Sunday 8 May 2016



The great 15th century Spanish rationalist and philosopher, Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380-1444), distilled Jewish creed down to a mere three Principles of Faith. As a result, he made it almost impossible for even liberal thinkers to be theological outsiders to Jewish faith. 

His philosophical value system resulted in probably the most accepting and inclusive framework of belief to be found within Torah Judaism.


Rabbi Yosef Albo was born in the town of Monreal del Campo which is in the province of Aragon, a landlocked region of north-eastern Spain. His teacher was Chasdai Crescas[1] who in turn was a student of the Ran[2].

In 1413 the Albo was elected, together with twenty other officials, to represent and lead the Jewish community in a forced public debate between Christianity and Judaism. This debate or polemic, which lasted for seven months, was called for by the Antipope, Benedict XIII[3].  

The elected official representing the Christian delegation was a Jewish convert to Christianity, Geronimo de Santa Fe, whose original name was Joshua Lorki[4]. He had the support of seventy cardinals and archbishops together with about a thousand other high ranking Christian clerics.  During the proceedings, hundreds of Jews were led into the hall and were made to declare themselves as faithful converts to the Church.

The Christian delegation proposed that Jews must keep the Sabbath on Sunday instead of Saturday. Rabbi Albo responded that; “the Shabbat Mitzvah was adhered to by Jesus and all his disciples, but three hundred years after Jesus died one pope (Sylvester 1, 314-335) altered the tradition and ordered that they should keep Sunday instead of Saturday.”[5]

This polemic must have been extremely difficult for Rabbi Albo. The terrible anti-Semitic pogroms of 1391 were still fresh in the memories of all present (almost half of the Jews of Spain converted to Christianity after this persecution), and he certainly did not want another pogrom to be unleashed on account of him.

To add to the tension, there was also a resurgence of internal controversies within the Jewish community itself between the rationalists and the mystics. Each school held the other responsible for the calamities that befell the Jewish people at that time, and this only served to complicate matters further.

Eventually, internal politics within the Christian community overshadowed the Jewish issue and the Church Council of Constance declared (Pope) Benedict to be a “withered branch of the Church that has been chopped off.”[6]


Rabbi Albo’s Sefer HaIkkarim (Book of ‘Principles’) was not originally written as we have it today. At first he only wrote what he later referred to as Part One, but after receiving much criticism he decided to elaborate upon it. In his Introduction to Part Two, the Albo criticises his critics by suggesting they had taken his words out of context. He also expounds upon the principles of fair and accurate criticism.  

The main contribution of the Ikkarim, was to reduce the Jewish ‘Principles of Belief’ to just three in number. This was in contrast to Rambam who, two hundred years earlier, presented his famous Thirteen Principles of Faith.[7] It further differed from that of Albo’s teacher, Chasdai Crescas, who presented Six Principles of Faith. (There is even another model advocating that there are twenty six Principles.[8])

The Albo’s three Principles of Faith are:

1)      Belief in existence of G-d.
2)      Belief in revelation (of Torah from G-d to man).
3)      Belief in divine justice (reward and punishment).[9]

His technical terminology is rather novel in that he speaks about ikkarim or primary roots, followed by shorashim or secondary roots, followed in turn by anafim or branches. This language is significant because it is analogous to a real tree, where primary roots are essential, secondary roots are important but branches may be cut off if necessary without damaging the rest of the tree.

Thus he establishes an important hierarchy of defining parameters, within which a believer can operate with much latitude, yet still be considered part of the Torah community.
This must have been his greatest contribution for which he is little recognized and acknowledged.


While belief in Messiah is critical to most other ‘Principle systems’, in Albo’s scheme it is merely an anaf or ‘branch’ which if removed does not damage the rest of the tree. So, according to him, Judaism does not stand or fall on the Messiah issue. This is but one example of how Rabbi Albo is radically liberal compared to his counterparts.

Some contend that the reason he is so compromising on the Messiah question is because of his direct and unsettling experience of polemics with zealous Christian authorities.  He felt the need to undo some of Rambam’s theology particularly with regard to the Messiah concept (which ironically was promoted by Rambam to show how different the Jewish concept of Messiah was compared to the Christian interpretation of Messiah. For the same reason Rambam was a great advocate of non-corporeality). 

The problem was that now Rambam’s Messiah concept was used by the church against the Jews who were threatened with pogroms and forced conversions because of it. This may have been the reason why Rabbi Albo regarded Messiah as a mere ‘branch’ and not a ‘root’, making the point that Judaism is not absolutely predicated on belief in the Messiah.

The Albo writes: “The belief in the advent of the Messiah, which is a special principle according to Maimonides, is in our opinion not a principle at all...for the Christians too regard it as a principle ... it is indeed a special principle to them for their law cannot be conceived without it.”[10]
“Rabbi Hillel did not believe in the coming of the Messiah at all, and if despite this he was not classified as an unbeliever, it is because the dogma of the Messiah is not a fundamental principle of the Law of Moses, as Maimonides thinks.”[11]


Another surprising but significant omission from his Principles is creation ex nihilo.
“Creation of the world out of nothing is a dogma which it behoves every one professing a divine law to believe, though it is not a fundamental principle of divine law.”[12]


The centrality of Moshe is also called into question as a fundamental principle:

“We did not include the superiority of Moses as a prophet among the principles, primary or secondary, as Maimonides did...”[13]  


It should be pointed out that the Albo did not intend to encourage his readers not to believe in Messiah or in creation or in the centrality of Moshe – he simply maintained that these and other concepts were not spiritual ‘deal breakers’.

In fact, non-belief in many of these concepts would still be regarded as negatives for which some form of teshuvah (repentance) may be required, but they would never carry the weight of a charge of heresy.

The Albo says: “A person who violates a commandment of the Torah is called a transgressor...but he is not excluded from those who profess the Torah , and is not regarded as a denier of the Torah who has no share in the world to come...If we would count specific commandments as dogmas, we should have as many principles as there are commandments...None of the specific commandments of the Torah should regarded as principles...(even) the duty to worship G-d alone, which is in Maimonides’ list, should not be counted as a principle...for it is a specific command...Hence a person who violates it is not a denier of the Torah...though he be guilty of a grave sin.” [14]


The Albo’s view on prayer is also nonconventional.  Instead of seeing prayer as a means of ‘changing’ G-d’s mind, he saw it as a means of changing the status of the person who is praying.     (‘Changing’ G-d’s mind would impinge on his fourth shorash describing G-d as a perfect being.) Once the person is elevated through prayer his perception or even his reality may change, but it is he not G-d who changes.[15]


Similar to his understanding of the mechanics of prayer, the Albo also describes the concept of repentance. In his view, the person is elevated through his repentance to a different level from the one he was at when he sinned. In this sense his ‘identity’ has changed and therefore is no longer susceptible to retribution as he is no longer the same person who committed the transgression.[16]


Rabbi Albo’s ideas were so popular and widespread that when his Ikkarim were published in 1485, they were amongst the very first works of Torah literature ever to be printed. This shows the high regard the people had towards his writings.

It also speaks to the idea of earlier generations being subliminally more receptive to a spiritual approach of inclusivity rather than exclusivity.

This is in sharp distinction from today where his philosophy may be considered too inclusive, and perhaps therefore his work has been relegated to a place of less importance.

[1] Rabbi Chasdai ben Yehudah Crescas (1340-1411), philosopher and halachist, who together with Rambam Ralbag and Albo championed the rationalist approach to Judaism.
[2] Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Girona (1320-1376), one of the last great Spanish talmudists and a halachic authority. He was also a physician, astronomer and opponent of Jewish mysticism. 
[3] An Antipope is one who opposes the elected Pope and claims instead to be the Bishop of Rome and leader of the Catholic Church. An Antipope usually has a significant following due to his compelling claim to authority.
[4] Geronimo had studied Talmud and happened to be the personal doctor of (Pope) Benedict XIII.
[5] See Vikuach R. Yosef Albo, Otzar Vikuchim, Eisenstein, p.115.
[6] See Council of Constance 1414-18.
[7] It’s interesting to see that Abarbanel held that Rambam believed that only the first five Principles were fundamental to Jewish belief, and that the last eight were only meant for the masses who innately felt a need to believe in such things. See

[8] See Yesodot HaMaskil, by Rabbi Yom Tov ben Bila (also 14th century), published in Sefer Divre Hakamim (1849).

[9] The first ikkar (primary root) has four shorashim (secondary roots). The second has three and the third has one. Making a total of 3 ikkarim and 8 shorashim. Thus:

i)Belief in G-d: 1. G-d’s unity. 2. G-d’s incorporeality.  3. G-d’s independence of time. 4. G-d’s perfection.

ii)Belief in revelation: 1. G-d’s knowledge of all things. 2. Prophecy. 3. The genuineness of the divine messenger.

iii)Belief in divine justice: 1. Providence.

[10] Maamar HaRishon, Husik p. 65.
[11] Ibid. p. 47.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid. p. 132.
[14] Ibid p.124
[15] See Treatise 4, ch.16-18.
[16] See Treatise 4, ch.27.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the interesting article. I am particularly fond of his views on non eating meat.Mendy