Ibn ʿEzraʾ, Avraham

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IBN ʿEZRAʾ, AVRAHAM (c. 1089c. 1164), was a Jewish biblical commentator and poet. Born in Christian Spain, Ibn ʿEzraʾ was educated both in traditional Jewish literature and in secular subjects. He was a friend of the theologian and poet Yehudah ha-Levi and recorded his answer to Yehudah's question about God in his commentary on Exodus 20:2. After leaving Spain in 1140, Ibn ʿEzraʾ spent the rest of his life traveling through Italy, France, and England. Most of his works were written during this period.

In his travels Ibn ʿEzraʾ carried with him the intellectual achievements of Judeo-Muslim culture in Spain. One of the first to write on secular subjects in Hebrew (rather than Arabic), which required that he develop a technical vocabulary for standard scientific terms, he exposed Jews outside the Iberian Peninsula to the sophisticated study of Hebrew grammar and to other new areas of scholarly investigation.

Ibn ʿEzraʾ wrote several original treatises on mathematics, astronomy, and scientific instruments, chapters of what may have been intended as an encyclopedia of astrology, and Hebrew translations of Arabic scientific works, some no longer extant in the original. More a systematizer than a profoundly original scientific thinker, he was important for his transmission of Arabic science to the West and for his efforts to integrate all bodies of knowledge with biblical exegesis and Jewish doctrine. Some traditionalists viewed him as a dangerous proponent of possibly heretical teachings.

The poetry of Ibn ʿEzraʾ broke away from classical Andalusian Hebrew poetics to a more popular mode. ay ben Mei, modeled after Abū ʿAlī Ibn Sīnā's (9801037) ayy ibn Yaqān, is perhaps the first attempt at sustained allegory in medieval Hebrew literature. At the same time Ibn ʿEzraʾ was one of the last of the Spanish liturgical poets. His commentary on Ecclesiastes 5:1 contains an apologia for the newer, Spanish style, celebrating clarity of expression and purity of biblical diction. His commentary also contains an incisive critique of the older form, represented by the great medieval liturgical poet Elʿazar Kallir, for its intermixing of biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, grammatical errors, and intentional obscurity. Poetry used in prayer, he argued, must be intelligible to the masses.

Yesod Mora ʾ (c. 1160) treats many standard problems of medieval Jewish religious and ethical thought. The Iggeret ha-Shabbat was written to defend the traditional Jewish view that the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday evening.

Ibn ʿEzraʾ composed commentaries on all the books of the Hebrew Bible, although some have been lost. The introduction to his commentary on the Torah provides a critical review of contemporary biblical exegesis. Four types of commentators are censured: (1) those who frequently incorporate scientific treatises into comments on biblical phrases; (2) the Karaites, who reject rabbinic tradition; (3) those who make the Torah into a cryptic expression of esoteric doctrine; and (4) those who fill their commentaries with homiletic interpretations from the rabbis. Ibn ʿEzraʾ then outlines his own method, heavily dependent upon grammar and semantics. His plan was first to explain each problematic word and then to explicate the simple meaning of the passage as a whole.

These biblical commentaries remained the most enduringly influential part of Ibn ʿEzraʾ's oeuvre, engendering more than a dozen supercommentaries, many of which attempted to elucidate the "secrets" to which he occasionally referred. Some of his interpretations were scathingly rebutted by Moses Nahmanides (Mosheh ben Nahman, 11941270), who referred to his "open rebuke and hidden love" for Ibn ʿEzraʾ. Barukh Spinoza (16321677), in chapter eight of Theological-Political Treatise (1670), cited the comments of Ibn ʿEzraʾ on Genesis 12:6 and Deuteronomy 1:1 as evidence that the medieval commentator had anticipated his own position in questioning the Mosaic authorship of the entire Pentateuch.

See Also

Literature, article on Critical Theory and Religious Studies; Nahmanides, Moses; Spinoza, Baruch; Yehudah ha-Levi.


The explosion of interest in various aspects of Ibn ʿEzraʾ's oeuvre is reflected in Robert Singerman's bibliographic survey, "Abraham ibn ʿEzraʾ Scholarship, 19701990," Jewish Book Annual 49 (19911992). Two collections of essays, Isadore Twersky and Jay M. Harris, eds., Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (Cambridge, Mass., 1993); and Peter J. Tomson, ed., Abraham ibn Ezra: Savant universel (Brussels, 2000), contain studies of his biblical exegesis, philological and grammatical work, scientific treatises, poetry, and influence. A thorough treatment of Ibn ʿEzraʾ's method as a commentator is in Ezra Zion Melamed's Mefarshei ha-miraʾ, vol. 2, pp. 515714 (Jerusalem, 1975). Annotated translations of Ibn ʿEzraʾ's commentary on the Pentateuch are Jay F. Schachter, The Commentary of Abraham Ibn ʿEzraʾ on the Pentateuch: Leviticus (Hoboken, N.J., 1986); and H. Norman Strickman and Arthur M. Silver on the four other books, Ibn Ezra's Commentary on the Pentateuch (New York, 19882001). Irene Lancaster, Deconstructing the Bible (London, 2003), is a translation and detailed analysis of Ibn ʿEzraʾ's introduction to the Torah commentary. Israel Levin's Avraham ibn-ʿEzra: Hayyav ve-shirato (Tel Aviv, 1969) is a good general treatment of his poetry. Selected translations are in Leon J. Weinberger's Twilight of a Golden Age (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1997). Ibn ʿEzraʾ's major ethical work has been translated and edited by Strickman, The Secret of the Torah (Northvale, N.J., 1995). Important investigations of his scientific treatises are Bernard Goldstein, "Astronomy and Astrology in the Works of Abraham ibn Ezra," in Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 6 (1996): 921; Tzvi Langermann, "Some Astrological Themes in the Thought of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra," in Twersky and Harris, pp. 2885; and Tony Lévy, "Abraham ibn Ezra et les mathematiques: remarques bibliographiques et historiques," in Tomson, pp. 6075; and, comprehensively, Shlomo Sela, Abraham ibn Ezra and the Rise of Medieval Hebrew Science (Leiden, Netherlands, 2003). Levin provides an annotated Hebrew anthology of all genres of Ibn ʿEzraʾ's work in Yalu Avraham ibn ʿEzraʾ (New York, 1985).

Marc Saperstein (1987 and 2005)

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Ibn ʿEzraʾ, Avraham

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