Sunday 11 July 2021


A 1767 edition of Abravanel's Mashmia Yeshua.


The Portuguese statesman and commentator R. Don Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508) had lived through the harsh period of the Expulsion of practicing Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497 respectively. He sought to inspire his people by encouraging messianic hope in order to counter the general feelings of hopelessness and despair. Between 1496 and 1498 he wrote three messianic works: מעייני הישועה, "The Wellsprings of Salvation", a commentary on the Book of Daniel; ישועות משיחו, "The Salvation of His Anointed", an interpretation of rabbinic literature about the Messiah; משמיע ישועה, "Announcing Salvation", a commentary on the messianic prophecies in the prophetical books. These form part of the larger work entitled מגדל ישועות, "Tower of Salvation". Abravanel counts Daniel - a symbol of the messianic idea - as one of the prophets, which goes against the Talmudic and rabbinic tradition which places the book under Ketuvin (Writings) and not Nevi’im (Prophets)[1].

This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Eric Lawee[2] deals with some of these messianic ideas expressed by the so-called ‘father’ of Jewish messianic movements, Abravanel. After the Expulsion, Abravanel believed that the messianic arrival was imminent. Most of Abravanel’s messianic writings took place in the post-Expulsion period.

Generally speaking, scholars have held that Abravanel’s messianism was influential in shaping future messianic trends within Judaism, but as we shall see, Lawee points out that that assumption is not always so clear.




Lawee introduces us to Benzion Netanyahu who he describes as the son of a “well-known Zionist propogandist”. In the 1940s, Netanyahu wrote a doctoral dissertation on the messianic teachings of Abravanel, which was later published in 1953. Netanyahu later became a professor of history at Cornell University and was an editor of the Hebrew Encyclopaedia. He was active in the Revisionist Zionism movement and lobbied the United States to support the creation of a Jewish state (and he also had a son called Binyamin). Lawee informs us that this study of Netanyahu remains the most “preeminent study of Abarbanel written to date”. 

Netanyahu strongly expresses the notion that “messianism represented a unifying principle for all the aspects of his [ Abravanel's] doctrine."[3] Netanyahu continues to explain that even as the rest of world society was beginning to move to more rationalist ideas and rationalist politics, the Jews - inspired by the messianism of Abravanel – remained in a state of "spiritual isolationism and mystical messianism".  This was occurring at a time when Europe was being shaken by "a succession of powerful revolutionary movements, religious and philosophical, and when a new rationalistic mode of thinking was gradually replacing the dogmatism and mysticism of the Middle Ages."

The Jews, Netanyahu continues, were driven by a "sustained messianic drive" in its midst which was "completely apocalyptic, completely divorced from politics or militarism, and which, unlike all earlier, purely mystical messianic trends, was not limited to a small circle of dreamers and intellectuals but became a mass movement in the full sense of the word and affected the historical course of the Jewish people."

Netanyahu asks a poignant question: How could it be that "at the very time the Jews banned Spinoza they accepted Shabbethai Zevi with general enthusiasm?" His answer is that, although there were other factors which led to the Sabbatian movement’s great success as to become the "most potent messianic movement in Jewish history”, nevertheless this was essentially inspired by the messianic foundations laid by Abravanel.




Lawee, writing about six decades later, in around 2001, contextualises the era in which Netanyahu was writing. In 1937, which was the five-hundredth anniversary of Abravanel’s passing, a large number of writings appeared to mark the occasion, and they reinforced this mystical and messianic notion. Abravanel was credited with his contribution to the appearance of false messiahs like David Reuveni and Solomon Molkho [See: Kotzk Blog: 206) DAVID REUVENI AND SHLOMO MOLCHO - A MESSIANIC DUO:] including Shabbatai Tzvi [See: Kotzk Blog: Search results for shabbatai Tzi roots run deep.]

Gershom Scholem similarly writes about Abravanel’s messianic writings which:

"exerted a profound influence on later generations and even adherents of the Sabbatian movement would quote them in support of their contentions."[4]

Gershon Weiler also writes that messianic expectations took away the will to fight and that Abravanel’s mysticism drove:

"the last nail into the coffin of Jewish hopes for political redemption."[5]

Netanyahu’s significant contribution was that from “the nationalistic point of view” Abravanel failed to use his great political influence, being the treasurer to King Alfonso V of Portugal, to help his people gain political independence. Netanyahu reiterates that while Abarbanel was a:

"realistic statesman when other nations were concerned… [he was] completely swayed by imagination when his own people were involved."

Netanyahu has many such expressions painting Abravanel as:

"the political Jewish leader of the age [who][6] was agitating against a realistic approach."

Thus, Netanyahu suggest that instead of Abravanel offering his people real and practical solutions, he simply peddled false hope and mystical visions.

Netanyahu cites the example of Don Joseph Nasi some fifty years after Abarbanel's passing, who attempted to rebuild Tiberias in the 1560s. The idea was a failure because Abravanel had:

 "accustomed Jews to thinking of redemption in a supernatural way."

And it was:

"the influence of Don Isaac Abravanel that destroyed the influence of Joseph Nasi."




Lawee suggests we revisit these ideas in a “more balanced” manner than that presented by Netanyahu, a staunch Zionist rallying for the creation of a Jewish state and writing just prior to 1948. Lawee explains that the roots of Spanish Jewish messianism actually can be traced back a century before the Expulsion, to the anti-Jewish riots of the 1390s. Abravanel would have known about his own grandfather who received baptism in around 1391. Yet there is very little Abravanel writes about messianism in the years prior to the Expulsion.

It is correct that after 1492 things begin to change. In Abravanel’s Ma'ayenei haYeshuah, a commentary on Daniel written in 1496-97, he writes that the Messiah had been born:

"before the great expulsion caused death and destruction for the Jewish diaspora in Spain since in truth already then the great sufferings accompanying the birthpangs of the Messiah began."

Abravanel also predicted that the Messiah would arrive by 1503. He wrote:

“The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces of 1464 had, then, ushered in an era that, barring divine intercession, would culminate in the Jewish people's deliverance fifty years later as millennia earlier this same astral configuration had inaugurated the redemption of their ancestors from Egypt.”[7]

For nearly two years, Abravanel, who claimed to come from the house of David about messianic ideas such as these.

Lawee stresses that Abravanel (2001:9) authored:

“studies of the Jewish messianic idea that together comprised the largest such inquiry that a Jew had ever composed (and which, for sheer size, remains unsurpassed in Hebrew literature down to this day) …”

Based on these facts, it does seem that after 1492 Abravanel was solely occupied with messianism and eschatology.

Yet, as Lawee describes it

“there are more than a few points, some rather basic, that pull in the opposite direction.”

Abravanel settled in Italy after the Expulsion, and a year later in 1493 he completed his commentary on Kings. This work does not reflect the sentiment of a who was consumed and changed by a catastrophe. Instead it seems to reflect the same stable determination of a writer who wanted to conclude what he had started earlier before the Expulsion.

In fact, Lawee stresses that most of Abravanel’s Italian writings, besides for the three messianic works, show more of the lack of influence of the catastrophe and point to a man focussed firmly on what he had always been doing before.

And even his messianic works, such as his commentary on Daniel, show that he was still a commentator at heart. He included much material that was not messianic at all and which also related to his previous style of exegesis.

Furthermore, in his writings after the three messianic works, during the last five years of his life when he wrote what he considered his most important work, including his Torah commentaries, messianism is even more conspicuous by its absence. It was during this later period that Abravanel also wrote his commentary on Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed.

Abravanel writes:

 "I restricted myself to study of the Guide and commentaries on the Holy Scriptures for from it [such study] emerges all the topics of the wisdom of the Torah and many questions regarding it which are allayed by the wisdom of the Master."[8]

These observations are not lost to Lawee (2001:12) who writes incredulously that:

“While, then, much ink has been spilled now for decades on Abarbanel's messianism no one has explained - or, it would seem, barely even stopped to notice - the near-total absence of messianic concerns in the works of his last half-decade of life …”

This is exactly why Lawee believes that the mysterious turn to messianic writing during a short window after 1496, must be reappraised. It is possible, Lawee continues, that after Abravanel’s messianic predictions concerning 1503 did not come to fruition, he either repressed those ideas or perhaps he never internalised them in the first instance. Perhaps, as Lawee (2001:18) further suggests, the need to explain the Expulsion in messianic terms would:

“tacitly absolve himself of responsibility for his and Spain's Jewish leadership's failure to stave off the expulsion …”

I would suggest another possibility and that is that he may have adopted a similar style to his ‘master’ Maimonides, in that he too sometimes wrote for the masses and offered the people what they need to hear at the time. 

Lawee emphasis just how things were ‘back to normal’ with Abravanel, in that in his later years, he went back into his political persona and seemed to abandon his messianic activism when he negotiated a deal between Venice and Portugal concerning the international spice trade.

Lawee (2001:13) writes:

“Never again would Abarbanel write another word on the date of the messianic advent nor is there any trace of efforts to rethink fundamental eschatological principles or rework specific messianic scenarios.”

History shows that the many who have wrongly predicted the date for the arrival of the Messiah, have always gone back to somehow defend their initial position. Abravanel never did this. After 1503, Abravanel the "mystic and apocalyptist" has vanished.

At the same time, Lawee makes it clear that one should not minimise or try to deny Abravanel’s mystical and messianic period which began some four years after 1492 and lasted for some years. Nevertheless, recent scholarship has shown just how small the exile community was in Italy at that time. So, who was Abravanel writing for if most of his audience was non-Spanish?

Along these lines, it is important to note that Abravanel’s messianic books were not his first books to be printed. Mashmia Yeshua was only printed in Salonika in 1526 and then only reprinted much later in the mid-seventeenth century in Amsterdam, and then again towards the end of the nineteenth century. Ma’ayenei haYeshua was first printed in Ferrara in 1551, but that was not so much because of the popularity of the work. Abravanel’s middle son, Yosef, was a prominent leader in that community and that probably accounts for his father’s book being published there. This book was only reprinted twice before 1900. Yeshu’ot Meshicho was not printed until well into the nineteenth century. Thus, the immediate and allegedly widespread impact these works would have had is highly questionable. Also, by the time these works did get distributed, it was way after his messianic prediction of 1503 and surely, he would have been discredited as a champion of messianism (although contemporary observations of similar phenomena show the opposite effect).

Regarding the general assertion that Abravanel is responsible for the rise of all the future messianic movements, Lawee (2001:24) notes that while there is much literature about this in secondary sources, there is very little documentary evidence that this is the case. He writes:

“That enduring roles in the spheres of Jewish messianic thought and deed have regularly been ascribed to Abarbanel despite the almost non-existent evidence of his genuinely potent and original contributions in these areas servers as a cautionary tale of the power of unsupported but intuitively appealing historiographic precepts to become uncritically accepted and, once unleashed, take on a life of their own.”

However, Lawee (2001:25) does concede that:

“the basic claim of a strong passive element in Abarbanel’s response to the condition of Jewish exile cannot be denied…”

Yet there are instances where Abravanel’s messianism intercepts with Maimonides’ “realistic messianism” (Lawee 2001:25). [See: Kotzk Blog: 226) MASHIACH - A NATURAL OR SUPERNATURAL EVENT?]

It is important, I believe, to take cognisance of the difference between ascribing the influence of modern messianism and passivity on the Jewish mindset to Abravanel, and the fact that Jews were indeed messianic and passive in the relatively recent past. The idea that this may not have been entirely a result of the teachings of Abravanel does not take away that very attitude which was prevalent in our messianic history with long lines of false messiahs and messianic movements. Jews did live, as Netanyahu described in a state of “spiritual isolationism and mystical messianism”.

[See: Kotzk Blog: 283) ‘MASHIACH NOW’ - OVER THE LAST 500 YEARS: and for more on the Jewish change from pragmaticism to passivity see Kotzk Blog: 210) HOW REALITY ON THE GROUND INFORMS PERCEPTIONS OF HEAVEN:

Lawee (2001:3), however, does say that more recent studies have shown that the perceptions that the religio-political thinking between the period of 1500 to 1800 was largely mystical if not somewhat superstitious have been revised.

It is also important to remember that the few ‘messianic years’ that Abravanel seemed to experience post 1496 still remains somewhat of a mystery and appears difficult to contextualise. Although in his "Isaac Abarbanel’s Stance Toward Tradition" (2001 State University of New York, p 52-3), Lawee suggests that "Abravanel's messianic writings aimed to rebut Christian polemics".

Nevertheless, ultimately, Lawee (2001:27) makes the point that:

“When future narratives tell the story of the Jews in modernity they will no longer be able to assign pride of place to Abarbanel among sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Jewish messianism’s founding fathers.”

[1] The Roman Catholic and Protestant Bibles both include Daniel under the category of Prophets. The Talmud (Bava Batra 15a) writes that Ezra’s Anshei Kenesset haGedolah wrote Ezekiel, the Twelve Prophets, Daniel and the Ester.

[2] Eric Lawee, “The Messianism of Isaac Abarbanel, ‘Father of the [Jewish] Messianic Movements of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” in Matt D. Goldish and Richard H. Popkin, eds., Millenarianism and Messianism in Early Modern European Culture, vol. 1 (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2001), 1-39.

[3] B. Netanyahu, Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman and Philosopher, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1972), 195.

[4] Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, trans. R.J. Zwi Werblowsky (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), 14-15.

[5] Gershon Weiler, Jewish Theocracy (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988), 72.

[6] Parenthesis mine.

[7] Ma'ayenei haYeshuah, 412. 

[8] See Abravanel’s She'elot, 8r.

No comments:

Post a Comment