Moses ibn Ezra

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Rabbi Moses ben Jacob ibn Ezra
Born c. 1055 – 1060
Died 1138
Other names Ha-Sallaḥ
School Jewish philosophy

Rabbi Moses ben Jacob ibn Ezra, known as Ha-Sallaḥ ("writer of penitential prayers") (Arabic: أبو هارون موسى بن يعقوب ابن عزرا‎, Abu Harun Musa bin Ya'acub ibn Ezra, Hebrew: משה בן יעקב הסלח אבן עזרא‎) was a Jewish, Spanish philosopher, linguist, and poet. He was born in Granada about 1055 – 1060, and died after 1138. Ezra is Jewish by religion but is also considered a great influence in the Arabic world in regard to his works. He is considered one of the greatest poets to originate from Spain and was thought of as ahead of his time in terms of theories surrounding the nature of poetry. One of the more revolutionary aspects of Ezra’s poetry that have been debated over is his definition of poetry as metaphor and how it fuses Aristotle’s early ideas. Ezra’s philosophical works were minor compared to his impact on poetry, but they address the relationship that he believed to be held between his conception of God and man.[Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA 1]

Early life[edit]

Moses was born in Granada, Spain and received both a Hebrew education as well as a comprehensive education of Arabic literature. Ezra was a student to Isaac Ibn Ghayyat while in Lucena, considered the “city of poetry” and carried an important administrative title in his home province given to him by his Arabic title ṣāḥib al-shurṭa. Ibn Ezra also developed a strong friendship with poet Judah Halevi and was a driving force in his early poetic work. The capture of Granada by the Almoravides resulted in the destruction of Ezra’s Jewish community as well as the breakup of Ezra’s family. This eventually led to his fleeing to the Christian part of Spain.[Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA 2] While in the new city of Castile, Ezra considered himself an exile for leaving and did not think he would be able to return to his home city. It was at this time that it was rumored that Ezra had disagreements with his family, specifically with one of his brothers Yosef as well as his own children. These incidents also contributed to him not returning home.[Brill Online 1]


He was related to Abraham ibn Ezra and a pupil of Isaac ibn Ghiyyat. Ibn Ezra belonged to one of the most prominent families of Granada, Spain. According to Isaac Israeli ("Yesod Olam"), he had three brothers, Isaac, Joseph, and Zerahiah, all of whom were distinguished scholars. His elder brother, Isaac Abū Ibrāhīm, was married to one of the Nagid’s daughters. After the arrival of the Almoravid, the family fortune was confiscated and his three brothers had to escape. Moses was married and had many children, but later on he escaped under some threat to his life, leaving his family behind and spending the rest of his life in the Christian north.[1]

Judaeo-Arabic Literature[edit]

The 11th and 12th centuries were an important time for the expansion of the concept of Judaeo-Arabic poetry and literature. Jewish-Arabic speaking poets such as al-Samaw and Moses Ibn Ezra differed very little from contemporary Arab poets. They borrowed literal parts of the Bible and Qur'an as well as referenced allusions to both works. After the foundation and consolidation of the Muslim Empire, the Arabic language and the related culture were only slowly diffused among the Jewish population of the dār al-Islām; it is not to be seen before the second half of the 3rd century of the Hid̲j̲ra, and only became of real importance in their civilization from the 4th/10th centuries onwards. An important observation throughout this time frame was that many Jewish intellectuals held a degree of guilt in the Jewish intellectuals’ use of Arabic in their writing instead of Hebrew. The use of Arabic in poetry, profane as well as religious, remains the exception during the Middle Ages. Although the use of Arabic in literature was present in Jewish works, Judaeo-Arabic intellectuals and poets were considered the minority of the time.[Brill Online 2]


Ibn Ezra was a distinguished philosopher, an able linguist, and a powerful poet.

His "Arugat ha-Bosem" is divided into seven chapters: (i.) general remarks on God, man, and philosophy; (ii.) the unity of God; (iii.) the inadmissibility of applying attributes to God; (iv.) the impropriety of giving names to God; (v.) motion; (vi.) nature; (vii.) the intellect. The authorities quoted in this work are Hermes (identified by Ibn Ezra with Enoch), Pythagoras, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, pseudo-Empedocles, Alfarabi, Saadia Gaon, and Solomon ibn Gabirol.

Moses Ibn Ezra and Maimonides: Definition of Metaphor[edit]

It is well documented that Moses Ibn Ezra and the prominent philosopher Moses Maimonides had varying definitions of what represented a metaphor. Both philosophers played a huge impact on the implementation and relevance of metaphors in literary texts. Within the Kitab Ezra attempts to blend a fusion of Arabic as well as Hebrew rhetorical claims in order to illustrate examples from both the Qur'an and Bible. Ezra was quite critical of past authors who used metaphor only as an exaggeration tool or substituted metaphor for precise literal language. The foundation of Ezra’s definition of metaphor revolves around the meaning of "isti-ara" (borrowing) which is a word for to define something not known using something already known. This is Ezra’s method of explaining the concept of God and its existence. Maimonides similarly defines metaphor as temporarily “borrowing.” Maimonides’ source for the definition of metaphor l-Farabi's Short Treatise on Aristotle's De Interpretatione. This model defines metaphor as "saying 'x' and really meaning Y"; hence, the claim "'x' is a metaphor" entails proving that it designates Y and not X. One of his criticisms of Ezra was the fact that Ibn Ezra simply cites his forty biblical examples without elucidation, even though many of them do not readily yield a referent. The fact that these two philosophers differed so greatly is not much of a surprise since their agendas differed. Ibn Ezra was predominantly interested in the poetic aspect of metaphors whereas Maimonides had a pure philosophical intent in his definition.[2]

His rhetoric[edit]

Far more successful was the "Kitab al-Muḥaḍarah wal-Mudhakarah," a treatise on rhetoric and poetry, which was composed on the lines of the "Adab" writings of the Arabs, and is the only work of its kind in Hebrew literature. It was written at the request of a friend who had addressed to him eight questions on Hebrew poetry, and is divided into a corresponding number of chapters.[3]

In the first four the author treats generally of prose and prose-writers, of poetry and poets, and of the natural poetic gift of the Arabs, which he attributes to the climate of Arabia. He concludes the fourth chapter with the statement that, with very rare exceptions, the poetical parts of the Bible have neither meter nor rhyme.

The fifth chapter begins with the history of the settlement of the Jews in Spain, which, according to the author, began during the Exile, the word "Sepharad" used by the prophet Obadiah (verse 20) meaning "Spain." Then, comes a description of the literary activity of the Spanish Jews, giving the most important authors and their works. In the sixth chapter the author quotes various maxims and describes the general intellectual condition of his time. He deplores the indifference shown by the public to scholars. This indifference, he declares, does not affect him personally; for he can not count himself among those who have been ill-treated by fate; he has experienced both good and bad fortune. Moreover, he possesses a virtue which permits him to renounce any pretension to public recognition—the virtue of contentment and moderation.

In the seventh chapter the author discusses the question whether it is possible to compose poetry in dreams, as some trustworthy writers claim to have done. The eighth chapter deals with twenty-three traditional Arabic figures of speech, examples from the Koran, Arabic poetry, and Hebrew Andalusian poetry.[3]

Rhetorical Technique[edit]

Moses Ibn Ezra’s use of referencing biblical as well as Arabic ideas has been well noted. Many of his poetic norms pull on Arabic ornaments and styles. Ezra relies Arabic examples to illustrate the badi, twenty rhetorical techniques found in the Kitab al-Muhadara. The presentation of the badi in Ezra’s work reflects a tension between Arabic, Greek, and biblical authority. In the early parts of the Kitab, Ezra cites Aristotle’s eight techniques through which poetry is refined. This part of the work Ezra gives more credit to the Greek and Hebrew influences on literary techniques and refrains from praising Arabic style. However, Ezra later turns to Arabic poets to discuss the isti-ara, the excellence of metaphor. It is here that he praises the literary techniques composed by early Arabic poets. Ezra also turns to ancient Hebrew Scriptures and praises the use of metaphors that they included in early biblical examples.[4] In essence, Ezra’s style culminates from different sources and influences which help him develop his own poetic definitions.

His poetry[edit]

Ibn Ezra is considered by many Jews as a masterly Hebrew poet. He specifically focused on the theory of poetry and is considered to be one of the greatest experts on the subject. His secular poems are contained in two works: in the Tarshish, and in the first part of his Diwan.

The "Tarshish" is divided into ten chapters, each of which contains in order the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. It is written in the Arabic style of poetry termed "tajnis," which consists in the repetition of words in every stanza, but with a different meaning in each repetition. The first chapter is dedicated to a certain Abraham (certainly not Abraham ibn Ezra), whose merits he exalts in Oriental fashion. In the nine remaining chapters are discussed: (ch. ii.) wine, love, and song; (iii.) the beauty of country life; (iv., v.) love-sickness and the separation of lovers; (vi.) unfaithful friends; (vii.) old age; (viii.) vicissitudes of fortune, and death; (ix.) confidence in God; (x.) the glory of poetry.

Another one of Ezra’s most famous works is the Maḳāla bi 'l-Ḥadīḳa fī maʿnāal-mad̲j̲āz wa 'l-ḥaḳīḳa. The main purpose of this work is to explain to Hebrew poets should model their poems based around the structure of Arabic poems. Ezra’s Hadika also primarily addresses the metaphorical interpretation of God and how God is such a powerful and divine being that he could not be interpreted through the human mind but simply through the use of metaphors. This was considered to be one of his most important and influential ideas in the medieval timeframe surrounding Jewish ideology.[5]


Moses Ibn Ezra’s philosophical contributions were considered only minor when compared to his contributions to poetry and literature. One piece of literature that highlights Ezra’s philosophical viewpoints was the al-Maqāla bi al-Ḥadīqa fi Maʿnā al-Majāz wa al-Ḥaqīqa. This was an Arabic work and much of it reiterated his poetic beliefs of the relationship between man and God and the unknowability of God. Ezra had a neoplatonic orientation towards his philosophical attitudes with God and man. The neoplatonic approach by Ezra focuses on man as a microcosm so that God is considered self-subsistent, unitary being who preceded creation therefore ultimately led to the perfection of man’s creation. It reiterates that God’s perfection cannot be comprehended by the human mind and the finite and imperfect human mind cannot know the infinite and perfect God. Ezra’s philosophy also revolves around the use of intellect and how the active intellect was considered God’s first creation. Ezra claims that the intellect is a pure substance which all things are inherently created from. Along with the active intellect is another form Ezra describes as the passive intellect. This form of intellect is considered to be above the active intellect and superior to the rational soul.[6]

Sacred poems[edit]

The greater part of Ibn Ezra's 220 sacred compositions are found in the mahzor, the traditional Jewish prayerbooks for the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah, "the Jewish New Year", and Yom Kippur, "Day of Atonement". These penitential poems, or selichot, earned him the name HaSallach.

Their aim is to invite man to look within himself; they depict the vanity of worldly glory, the disillusion which must be experienced at last by the pleasure-seeker, and the inevitableness of divine judgment. A skillfully elaborated piece of work is the Avodah, the introduction to which is a part of the Portuguese Mahzor. Unlike his predecessors, Ibn Ezra begins his review of Biblical history not with Adam, but with the giving of the Torah.

The piyyuttim which follow the mishnaic text of the Temple service, especially the piyyut "Happy is the eye that beheld it," are considered by many to be of remarkable beauty.

Family controversy[edit]

It was believed that a primary reason besides the invasion of Granada that forced Moses Ibn Ezra to leave and not return home is his alleged love affair with his niece. Subtle signs of this are actually witnessed in poems that he had written. In one of his poems Ezra writes of a love affair that he had and directed the poem directly to his brother Isaac. Ezra’s brothers as well as their sons were opposed to the affair and this in turn led to problems within the family. This story however still remains only a theory that was proposed by Luzzatto.[7]


  1. ^ Menocal, Maria (2000). The literature of al-Andalus. Cambridge: University Press. p. 253. 
  2. ^ Edebiyat: Journal of Middle Eastern Literatures 11 (1): 1, 28. 2000.  Missing or empty |title= (help);
  3. ^ a b Shchippers, Ariel (1994). Spanish Hebrew poetry and the Arabic literary tradition. Netherlands. p. 60. 
  4. ^ "Edebiyat". Journal of Middle Eastern Literatures 11 (1): 1, 28. 2000. 
  5. ^ Schippers, A. "Mūsāb.ʿAzra.". Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Retrieved March 22, 2011. 
  6. ^ Berenbaum, Michael; Fred Skolnik (2007). "Ibn Ezra, Moses ben Jacob". Encyclopaedia Judaica 9: 673–675. 
  7. ^ The Jewish Quarterly Review 24 (4): 309–320. 1934.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  1. ^ Berenbaum, Michael; Fred Skolnik (2007). "Ibn Ezra, Moses ben Jacob.". Encyclopaedia Judaica 9: 673–675. 
  2. ^ Berenbaum, Michael; Fred Skolnik (2007). "Ibn Ezra, Moses ben Jacob.". Encyclopaedia Judaica 9. 
  1. ^ Schippers, A (2011). "Mūsāb.ʿAzra.". Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Retrieved March 22, 2011. 
  2. ^ Cohen, D; Blau, J; Vaida, G. "Judaeo-arabic.". Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Retrieved April 4, 2011.