A 1642 manuscript of Isaac Abravanel's commentary on the Prophets. (New College Library, Edinburgh/Wikimedia Commons)

Isaac Abravanel

This medieval Bible commentator from Portugal and Spain was influenced by personal experience.

Don Isaac Abravanel, prominent statesman in Portugal and later in Spain, Jewish philosopher, and biblical exegete, was born Lisbon in 1437 and died in Venice in 1508. Abravanel objected to the attempt by thinkers such as Maimonides to draw up lists of principles of the faith. These thinkers, he declared, thought of the Torah as a science operating with certain axioms or principles from which everything else can be derived, whereas the God-given Torah is complete in itself with every detail of its precepts a principle and none more important or more axiomatic than the others. More than any other Jewish biblical exegete, Abravanel was influenced in his commentary to the Bible by his own background and personal experiences.

For instance, disillusioned by the oppressive regime in Spain and the comparatively free atmosphere in Venice under the doges, he interprets the biblical statement about the king (Deuteronomy 17 14-20) not as advocating the monarchy as an ideal system but as a concession to human weakness. The passage concerning the appointment of the king does not mean, he argues, following a Talmudic opinion, that the Israelites were duty-bound to have a king; only that if they wished to have a king, his powers must be curtailed by the regulations stated in the passage.

For the same anti-authoritarian reason Abravanel comments that the sons of Jacob, Moses, and David at first were simple shepherds, an occupation that gave them the opportunity to earn an honest living away from the distractions of urban life.

Abravanel claims to have discovered why there is a prohibition against “seething a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23: 19; Exodus 34: 26; Deuteronomy 14: 2I). He sees this prohibition as a protest against idolatrous practices and he remarks in passing that it is the custom in Spain and in England “to this day” for the shepherds, when they meet together to take counsel with one another, to eat the meat of a goat cooked in the goat’s milk, such food being a delicacy. As an extra precaution the Torah forbids, as the Rabbis declare, the cooking of any meat and milk together.

In a rationalistic spirit, Abravanel points out that not every prophecy of the biblical prophets came to pass and he concludes that prophecy should not be understood solely in terms of an accurate foretelling of future events, but rather in the nature of a divine message to contemporaries of the particular prophet. More startling is his contention that occasionally the literary style of Jeremiah and Ezekiel could be less than perfect without this affecting their claim to be true prophets of God; he is thus virtually rejecting the notion of verbal inspiration.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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