Rabbi Abendana was born in Spain. He was the son of Yosef Abendana, a famous banker. He was sent by his parents to the city of Hamburg, Germany, where he was ordained as a rabbi and then to Leyden, Holland, where he studied medicine. His older brother Rabbi Ya’aqob Abendana also studied for the rabbinate at the famous Rabbinical Academy of the Pinto brothers in Amsterdam. In 1655 Rabbi Ya’aqob was appointed as the rabbi of the city of Rotterdam and, later on he became the Rabbi of the Sephardic community in London. Among other things, he translated Yehuda haLevi’s book Cuzarí into Spanish (see THIS).
Once in London, Rabbi Isaac Abendana taught Hebrew at the University of Cambridge. And although this data is not documented, it is said that Isaac Newton (1642-1726), who besides being a great scientist was a great Hebraist, was one of his disciples. In Cambridge Rabbi Abendana completed a project that he had begun 30 years earlier: the translation of the Mishna to the Latin. At that time the interest in Jewish subjects in the Gentile world was very great. Let’s see why.
The Jews were expelled from England by King Edward in 1290. This expulsion, as in other European countries, meant that it was prohibited by law for any Jew to live in that country. With the arrival of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) to power and the creation of the new republic, the readmission of the Jews began to be debated in the government. Cromwell was in favor, but the opposition was very strong. Even those who were in favor of readmitting the Jews, speculated that the Jews who would arrive in England would be quickly converted to Christianity (which did not happen), something that many Christians considered a signal of the Apocalypse or the Second Advent. Between 1655 and 1656, and after intense debates, it was authorized to readmit the Jews in England. On the condition that they would not worship in public and would not convert Gentiles.
The first Jews to resettle there were Sepharadic Jews from Amsterdam. In 1657 Antonio Fernandez Carvajal and Simon de Cáceres bought a piece of land for a Jewish cemetery. Carvajal finally received some Royal documents for himself and his son, and was the first Jew to be guaranteed certain rights of citizenship after the Expulsion. Solomon Dormido, a nephew of Rabbi Menashe Ben Israel, the chief responsible for the return of the Jews to England, was admitted to the Royal Exchange as a stock-broker duly licensed by the City of London, and he was not required to take the usual oath involving a declaration of faith in Christianity.
The interest for Jewish religion surged after the readmission of the Jews into this country. This curiosity came mainly from intellectual and academic circles. The study of Hebrew language and rabbinic literature became very popular.
In this context, Rabbi Isaac Abendana translated the Mishna into Latin, which was the language frequently used in universities. And Rabbi Abendana also wrote a very important book. This book was the first book on Judaism written in the English language. It is called “Discourses of the ecclesiastical and civil polity of the Jews” and is a work that introduces Judaism to a non Jewish audience.
It seems to me that this book is not only for non-Jews. I believe it contains educational and historical material that represents an extraordinary introduction to Judaism for many Jews as well. In my opinion, it should be re-published, since it is not a superfluous book.
I will present in the following lines the titles of the main sections of this work:
Rabbi Abendana begins his work with a presentation of the Jewish legal system. Explaining what the Oral Law and Sanhedrin are, and how the Jewish courts determined the laws.
He then explains the Mitsva of Teruma and Ma’aser, which includes some aspects of tsedaqa (social assistance).
Thirdly, he speaks of the institution of the Kehuna (the Priests of the people of Israel).
Then, on the Hebrew liturgy, that is, the Tefilla, prayers.
He then describes the Jewish academies, especially the Yeshibot of the time of the Mishna and the Gemara.
In the end he writes about Jewish festivities, fasts, the Hebrew calendar and ends his work with an appendix on the contemporary equivalences of the coins and the measures of biblical time.
Until 5 or 10 years ago it was impossible to get this book outside of specialized libraries. Today, it can be downloaded for free from Google books (see HERE).