Aknin, Joseph ben Judah ben Jacob Ibn

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AKNIN, JOSEPH BEN JUDAH BEN JACOB IBN (c. 1150–1220), philosopher and poet. Aknin was born in Barcelona, Spain. Probably as a result of the Almohad persecutions, he, or perhaps his father, moved to North Africa, presumably Fez, Morocco. He remained there until his death, not withstanding his ardent wish to go elsewhere so that he could practice Judaism openly. That he felt guilty about living as a Crypto-Jew is evident from a discussion in which he passed harsh judgment on forced converts. He and Maimonides met each other during the latter's sojourn in Fez and Aknin wrote a sad couplet on the sage's departure for Egypt. However, he must not be identified or confused with Joseph b. Judah ibn *Shimʾon, a disciple of Maimonides, who eventually was wrongly called "ibn Aknin." Little else is known of Aknin's life. He may have been a physician by profession – he certainly was adept in the subject. Nothing is known of his family life or descendants.

Aknin is the author of a number of works:

(1) Sefer Ḥukkim u-Mishpatim, no longer extant, was a book of laws divided into treatises, the first of which dealt with doctrines and beliefs. It may have been modeled on Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, although, unlike this work, it limited itself to laws still practiced by the Jews of the time. He spoke of it as "my major work."

(2) Risālat al-ibānah fi uṣūl al-diyānah ("Clarification of the Fundamentals of Faith") is also no longer extant. Nevertheless, it is known from a passage cited in another work that this work engaged in a discussion of man's freedom.

(3) Ma'amar al ha-Middot ve-ha-Mishkalot is an anonymous medieval Hebrew translation of an Arabic work by Aknin, entitled maqāla le-Rabbenu Yehosef ben Aknin Zal fima'ri fat Kammiyyāb al-maqādīr al-madhkūrafī Torah shebi-khetav ve-Torah she-be'al peh. The Arabic original is extant in manuscript in the Bodleian Library (Ms. Poc. 186; cf. Steinschneider, Arab Lit, 230–1); the Hebrew translation of the work was published in Ginzei Nistarot (ed. by J. Kobak, 3 (1872), 185–200). The introduction states: "It is my purpose to gather all that is scattered in [the] Mishnah and Talmud on coins, weights, measurements, boundaries, and time, and compare it with present-day standards."

(4) Mevo ha-Talmud, written in Hebrew and divided into 12 chapters, concerns "principles which a person must know if he desires to become skilled in talmudic lore." It was published under the title Einleitung in den Talmud with an introduction by H. Graetz in Festschrift… Zacharias *Frankel (Breslau, 1871; repr. 1967).

(5) Ṭibb al-Nufūs al-Salīma wa-Muʿālajat al-Nufūs al-Alīma ("The Hygiene of Healthy Souls and the Therapy of Ailing Souls") is an ethical compilation written in Arabic. After a lengthy introductory chapter, in which Aknin offers his views on the composition of the soul and the functions of its three parts, and in which he explains his beliefs regarding the afterlife of both the righteous and the wicked, he turns to an examination of such themes as speech and silence, keeping a secret, filial piety, food and drink, the true goods in life, and so forth. He urges moderation in all areas with a clear suggestion of the futility of material self-indulgence and the gain of spiritual and religious pursuit. Every section opens with a statement of the right course, supported by rabbinic references and followed in many instances by epigrams and sayings culled from classical and Arabic studies. Chapter 26, which deals with "the trials and tribulations which afflict us," reviews the oppressive laws of Abu Yūsuf Yaʿqūb al-Mansūr, one of the Almohad rulers (cf. Halkin in bibl.). Chapter 27, on "the disciplines of teacher and student," lists the Çnecessary qualification of the instructor, the conditions required of a good student, and the curriculum of study. Until the age of 30, the student should be concerned with traditional Jewish lore, which he should master to such a degree that he will be able to hold his ground when apparent difficulties and challenges seem to impugn the validity of tradition. The rest of his life should be devoted to the cultivation of logic, music, mathematics, mechanics, and metaphysics. This chapter was published in its Arabic original and a German translation by M. Guedemann, in his Das judische Unterrichtswesen waehrend der spanisch arabischen Periode (1873, pp. 43–138, and appendix pp. 1–57); and in Hebrew by S. Epstein, in: Sefer ha-Yovel… N. Sokolow (1904, pp. 371–88).

(6) Sefer ha-Musar, written in Hebrew, is a commentary on the mishnaic tractate Pirkei Avot. In it Aknin follows Maimonides' commentary on this tract, and although he does not follow it slavishly, the latter's influence is obvious. Interested in psychology and ethics, he dwells particularly on statements that deal with conduct, beliefs, and dispositions. He often develops as part of his exposition lengthy discussions on the constitution of the soul, man's responsibility for his actions, miracles in a world governed by natural laws, creation, and other metaphysical issues. The work was edited by W. Bacher as Sefer Musar (1910).

(7) Inkishāf al-asrār wa-ṭuhūr al-anwār ("The Divulgence of Mysteries and the Appearance of Lights") is a commentary in Arabic on the Song of Songs. The work starts from the premise that it would be preposterous to believe that the wise King Solomon would compose a love story or indulge in erotic banter: the book bears such an external character simply as a pedagogic expedient to attract the young. According to his interpretation, the Song of Songs is a description of the mutual craving of the rational soul and the active intellect and the obstacles in the path of their union. Aknin boasts that no one preceded him in this approach to an interpretation of the Song of Songs. In fact, although Maimonides plainly offered a general explanation of the book along these lines, Aknin was the first to work out the theme in detail in a complete commentary. In his commentary he offers a tripartite explanation of each verse: first, what he calls the exoteric sense, that is, an explanation of the grammatical forms and of the plain meaning, but he avoids the introduction of the erotic aspect; second, what he calls the rabbinic interpretation, an explanation concerned with the fate of Israel, its tragedy, and its hopes (this is the most widely accepted allegorical interpretation, which is drawn from various literary compilations, mainly Midrashim on the Song of Songs); and third, the endowment of each word in the verse under discussion with implications of physiology, psychology, logic, and philosophy, which Aknin consistently opens with the phrase "and according to my conception." This work was edited and translated into Hebrew by A.S. Halkin as Hitgallut ha-Sodot ve-Hofa'at ha-Me'orot (1964).

Aknin is typical of a group of intellectuals in the Jewish community under Islam that was impressed with the learning and doctrines of Greek and Hindu origin cultivated by Muslim intellectuals. However, he saw no conflict between his religious and secular learning. He was certain of the validity of his Jewish beliefs and way of life, and he was convinced that the ultimate goals of his Jewish and secular learning were identical. Aknin did not leave a mark on his peers in his or later generations, and his influence, evidently, was very limited.


A.S. Halkin, in: paajr, 14 (1944), 25–147; idem, in: Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume (1950), 389–424; idem, in: Joshua Starr Memorial Volume (1953), 101–10; idem, in: Sefer ha-Yovel… Ẓevi Wolfson (1965), 93–111; Guttmann, Philosophies, 188–90.

[Abraham Solomon Halkin]