History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Albo and His 'Ikkarim.'

Something has already been said of Joseph Albo in the last chapter in connection with his participance in the Tortosa disputation. But his philosophy deserves a separate chapter; for, next to his master Crescas, he was the most important literary personage of the first half of the fifteenth century; and of the two he is far more widely read.

Born about 1380 in Aragon, he was a popularizer of the philosophy of others rather than an original investigator. Such men must not be underrated; then, too, his was the last word on Jewish philosophy in Spain. He was a famous preacher, and had a fascinating style.

Judaism's Fundamentals.

His chief work is called Ikkarim, meaning Roots or Fundamentals. He condensed Jewish belief into three indispensable dogmas—God, Revelation and Retribution. The principles of all great religions may be expressed under these three heads. But he further elaborates from them additional subordinate principles or "branches," carrying out his metaphor:

  • 1st, God—Divine Unity; Incorporeality; Eternity; Perfection; Crcatio ex nihilo.
  • 2nd, Revelation—Supremacy of the Prophet Moses; Binding force of Mosaic Law (until another shall be proclaimed as publicly and before as many witnesses).
  • 3rd, Retribution—Resurrection; Advent of the Messiah.

Of the Messiah's coming, he remarks: "It is no essential principle of the divine law, which may be accepted without this article of faith." Perhaps the bitter controversies around this belief in public disputations may have suggested this attitude. If so, then Albo's creed as well as Maimonides' reflects its times.

Albo further showed the influence of Christian environment in making the salvation of the soul the aim of life. This carried with it the necessity of making faith religion's first requisite. But the Synagogue as distinct from the Church makes obedience to law religion's prime obligation. More in harmony with the genius of Judaism is this admirable teaching of Albo: "Perfection may be attained by the fulfilment of a single religious precept with whole-hearted sincerity."

The Ikkarim became an important contribution to Jewish theology. Its production was doubtless prompted by the attacks of the Church and to that extent it belongs to the polemic literature of the day. But it was a work that continued to shape Jewish thought for ages to come.

It is couched in a popular style and in a fair-minded spirit of logical deduction, and it is reinforced by abundant quotation from Scripture. It is relieved by frequent illustrations that reveal the variety and at the same time the limits of his general knowledge. Here are a few striking passages:

Religious Fear.—Fear ceases to be meritorious if not accompanied by inward joy and gladness. [The word "fear" has two distinct meanings.]

Religious Love.—Love of the abstract good is the most pure and sublime that the human heart can entertain, as it is not influenced by enjoyment to be derived, but only by the knowledge that it is good. Perfect love requires that the lover should renounce his own individual advantage and welfare, in order to promote the prosperity of the object beloved; thus we find Jonathan.

Freewill.—That alone is the truly free act and deed of man, which is not done in a hurry, but is the result of mature reflection, and of the consciousness that the alternative is in his power, that no external influence impels or impedes his choice or controls his determination.

Some actions are predestined, others voluntary, and some influenced by both principles. He says further, if will were not free man could not be responsible.

Divine Omniscience.—It is impossible that anything whatever should occur, throughout the universe, without its being perfectly known to the Deity in its minutest details, bearings and consequences; as the contrary would infer a want of knowledge or ignorance in the Deity, a defect entirely at variance with the Divine Essence, which is free from all imperfection.

God's grace can grant and reconcile gifts which are contrary in their nature.

Job.—The whole book of Job is written for the purpose of solving the two difficult questions: Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the righteous sufifer?

Providence.—The existence of the habitable earth is a proof that the world was created according to the will and design of Providence.

Sometimes the superintendence of Providence is made manifest in the afflictions which befall an individual. We cannot cast any imputation on Divine Providence for not excluding the wicked from the benefits of that general decree of prosperity which has been pronounced in favor of the body politic of which he is a member.

The dispensations of Providence, whether for good or for evil, are regulated by the capacity of the recipient from his being in a certain frame of mind, prepared and adapted for that dispensation.

Divine Justice.—It is possible that we may be mistaken in our estimate, and that while we consider a man to be wicked the Searcher of all hearts knows that he is virtuous. And that we may likewise be mistaken in our ideas of happiness, which attend wealth and power.

Knowledge versus Experience.—It is inherent in human nature that the evidence of our sense should produce a stronger effect on us than what results from previous knowledge; for example, Moses' seeing the golden calf, of which he had been previously informed.

Blessing.—The person blessing put his hand on the head of him whom he blessed; so that love became, as it were, a conductor to draw down the Divine favor, and lead it on to him whom he blessed.

Forgiveness.—Sin is no more completely beyond the reach of pardon than man's power of sinning exceeds the divine power of forgiveness.

Prayer.—In order that a prayer shall in any wise be worthy of Him to whom it is addressed, or be at all acceptable to Him, three things are indispensably necessary. The first is that the language be concise;, clear, emphatic and supplicatory. The second is that it must be expressive of the real sentiments of him who prays. And, lastly, that the prayer be pronounced with humility and devotion.

Sometimes the granting of his prayers is in mercy withheld from man, inasmuch as what he prays for would, if granted, be productive of evil to him. Therefore, the choicest prayer is that offered by the sage when he said: "Lord of the universe, let Thy will be done on high, grant content and a tranquil mind to those who fear Thee below on earth, and do that which seemeth good to Thee."

Repentance.—If our penitence springs from a feeling of love to God, independent of any selfish admixture of hope or fear, or expected reward, or dreaded punishment, God's mercy and love shall be as freely exercised towards us as our penitence* was freely and purely excited towards Him.

Like all the philosophers of his day, he treats the spheres as conscious beings, but wholly controlled by divinity. He has a very convincing argument against astrology—by instancing the founding of a ship with all on board though born under different stars and with different fates.

Faith.—Faith is the perfect impression on the soul of a something past or to come, and which no other impression has the power to gainsay or contradict.

Prophecy.—Prophecy is the conjunction of the Divine Spirit with human reason.

God and Man.—Although on account of the Dispenser of revelation there is an absolute necessity that what emanates from God must be uniform and the same to the whole human species, yet, on account of the receivers there is no absolute necessity, but that there may be a variation.

Divine Attributes.—The Deity is not only independent of space, but is the space of the universe. Accordingly our Rabbis of blessed memory use the word mokom, "place," to designate the Deity.

When he is called kadmun, "The primary or eldest of all beings," this term is only used because language does not offer a more appropriate word.

All inquirers and philosophers are unanimous in the opinion that we cannot assign to the Deity any qualities either essential or accidental, except by means of the effects produced by Him.

When it is said, "The Lord liveth"—if in reference to His works, the meaning is, all life emanates from Him, therefore He must be alive; as without Him there could be no life.

It is singular that that word "truth" is composed of the first, the last, and the central letter of the Hebrew alphabet; and therefore symbolic of that Being who is past, present, and to come, and whose seal it is emphatically said to be.


The Hebrew Review, London, 1835, Simpkin & Marshall, contains a translation of the Ikkarim, from which the foregoing quotations have been selected.

Theme for Discussion:—Compare Albo's principles of the Jewish Creed with those of Maimonides.