Abraham ibn Ezra

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Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra (Hebrew: אברהם אבן עזרא or ראב"ע, also known as Abenezra) (1092 or 1093-1167), was one of the most distinguished Jewish men of letters and writers of the Middle Ages. Ibn Ezra excelled in philosophy, astronomy/astrology, medicine, poetry, linguistics, and exegesis; he was called The Wise, The Great and The Admirable Doctor.

He was born at Tudela, (current day province of Navarra) when the town was under Muslim rule. He left his native land of Spain before 1140 on account of the vexations inflicted on the Jews. He led a life of restless wandering, which took him to North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Italy (Rome, Rodez, Lucca, Mantua, Verona), Southern France (Narbonne, Béziers), Northern France (Dreux), England (London), and back again to the South of France, until his death on January 23 or 28th, 1167, the exact location unknown.

The Abenezra crater on the Moon was named in his honour.


Exodus w commentary by Abraham ibn Ezra 1488.jpg

At several of the above-named places, Ibn Ezra remained for some time and developed a rich literary activity. In his native land, he had already gained the reputation of a distinguished poet and thinker but apart from his poems, his works, which were all in the Hebrew language, were written in the second period of his life. With these works, which cover in the first instance the field of Hebrew philology and Biblical exegesis, he fulfilled the great mission of making accessible to the Jews of Christian Europe the treasures of knowledge enshrined in the works written in Arabic which he had brought with him from Spain.

His grammatical writings, among which Moznayim ("Scales", 1140) and Zahot ("Correctness", 1141) are the most valuable, were the first expositions of Hebrew grammar in the Hebrew language, in which the system of Judah Hayyuj and his school prevailed. He also translated into Hebrew the two writings of Hayyuj in which the foundations of the system were laid down.

Of greater original value than the grammatical works of Ibn Ezra are his commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, of which, however, the Books of Paralipomenon have been lost. His reputation as an intelligent and acute expounder of the Bible was founded on his commentary on the Pentateuch, of which the great popularity is evidenced by the numerous commentaries which were written upon it. In the editions of this commentary (ed. princ. Naples 1488. See image at right), the commentary on the book of Exodus is replaced by a second, more complete commentary of Ibn Ezra, while the first and shorter commentary on Exodus was not printed until 1840. The great editions of the Hebrew Bible with rabbinical commentaries contained also commentaries of Ibn Ezra's on the following books of the Bible: Isaiah, Minor Prophets, Psalms, Job, Pentateuch, Daniel; the commentaries on Proverbs, Ezra and Nehemiah which bear his name are really those of Moses Kimhi. Ibn Ezra wrote a second commentary on Genesis as he had done on Exodus, but this was never finished. There are second commentaries also by him on the Song of Songs, Esther and Daniel.

The importance of the exegesis of Ibn Ezra consists in the fact that it aims at arriving at the simple sense of the text, the Peshat, on grammatical principles. It is in this that, although he takes a great part of his exegetical material from his predecessors, the originality of his mind is everywhere apparent, an originality which displays itself also in the witty and lively language of his commentaries. Ibn Ezra belongs to the earliest pioneers of the higher biblical criticism of the Pentateuch.

His commentaries, and especially some of the longer excursuses, contain numerous contributions to the philosophy of religion. One work in particular which 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 neo-platonic ideas prevail; and astrology also had a place in his view of the world. He also wrote various works on mathematical and astronomical subjects.

In his commentary, Ibn-Ezra adheres to the literal sense of the texts, avoiding Rabbinic allegories and Cabbalistic extravagances, though he remains faithful to the Jewish traditions. This does not prevent him from exercising an independent criticism, which, according to some writers, borders on rationalism. In contrast his other works, the most important of which include The Book of the Secrets of the Law, The Mystery of the Form of the Letters, The Enigma of the Quiescent Letters, The Book of the Name, The Book of the Balance of the Sacred Language and The Book of Purity of the Language, demonstrate a more Cabbalistic viewpoint. They were written during his life of travel, and they reflect the unsteadiness of his outward circumstances.

Taking Aben-Ezra's work as a whole, it consists rather in popularizing Andalusian rabbinical ideas on Latin and Saxon soil than in producing original thought.

His Mission

The wandering life of an exile, such as Ibn Ezra led for nearly three decades, gave him the opportunity to carry out a mission which was to an eminent degree historical. He became a propagator among the Jews of Christian Europe, who were unacquainted with Arabic, of the science of Judaism, a science which had been founded long before with that language as its literary medium. He was fitted for this mission, as no one else, through the versatility of his learning and through his clear and charming Hebrew style. The great compass of his literary activity will be seen from the following résumé of his works:

Biblical Commentaries

His chief work is the commentary on the Torah, which, like that of Rashi, has called forth a host of super-commentaries, and which has done more than any other work to establish his reputation. It is extant both in numerous manuscripts and in printed editions. The commentary on Exodus published in the printed editions is a work by itself, which he finished in 1153 in southern France.

The complete commentary on the Pentateuch, which, as has already been mentioned, was finished by Ibn Ezra shortly before his death, was called Sefer ha-Yashar ("Book of the Straight").

In the rabbinical editions of the Bible the following commentaries of Ibn Ezra on Biblical books are likewise printed: Isaiah; the Twelve Minor Prophets; Psalms; Job; the Megillot; Daniel. The commentaries on Proverbs and Ezra-Nehemiah which bear Ibn Ezra's name are by Moses Kimhi. Another commentary on Proverbs, published in 1881 by Driver and in 1884 by Horowitz, is also erroneously ascribed to Ibn Ezra. Additional commentaries by Ibn Ezra to the following books are extant: Song of Solomon; Esther; Daniel. He also probably wrote commentaries to a part of the remaining books, as may be concluded from his own references.

Hebrew Grammar

  • "Moznayim" (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 (see "Monatsschrift," xl. 74), first ed. in 1546. The most recent edition is "Sefer Moznayim." Introducción (en castellano e inglés). Edición crítica del texto hebreo y versión castellana de Lorenzo Jiménez Patón, revisada, completada y reelaborada por Angel Sáenz-Badillos. Córdoba: Ediciones el Almendro, 2002.
  • Translation of the work of Ḥayyuj into Hebrew (ed. Onken, 1844).
  • "Sefer ha-Yesod," or "Yesod Diḳduḳ," (see Bacher, "Abraham ibn Ezra als Grammatiker," pp. 8-17). It has been published by N. Allony: "Yesod Diqduq." Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-rav Kook, 1984.
  • "ẓaḥot" (1145), on linguistic correctness, his best grammatical work, which also contains a brief outline of modern Hebrew meter; first ed. 1546. There is a critical edition by C. del Valle: "Sefer Sahot." Salamanca: Univ. Pontificia de Salamanca, 1977.
  • "Safah Berurah" (see above), first ed. 1830. A critical edition has been recently published: "Śafah bĕrurah." La lengua escogida. Introducción (en castellano e inglés). Edición crítica del texto hebreo y versión castellana de Enrique Ruiz González, revisada, completada y reelaborada por Angel Sáenz-Badillos. Córdoba: Ediciones el Almendro, 2004.
  • A short outline of grammar at the beginning of the unfinished commentary on Genesis. The importance of Ibn Ezra's grammatical writings has already been treated in Grammar, Hebrew.
  • A defence of Saadyah Gaon against Adonim's criticisms: "Sefer Haganah ‘al R. Sa‘adyah Gaon." Ed. I. Osri, Bar-Ilan University, 1988.

Smaller Works, Partly Grammatical, Partly Exegetical

  • "Sefat Yeter," in defense of Saadia Gaon against Dunash ben Labrat, whose criticism of Saadia, Ibn Ezra had brought with him from Egypt; published by Bislichs 1838 and Lippmann 1843.
  • "Sefer ha-Shem," ed. Lippmann, 1834.
  • "Yesod Mispar," a small monograph on numerals, ed. Pinsker, 1863, at the end of his book on the Babylonian-Hebrew system of punctuation.
  • "Iggeret Shabbat," a responsum on the Sabbath, dated 1158, ed. Luzzatto, in "Kerem Hemed," iv. 158 et seq.

Religious Philosophy

  • "Yesod Mora Vesod Hatorah" (1158), on the division of and reasons for the Biblical commandments; 1st ed. 1529.

Mathematics, Astronomy, Astrology

  • "Sefer ha-Eḥad," on the peculiarities of the numbers 1-9.
  • "Sefer ha-Mispar" or "Yesod Mispar," arithmetic.
  • "Luhot," astronomical tables.
  • "Sefer ha-'Ibbur," on the calendar (ed. Halberstam, 1874).
  • "Keli ha-Neḥoshet," on the astrolabe (ed. Edelmann, 1845).
  • "Shalosh She'elot," answer to three chronological questions of David Narboni.
  • Translation of two works by the astrologer Mashallah: "She'elot" and "Ḳadrut" (Steinschneider, "Hebr. Uebers." pp. 600-603).
  • "Sefer Ha'te'amim" (The Book of Reasons), an overview of Arabic astrology (tr. 1994, M. Epstein)
  • "Reshith Hochma" (The Beginning of Wisdom), an introduction to astrology (tr. 1998, M. Epstein)

As Poet

There are a great many other poems by Ibn Ezra, some of them religious (the editor of the "Diwan" in an appended list mentions nearly 200 numbers) and some secular.

Article references

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

See also