The Messianism of Isaac Abarbanel, ‘Father of the [Jewish] Messianic Movements of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’

  • E. Lawee
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales D’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 173)


One can hardly gainsay the accuracy of the recent observation that “though much has been written on [Isaac] Abravanel’s messianic posture, there is no systematic attempt to reconcile its various aspects into a consistent theory.”1 Yet beneath the question of the contours, character, and consistency of Abarbanel’s messianic stance lie what would seem more basic queries — just how deep, abiding, and central to his religious outlook and scholarly occupations were the millennial expectations which Abarbanel expressed in various works written after the 1492 expulsion of Spanish Jewry? What motivated his apparently thoroughgoing investment in Judaism’s “messianic idea” during this period? These are questions which students of Abarbanel and early modern Jewish messianism have by no means overlooked. What they have offered by way of answers amounts to a theme and variations. The theme is that Abarbanel’s preoccupation with the imminence of “the end” was definitive in shaping his religious outlook and scholarly activities throughout his postexpulsion period (i.e., that period during which he composed the overwhelming majority of his writings) and that his messianic consciousness and the vast literary corpus which it spawned mark a direct response to the expulsion of 1492.


Seventeenth Century Jewish People Jewish History Messianic Advent Messianic Calculation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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    Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, “The Ultimate End of Human Life in Postexpulsion Philosophic Literature,” in Crisis and Creativity in the Sephardic World 1391 1648, ed. Benjamin R. Gampel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 354–55 n. 10 — though it remains unclear why the concluding chapter of the most definitive work on Abarbanel written to date by Benzion Netanyahu (on which see below) is not just such a systematic attempt, if in some ways a flawed one. See now also the systematic exposition and analysis of the apocalyptic element in Abarbanel’s messianic thought in Dov Schwartz, Ha-reayon ha-meshihi be-hagut ha-yehudit bi-yemei ha-benayim (Ramat-Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 1997), 230–42.Google Scholar
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    One might wonder whether the usual scholarly assumption of a Hispano-Jewish refugee audience is not evidently questionable from another angle. It seems rather unlikely that non-Iberian Jews living in Italy (and, indeed, beyond) should have been wholly indifferent to the messianic visions and calculations of so prominent a figure as Abarbanel. This observation having been made, one wonders further whether such non-Iberians perhaps imbued Abarbanel’s teachings and predictions with less authority than Abarbanel’s Spanish coreligionists. The name of at least one native Italian scholar, David son of Judah Messer Leon, comes to mind as one who presumably viewed Abarbanel’s pretense to knowledge in matters messianic as just another example of his misguided claims to the mantle of learning generally, not to mention his generally insufferable overweening pride. For the disdain for Abarbanel felt by David, who experienced profound misgivings upon the ascension of Iberian Jews generally in Italy after 1492, see the texts published in Israelitische Letterbode 12 (1886–87), 88, wherein, among other things, Abarbanel’s arrogance in flaunting his alleged Davidic pedigree and pretensions to Maimonidean learning are derisively dismissed.Google Scholar
  112. 112.
    For the image drawn from the book of Leviticus of a house afflicted by eruptive plague to express the loss of faith among his audience, with Abarbanel’s own literary efforts being depicted as purificatory rites, see Yeshu’ot meshiho, 4r.Google Scholar
  113. 113.
    See in general Jeremy Cohen, The Friars and the Jews: The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982); Robert Chazan, Daggers of Faith: Thirteenth-century Christian Missionizing and Jewish Response (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).Google Scholar
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    Daniel J. Lasker, “Jewish-Christian Polemics in Light of the Exile from Spain,” Judaism 41 (1992), 151–53.Google Scholar
  116. 116.
    For Abarbanel’s argument, following Crescas, that the second Temple period was not a time of complete redemption but merely one of divine “remembering,” see Yeshu’ot meshiho, 38v; cp. Crescas’ ‘Or ’adonai 3:8:2 (ed. Shlomo Fischer [Jerusalem: Sifrei Ramot, 1990], 366–70). For Abarbanel’s heated rejection of Albo’s application of various scriptural prophecies to the Second Temple period see Yeshu’ot meshiho,27r-28v.Google Scholar
  117. 117.
    See Austin, “Explanatory Pluralism,” 22–23, for the observation that an adequate answer to a why-question will depend on “what the questioner takes as a given and what the alternatives in the questioner’s intended contrast class are”Google Scholar
  118. 118.
    Beyond Abarbanel’s well-known strenuous opposition to the “radical esoteric” reading of Maimonides proffered by the likes of Joseph ibn Kaspi, Moses Narboni, and Profet Duran (for a recent study which takes in this theme see my “Isaac Abarbanel’s `Stance Towards Tradition’: the case of Ateret Zegenim, 165–98), note his rejection in the introduction to his commentary on the Former Prophets of the elliptical writing style at times practiced by Abraham ibn Ezra and Moses b. Nahman (Perush ‘al nevi’im rishonim [Jerusalem: Torah VaDa’at, 1955], 13).Google Scholar
  119. 119.
    Cp. the phenomenologically parallel observation made with respect to Maimonides’ multiply problematic transmission of a family tradition regarding the time of the messianic advent as in Joel L. Kraemer, “On Maimonides’ Messianic Posture,” in Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature II (above n. 93), 120.Google Scholar
  120. 120.
    Tishby, Meshihiyyut, as in Saperstein, ed., Essential Papers, 272.Google Scholar
  121. 121.
    Tishby’s coinage as in Essential Papers, 259.Google Scholar
  122. 122.
    For this distinction in writings of the period see Shaul Regev, “Gerush u-ge’ulah be-`enei hogim megurashim,” in Tarbut yahadut sefarad: refer qongres ha-ben-le’umi ha-rishon, ed. Aviva Doron (Tel Aviv: Ha-Mikhlalah, 1994), 206.Google Scholar
  123. 123.
    Perush âl nevi’im aharonim, 207. This well-known passage is not adduced by Regev in his article referred to in the previous note. For important (if somewhat overwrought) commentary on the tone and biblical allusions found in the larger passage of which this remark forms a part, see Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, The Lisbon Massacre of 1506 and the Royal Image in the Shebet Yehudah, Hebrew Union College Annual Supplements 1 (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1976), 57–58.Google Scholar
  124. 124.
    Perush al nevi’im rishonim, 422.Google Scholar
  125. 125.
    For the retrospective implicit seventeenth-century critique of Simone Luzzatto, see the convincing reconstruction in Bernard Septimus, “Biblical Religion and Political Rationality in Simone Luzzatto, Maimonides and Spinoza,” in Jewish Thought in the Seventeenth Century, ed. Isadore Twersky and Bernard Septimus, Harvard Judaic Monographs VI (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987), 432 n. 141.Google Scholar
  126. 126.
    Ma’ayenei hayeshu’ah, 283–84.Google Scholar
  127. 127.
    Sanhedrin 97b: “Blasted be the bones of those who calculate the End, for they [the people who heard these calculations] used to say: `since [the calculated time of] the end has arrived but he [the Messiah] has not come, he will never come’ ’ Despite this dictum, rabbinic literature did offer a series of such calculations. For discussion and secondary literature see David Berger, ”Three Typological Themes in Early Jewish Messianism: Messiah Son of Joseph, Rabbinic Calculations, and the Figure of Armilus,“ AJS Review 10 (1985), 149–55.Google Scholar
  128. 128.
    Ma’ayenei ha-yeshu`ah, 283–84. For the generally positive evaluation of astrology among scholars of “the generation of the expulsion” see the literature cited in Yacobson, Bi-Netivei, 353 n. 297. For the larger Italian Renaissance context relevant to those refugee scholars who settled in Italy and were aware of Renaissance ideas, Abarbanel foremost among them, see D.C. Allen, The Star-Crossed Renaissance: The Quarrel about Astrology and Its Influence in England (Durham: Duke University Press, 1941), 3–46.Google Scholar
  129. 129.
    Netanyahu, Abravanel, 220.Google Scholar
  130. 130.
  131. 131.
    For quick orientation in the printing history of Abarbanel’s writings see Ephraim Shemueli, Don Yishaq ‘Abarbanel ve-gerush sefarad (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1963), 270–71.Google Scholar
  132. 132.
    Ibid., 270.Google Scholar
  133. 133.
    David W. Amram, The Makers of Hebrew Books in Italy (1909; reprinted London: Holland Press, 1963), 279.Google Scholar
  134. 134.
    Manuel, Broken Staff, 155.Google Scholar
  135. 135.
    Shemueli, Don Yishaq Abarbanel, 270. As one of these occurred in Amsterdam in 1647, it emerges that back-to-back printings of two of the three messianic works took place in Amsterdam in the 1640s. In light of the scarcity of printings overall this convergence almost surely tells a story. For regular invocations of Abarbanel’s authority in messianic and other works written in Amsterdam around this time by Menasseh ben Israel see Gaster, “Abravanel’s Literary Work,” 70.Google Scholar
  136. 136.
    Manuel, Broken Staff, 155. Google Scholar
  137. 137.
    For an impressive list of Christian readers see ibid. In addition to Christian savants stimulated, almost invariably negatively, by Abarbanel’s eschatology, one notes its influence on the messianic hopes of Portuguese New Christians as described in José Ferro Tavares, “O Messianismo Judaico em Portugal (la Metade do Seculo XVI),” Luso-Brazilian Review 28 (1991), 141–51.Google Scholar
  138. 138.
    Shemueli, Don Yishaq ‘Abarbanel, 270.Google Scholar
  139. 139.
    Paris MS héb 749 (= film no. 12055 of the Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem).Google Scholar
  140. 140.
    Shemueli, Don Yishaq Abarbanel, 270. Some passages from these works did indeed have a long and at times controversial afterlife, for example Abarbanel’s account of the “suffering servant” songs in Isaiah 52–53, though here it was the christological use to which these verses were put that invited the intensity of interest in Abarbanel’s handling thereof. For the “slashing attack” on Abarbanel’s treatment by Constantijn L’Empereur see Manuel, Broken Staff, 155. For L’Empereur’s awareness of the Isaiah commentary generally see Peter T. Van Rooden, Theology, Biblical Scholarship and Rabbinical Studies in the Seventeenth Century Constantijn L’Empereur (1591–1648) Professor of Hebrew and Theology at Leiden (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989), 174. In the Jewish world ongoing interest in Abarbanel’s interpretation of these chapters is attested by the production of a Hebrew abridgement of it and an abridgement of the abridgement. See S.R. Driver and Ad. Neubauer, The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah According to Jewish Interpreters, 2 vols., reprint with prolegomenon by Raphael Loewe (New York: Ktav, 1969), l:xii-xiii, 2:xi-xii.Google Scholar
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    See Tishby, Meshihiyyut, 134–38, where the figure with whom ibn Shraga takes issue is shown to be Abarbanel. Ibn Shraga wrote his work in 1499.Google Scholar
  142. 142.
  143. 143.
    Ruderman, “Hope Against Hope,” 303, 307. Other Jewish writers including the astrologer Abraham Zacuto set forth 1504 as their entrant for the time of the onset of the messianic era; see Malachi Beit-Arié and Moshe Idel, “Ma’amar `al ha-kes ve-ha-’istagninut me-’et r[abbi] ‘Avraham Zakut,” Kiryat sefer 54 (1979), 182.Google Scholar
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    As formulated in the now classic study by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956), 23.Google Scholar
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    See Ira Robinson, “K[etav] y[ad] shel qissur `perush nevu’ot ha-yeled’ le-rabbi ‘Avraham ben ’Eliezer ha-levi,” Alei sefer 8 (1980), 151–52. Cp. Mathew N. Schmalz, “When Festinger Fails: Prophecy and the Watch Tower,” Religion 24 (1994), 293–308.Google Scholar
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    This is the conclusion of Ira Robinson in his unpublished study entitled “Abarbanel and Halevi: Two Strands of Jewish Messianic Thought in the Aftermath of the Spanish Expulsion” (13). I wish to express my genuine gratitude to Professor Robinson for putting at my disposal the conclusions of his paper. Note that unlike Abarbanel’s Paduan neighbor Joseph ibn Shraga, Abraham was far removed from Abarbanel geographically. Robinson (“Two Strands,” 12) nonetheless rejects as “highly unlikely,” for a variety of seemingly sound reasons, the possibility of Abraham’s simply not knowing Abarbanel’s messianic ideas and dates.Google Scholar
  147. 147.
    Yacobson, Bi-Netivei, 182.Google Scholar
  148. 148.
    See respectively Yacobson, Bi-Netivei, 182, 201 and 408 nn. 262–263; 206 and 410 nn. 292, 295; 209 and 411 n. 311. For other examples of apparent dependence on Abarbanel see ibid., 166 and 388 n. 47 (on the relationship of redemption to repentance) and 193 and 404 n. 219 (on exegesis of “the wilderness of the nations” passage in Ezekiel).Google Scholar
  149. 149.
    Ibid., 398 n. 156.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 8,49–50.Google Scholar
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    See most recently Abraham Gross, “The Expulsion and the Search for the Ten Tribes,” Judaism 41 (1992), 130–47.Google Scholar
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    Idel, “Introduction,” 25; Tishby, Meshihiyyut, as in Saperstein, ed., Essential Papers, 261–62.Google Scholar
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    Megillat ha-megalleh, ed. Adolph Poznanski and Julius Guttmann (Berlin: Mekizei Nirdamim, 1924), 112.Google Scholar
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    As Guttmann notes in the introduction to the just cited edition of bar Hiyya’s work (27), Abarbanel does not refer to bar Hiyya by name when introducing his astrological calculations but his reliance on his predecessor is clear. Whether Dato knew the extent of Abarbanel’s reliance on bar Hiyya remains an open question. There is also the possibility that Dato was familiar with bar Hiyya’s ideas through conduits other than Abarbanel given their widespread popularity. See above.Google Scholar
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    On this point see Ruderman, “Hope Against Hope”Google Scholar
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    In this vein, see the well taken reservation regarding Netanyahu’s assumption of a link between Abarbanel and Savonarola in Sharot, “Jewish Millennial-Messianic Movements,” 85 n. 36 (a slightly elongated version of idem.,Messianism, Mysticism, and Magic: A Sociological Analysis of Jewish Religious Movements [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982], 262 n. 25).Google Scholar
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    This, despite the frequent associations drawn between the two; see below.Google Scholar
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    Note that Ottoman archival documents discovered since Netanyahu first wrote his book (though published prior to its third edition) ascribe Tiberias’ rebuilding more to Don Joseph’s mother-in-law, Dona Gracia, than Don Joseph himself. See Uriel Heyd, “Te`udot turkiyyot `al binyanah shel teveryah be-me’ah ha-16,” Sefunot 10 (1966), 193–210.Google Scholar
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    E.g., Cecil Roth, The Duke of Naxos of the House of Nasi (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1948), 106: “he was in the direct line of ancestry of later Zionism.” The view of Don Joseph as “Zionist avant la lettre” remains current; see Joseph Adler, Restoring the Jews to Their Homeland: Nineteen Centuries in the Quest for Zion (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997), 61.Google Scholar
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    For recent discussion see Natan Shor, “Ha-nisayon le-haqamat `medinah yehudit’ bi-teveryah `al-yedei donah Grasiyah Mendes ve-Don Yosef nasi ve-hakhshalato bi-yedei ha-fransisganim,” ’Arid153–54 (1987), 44–50.Google Scholar
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    Netanyahu, Abravanel, 256. For earlier rejection of Netanyahu’s critique on similar grounds, see Gross, “Search for the Ten Tribes,” 147, n. 30.Google Scholar
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    See the sources cited by Tishby as in Saperstein, ed., Essential Papers, 281–83 nn. 29–34.Google Scholar
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    The formulation of Bernard McGinn in Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), 149–52.Google Scholar
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    This surmise was suggested to me as a result of concatenating various observations in Gross, Le messianisme juif, 27, 57.Google Scholar
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    Schwartz, Ha-reâyon, 232, has recently argued that Abarbanel resolved the great medieval intrareligious Jewish debate over apocalyptic versus naturalistic messianism in favor of the former. If this conclusion holds, one would want to explore anew the possibility that this resolution determined, immediately or eventually, the constraints in which later Jewish messianic activity occurred.Google Scholar
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    For a recent far-reaching survey along these lines not restricted to the Middle Ages, see David Biale, Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History (New York: Schocken, 1986) (for the medieval period see 58–86).Google Scholar
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    E.g., Amos Funkenstein, Teva’ historiyah u-meshihiyyut ‘esel ha-rambam (Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defense, 1983). Elsewhere Funkenstein speaks of the “myth” of medieval Jewish political (as opposed to messianic) passivity; Tadmit ve-toda’ah historit he-yahadut u-ve-sevivatah ha-tarbutit (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1991), 234–35.Google Scholar
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    See, e.g., Abarbanel’s account of the conquest of the Land of Israel where an exegetical effort is made to preserve a balance between a requirement for some human initiative and preservation of God’s role as the ultimate saving power. The Israelites are told, “Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, to you have I given it” (Josh. 1:3) lest, as Abarbanel understands, they confuse the previous enjoinder to “arise, go over this Jordan, you, and all this people unto the land which I do give to them” to mean that no initiative is required of them at all. Then, however, to correct for a possible misinterpretation in the opposite direction they are told “there shall not any man be able to stand before thee…” (Josh. 1:5). Having been told that “every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon to you have I given it,” they might have then believed that “the matter, since it was made dependent on the exercise of the treading of their sole, was consequent upon their courage and not God’s providence.” Perush `al nevi’im rishonim, 15–16. Cp. Abarbanel’s effort to explain the absence of any reference to God’s miraculous capability in Caleb’s enjoinder to the people following the scouts’ reconnaissance of the land. Commentary on the Torah, 3 vols. (Jerusalem: Sefarim Benei Arabel, 1964), 3:67. A similar effort to preserve a place for the unique divine providence that operates in Israel’s affairs is evident in Abarbanel’s discussion of kingship. The upshot is that even granting (as Abarbanel does not) monarchy’s necessity for other nations, it would not follow that Jews should have a king since the benefits which this form of government bestows are achieved in Israel by God who “vouchsafes His particular providence to His elected nation” (the formulation in Leo Strauss, “On Abravanel’s Philosophical Tendency and Political Teaching,” in Trend and Loewe, eds. (n. 17 above), 117–18). Connections between Abarbanel’s quietistic political-messianic doctrines and other aspects of his theology are worth pursuing; for an intriguing suggestion of one such (messianic passivity and Abarbanel’s “pessimism with respect to civilization”) see Gross, Le messianisme juif, 29–30.Google Scholar
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    P. 46r; cf. Schorsch, “History of the Political Judgment,” I 1 (where, however, Abarbanel is made to sound more explicit on this score than his formulation warrants).Google Scholar
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    For Maimonides see Amos Funkenstein, “Maimonides: Political Theory and Realistic Messianism,” Miscellanea Mediaevalia 11 (1977), 97 (and for Greco-Arabic context Kraemer, “Maimonides’ Messianic Posture,” 141). For Abarbanel’s kinship with Maimonides here in opposition to more optimistic late medieval visions of the onset of the messianic age see my “ `Israel has No Messiah,’’ ” 275–76. For the more general combination of activity and passivity on the part of “world Jewry” as envisioned by Abarbanel (with the active role ascribed mainly to the ten tribes) see the summary in Robinson, “Abraham b. Eliezer Halevi,” 31–34.Google Scholar
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    For Netanyahu and Weiler as exemplifications of these two critical stances respectively see Attias, “Between Ethnic Memory and National Memory,” 146–48.Google Scholar
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    This final suggestion, which is no more than speculation, is prompted by the fact that Netanyahu blames messianic passivity in his book on Abarbanel mostly by implication whereas his explicit critique falls incessantly on Abarbanel’s lack of realism (above). This suggests the prospect that “standard” Zionist metanarratives acclaim premodern messianism because they work with the polarity “activism-passivity” and find messianism an example of the former whereas Revisionist historians might, as they cast their gaze back, be more inclined to evaluate premodern Jewish history in terms of “realism” or lack thereof, blaming messianism as the prime example of this lack. Elsewhere, Netanyahu does invoke the stigma of a pre-Zionist “ideology which glorified… passivity”; see his lecture cited above in n. 44. Netanyahu’s sense of the inadequacies of medieval Jewish political strategy may have been unduly magnified by his historiographic focus on late medieval Spain where, even seen as a tactical “policy of quietism” (above), this strategy seemed at its most inadequate.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • E. Lawee
    • 1
  1. 1.York UniversityUSA

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