Joseph Albo

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Joseph Albo (יוסף אלבו) (c. 1380 – c. 1444) was a Jewish philosopher, a rabbi who lived in Spain during the fifteenth century, known chiefly as the author of the work on the Jewish principles of faith, Sefer ha-Iqqarim (The Book of Principles). Completed in Castile around 1425 (although not published until almost sixty years later), the book was intended to defend Judaism against Christian attacks by laying out the basic principles of the Mosaic law. A student of Hasdai Crescas (c.1340-1410), Albo was adept in mathematics, medicine, Islamic, Christian, and Jewish philosophy, and biblical and rabbinical learning. Albo is known to have participated in the Tortosa Disputation of 1423-14.

To counter the anti-Jewish polemic of the time, Albo sought to forge a Jewish philosophical system emphasizing God, revelation, and requital, and downplaying the Messianic idea which was the main point of conflict between Christians and Jews. Albo’s theology belongs to a tradition which began with Maimonides (1186-1237), but his moral psychology focused on practice and fulfillment of the commandments as the means of salvation, while Maimonidean philosophy held that true belief was the most essential condition for human virtue.


Few details are available about Albo’s life. It is thought that he was born in Christian Spain at Monreal, in the crown of Aragon, around 1380. He studied in Saragossa at the the school of Hasdai Crescas, the well-known author of Or Adonai (Light of the Lord). Albo’s use of medical illustrations indicates that he was skilled in medicine and may have practiced as a physician. Albo was familiar with the writings of Arab Aristotelians, but it is not known whether he was fluent in Arabic.

Historical records report that Albo was a participant in the Disputation at Tortosa, a prolonged religious debate held at Tortosa in 1413-14 between the Jewish convert to Christianity Geronimo de Santa Fe (formerly Joshua Lorki), who represented the pope, and delegates from many Jewish communities in Christian Spain. Astruc mentions Albo as one of the Jewish participants, and says that he was the delegate of the congregation of Monreal, representing the Jewish community of Daroca in Aragon (in the Latin account of this debate no reference is made to this locality). The Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891) believes that Albo could not have been less than thirty years of age when he was sent to take part in the disputation, placing the date of Albo's birth no later than 1380.

After the community at Daroca was decimated in 1415, Albo moved to the town of Soria in Castile. His date of death is given variously as 1444 (most likely) or 1430. He is mentioned as preaching at Soria in 1433.

Sefer ha-Iqqarim (The Book of Principles)

The Ikkarim was composed in two stages. The first part, published as an independent work, developed Albo's essential ideas; when its first issue engendered a deluge of criticism, he felt compelled to add to it. In his preface to the second part Albo protested against his critics, saying, "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."

Albo's opponents maintained, among other things, that he appropriated the thoughts of his teacher Crescas without giving him due credit. Examination of the evidence, however, shows that the similarities are only such as might be reasonably expected in the writings of a teacher and his disciple.

Distinctive Features

Albo expounded three fundamental Jewish principles of faith: belief in the existence of God; belief in revelation; and belief in divine justice, as related to the idea of immortality. His intention was to correct the scheme of Maimonides on certain points where Maimonides 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 can only be correctly understood in reference to the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. Maimonides’ Messianic expectation, which stressed constancy in awaiting its future fulfillment, also had an anti-Christian bearing. This Messianic dogma had become a source of anxiety to the Jews, forced into public debates with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. Among the spokesmen of the Church were some converts from Judaism, who tried to embarrass the Jews by questioning them on this point. 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 pushed into the foreground of the discussions.

Having participated in one of these public disputations, Albo must have become conscious of the embarrassing position into which the Maimonidean doctrine put the defenders of Judaism. Albo’s thought, therefore, eliminated the concept of the Messiah as an integral part of Jewish faith, and replaced it with a doctrine of divine justice.

The title Book of Principles is an indication of Albo’s method. His investigation is based on the recognition that "human happiness is conditioned by knowledge and conduct." But human intellect is insufficient to attain perfect knowledge, and therefore requires divine guidance. Thus it is the duty of every person to know the God-given law. This knowledge 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 is so much divergence, confusion, and shallowness, Albo resolves to erect a structure for the true religion.

”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.”

Fundamental Principles

Albo states that all revealed religions recognize the three fundamental principles of belief in the existence of God; belief in revelation, and belief in divine justice. Would this not entitle the devotees of each revealed religion to claim their faith as the one true religion? No, replies Albo; these three principles may be equally indispensable to each of the so-called revealed religions, but only the religion that understands these basic thoughts correctly is the true one. He holds that the test for this correctness is 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 also acknowledges the inferences which should logically be drawn from them. As a consequence, Judaism is the true revealed religion. With this conclusion, Albo has attained the end for which he undertook his investigation.


Albo's terminology, comparing a religion to a tree, appears to be original. The three fundamental principles he designates Ikkarim, or “roots.” The (eight) derived and necessary truths (which the true religion recognizes and applies correctly) 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 essential to the tree’s survival.

Traditional Jewish customs, of which there are a great number in every religion, are called the anafim, "twigs." He holds them to be unnecessary to the life of religion; they may be removed or may die off, and still the trunk will subsist.

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 perakyim, but his terminology is not consistent throughout the work.

Religious Flexibility

Albo criticizes the opinions of his predecessors, but avoids accusing them of heresy. 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.

Albo’s theories allow so much latitude it would be difficult 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. He rejects most of their doctrine, saying 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.

Fundamental Principles and 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:

  • God's unity;
  • God's incorporeality;
  • God's independence of time;
  • God's perfection: in God there can be neither weakness nor other defect.

From the second root-principle, the belief in revelation, or the communication of divine instruction by God to man, Albo derives three secondary radicals:

  • The Hebrew prophets as the mediums of God's revelation;
  • The unique greatness of Moses as a prophet;
  • 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, belief in divine justice, he derives one secondary radical: belief in bodily resurrection.

According to Albo, therefore, belief in the Messiah is only a "twig," unnecessary to the soundness of the trunk, and thus it is 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, in 1485; it was published with a commentary under the title of Ohel Ya'akob, by Jacob ben Samuel Koppelman ben Bunem, of Brzesc (Kuyavia), Freiburg, 1584, and with a larger commentary by Gedeliah ben Solomon Lipschitz, Venice, 1618.

The passages containing criticisms on the Christian creed, in Book III. chaps. xxv., xxvi., have been expunged by the censor from later editons, and a refutation of them by Gilbert Genebrard, with valuable notes, has been added. 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.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Albo, Josef. Sefer ha-'Ikkarim: Book of principles. (The Schiff library of Jewish classics). The Jewish Publications Soc. of America, 1929.
  • Cohn-Sherbok, Dan. The Vision of Judaism: Wrestling With God (Visions of Reality), first ed. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004.
  • McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, Bary D. Walfish, and Joseph W Goering, eds. With Reverence for the Word: Medieval Scriptural Exegesis in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.
  • Rauschenbach, Sina. Josef Albo Um 1380-1444: Judische Philosophie Und Christliche Kontroverstheologie in Der Fruhen Neuzeit (Studies in European Judaism, 3). Brill Academic Publishers, 2002.
  • This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

All links retrieved August 10, 2022.

General Philosophy Sources


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