Abraham Ibn Ezra

A master Torah commentator who foreshadowed biblical criticism

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Abraham Ibn Ezra--poet, philosopher, grammarian, and biblical exeget (1089-1164)-- was born in Tudela, Spain, where he lived until he left in 1140 to wander to other lands. His life is consequently divided by historians into two periods, that of his residence in Spain, where he wrote many of his poems, and that of his sojourn in various Jewish communities outside Spain in which his other works were compiled.

Few details of his personal life in Spain are known, or why he left that country. It has been conjectured that the reason for his "troubled spirit," as he puts it, in Spain, was that his son, Isaac, was converted to Islam, though the son later returned to Judaism. His wife seems to have died after he had left Spain. Details of Ibn Ezra's wanderings are, however, known from the names of the places he recorded in his works. Through these it is known that he lived in Italy, France, and England. He appears to have earned his living in these places by teaching the sons of wealthy Jews and, though of a fiercely independent temperament, he allowed himself also to be supported by a number of patrons of learning.

He writes that, from time to time, he tried to engage in various business enterprises but met with no success in these. In a satiric poem, he writes that if he manufactured candles it would never get dark and if he sold shrouds no one would die! The picture which emerges is of a highly gifted wandering scholar (he was, in addition to his other attainments, a mathematician and astronomer of note and he dabbled in astrology) who, undeterred by the odds, somehow managed to survive to compile works of permanent value. He is the hero of Browning's poem "Rabbi Ben Ezra."

Poetry and Theology

Ibn Ezra's poems, both secular and religious, are among the choicest examples of Hebrew poetry. One of his liturgical compositions is printed at the beginning of many prayer books.

His theological works include Sefer Ha-Shem (Book of the Name), on the names of God, and Yesod Mora (Fountain of Fear) on the meaning of the precepts of the Torah. His Iggret Ha-Shabbat (Letter on the Sabbath) was written while he was staying in England. The Sabbath, he says, came to him in a dream to urge him to compile the work as a refutation of the heretical opinion that Sabbath begins in the morning and ends on the next morning in contradiction to the traditional view that it begins at sundown and ends at sundown the following day.

But Ibn Ezra is chiefly important and influential in the history of the Jewish religion for his commentaries to the bible, chief of which is his commentary to the Pentateuch. This work was first published in Naples in 1488, has since been printed many times in editions of the Pentateuch together with the text, and has taken its place beside the works of Rashi, Rashbam, Nahmanides among the standard Jewish commentaries to the Pentateuch, the Torah.

Torah Commentary

Ibn Ezra, a man of boundless curiosity, often draws on his own experiences in his travels to elucidate biblical texts. In his comment on the command to eat unleavened bread (matzah) on Passover, he notes that when he visited a prison in England, prisoners were provided with unleavened bread, so he sees the command as symbolic both of the Israelites' redemption from Egyptian bondage and of the bondage itself, surmising that they, too, were obliged to eat this kind of "prison" bread while in Egypt.

Also while in London, he saw the thick mist rising from the Thames and this led him to explain the plague of darkness in terms of a mist rising from the Nile. As a skillful grammarian, Ibn Ezra is profoundly concerned in his commentary with Hebrew philology and syntax. In his comment to the first verse of Genesis, for example, he denies that the word bara ("created") must mean, as others have argued, creation ex nihilo [creation from nothing], since the same root is used for the creation of man, and man was created out of the dust.

Ibn Ezra usually writes in a cryptic style, leaving much room for conjecture as to his meaning, probably because he was aware of the daring nature of some of his ideas which might lead the ignorant to unbelief. He is not averse to suggesting original interpretations of biblical events, as when he suggests that divine providence had so ordered it that Moses was raised in Pharaoh's palace. Had Moses been brought up among his fellow Israelites, they would have been too familiar with him from his youth to have respect for him as their leader. Moreover, the future leader had to have a regal upbringing and an aristocratic background to endow him with the nobility of character suitable for a leader.

In his rhymed introduction to his commentary to the Pentateuch, Ibn Ezra rejects the four different exegetical methods current in his day: the diffuse method; the untraditional and too individualistic methods of the Karaites; the allegorical method; and the homiletic method pursued by the Rabbis of the Midrash.

Embracing Literalism

Ibn Ezra himself favors a fifth method in which, wherever possible, the plain meaning of the text is uncovered and accepted as the true meaning, except, with regard to the laws of the Torah, when this runs counter to the Jewish tradition. His guiding principle is that the human intellect is an "angel sent from God." Legend and homily should be accepted for what they are, pure poetry and fancy, often valuable in themselves but impossible to accept as factual where they are contradicted by reason and common sense. For instance, the Midrashic comment that the Torah was created 2,000 years before the creation of the world is all very well as a pleasant way of pointing to the superiority of the Torah above all things; but such a notion cannot be taken literally, since there cannot have been any "years" before the creation of the world, years themselves being part of the creation.

In a sense, Ibn Ezra was the forerunner of biblical criticism. He held that the second part of the book of Isaiah could not have been written by the prophet Isaiah, since it speaks of events that occurred well over a hundred years after Isaiah's death and there is no indication that these were prophesies about future events.

Spinoza maintained with justice that Ibn Ezra hints that there are post-Mosaic additions to the Pentateuch. In a comment to: "These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan" (Deuteronomy 1:1) he hints that this verse could not have been written by Moses since the words "beyond the Jordan imply that the writer was in the land of Israel, whereas Moses would not have referred to his location as "beyond the Jordan."

He then proceeds to hint at other verses, such as the last twelve verses of the Pentateuch which tell how Moses went up on Mount Sinai to die there, which could not have been written by Moses. More Orthodox interpreters of Ibn Ezra declare that he believed that these verses were written by Moses but as a prophesy of future events. Spinoza (he was anticipated by the fourteenth century Joseph Bonfils in his commentary to Ibn Ezra) understands Ibn Ezra to be saying that these verses are post-Mosaic additions. The sixteenth-century Italian historian Azariah de Rossi understood Ibn Ezra in this way and attacked him for daring to depart from the established Jewish tradition that the whole of the Pentateuch was written by Moses.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.