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Reviewed by:
  • Letters
  • Arthur M. Lesley
Isaac Abravanel . Letters. Studia Judaica: Forschungen zur Wissenschaft des Judentums 40. Ed. and trans. Cedric Cohen Skalli. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007. xv + 193 pp. index. append. bibl. €69.16. ISBN: 978–3–11–019492–0.

Don Isaac Abravanel (Lisbon, 1437–Padua, 1508) wrote a Portuguese letter of consolation and three Hebrew letters of consolation that were published 100 years ago. Here Cedric Cohen Skalli presents a critical edition and translation of the four letters and explains their historical settings. The comparison enables him to define the cultural values that Abravanel expressed in their rhetorical structure. Scholars of Abravanel's voluminous Hebrew writings have often called him a humanistic writer, mainly because of his association with elites in the fifteenth century in Portugal, Castile, and Italy. Now Cohen Skalli shows that he also wrote according to Portuguese vernacular humanistic practice.

The Portuguese letter to Dom Afonso, Count of Faro, on the death of his father-in-law in 1470–71, serves as a template for the structure of the Hebrew letters. Its opening defines grieving as a disease, which the friends of the current mourner, like the friends of Job, must try to heal. Iberian treatises of consolation and biblical commentaries explain that Job's friends gained his benevolent hearing, first by actively grieving with him, then by sitting silent for seven days and listening to his complaints, and finally by offering consolation. The second section heals through a "humanistic speech," in which a sequence of references to Iberian versions of Petrarch, Aristotle, the Bible, and Seneca emphasize that nothing is more certain than death. The recent death saddens this mourner, but the very commonness of death teaches contempt for it. Stoic reflection heals the noble mourner, who is then exhorted to return to the active life of ruling.

The three Hebrew letters to Yehiel Da Pisa (d. 1490), the leading Jewish loan banker in Florence, derive from an established epistolary practice that, long before encountering humanism, took its high style from biblical Hebrew. The euphuistic, "mosaic" style of medieval Hebrew letters achieved prose statement by joining fragments of biblical verses. Cohen Skalli does not argue that the style of Abravanel's letters differs so much from medieval biblicism that it should be called "humanist." Their distinction lies, rather, in theme, classical allusion, and structure.

Abravanel's letter, from 1472, consoles Yehiel for the forced closure of his loan-bank, by reminding him that the Jews' sufferings in exile are as constant and general, like death in the Portuguese letter. Jewish communal leaders can endure by sustaining the community and hoping for divine reward. Abravanel gives an [End Page 907] example of such leadership by telling how he has recently ransomed hundreds of Jewish captives in the Moroccan town of Arzila. After the narration, he closes by asking Yehiel to assist two Portuguese officials, friends of his, who were delivering his letter on their way to Rome to declare Portugal's allegiance to the new pope. The second Hebrew letter, from 1481, refers to the plague in Lisbon that delayed Abravanel's writing and then offers consolation for the Christian conversion and marriage of Yehiel's daughter, Clemenza. The themes again follow the same order as in the Portuguese letter: grief, rational reflection, and return to leadership of both the Jewish community and the family. The third letter, from October 1482, after again mentioning the plague, consoles Yehiel for the death of his wife, Ricca, and the conversion of Clemenza. It expands the thematic progression of the Portuguese letter by offering three distinct consolations: the plague that kills many puts the leader's personal loss into communal perspective and reminds him that death ends the sufferings of exile. Such sufferings, God's trial of the chosen, assure Yehiel of divine providence. Fortified by understanding his suffering, Yehiel can return to his duty of governing the Jewish community.

Cohen Skalli has judiciously traced the historical events behind the letters and the rhetorical practice common to Portuguese nobles and elite Jews, to make linguistically separated texts into expressions of a shared world. [End Page 908]

Arthur M. Lesley
Baltimore Hebrew University


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