the incarnation, the virgin birth, transubstantiation, baptism, the messiahship of Jesus, the New Testament, and demonology. Even his philosophic treatise Or Adonai ("Light of the Lord"), an anti-Aristotelian classic, written in Hebrew and completed in 1410 (Ferrara, 1555; Vienna, 1859–60; Johannesburg, 1861; Jerusalem, 1990), was conceived as a polemic. In this work Crescas attacked Aristotelianism because Aristotelian arguments had been used by Jewish intellectuals to justify their desertion of Judaism. Also extant is a philosophic and halakhic Sermon on the Passover (Derashat ha-Pesah or Ma'amar Or le-Arba'ah 'Asar, ed. A. Ravitzky, Jerusalem 1988), which contains a discussion of miracles, faith, and choice. Among Crescas' students were: Joseph Ḥabib, Joseph *Albo , *Zerahiah b. Isaac ha-Levi , Mattathias ha-Yiẓhari, Moses ibn *Abbas , and *Astruc ha-Levi . The last five scholars were delegates to the disputation of *Tortosa .

Or Adonai

Crescas had planned to write a comprehensive work Ner Elohim ("Lamp of God") which was to have been a reaction to the teachings of *Maimonides . He envisaged that the work would be composed of a philosophic-dogmatic part, Or Adonai, and a halakhic one, Ner Mitzvah; however, the latter section was never written. Or Adonai was directed against the Guide of the Perplexed, the main work of Jewish Aristotelianism. Crescas praised the immensity of Maimonides' learning, and acknowledged the desirability of his intent, but in justification of his critique he cited the rabbinic dictum, "… wherever the divine name is being profaned no respect is to be shown to one's master" (Er. 63a). Ner Mitzvah was to have superseded Maimonides' Mishneh Torah as a concise systematization of halakhah. The work was to have included Crescas' own novellae, and was to have incorporated logical and methodological features lacking in Maimonides' work, namely: alternate halakhic opinions, references to sources, and principles which would permit the application of commandments, general in their nature, to particular cases. Since this halakhic compendium was never written, Crescas is remembered as a philosopher, not a halakhist.

The disengagement of philosophy and belief from halakhah, symbolized by the projected two parts of his work, was crucial to Crescas. For example, Maimonides, combining the two, had interpreted the opening words of the Decalogue, "I am the Lord" (Ex. 20:2; Deut. 5:6), as constituting a positive commandment to believe in (or know) the existence of God. Crescas, by contrast, argued in the preface to his Or Adonai that it is absurd to speak of a divine commandment to believe in the existence of God, since such a belief cannot be a commandment itself, but must be a presupposition for any commandment. Before one can speak of a divine commandment one must already be convinced of the existence of a divine commander, God. Furthermore, in Crescas' psychology belief is involuntary; and one can only be reasonably commanded to do what one has the power to choose to do. Once again, therefore, belief in the existence of God is a presupposition of all the commandments, but it itself is not a commandment; it is pre-halakhic.

Or Adonai is divided into four books which analyze (1) the presuppositions or roots (shorashim) of Torah, (2) the fundaments (pinnot) of Torah, (3) other obligatory beliefs of Torah, and (4) some non-obligatory speculations. Following Maimonides, Crescas counts as roots God's existence, unity, and incorporeality. His analysis is tripartite: (1) a thorough presentation of the alleged Aristotelian roots of Torah, i.e., demonstrations of the 25 supposedly indubitable physical and metaphysical propositions that Maimonides had declared necessary premises of proofs of God's existence, unity, and incorporeality; and explanations of these proofs (cf. Guide, 2, Introduction); (2) a disproof of Aristotelianism, i.e., logical refutations of most of the propositions and all of the proofs; and (3) a new investigation of the roots. Crescas' critique of Aristotelianism was historically momentous; in arguing for the liberation of Torah, he was arguing also for the liberation of science. Crescas refutes the Aristotelian arguments against the existence of a vacuum and suggests that a medium is not a necessary condition of either motion or weight. It is not true that each element possesses an inner tendency toward its alleged natural place: rather, "all movable bodies have a certain amount of weight differing only quantitatively" and "those bodies which move upward do so only by reason of the pressure exerted upon them by bodies heavier in weight." Refutation of the impossibility of a vacuum enables Crescas to argue against the impossibility of infinite incorporeal and corporeal magnitudes and in the process to overthrow Aristotle's definition of place. In Aristotle's theory, according to which the universe is finite, "place" was defined as the adjacent surface of the containing body (Physics 4:4); this definition, observes Crescas, involves absurdities, e.g., the outermost celestial sphere has no essential place and the place of the part is sometimes not a part of the place of the whole. In Crescas' conception, space is infinitely extended; it is a vacuum, except where occupied by matter. Thus, space is the place of all matter, and the "place" of a thing is defined as "the interval between the limits of that which surrounds." To the Aristotelian argument that, according to such a definition, places themselves would have an infinite number of movable places, he replies that space is one and its dimensions immovable. Crescas notes that with the refutation of the impossibility of an infinite magnitude, the impossibility of a plurality of worlds is also refuted: there is now place for them. The objection that elements of the world would spill into another is quickly invalidated, even on Aristotelian terms, for each world could have its own proper places for its elements. Crescas does not explicitly posit the existence of an infinite number of worlds, but it is inferable; he does argue for an infinite number of coexisting magnitudes, and in two theological discussions he refers to aggadah about God's travels in (Crescas interprets "providence for") 18,000 worlds (Av. Zar. 3b). He rejects the Aristotelian view that the existence of an infinite number of causes and effects is impossible. In categorically affirming actual infinity, he contends that its denial by Aristotle was based on the fallacious assumption that the infinite is analogous to the finite. However, he argues, while finite magnitudes have boundaries and shape, the infinite by definition has no boundaries and is shapeless; while a finite number can actually be numbered, an infinite number possesses only the capacity of being numbered; while finite whole numbers can be subdivided exhaustively into even and odd, infinite numbers are not to be described by either evenness or oddness. On the other hand, regarding measurability, it is true that the predicates "greater than," "smaller than," and "equal to" are inapplicable to infinite numbers, but they are applicable to the numbers themselves. He rejects the Aristotelian view that the celestial spheres are rational, that is that they possess intelligence, and that their motion is voluntary; he argues that motion of terrestrial as well as celestial elements is natural rather than rational. Having dismissed Aristotle's theory of absolute lightness and weight, and having interpreted motion as a function of weight, he conjectures that the circular motion of the celestial spheres is due to their weightlessness. He rejects Aristotle's identification of form with actuality and matter with potentiality, and proposes that the substratum is "corporeal form." He rejects Aristotle's definition of time as an accident of motion; in his view, time exists only in the soul and is "the measure of the duration of motion or of rest between two instants." The critique of the Aristotelian propositions was also the critique of the premises of Maimonides' proofs of the existence, unity, and incorporeality of God; and the proofs fall with the propositions. Crescas does, however, recognize one short proof of the existence of God: regardless of whether causes and effects in the world are finite or infinite, there must be one cause of all of them as a whole. For were there nothing but effects, these effects in themselves would have only possible existence. Hence, in order to bring them into actual being, they need a cause, and this cause is God. He does not accept philosophic proofs for either of the other two roots: God's unity is known only from Torah, "Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deut. 6:4); His incorporeality is a corollary of His unity. Crescas concludes his dissertation on the roots by remarking that while philosophy cannot establish them, it does agree with them; the argument from design (see *God ) suggested the existence of a Governor to Abraham, but only God's light dispelled Abraham's doubt (cf. Gen. R. 39:1).


Torah, in Crescas' conception, is "the product of a voluntary action from the Commander, Who is the initiator of the action to the commanded, who is the receiver of the action." Fundaments are concepts that follow necessarily (i.e., analytically) from his conception of Torah. They include the following:

1. God's knowledge of existents, for God could not have commanded the Torah without knowing what he commanded. Crescas argues that God as Creator knows a priori all existents across all time.

2. Providence, for God's voluntary giving of the Torah was itself providential. According to Crescas, God provides for individuals not, as Maimonides taught, in accordance with their intellectual excellence, but on the merit of their love.

3. God's power, for were He powerless, He could not have given the Torah. Crescas argues that He Who created all by virtue of His will is infinitely powerful, neither restricted by nor dependent on nature.

4. Communication between Commander and commanded, i.e., prophecy, for the Torah is the product of such communication. Prophecy, maintains Crescas, is the culmination not of philosophy, as Maimonides taught, but of love for God.

5. Man's power of choice, for the concept of commandment presupposes the commanded's ability to choose to obey. Yet Crescas accepts the philosophic position of determinism, maintaining that two hypothetical individuals with identical backgrounds would in the same situation choose identically. He accepts, also, the theological position of determinism, that God foreknows all, and he affirms R. Akiva's antinomy: "All is foreseen, but choice is given" (Avot 3:19). Man, he concludes, has a will, composed of appetite and imagination, though this will is determined by external causes, among them the commandments. Because of this will man is able to choose, and, furthermore, he is responsible for his choice, which, in turn, becomes a cause, determining his reward or punishment. However, a man is not responsible for his beliefs, for belief, in Crescas' analysis, is independent of the will; thus, at Sinai the Israelites, coerced as if God had threatened to crush them with the mountain (cf. Av. Zar. 2b), were not rewarded for believing, but for the voluntary joy attendant on their belief.

6. The purposefulness of Torah, just as objects produced by men have a purpose, so, the Torah, produced by the Prime Intellect (God) must have purpose. It is the purpose of the Torah to effect in the one to whom it is addressed love for man, correct opinions, and physical felicity, which are all subsumed under one final goal – spiritual felicity, the infinite love for God. But even for God, the Commander, the Torah has a purpose, namely to bestow His infinite love upon His creatures.

Against both Platonism and Aristotelianism, Crescas argues that God's love for man is stronger than man's love for God, for God's infinite essence is the source of both loves. Man's love for God results in devekut ("conjunction" or "communion") with God; for among spiritual beings, as well as among physical objects, love and concord are the causes of perfection and unity. Love, the purpose of Torah, is the purpose also of man, and, further, of all that is. Maimonides had discredited the question of ultimate purpose, asserting that one could ask the purpose of every proposed purpose. Crescas replies that there is no infinite regress, because, ultimately, goodness is its own purpose, and it follows necessarily from God's essential and infinite goodness that He should boundlessly create good and joyfully will that His creatures attain the ultimate good, devekut.

Other Dogmas

Of the non-fundamental obligatory beliefs, Crescas distinguishes those independent of specific commandments, which include creation, survival of the soul, reward and punishment, resurrection, immutability of the Torah, the distinction between Moses and the other prophets, the efficacy of the Urim and the Thummim, and the Messiah, from those dependent on specific commandments, which include the efficacy of prayer and of the priestly benediction, God's readiness to accept the penitent, and the spiritual value of the High Holidays and the festivals. These beliefs differ only epistemologically from the fundaments: they are a posteriori, while the fundaments are a priori. One could logically conceive of the Torah without the nonfundamental beliefs but not without the fundamental ones. Yet, since the nonfundamental beliefs are affirmed by the Torah, their denial makes one a heretic. Crescas rejects Maimonides' contraposition of eternity and creation. For Crescas, whether or not the world is eternal is inconsequential; what is crucial is that the world is created ex nihilo by the absolute will of God, and that only the existence of God is necessary. Creation need not be in time: God is "creating each day, continuously, the work of the beginning" (liturgy). In his discussion of eternity, as in that of determinism, Crescas accepted a theory considered fatal to religion, and, instead of arguing against it, opted to establish its dogmatic inconsequence, and to show how it could be incorporated into an orthodox theology. In his discussion of the soul, Crescas rejects the Aristotelian theory that only the acquired intellect survives death. He argues that the soul is a simple and incorruptible substance, whose essence is not the intellect but something sublime and inscrutable. Crescas' teaching concerning the Messiah states that he will be greater than Moses and even the angels. Crescas recognizes only the Diaspora of 586 B.C.E.; the period of the Second Temple, being under foreign hegemony, did not constitute a redemption for him.


"The Place" (ha-Makom), a talmudic appellation for God, strikes Crescas as a remarkable metaphor: as the dimensions of space permeate the entire universe, so does the glory of God. Crescas, differing from Maimonides, speaks of positive attributes of God (e.g., eternity, knowledge, and power), maintaining that terms predicated of God are not employed absolutely equivocally, but amphibolously. Their generic meaning is the same when they are applied to God as when they are applied to created beings; yet, the attributes of created beings are finite, and thus incomparable with the infinite attributes of God. Attributes are infinite also in number; yet all are mental modifications of the attribute of goodness. Crescas considers both the Averroistic and the Avicennian identifications of God's existence with His essence as tautological. For Crescas existence, whether that of God or created beings, is simply extramental non-absence; it is essential to (i.e., a necessary condition of) essence, which, by definition, has extramental reality. Similarly, the attribute of unity, which is simply nonplurality, is essential not only to God, but to every existent substance. All divine attributes are essential in the way that existence, unity, animality, and rationality are essential to man. For Crescas, God is not the intellectus-intelligens-intelligibile, and, as is suggested in the astounding conclusion of Or Adonai, He even might not be unconditionally inscrutable. He is Goodness, and His happiness is in His infinite creation of good and in His infinite love for His creatures.

Influence in and Criticism of Or Adonai

Or Adonai was written within the tradition of the Jewish Aristotelianism it sought to refute; it is a continuation of the discussions in Maimonides' Guide and *Levi b. Gershom 's Milḥamot Adonai ("Wars of the Lord"). Crescas makes significant reference to, among other Aristotelians, *Moses b. Joshua of Narbonne . Among Jewish non-Aristotelians, he refers sympathetically to *Judah Halevi and *Naḥmanides , recommends *Jonah b. Abraham Gerondi 's treatise on repentance, and cites his teacher R. Nissim Gerondi, the spirit of whose philosophy pervades his religious thought. Of the medieval Islamic philosophers, whom it is assumed he knew only through Hebrew translations, Crescas is particularly concerned with *Averroes , the radical Aristotelian, whose physics and theology he attacks vigorously. He also discusses views of *al-Farābī , *Avicenna , al-*Ghazālī , *Avempace , and *al-Tabrīzī . Crescas' arguments show affinity to the revolutionary physics then being developed at Paris by students of Jean Buridan, especially Nicole Oresme. At times he seems influenced by Thomism, Scotism, and Ockhamist nominalism. However, since he did not write Or Adonai for a Latin audience and did not cite Latin schoolmen, the nature of his relationships to these movements is speculative. Aspects of Crescas' discussion of the will seem based on the work of *Abner of Burgos, a Jewish convert to Christianity.

Although Or Adonai was written for philosophers, not mystics, it is clear that Crescas was influenced by the Kabbalah, especially by the 13th-century Aragonese masters. He cites Sefer Yeẓirah and Sefer ha-Bahir and often interprets Scripture and Midrash kabbalistically. He emphasizes infinity (although he avoids the kabbalistic term Ein-Sof), love, and devekut; and he dismisses as preposterous the Maimonidean notion that the esoteric studies of ma'aseh bereshit and ma'aseh merkavah are physics and metaphysics. Aristotelians, such as *Shem Tov ben Joseph ibn Shem Tov , who rejected Crescas' arguments as "figments of the imagination" of a "perverse fool," were convinced that he could not understand Aristotle. Even Isaac *Abrabanel , who respected Crescas for his piety, considered his philosophic views often unintelligible or simpleminded. On the other hand, Joseph *Jabez praised "Rabbi Ḥasdai, who surpassed in intellect all the philosophers of his time, even the philosophers of Christendom and Islam, and how much more so the philosophers of Israel." Giovanni *Pico della Mirandola , quoting Crescas extensively, injected his critique of Aristotelian physics into the Latin literature, which later nurtured Galileo. The Dialogues of Love of Leone Ebreo ( Judah *Abrabanel ) might be seen as a poetic adaption of Crescas' metaphysics. Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), the Christian Italian philosopher, seems to have borrowed arguments from him. *Spinoza 's theories of extension, freedom and necessity, and love are marked by his close study of Or Adonai.

Sources:[Warren Zev Harvey (2nd ed.)]

Baer, Spain, index; S. Pines, Scholasticism after Thomas Aquinas and the Teachings of Hasdai Crescas and his Predecessors (1967); Husik, Philosophy, 388ff.; Guttmann, Philosophies, 224ff.; H.A. Wolfson, Crescas' Critique of Aristotle (1929), incl. bibl.; idem, in: JQR, 7 (1916), 1–44, 175–221; S.B. Urbach, Ammudei ha-Maḥashavah ha-Yisre'elit, 3 (1961); W.Z. Harvey, Physics and Metaphysics in Hasdai Crescas (1998); A. Ravitzky, Derashat ha-Pesaḥ le-Rabbi Ḥasdai Crescas (1988); D. Lasker, Jewish Philosophical Polemics against Christianity in the Middle Ages (1977); C. Sirat, History of Jewish Philosophy (1985), 357–70; D. Lasker, "Crescas," in: D. Frank and O. Leaman, History of Jewish Philosophy, ch. 17 (1997).

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