Joseph Albo

Joseph Albo (Hebrew: יוסף אלבו; ca. 1380–1444) was a Jewish philosopher and rabbi who lived in Spain during the fifteenth century, known chiefly as the author of Sefer ha-Ikkarim ("Book of Principles"), the classic work on the fundamentals of Judaism.

Early life

Albo's birthplace is generally assumed to be Monreal del Campo, a town in Aragon. This is based on Astruc ha-Levi's report of the religious debate held at Tortosa in 1413-14, which mentions Albo as one of the Jewish participants and notes he was the delegate of the congregation of Monreal. However, the Latin account of this debate makes no reference to this locality. Heinrich Graetz believes that Albo could not have been less than thirty years of age when he was sent to take part in the disputation, and he accordingly places the date of Albo's birth not later than 1380. His date of death is given variously as 1444 (most likely) or 1430. He is mentioned, however, as preaching at Soria in 1433.

The use Albo makes of medical illustrations creates the presumption that he was adept in medical science, which suggests that he may have practiced medicine. He was versed to some degree in the writings of Arab Aristotelians. His teacher was Hasdai Crescas, author of Or Adonai.


The Ikkarim was not composed in its entirety at once. The first part was published as an independent work. It develops the gist of Albo's thought; and it was only when its publication brought down upon him a deluge of criticism that he felt compelled to add to it.

In his preface to the second part Albo delivers a sermon on the subject of his critics: "He that would criticize a book should, above all, know the method employed by its author, and should judge all the passages on a certain subject as a whole." He castigates what he saw as the careless procedure of those passed judgment on an author without remembering this fundamental requirement of sound criticism.

Albo's opponents did not handle him delicately. He was accused, among other things, of plagiarism. It was maintained that he appropriated the thoughts of his teacher Crescas without giving him due credit. Examination of the evidence, however, does not substantiate the indictment. Crescas having been Albo's teacher, the similarities are only such as might be reasonably expected in the writings of both preceptor and disciple.

Distinctive features

In contradistinction to Maimonides' thirteen and Crescas' six, Albo limited the fundamental Jewish principles of faith to three:

  1. belief in the existence of God
  2. belief in revelation
  3. belief in divine justice, as related to the idea of immortality.

In the formulation of other articles of faith, the controversies to which the compilers had been exposed influenced both the selection of the specific principles to be accentuated, and the way that they were presented. Similarly in the case of Joseph Albo, his selection was made with a view to correct the scheme of Maimonides in those points where it seemed to support the contentions of the Christian dogmatists and controversialists.

Maimonides himself had been influenced by a desire to obviate certain Christian and Muslim claims. His emphasis upon the absolute incorporeality of God only finds its true light when the Christian doctrine of the incarnation is borne in mind. His Messianic expectation, with the stress upon the constancy with which its future fulfillment is to be looked for, had also an anti-Christian bearing. But this very point, the Messianic dogma, had in turn soon become a source of anxiety to the Jews, forced to meet in public disputations the champions of the Church. Among the spokesmen of the Church were some converts from Judaism. These were not slow to urge this Messianic dogma of Maimonides as far as they might, to embarrass the defenders of Judaism. Before the time of Maimonides the question of the corporeality of the Messiah appears not to have been among the problems discussed in the polemics between the Church and the Jewish community. But half a century after him, when his Messianic doctrine had been accepted as one of the essential articles of the faith, it was this point that was pushed into the foreground of the discussions.

Having participated in one of these public disputations, Albo must have become conscious of the embarrassment which the Maimonidean position could not but occasion to the defenders of Judaism. In his scheme, therefore, the Messiah is eliminated as an integral part of Jewish faith. In its stead he lays stress upon the doctrine of divine justice.

The title of his book indicates his method at the outset. Basic to his investigation is the recognition that "human happiness is conditioned by knowledge and conduct." But "human intellect can not attain unto perfect knowledge and ethical conduct, since its power is limited and soon exhausted in the contemplation of the things the truth of which it would find; therefore, of necessity, there must be something above human intellect through which knowledge and conduct can attain to a degree of excellence that admits of no doubt."

The insufficiency of human intellect postulates the necessity of divine guidance; and thus it is the duty of every person to know the God-given law. But to know it is possible only if one has established the true principles, without which there can be no divine law. Seeing that on this vital theme there are so much divergence, confusion, and shallowness, Albo resolves to erect a structure for the true religion.

Fundamental principles

Albo states that all revealed religions recognize three fundamental principles. But would the identity of these three principles in revealed religions not entitle the devotees of each to claim their own as the one true religion? No, replies Albo: these three principles may be alike indispensable to the so-called revealed religions, but only that religion is the true one that understands these basic thoughts correctly. The test for this correctness of understanding he holds to be the further recognition of certain other truths and inferences that must follow logically from the acknowledgment of the three fundamentals. Unless a revealed religion accepts all of these inferences, it is not to be recognized as the one true religion.

Albo states that Judaism is not only based upon the three fundamental principles, but it acknowledges also the inferences which logically should be drawn therefrom. As a consequence, Judaism is the true revealed religion. Having drawn this conclusion, Albo has attained the end for which he undertook his investigation.

His terminology

Albo's terminology is probably original with him. The three fundamentals he designates Ikkarim, or roots. The (eight) derived and necessary truths (upon the recognition and correct application of which depends whether the revealed religion prove itself to be the true religion) he calls shorashim, or secondary roots. Both of these, the Ikkarim and the shorashim are indispensable to the subsistence of the trunk of the tree. The branches, however, are not in this category.

Since the three Ikkarim are the same in all religions, Albo calls them also the Ikkarim kolelim (the universal principles or roots). The eight shorashim he styles sometimes Ikkarim peraṭyim, but his terminology is not consistent throughout the work.

Religious flexibility

Albo finds opportunity to criticize the opinions of his predecessors, yet he takes pains to avoid heresy hunting. Accordingly, he endeavors to establish the boundary-lines between which Jewish skepticism may be exercised without risk of forfeiture of orthodoxy. His canon for distinguishing heterodoxy from orthodoxy is the recognition of the truth of the Torah.

A remarkable latitude of interpretation is allowed; so much so, that it would indeed be difficult under Albo's theories to impugn the orthodoxy of even the most theologically liberal Jews. Albo rejects the assumption that creation ex nihilo is an essential implication of the belief in God. Albo freely criticizes Maimonides' thirteen principles of belief and Crescas' six principles. Albo states that neither Maimonides nor Crescas keeps in view his own fundamental criterion; namely, the absolute indispensability of a principle without which the trunk of the tree could not subsist; and on this score he rejects most of their creed.

Fundamental principles and their derived truths

According to Albo, the first of his fundamental root-principles, the belief in the existence of God, embraces the following shorashim, or secondary radicals:

  1. God's unity
  2. God's incorporeality
  3. God's independence of time
  4. God's perfection: in God there can be neither weakness nor other defect.

The second root-principle—the belief in revelation, or the communication of divine instruction by God to man—leads him to derive the following three secondary radicals:

  1. The Hebrew prophets are the media of God's revelation
  2. The belief in the unique greatness of Moses as a prophet
  3. The binding force of the Mosaic law until another shall have been divulged and proclaimed in as public a manner (before six hundred thousand men). No later prophet has, consequently, the right to abrogate the Mosaic dispensation.

From the third root principle, the belief in divine justice, he derives one secondary radical: the belief in bodily resurrection.

According to Albo, therefore, the belief in the Messiah is only a "twig". It is not necessary to the soundness of the trunk. It is, hence, not an integral part of Judaism. Nor is it true that every law is binding. Though every ordinance has the power of conferring happiness in its observance, it is not true that every law must be observed, or that through the neglect of a part of the law, a Jew would violate the divine covenant or be damned.

Publication of the Ikkarim

The first edition of the Ikkarim appeared at Soncino, 1485; it was published with a commentary under the title of "Ohel Ya'aḲob," by Jacob ben Samuel Koppelman ben Bunem, of Brzesc (Kuyavia), Freiburg, 1584, and with a larger commentary by Gedeliah ben Solomon Lipschitz, Venice, 1618.

From the later editions the passages containing criticisms on the Christian creed, in Book III. chaps. xxv., xxvi., have been expunged by the censor, while Gilbert Genebrard wrote a refutation of the same with valuable notes. This refutation was published with his own remarks by the baptized Jew Claudius Mai, Paris, 1566.

The Ikkarim was translated into German by Dr. W. Schlesinger, rabbi of Sulzbach, and his brother, L. Schlesinger, wrote an introduction to the same, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1844.



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