Abraham ibn Ezra

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Abraham ibn Ezra
An illustration of Ibn Ezra (center) making use of an astrolabe.
Bornc. 1089 - 1092
Diedc. 1164 - 1167
Known forwriting commentaries, grammarian
ChildrenIsaac ben Ezra

Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra (Hebrew: ר׳ אַבְרָהָם בֶּן מֵאִיר אִבְּן עֶזְרָא ʾAḇrāhām ben Mēʾīr ʾībən ʾĒzrāʾ, often abbreviated as ראב"ע‎; Arabic: إبراهيم المجيد ابن عزرا Ibrāhim al-Mājid ibn Ezra; also known as Abenezra or simply Ibn Ezra, 1089 / 1092 – 27 January 1164 / 23 January 1167)[1][2] was one of the most distinguished Jewish biblical commentators and philosophers of the Middle Ages. He was born in Tudela, Taifa of Zaragoza (present-day Navarre).


Abraham Ibn Ezra was born in Tudela, one of the oldest and most important Jewish communities in Navarre. At the time, the town was under the rule of the emirs of the Muslim Taifa of Zaragoza. However, when he later moved to Córdoba, he claimed it to be his place of birth.[2] Ultimately, most scholars agree that his place of birth was Tudela.

Little is known of ibn Ezra's family from outside sources; however, he wrote of a marriage to a wife that produced five children. While it is believed four died early, the last-born, Isaac, became an influential poet and later convert to Islam in 1140. The conversion of his son was deeply troubling for ibn Ezra, leading him to pen many poems reacting to the event for years afterward.[3]

Ibn Ezra was a close friend of Judah Halevi, who was some 14 years older. When ibn Ezra moved to Córdoba as a young man, Halevi followed him. This trend continued when the two began their lives as wanderers in 1137. Halevi died in 1141, but Ibn Ezra continued travelling for three decades, reaching as far as Baghdad. During his travels, he began to compose secular poetry describing the lands through which he was travelling as well as beginning to pen the deeply rational Torah commentaries he would be best remembered for.[2]

He appears to have been unrelated to the contemporary scholar Moses ibn Ezra.[4]


The Book Exodus, with commentary by Abraham ibn Ezra, Naples 1488

In Spain, Ibn Ezra had already gained the reputation of a distinguished poet and thinker.[5] However, apart from his poems, the vast majority of his work was composed after 1140. Written in Hebrew, as opposed to earlier thinkers' use of Judeo-Arabic, these works covering Hebrew grammar, Biblical exegesis, and scientific theory were tinged with the work of Arab scholars he had studied in Spain.

Beginning many of his writings in Italy, Ibn Ezra also worked extensively to translate the works of grammarian and biblical exegetist Judah ben David Hayyuj from their original Judeo-Arabic to Hebrew.[6] Published as early as 1140, these translations became some of the first expositions of Hebrew grammar to be written in Hebrew.[2]

During his time of publishing translations, Ibn Ezra also began to publish his own biblical commentaries. Making use of many of the techniques outlined by Hayyuj, Ibn Ezra would publish his first biblical commentary, a commentary on Kohelet in 1140.[6] He would continue to publish such commentaries over mostly works from Ketuvim and Nevi'im throughout his journey, though he would manage to publish a short commentary over the entire Pentateuch while living in Lucca in 1145. This short commentary would be amended into longer portions beginning in 1155 with the publication of his expanded commentary on Genesis.[6]

Besides his commentaries on the Torah, Ibn Ezra would also publish a multitude of works on science in Hebrew. In doing so, he would continue his mission of spreading the knowledge he had gained in Spain to the Jews throughout the areas he visited and lived. This can be seen particularly in the works he published while living in France. Here, many of the works published can be seen as relating to astrology, and use of the astrolabe.

Influence on biblical criticism and philosophy of religion[edit]

In his commentary, Ibn Ezra adhered to the literal sense of the texts, avoiding Rabbinic allegory and Kabbalistic interpretation.[7] He exercised an independent criticism that, according to some writers, exhibits a marked tendency toward rationalism.[8]

Indeed, Ibn Ezra is claimed by proponents of the higher biblical criticism of the Torah as one of its earliest pioneers. Baruch Spinoza, in concluding that Moses did not author the Torah, and that the Torah and other protocanonical books were written or redacted by somebody else, cites Ibn Ezra commentary on Deuteronomy.[9] In his commentary, Ibn Ezra looks to Deuteronomy 1:1, and is troubled by the anomalous nature of referring to Moses as being "beyond the Jordan", as though the writer was oriented in the land of Cana'an (west of the Jordan River), although Moses and the Children of Israel had not yet crossed the Jordan at that point in the Biblical narrative.[10] Relating this inconsistency to others in the Torah, Ibn Ezra famously stated,

"If you can grasp the mystery behind the following problematic passages: 1) The final twelve verses of this book [i.e., Deuteronomy 34:1–12, describing the death of Moses], 2) 'Moshe wrote [this song on the same day, and taught it to the children of Israel]' [Deuteronomy 31:22]; 3) 'At that time, the Canaanites dwelt in the land' [Genesis 12:6]; 4) '... In the mountain of God, He will appear' [Genesis 22:14]; 5) 'behold, his [Og king of Bashan] bed is a bed of iron [is it not in Rabbah of the children of Ammon?]' you will understand the truth."[10]

Spinoza concluded that Ibn Ezra's reference to "the truth", and other such references scattered throughout Ibn Ezra's commentary in reference to seemingly anachronistic verses,[11] as "a clear indication that it was not Moses who wrote the Pentateuch but someone else who lived long after him, and that it was a different book that Moses wrote".[9] Spinoza and later scholars were thus able to expand on several of Ibn Ezra's references as a means of providing stronger evidence for Non-Mosaic authorship.[12]

Orthodox writers, on the other hand, have stated that Ibn Ezra's commentary can be interpreted as consistent with Jewish tradition stating that the Torah was divinely dictated to Moses.[13]

Ibn Ezra is also among the first scholars who are known to have published a text about the division of the Book of Isaiah into at least two distinct parts. He remarked in his commentary to Isaiah that chapters 1-39 dealt with a different historical period (second half of the 8th century BCE) than chapters 40-66 (later than last third of the 6th century BCE). This division of the book into First Isaiah and Deutero Isaiah has been accepted nowadays by all but the most conservative Jews and Christians.[14]

Ibn Ezra's commentaries, and especially some of the longer excursuses, contain numerous contributions to the philosophy of religion. One work in particular that belongs to this province, Yesod Mora ("Foundation of Awe"), on the division and the reasons for the Biblical commandments, he wrote in 1158 for a London friend, Joseph ben Jacob. In his philosophical thought neoplatonic ideas prevail; and astrology also had a place in his view of the world. He also wrote various works on mathematical and astronomical subjects.[5][15]


Biblical commentaries[edit]

  • Sefer ha-Yashar ("Book of the Straight") The complete commentary on the Torah, which was finished shortly before his death.

Hebrew grammar[edit]

  • Sefer Moznayim "Book of Scales" (1140), chiefly an explanation of the terms used in Hebrew grammar; as early as 1148 it was incorporated by Judah Hadassi in his Eshkol ha-Kofer, with no mention of Ibn Ezra.
  • Sefer ha-Yesod, or Yesod Diqduq "Book of Language Fundamentals" (1143)
  • Sefer Haganah 'al R. Sa'adyah Gaon, (1143) a defense of Saadyah Gaon against Adonim's criticisms.
  • Tzakhot (1145), on linguistic correctness, his best grammatical work, which also contains a brief outline of modern Hebrew meter.
  • Sefer Safah Berurah "Book of Purified Language" (1146).

Smaller works – partly grammatical, partly exegetical[edit]

  • Sefat Yeter, in defense of Saadia Gaon against Dunash ben Labrat, whose criticism of Saadia ibn Ezra had brought with him from Egypt.
  • Sefer ha-Shem ("Book of the Name"), a work on the names of God.
  • Yesod Mispar, a small monograph on numerals.
  • Iggeret Shabbat (1158), a responsum on Shabbat

Religious philosophy[edit]

  • Yesod Mora Vesod Hatorah (1158), on the division of and reasons for the Biblical commandments.


  • Sefer ha-Ekhad, on the peculiarities of the numbers 1–9.
  • Sefer ha-Mispar or Yesod Mispar, arithmetic.
  • Luchot, astronomical tables.
  • Sefer ha-'Ibbur, on the calendar.
  • Keli ha-Nechoshet, on the astrolabe.
  • Shalosh She'elot, in answer to three chronological questions of David ben Joseph Narboni.


Ibn Ezra composed his first book on astrology in Italy, before his move to France:

  • Mishpetai ha-Mazzelot ("Judgments of the Zodiacal Signs"), on the general principles of astrology

In seven books written in Béziers in 1147–1148 Ibn Ezra then composed a systematic presentation of astrology, starting with an introduction and a book on general principles, and then five books on particular branches of the subject. The presentation appears to have been planned as an integrated whole, with cross-references throughout, including references to subsequent books in the future tense. Each of the books is known in two versions, so it seems that at some point Ibn Ezra also created a revised edition of the series.[16]

  • Reshit Hokhma ("The Beginning of Wisdom"), an introduction to astrology, perhaps a revision of his earlier book
  • Sefer ha-Te'amim ("Book of Reasons"), an overview of Arabic astrology, giving explanations for the material in the previous book.
  • Sefer ha-Moladot ("Book of Nativities"), on astrology based on the time and place of birth.
  • Sefer ha-Me'orot ("Book of Luminaries" or "Book of Lights"), on medical astrology.
  • Sefer ha-She'elot ("Book of Interrogations"), on questions about particular events.
  • Sefer ha-Mivharim ("Book of Elections", also known as "Critical Days"), on optimum days for particular activities.
  • Sefer ha-Olam ("Book of the World"), on the fates of countries and wars, and other larger-scale issues.
  • Translation of two works by the astrologer Mashallah ibn Athari: "She'elot" and "Qadrut".


There are a great many other poems by Ibn Ezra, some of them religious and some secular – about friendship, wine, didactic or satirical. Like his friend Yehuda Halevi, he used the Arabic poetic form of Muwashshah.


The crater Abenezra on the Moon was named in honor of Ibn Ezra.

Robert Browning's poem "Rabbi ben Ezra", beginning "Grow old along with me/The best is yet to be", is derived from a meditation on Ibn Ezra's life and work that appeared in Browning's 1864 poetry collection Dramatis Personæ.[17]


According to Jewish tradition, Abraham ibn Ezra was buried in Cabul, alongside Judah Halevi.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Encyclopaedia Judaica, pages 1163–1164
  2. ^ a b c d Jewish Encyclopedia (online); Chambers Biographical Dictionary gives the dates 1092/93 – 1167
  3. ^ "IBN EZRA, ISAAC (ABU SA'D) - JewishEncyclopedia.com". www.jewishencyclopedia.com. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
  4. ^ Mordechai Z. Cohen, The Rule of Peshat: Jewish Constructions of the Plain Sense of Scripture and Their Christian and Muslim Contexts, 900-1270, p. 209
  5. ^ a b  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainBacher, William (1911). "Abenezra". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 42.
  6. ^ a b c Sela, Shlomo; Freudenthal, Gad (2006). "Abraham Ibn Ezra's Scholarly Writings: A Chronological Listing". Aleph. 6 (6): 13–55. doi:10.1353/ale.2006.0006. ISSN 1565-1525. JSTOR 40385893. S2CID 170244695.
  7. ^ Avigail Rock, Lecture #13: R. Avraham ibn Ezra, Part I
  8. ^ see introduction to Yam Shel Shlomo by Rabbi Shlomo Luria
  9. ^ a b "A Theologico-Political Treatise: Part 2: Chapter VIII.—Of the Authorship of the Pentateuch and the Other Historical Books of the Old Testament". www.sacred-texts.com.
  10. ^ a b Jay F. Schachter, The Commentary of Abraham Ibn Ezra on the Pentateuch: Volume 5, Deuteronomy (KTAV Publishing House 2003)
  11. ^ For example, Spinoza understood Ibn Ezra's commentary on Genesis 12:6 ("And the Canaanite was then in the land"), wherein Ibn Ezra esoterically stated that "some mystery lies here, and let him who understands it keep silent," as proof that Ibn Ezra recognized that at least certain Biblical passages had been inserted long after the time of Moses.
  12. ^ See for example, "Who wrote the Bible" and the "Bible with Sources Revealed" both by Richard Elliott Friedman
  13. ^ ""The Canaanites Were Then in the Land": Ibn Ezra, Post-Mosaic Editorial Insertions, and the Canaanite Exile from the Land - Text & Texture". text.rcarabbis.org.
  14. ^ "Isaiah and Deutero-Isaiah" (PDF).
  15. ^ J. J. O'Connor; E. F. Robertson. "Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra".
  16. ^ Shlomo Sela (2000), "Encyclopedic aspects of Ibn Ezra's scientific corpus", in Steven Harvey (ed), The Medieval Hebrew Encyclopedias of Science and Philosophy: Proceedings of the Bar-Ilan University Conference, Springer. ISBN 0-7923-6242-X. See pp. 158 et seq.
  17. ^ Robert Browning (1864/1969), Dramatis Personae, reprint, London: Collins
  18. ^ Levi-Naḥum, Yehuda (1986). "The graves of the fathers and of the righteous". Sefer ṣohar le-ḥasifat ginzei teiman (in Hebrew). Ḥolon, Israel: Mifʻal ḥaśifat ginze Teman. p. 252. OCLC 15417732.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "IBN EZRA, ABRAHAM BEN MEÏR (ABEN EZRA)". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

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