Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Abrahams (1855–1938)

by J. S. Levi

This article was published:

Joseph Abrahams (1855-1938), senior rabbi, was born on 1 April 1855 at St Mary Axe, City of London, son of Rev. Barnett Abrahams (1831-1863) and his wife Jane, née Brandon. His father was minister of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation of London and principal of Jews' College, the theological training institution for English Jewry. Joseph received his early education at Jews' College School and went on to the college to begin rabbinical studies and prepare for University of London examinations. He matriculated in January 1873 and received his arts degree in May 1876. He studied at the college until April 1879 when he went to Berlin; there he gained his rabbinical diploma at Dr Hildersheimer's seminary and also attended philosophy classes at the university in 1879-80. He was awarded his Ph.D. at the University of Leipzig in 1881 and his dissertation, The Sources of the Midrash Echah Rabbah, was published in Berlin in 1883.

That year Abrahams was called to the pulpit of the Melbourne Hebrew congregation. The chief rabbi of the British Empire, Dr Hermann Adler, named him presiding rabbi of the Beth Din (Court of Jewish religious law) for Australia and New Zealand. He was the first Jewish minister to serve in Australia who possessed both a secular university degree and traditional rabbinic ordination. On 16 April 1885 he married Rachel, daughter of Rev. A. B. Davis of Sydney; they had no children.

Abrahams had an encyclopaedic memory and was an authority on Greek, German, Latin and mathematics. In 1886 he graduated M.A. (ad eund.) at the University of Melbourne. He became well known as a competent and scholarly speaker and as the representative of Judaism in the religious life of Melbourne. Unlike his eminent brother Israel (1854-1925), reader in Talmudic and rabbinic literature at the University of Cambridge, who became associated with moves to modernize Jewish practice, Abrahams was resolutely opposed to religious reform. Though he permitted minor changes to the service, such as the introduction of a choir of male and female voices and some English readings, he was staunchly conservative. In 1903 he briefly resigned from his congregational post over a disagreement about the acceptance of converts to Judaism. He was one of the prime founders of the United Jewish Education Board which organized the religious instruction of Jewish children attending state schools and was president in 1896-1901. From about 1899 he was visiting chaplain to metropolitan prisons.

In 1911 Abrahams was summoned to England with the expectation of being offered the post of chief rabbi of the British Empire. Probably because of the ill health of his wife, he returned to Melbourne without the office. He continued to serve as rabbi until his retirement in 1919, when his congregation began to plan the move from Bourke Street to St Kilda Road.

Abrahams died at St Kilda on 18 August 1938 and was buried in the Fawkner cemetery. His wife had predeceased him in 1931.

Select Bibliography

  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 Aug 1938
  • Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, Minute books (Synagogue Archives)
  • documents and letter-book (privately held).

Additional Resources

Citation details

J. S. Levi, 'Abrahams, Joseph (1855–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


1 April, 1855
London, Middlesex, England


18 August, 1938 (aged 83)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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