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Jewish Commentators — Their Lives and Works


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Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel
Hebrew Name(s): יצחק בן יהודה אברבנאל
Other Names: Abravanel, Don Isaac ben Judah, The Abarbanel, Abarbanel, Don Isaac Abravanel, Abravanel, Abrabanel
Period: Rishonim — 15th Century
Location: Lisbon and Naples
Dates: 1437–1508

A biblical commentator, theologian and philosopher, Isaac ben Judah was treasurer for King Alfonso V (Portugal) until fleeing to Spain after being suspected of participation in a rebellion against his successor. He was in the service of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain until the time of the expulsion of Jews (1492) when he went into exile. Abrabanel settled first in Naples before being forced to move following a French invasion of that city to Messina (Sicily) in 1494. In 1496 he was in Corfu (Greece). He settled next in Monopoli (Italy) before finally settling in Venice in 1503. Abrabanel was buried in Padua in 1508.
Abrabanel's works include important commentaries on the Tanach where he employed a critical and scientific approach, drawing on the historical episodes in the bible to enlighten the economic, political and social aspects of his own time. His work shows some consultation with Christian scholarship.
Abrabanel also wrote philosophical and theological works. He was influenced by Maimonides and also showed the influences of the Stoics and the Cynics. His overall negative stance toward culture and civilization—he was disturded by sophisticated Jewish rationalist thought, especially in a climate where threat and expulsion and Jewish survival and faith was at risk—is balanced to some extent through his faith in the miraculous, which is expressed in his works on the Messiah and messianism found in the three books known as The Tower of Salvation [Ma'yenei ha-Yeshu'ah (The Fountains of Salvation), Yeshu'ot Meshiho (The Salvation of the Anointed) and Mashmi'a Yeshu'ah (Announcing Salvation)].
Rejecting claims that it is possible to single out fundamental principle of Judaism (as proposed by Hasdai Crecas and Yosef Albo) Abrabanel argued that every law and belief found in the Torah was of equal importance.

Commentary on the Tanach; Mirkevet ha-Mishneh (The Second Chariot); Ateret Zekenim (The Crown of Elders); Rosh Amanah (The Principles of Faith); Tsurot ha-Yesodot (Forms of the Elements); Zevah Pesaḥ (The Sacrifice of Passover); Nahalot Avot (Paternal Inheritance); Migdal Yeshu'ot (The Tower of Salvation); Rosh Amanah (The Principles of Faith); Ma'amar Qatser (Short Treaties); Shamayim Hadashim (The New Heavens); Mif'a lot Elohim (The Works of God); Responsa

Abrabanel's Commentary on the Tanach (written, 1483–1505) included commentaries on the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets.  
Mirkevet ha-Mishneh is a Commentary on Deuteronomy (completed c. 1496).
Ateret Zekenim (The Crown of Elders or Crown of the Ancients) examines Divine providence. Published 1465.
Rosh Amanah is a detailed commentary on Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed published in 1494. In Rosh Amanah Abrabanel defended Maimonides but never-the-less maintained that the isolation of some dogmas as more important than others was wrong since the Torah was "a seamless robe."
Tsurot ha-Yesodot, written while Abrabanel was in his teens, deals with ontology.
Zevah Pesaḥ is a commentary on the Passover Haggadah (completed c. 1496).
Nahalot Avot is a commentary on Tractate Avot in the Mishnah (completed c. 1496).
The Tower of Salvation (Migdal Yeshu'ot) is a set of three books published between 1496 and 1498. The first book is Ma'yenei ha-Yeshu'ah (The Fountains of Salvation), a commentary on The Book of Daniel. The second is Yeshu'ot Meshiho (The Salvation of the Anointed). This work comprises a study of the midrashim and the passages of the Talmud that deal with the Messiah and the messianic age. The third work is Mashme'ah Yeshu'ah (Announcing Salvation) which provides a commentary on the messianic passages which occur in all the Books of the Prophets.
Rosh Amanah is a detailed commentary on Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed published in 1494.
Ma'amar Qatser comprises a discussion of matters Abrabanel assessed as the most difficult problems in Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed (published 1505).
Shamayim Hadashim deals with Creation, addressing the problem of the world's createdness.
Mif'a lot Elohim like Abrabanel's Shamayim Hadashim deals with Creation and the problem of the world's createdness.
Abrabanels' Responsa were answers to questions raised in Sha'ul ha-Kohen of Candia's works (now lost): The Inheritance of the Prophets (a work against Maimonides' theory of prophecy) and The Justice of the Universe (a work which deals with Divine Providence).


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