Biography of Isaac Abravanel

Barukh Uziel Hazaketto


The author had a tradition from his ancestors, also based on a book of his genealogy that was lost in all the upheavals of the expulsion and the persecutions, that this holy and lofty family, whose sons are called Abravanel, is “a branch out of the stock of Jesse, and a shoot out of the root” [see Isaiah 11:1] of the family of the house of David, and that they came to Spain as part of the exile after the destruction of the First Temple. For the author wrote as follows in his commentary to the book of Zechariah, on the verse: The Lord shall also save the tents of Judah first, so that the glory of the house of David [and the glory of the inhabitants of Jerusalem] be not magnified [above Judah] (Zechariah 12:7):

Also regarding Spain, after the destruction of the First Temple, R. Isaac Ibn Ghiyath, of blessed memory, wrote that two families from the house of David came there. One was the family of the sons of David, which settled in Lucena, and the other was the family of the sons of Abravanel, which settled in Seville, and my humble family descends from them.

There is an indication that they are from a distinguished lineage, for the sage said that old and persistent honor and wealth is a mark of a noble family, and it is known that they lacked neither wealth nor honor, and indeed always enjoyed both of these blessings.

Although his ancestors lived in Castile, Spain, the author himself was born in Lisbon, Portugal. Due to persecution, his family dwindled in numbers and had to flee Spain to Portugal. He was born there, in the year 5197 [1437], and grew up there, learning good discernment and knowledge (Psalms 119:66) and the fear of God. There the Lord commanded the blessing (Psalms 133:3) from His storehouse, as he became great among the Jews and second to the king (Esther 10:3), to Don Alfonso, a king who exercised mercy, justice, and righteousness, in the land (Jeremiah 9:23). He lived in Portugal until the age of forty-five, in 5242 [1482]. In that year, Don Alfonso, a righteous man and a God-fearing ruler, passed away, and was succeeded by his son, Don John.

This new king hated all the former ministers and those who had loved his father. He plotted to have them executed by falsely accusing them of conspiring against him in order to deliver him and his land into the hands of the kings of Spain. Abravanel was among those persecuted by the king for no justifiable reason. Having decided that the minister was one of the plotters, the king laid a trap for him when he was nearby. He sent his wicked messengers to Abravanel with an order from the king to come to him straight away. In obedience to the royal command, Abravanel set out immediately, not realizing that he was in mortal danger, were it not for the fact that that the Lord’s mercies are not consumed (Lamentations 3:22). For, on his way, he was secretly informed that he should go no further, as it was a time of danger, and that he should flee for his life, since the king had already executed many who had done no wrong.

Upon hearing this advice, he did what he needed to survive—he departed alone in the middle of the night and traveled day and night without stopping, until at midnight on the second night he reached the border of the kingdom of Castile, the land where his forefathers had lived. At the light of dawn, the king’s messengers rode in, seeking to catch him alive or dead, but God steered him so that they were unable to find him. When King John [II] realized that Abravanel had escaped capture, he confiscated all his lands and other possessions for the king’s treasury, including his silver and gold, so that he was left with nothing. This was Abravanel’s first exile, as he described at great length in his introduction to the commentary on the book of Hosea.

He settled in the kingdom of Castile, and in 5243 [1483] he began teaching willing and able students. He progressed well in his studies there and, in that year, he wrote his commentary on three books of the Early Prophets. His commentary on the book of Joshua was completed from the 10th to the 26th of the month of ḥeshvan [October 20 to November 5]; he wrote his commentary on Judges from the 1st to the 25th of Kislev [November 9 to December 3], and also the commentary on the book of Samuel from the 1st of Tevet to the 13th of Adar, the fast of Esther [December 9 to February 18, 1484]. Thus, all three were completed in 5243, in less than four months.

Just when he was ready to start his commentary on the book of Kings, he was summoned to appear before King Ferdinand of Spain. God granted him favor in the eyes of the king, the queen, and his ministers. He received a royal appointment, which he maintained for eight years, until 5252, the year of the expulsion, when he was fifty-five years old. This was a time of terrible troubles and fear, for the decree was issued that within three months no Jews were permitted to remain anywhere in the kingdom, unless they were baptized, in which case they could live and act as they pleased. All this was motivated by King Ferdinand’s desire to give thanks to his god for delivering the kingdom of Granada into his hands.

Our holy author interceded on behalf of his people, prostrating himself before the king and begging him to spare them, but to no avail, as “the decree is truth, and effort is false.”1 Also, the queen was standing at the king’s right hand to accuse him, insisting that he keep his word. When the people heard this evil outcome they mourned, and they said to one another, “Let us appoint a leader and depart in the name of the Lord our God” (Numbers 14:4). They departed on their weary way, three hundred thousand on foot, about half as many as those who left Egypt. On their travels they encountered many dreadful misfortunes, as God afflicted them with all His worst punishments until only a fraction of them remained.

Now Abravanel, one of the exiles, traveled on a boat by sea with his whole family until in 5253 [1493] he reached the famed city of Naples, which was under the rule of another King Ferdinand. However, this one was a righteous, pious, and merciful king. The king accepted him under his wing, as he took a liking to him and gave him a warm reception. One who wishes to know exactly how subsequent events unfolded, and what Abravanel did in Naples, as well as where he stayed the rest of the year, can find an account in his introduction to the commentary on the book of Kings. This was his second exile, which I have described in brief.

From thence, from the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel (Genesis 49:24), God looked forth upon him kindly from His holy habitation [see Deuteronomy 26:15], as God increased his possessions, and he grew wealthy. His house became a meeting-place for scholars, and he became a renowned sage. But just when he thought he had settled into a tranquil life, the trouble of King Charles of France came upon him,2 as that king set out to wage war against the kingdom of Naples. Before his arrival, King Ferdinand had died and was succeeded by his son, King Alfonso. Within a year of his reign, King Charles had captured the kingdom, and the king had to flee to Messina. As ever, Abravanel accompanied the king, while his house was confiscated and ransacked, and all his books and valuables were wholly consumed by terrors (Psalms 73:19). He remained alone with the king until Alfonso became mortally ill, and then he was left with nothing. Our author, the minister, travelled around, a fugitive and a wanderer (Genesis 4:4), before ending up on the island of Corfu as a guest who turns aside to tarry for the night (Jeremiah 14:8).

In Corfu, he began writing his commentary on the book of Isaiah, in 5255 [1495]. However, he soon stopped working on this volume, as he decided to embark on a different project. The reason was that there, on the island of Corfu, God helped him find the portion that he had managed to write from his commentary on the book of Deuteronomy, back when he was in Lisbon. He had snatched up the manuscript from his study hall when he was forced to flee from King John [II] and had not seen it since. Abravanel rejoiced in this discovery like one who has found a great treasure. He had little to his name when he left for the city of Monopoli, where he lived by himself, but now he was able to complete this commentary on Deuteronomy, on the 20th of the month of Shevat, 5256 [February 13, 1496]. [ . . . ]

Meanwhile, his son Don Judah went to Genoa, and from there to Naples, where he achieved great things in the field of medicine. This Judah was the most successful of his brothers, and thanks to his work Dialoghi d’amore, which he wrote in Italian, he became famous for his superior knowledge of both natural and divine wisdom. His beautiful poems, which he composed about the works of his father, attest to his broadness of heart and keen insight; “the man yearns to investigate the root of his existence, by which he was wrought a man.”3 [ . . . ]

His [Isaac’s] exile to Italy, in 5253 [1493] was the third of his exiles. He found no rest or quiet, and he kept on the move, slowly going from one place to another, although he remained in Monopoli for a good while. From there he traveled with his second son, Don Joseph Abravanel, may his Rock protect him and sustain him, a wise, discerning, and wholly righteous man, who has recently reached the age of eighty, an elderly kindhearted man, may God lengthen his days.

They went together to the great city of Venice, with the intention of negotiating a commercial treaty on the spice trade between the Venetian nobles and the king of Portugal. When the ministers, advisers, and other officials realized the depths of his wisdom, they confided in him and revealed to him all their secrets, and his advice became as precious to them as if one had inquired of the word of God (2 Samuel 16:23). There in Venice he wrote his commentary on the book of Jeremiah, which he completed on the eve of Shavuot, 5264 [1504]. Since it is logical that he would not have written the later ones first, it can be assumed that he subsequently wrote his commentaries on the book of Ezekiel and the Twelve Minor Prophets.

In 5268 [1508] we suffered the great loss of R. Isaac Abravanel, as he departed to enjoy the fruits of his labor in the world to come. The ministers of the city and the leaders of the Jews paid him great honor in his death, and they brought his remains to the old cemetery of the city of Padua, which has since been destroyed, outside one of the city gates, called Longtail [i.e., the Bastione della Gatta]. This occurred within five years of the extinguishing of another great light, for R. Judah Mintz, the chief rabbi, had also passed away, and the pair were buried next to each other. In those evil times, the two righteous men were gathered away, for in the following year, 5269 [1509], a severe battle was waged around the walls of Padua, which led to the destruction of these graves, to the extent that no one knows the burial plots of his relatives to this day.

This is the story of the author’s years. He lived a righteous life, a man of valor who lives on after his death. Some of his seventy-one years were more blessed than others, but his intelligence and sagacity always shone through, and we have benefited from his perfection and wisdom until the Lord set apart the pious man for Himself (Psalms 4:4), to delight in the splendor of His Presence.

Translated by


[See Naḥmanides on Genesis 37:15—Trans.]

[See Rashi on Genesis 36:1, citing Genesis Rabbah.—Trans.]

[Yedaiah ha-Penini ben Abraham Bedersi, Beḥinat ‘olam (Examination of the World), part 1, chapter 1.—Trans.]


Barukh Uziel Hazaketto, “Biography of Isaac Abravanel,” in: Isaac Abravanel, Ma’yene ha-yeshu‘ah (Sources of Salvation) (Ferrara: Samuel, 1551), pp. i–iii.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 5.

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