Abraham Ibn Ezra

A master Torah commentator who foreshadowed biblical criticism

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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.

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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.