April 16, 2024
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Abraham Ibn Ezra: His Unique Life and the Lessons We Can Learn

The life of Abraham Ibn Ezra can be divided into two periods. The first was a stable one. According to the most recent scholarship, he was born in either 1091 or 1092. He lived in the Muslim portion of Spain, and received a traditional Spanish Jewish education, studying Torah as well as philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, astrology and poetry.

In 1140, the second period of his life began, the life of a poor, wandering scholar. For reasons unknown and that we can only guess at, Ibn Ezra left Spain in 1140. Thereafter, he lived the rest of his life in Ashkenazic lands. (Things got worse for Jews in Muslim Spain a few years after Ibn Ezra left, due to the invasion of the Almohades, a fanatical Islamic sect.)

First Ibn Ezra went to Italy, living variously in Rome, Lucca, Mantua and Verona. After Italy, he went to Provence. Then he lived in northern France. (Here, he was able to befriend Rabbeinu Tam.) After northern France, he lived in London for a few years, and then went back to Provence in 1161. We do not know where he lived when he died in 1167. (There are four conjectures as to where he was buried: London, Spain, Rome and Israel.)

It was in the second part of his life that he wrote his Torah and Nach commentaries and works on Hebrew grammar. He supported himself, just barely, with commissions from patrons. He wrote a poem about how difficult it was to live this way: “When I come to the patron’s house early in the morning, they say ‘He has already ridden away’ (k’var rachav). When I come in the evening, they say: ‘He has already gone to sleep’ (k’var shachav)…Woe to the poor man born in misfortune (bli kochav)!”

He also wrote famously about his bad luck and poverty: “If my business were in candles, the sun would not set until I died… If I dealt in shrouds, no one would die as long as I lived.”

Four of his children probably died in infancy. His wife also may have died early in his life. His other son Yitzchak also died in his father’s lifetime. (Yitzchak spent most of his life in the Near East. It seems that he converted to Islam while living in Baghdad, but it was probably only a conversion for the sake of appearances.)

When Ibn Ezra arrived in Italy in 1140, he entered a Jewish world vastly different from the one in which he had been raised. The Jews of Italy were Ashkenazic and had no familiarity with the Arabic language. Being among these Italian Jews prompted Ibn Ezra to translate the grammatical works of R. Yehudah ibn Hayyuj (10th century) from Arabic to Hebrew. Hayyuj’s works had inaugurated a new era in the understanding of Biblical Hebrew among the Arabic-speaking Jews of Spain, and Ibn Ezra’s translation of them into Hebrew greatly benefited Ashkenazic Jewry. (It was Hayyuj who developed the idea that Hebrew was a language with three-letter roots.) Ibn Ezra was also motivated to write his own works on Hebrew grammar for the benefit of Ashkenazic Jewry.

Ibn Ezra is reported to have composed over 100 different works. (But most of his works are lost.) He even composed some works in Latin, with the assistance of a Christian scholar. His magnum opus was his commentary on the Torah. He may have written commentaries on all the books of the Neviim and Ketuvim. The only ones that have survived are: Isaiah, Twelve Prophets, Psalms, Job, Daniel and Five Megillot. (The standard printed commentaries labeled as “Ibn Ezra” to Proverbs, Ezra and Nechemiah were not authored by him.)

According to the most recent scholarship, his basic Torah commentary on the five books was written over the years 1142-45. (He had already started some of his Nach commentaries in 1140.) We are also in possession of a second, longer commentary to Exodus. It was the longer Exodus commentary that was printed in the Mikraot Gedolot. We do not know what motivated him to write a second commentary on Exodus. One theory is that it was a revision in response to Rashbam’s commentary, which he had not yet read in the years 1142-45. In the longer version, Ibn Ezra frequently mentions Rashbam’s commentary, although never by name, referring to it simply as “yesh omrim.” (Rashbam lived in France, c. 1080-1160.) Ibn Ezra also attempted a longer commentary on Genesis, but he only completed about one quarter of it. We also have fragments of a third Genesis commentary by him.

Ibn Ezra’s introduction to the Torah also deserves mention. He explained that although previous Torah commentaries had been written, none had explicated the simple, literal meaning. He found the commentaries written by the Geonim unsatisfactory. The Karaitic commentaries ignored rabbinic traditions. The Christian commentaries were too allegorical. The Jewish commentaries written in Christian lands took the midrashim too literally. Also, these commentaries were lacking a proper understanding of Hebrew grammar. Therefore, a new commentary in the way of p’shat (the surface, literal meaning) was necessary, founded on the pillars of rationalism and knowledge of Hebrew and its grammar.

There are a few lessons for us all in the life of Ibn Ezra:

-One’s main accomplishment may not occur until late in life. Ibn Ezra did not even start working on his Torah commentary until 1142, when he was age 50 or 51.

-An individual has no idea of the lasting impact he may have. Ibn Ezra had a very difficult life, due to his emigration from his homeland, his subsequent poverty and wanderings, and the tragedies in his family. He would certainly be shocked as to his long-lasting influence. It is 900 years later and he is not only still being read, he is still being studied extensively! (This is aside from the fact that we still sing some of the zemirot he composed: “Ki Eshmera Shabbat” and “Tzama Nafshi.” I would be happy if my two books were still being read 50 years from now!)

-Most important, God works things out for us in unusual ways. If not for the troubles he was having in Muslim Spain, Ibn Ezra would have remained there. His works would have been composed in Arabic, and would have probably been lost. Even if they would have survived, they would have had little influence on Ashkenazic Jewry at the time, and over the centuries thereafter. It is only because he ended up in Ashkenazic lands that he composed his commentaries in Hebrew and they had the tremendous influence they did. (Ibn Ezra is difficult enough today with all his cryptic remarks! Imagine if we would have to be reading him in translation!) Also, it was his poverty that forced him to continually travel and seek out patrons and write new commentaries, meanwhile benefiting from the exposure to diverse scholars and cultures. Finally, it was an oath taken during a health crisis that forced him to finally start his Torah commentary and not delay it any further. In sum, it was only his travails and troubles that enabled him to bring the intellectual traditions of Spain to non-Arabic speaking Ashkenazic Jewry, and have the lasting influence that he did.

Postscript: There is a widely quoted ethical will from Rambam to his son with the following language: “I exhort you not to pay attention or distract your mind by concentrating on commentaries, treatises and books other than those of Ibn Ezra, which alone are meaningful and profitable…” But it seems that this was not written by Rambam. See Y. Shilat, Iggerot Ha-Rambam, vol. 2, pp. 698. Shilat argues convincingly that this was just a literary forgery from a later period, the period of the polemic against the Rambam’s writings, and that it was written by a proponent of the Rambam and Ibn Ezra. Shilat points out that Rambam only refers to Ibn Ezra one time, very briefly, in all of his known writings! (The reference is not to anything Ibn Ezra wrote. Ibn Ezra’s writings may never have even reached Rambam in Egypt. Rambam died in 1204.)

Acknowledgements: Much of what I wrote above is taken from the excellent summary of Ibn Ezra’s life and works in Rabbi Yonatan Kolatch’s “Masters of the Word,” vol. II (2007). Another very useful source is the article by Nahum Sarna, “Abraham Ibn Ezra as an Exegete,” in “Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra: Studies in the Writings of a Twelfth-Century Jewish Polymath” (1993). Finally, I would like to thank Rabbi Ezra Frazer for providing me some critical articles with the latest scholarship on Ibn Ezra.

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. He has authored two books but no zemirot. For his favorite Ibn Ezra comment, see the last four words of the commentary on “rakot” at Gen. 29:17.


For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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