Two Letters of Don Isaac Abrabanel Before and After the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain
LIKE Hasdai ibn Shaprut at the beginning of the Spanish era of Jewish history, so Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel ( 1437-1508) at its close combined high political office with Jewish scholarship and leadership of the Jewish community. While many Spanish Jews, in order to keep open the way to influential position, submitted to baptism, Isaac Abrabanel, whose family claimed to be of Davidic origin, remained a professing Jew, and in spite of this was elevated to the dignity of a Minister of Finance by the Christian rulers both of Portugal and Spain. At the same time he maintained a deep attachment to the Jewish people, who justly regarded him as their head and protector.
Abrabanel's dual position is well illustrated in the subjoined letter, written in the following circumstances. King Alfonso V of Portugal had captured in Northern Africa 250 Jews, who were condemned to be sold into slavery. From this fate 220 were saved by a ransom of 10,000 gold doubloons raised by the Portuguese Jews under the leadership of Abrabanel. Money, however, was still required for the feeding and clothing of the liberated Jews, and the ransom of thirty more prisoners. It happened that in 1472 the King of Portugal sent to Pope Sixtus an embassy, one member of which was Dr. João Sezira, a friend of Abrabanel and a well-wisher of the Jews. Abrabanel obtained from Sezira a promise to approach the Pope on behalf of the Jews, and also entrusted him with a letter to Yehiel of Pisa, a cultivated Jewish financier and philanthropist. The letter was not merely a request for help. Abrabanel tactfully linked the matter of the prisoners with the misfortune which Jehiel himself had suffered in an anti-Jewish riot in Pisa, and gave the learned friend a brief account of his studies. Thus the letter, accompanied by well-chosen gifts, became a pleasant mixture of private and diplomatic correspondence.