Don Isaac Abravanel was one of the greatest Jewish statesmen who played an important part in European history. At the same time he was not merely a loyal and strictly religious Jew, but a great scholar, Bible commentator and philosopher. He was the last of the long line of great Jewish leaders and heroes of the Spanish Golden Age.
Isaac was born into a wealthy and learned family in Portugal. His father Judah was state treasurer of Portugal, and a great favorite of Alfonso V, king of Portugal. Isaac received a thorough Jewish education, and took a keen interest in languages and philosophy. Later he succeeded his father in the service of the king.
In his greatness, Isaac never forgot his humble brethren. He used his vast wealth to support the needy. Thus, when Alfonso captured the town of Arzilla in Morocco, and there were two hundred and fifty Jews among the prisoners, Isaac Abravanel appointed twelve representatives to gather funds to redeem them, and he himself was the greatest donor. When they were redeemed, he supported them from his own means for about two years, until they learnt the language and could earn their own livelihood. Abravanel also used his great influence to better the position of his brethren in other lands.
When Alfonso V died and Don Joao II succeeded to the throne of Portugal, Abravanel's fortune changed. In the year 5243, Don Joao II began a policy that aimed at getting rid of the nobility, and particularly the ministers of state that served his father. Abravanel learned just in time that the king beheaded several of the highest ranking officers, and that he was slated -to share a similar fate. He was on the way to answer the king's call, but on learning what awaited him, Abravanel fled to Toledo in Spain, where his family had once lived. Accompanied by his wife and two children, Abravanel arrived in Toledo almost penniless, as the ungrateful. John had confiscated all his wealth.
Abravanel quietly obtained a position with a Jewish banking firm, and was glad to have time to pursue his studies and literary work. He continued his commentaries on the Bible which he had been forced to interrupt because of the pressure of state affairs. He wrote his commentaries on Joshua, Judges and Samuel, but when he began his commentaries on the book of Kings, the king of Spain summoned him to take over the state treasury. Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain knew that they could find no greater financial genius, and in the very same year when the notorious Torquemada became head of the Inquisition in Spain, Abarvanel officially became treasurer to the king and queen (two years before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain).
When that terrible decree of the expulsion of all Jews from Spain except those who would give up their faith, became known, Abravanel tried hard to avert the catastrophe. He begged of the king and queen to reconsider their cruel decree, and he offered a huge sum to the king's treasury. The king and queen turned a deaf ear to all his personal pleas and declined his gifts of money.
On the 9th of Av, 5252 (July 30, 1492), Abravanel and his family were on the march with the rest of their co-religionists He gave up his exalted position and joined his beloved brethren in exile and suffering. The unfortunate refugees finally reached Naples in Italy. When Ferdinand learned that the Jews found a haven in Naples, he requested the king of Naples (also called Ferdinand) that he should not permit the refugees to. remain in his land. The young king of Naples, however, ignored the protest and demands of the cruel rulers of Spain. Moreover, he invited Abravanel to the royal house and appointed him as his adviser. Abravanel served both him and his son Alfonso II who succeeded to the throne in 1494. Unfortunately Naples was captured by King Charles of France in the following year, and King Alfonso II fled to Sicily. Abravanel accompanied his Majesty in exile, and continued to serve him with a fatherly devotion, until the exiled king died. Then Abravanel left for the island of Corfu in the Mediterranean.
Having lost all his wealth to the French conquerors, Abravanel suffered poverty and hardship. He moved to Monopoli, a town in the Kingdom of Naples, and 8 years later finally settled in Venice. Here it was not long before the rulers of Venice invited him to the council of state, and Abravanel became one of the leading statesmen of that Venetian Republic. Here in Venice Abravanel died in the year 5269, at the age of 71, deeply mourned by the Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of Venice. The leading rulers of Venice attended his funeral, and he was laid to rest in Padua.