Life in 16th-century Italian high society

Benvenida Abravanel is probably best known for the support she provided to David Hareuveni, the 16th century messianic claimant.

Drawing 311 (photo credit: University of Haifa)
Drawing 311
(photo credit: University of Haifa)
Benvenida Abravanel was both born into and married into the eminent and wealthy Spanish Jewish family, the Abravanels. She was the niece of the philosopher-statesman Isaac and married one of his sons, Samuel, who was her first cousin. After the Spanish expulsion, the family settled in Naples, Italy, where the men in her life both attained positions of leadership.
On the home front, she gave birth to six children and also cared for Samuel’s illegitimate son. In addition, Eleonora, the daughter of a Spanish nobleman, resided in the household; this connection presumably helped the family convince Eleonora’s father, the viceroy of the Spanish rulers of Naples, not to implement the expulsion of the Jews there in 1533, or at least to delay the edict for a decade.
Benvenida is probably best known for the support she provided to David Hareuveni, the 16th century messianic claimant whose travel diary reveals various details about his patroness from Naples. During his stay in Rome, Benvenida sent Hareuveni funds more than once. She also sent him a very impressive banner of silk displaying the Ten Commandments inscribed in gold. She is reported to have given him a Turkish gown, likewise of gold. This wealthy woman did not scrimp when she believed in a cause.
The aforementioned traveler’s diary reveals additional information about Benvenida, albeit hearsay: she fasted daily, was renowned for numerous acts of charity and was active in contributing payment for the ransom of Jewish captives.
(Rumor had it that a thousand captives benefited from her deeds.) In 1541, the duke of Ferrara invited the family to settle there. It is entirely possible that the paths of the two most eminent Sephardi women alive crossed, for Dona Gracia Nasi arrived in Ferrara toward the end of the decade. The families were probably in competition with one another; as pointed out by Howard Adelman, the Abravanels did not support Dona Gracia’s boycott of the port of Ancona in 1555. (See his detailed entry with sources for information about her life in “Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia,” Jewish Women's Archive, 2006).
On the other hand, both women encountered problems concerning acceptance of their husbands’ wills. When Gracia reached Istanbul, her sister contested the will, certain that she deserved a greater portion of the family fortune. In Benvenida’s case, there were numerous sons hoping to inherit their father’s fortune.
While Francisco, Gracia's husband, divided his estate between his brother and his wife, Samuel left everything to his widow's discretion. Both men were certain that their wives would successfully protect the family interests and display prudence and wisdom in managing enormous inheritances. Benvenida’s situation was more complex because there were more children involved. (Gracia had only one daughter.) Samuel died in 1547 in Ferrara. The conditions of his will were interesting: he left certain sums and specific gifts for his children, emphasizing the fact that gifts specified as marriage gifts would be received as long as Benvenida approved of the match. His illegitimate son was provided for as long as he abided by the widow’s wishes. This young man was not pleased with the arrangement and contested his father’s will, claiming that women cannot inherit. As in Gracia’s case, various rabbis became involved in this dispute, and Samuel’s other sons entered the fray.
Benvenida did not remain silent on this matter, but rather found convincing arguments in defense of her husband’s will and began to expand the family’s economic investments. For example, now that Eleonora was the duchess of Tuscany, Benvenida obtained approval for opening five banks with two of her sons.
It seems that not all of the children sought to weaken her position of power, although some chose partners of whom she strongly disapproved; she even had one son imprisoned on this basis! Life in 16th-century Italian Jewish high society for Señora Abravanel clearly presented endless challenges.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.