Israel Abrahams was born in London to an Orthodox Jewish family. His father Barnett Abrahams was a distinguished rabbinical scholar and principal of Jews' College, now the London School of Jewish Studies. Israel Abrahams was educated at Jews' College and University College, London, and earned a master's degree from the University of London. He became one of the most prominent Jewish scholars of his generation. He wrote a number of classic works on Jewish history and literature, including Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (1896) and Chapters on Jewish Literature (1899).
He also taught for several years at Jews’ College before succeeding Solomon Schechter as reader in Talmudic and Rabbinic Literature at Cambridge University, a position he held until his death. From 1888 to 1908 he was co-editor with Claude Montefiore of the Jewish Quarterly Review.