Solomon ben Judah Ibn Gabirol

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Solomon ben Judah ibn Gabirol

Solomon ben Judah ibn Gabirol (ca. 1021-ca. 1058) was an outstanding Spanish Hebrew poet and philosopher of the Middle Ages.

Solomon ibn Gabirol was born in Málaga and was orphaned at an early age. He spent his formative years in Saragossa, where he found a generous patron in Yekutiel ibn Hassan. The latter died when Ibn Gabirol was 17, and the youthful poet was forced to resume his wandering. The poetry he wrote during this period reflects his melancholy mood.

In Granada, Ibn Gabirol found a new patron in Samuel he-Nagid, the famous Spanish Jewish statesman, poet, and Talmudist, but when Samuel died, Ibn Gabirol again suffered want and need. It seems that he never married. He died at a young age, some believe before his fortieth birthday (1058), but more probably at the age of 48 (1069).

Ibn Gabirol distinguished himself both in his secular and religious poems. The former were written generally in a light vein, but some of them depict loneliness and despair. About half of his 300 verses that have survived are religious in character. His greatest and longest masterpiece of religious poetry is his Keter Malkhut (Royal Crown), a partly philosophical meditation on struggling man's insignificance before the sublime mystery of the universe and God.

Ibn Gabirol ranks as the first great Spanish Jewish thinker. His chief work, the Mekor Hayyim (Fons vitae, or Fountain of Life), written originally in Arabic, accepts the Neoplatonic ideas of Emanation, expounded primarily by Plotinus. But Ibn Gabirol's view of Emanation differs from that of the Neoplatonists in that his Emanations are the result of the Will of God and not a mere mechanical necessity or flow from the Divine Source. Matter is spiritual and as such streams directly from the Godhead; it becomes corporeal only at a distance from its origin. Perhaps because Ibn Gabirol omitted all biblical allusion in Mekor Hayyim, Jews did not read it; in fact, it was regarded by many as the product either of a Christian scholastic writer or of a Moslem, and "Ibn Gabirol" was frequently corrupted to Avicebron or Avicembril.

Tikkun Middot Ha-nephesh (Improvement of the Moral Qualities), Ibn Gabirol's ethical treatise, despite its many biblical quotations, represented a system of ethics independent of the Jewish tradition. It was based largely on a psychological and physiological approach and urged man to attain harmony in body and soul by disciplining his senses along the lines of Aristotle's golden mean. Although Ibn Gabirol exercised a relatively minor influence on later Jewish thinkers, his Neoplatonic ideas penetrated the medieval Cabala, or Jewish mystic lore.

Further Reading

Israel Davidson, ed. The Selected Religious Poems of Solomon ibn Gabirol (1923), contains an informative introduction by the editor and a splendid collection of Ibn Gabirol's poetic works, including his Keter Malkhut, translated by Israel Zangwill. Abraham E. Millgram, ed., The Anthology of Medieval Hebrew Literature (1935), presents a brief sketch of Ibn Gabirol's life and includes a small selection of his secular and religious poems. A good review of Ibn Gabirol's philosophy may be found in Julius Guttman, The Philosophy of Judaism (trans. 1964). □

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Gabirol, Solomon ben Judah ibn (c.1020– c.1057). Jewish Spanish poet and philosopher. Solomon ibn Gabirol was the author of many Hebrew poems. Many of his religious poems have been preserved in the Sephardi and Ashkenazi prayer books and in Karaite liturgy; he was regarded as the outstanding poet of his time. In addition, two philosophical treatises survive: Mekor Ḥayyim (The Source of Life) is a discussion of the principles of matter and form; and Tikkun Middot ha-Nefesh (The Improvement of the Moral Qualities) is concerned with ethics.

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