Ibn Ezra, Abraham Ben Meïr
IBN EZRA, ABRAHAM BEN MEÏR
Hebrew poet, hymnographer, philologist, grammarian, and commentator on the Bible; b. Toledo (Castile) or Tudela (Navarre), Spain, 1092; d. Calahorra (Logoño), Spain, Jan. 23, 1167. Known to the Christians of the Middle Ages as Ebenare and given the epithet of the Great Sage by his fellow Jews of Spain, Ibn Ezra was one of the most celebrated rabbis of the 12th century. He first settled in Cordova, but being of a restless nature and in quest of an encyclopedic knowledge, he became a wanderer in search of the Eternal. His footsteps can be traced on all the roads of Europe and Egypt; he visited Narbonne (1139), Rome (1140), Salerno, Mantua, and Lucca (1145), Verona (1146–47), Beziers and Rodez in southern France (1155–57), London (1158–59), and again Rome (1166). Shortly after his return to his native land, he died at the age of 75.
During his travels Ibn Ezra never ceased to compose his works. His writings are as varied and turbulent as his life and reflect his versatility and encyclopedic knowledge. His chief work is his commentary on the Bible (printed in rabbinical bibles), which treats of all the OT books except Chronicles; he issued several recensions of his commentary on the Pentateuch. He even availed himself of the cabalistic genre (see cabala) in his works: The Book of the Secrets of the Law (an attempt to explain the mysteries of the Pentateuch); The Mystery of the Form of the Letters; The Enigma of the Quiescent Letters; and The Book of the Name (which treats of the sacred Tetragrammaton YHWH). To these must be added numerous poetic, philological, astronomical, and grammatical works, such as The Book of the Balance of the Holy Tongue, The Book of Purity (of language), The Pure Lip, and The Speech of Nobility, which explains the rare and difficult words of the Bible.
To be appreciated, Ibn Ezra must be seen in the setting of his own time. Contrary to the previous servile and punctilious rabbinical compilations of Palestine and Babylon, the period extending from the 10th to the 15th century ushered in a personal, conscientious, and deeper study of the word of God. Grammar and lexicography became the foundation of a saner and more open-minded exegesis. This became the golden age of Jewish exegesis, and the movement achieved its most brilliant triumphs in the West, especially in Moorish Spain. Ibn Ezra was one of the leaders of this movement. Prolific and marvelously learned, he gave, through his commentaries, added impulse to the Biblical studies of his coreligionists. His prodigious memory enabled him to propagate and popularize in Latin and Saxon lands the works of his illustrious Andalusian compatriots of the 10th and 11th centuries. His supple mind was able to digest them and to set them forth with great clarity.
In his commentary on the Bible he gave attention, first of all, to the grammatical sense of the words, and he then looked for the direct, literal interpretation. The allegorizing so dear to the rabbis and the futile fantasies of the cabalists are absent from this work. With the cabalists, however, he was acquainted, since in other works he developed them with great relish. But in his commentary his erudite and scientific mind showed the way to a group of enlightened men who sought to explain the Bible with the aid of reason and science. He offered for the first time the spectacle of the tension between faith and reason, between traditional piety and a critical approach. His exegetical work vacillated between these two poles just as he himself wandered from one country to the other. He had one fixed purpose—the faithful interpretation of the Bible—and one goal—to reveal to his coreligionists of France, Italy, and England the renaissance of the intellectual and scientific spirit of Jewish Spain. "He can be considered as the first Biblical critic who elevated exegesis to the level of a science" (I. Bloch and E. Levy). Spinoza has described him as having been "a man of free mind and of great erudition."
Ibn Ezra was the first to sense the problem of the different sources in the Pentateuch and the problem of Deutero-Isaia. He was the first to uphold the opinion that in order to cross the Red Sea the Israelites had availed themselves of a low tide and that they had crossed at the end of the gulf. In proposing such daring opinions he felt the necessity of veiling his thought in allusions and involved constructions.
Ordinarily, however, his style was correct, clear, supple, and elegant; his expression was vibrant and witty. Having succeeded in creating a style of remarkable precision, he bequeathed a prose without peer. He made it a point of honor to write in the purest Hebrew, although up to that time Arabic was the cultural bond of the Mediterranean world. Every Jewish writer who then wished to gain an audience with the mass of the people and ensure the diffusion of his ideas wrote in Arabic. Ibn Ezra broke the trend, and he succeeded remarkably well. "One can rightly say of him that he created Hebrew prose as a medium of scientific thought" (Cecil Roth). For this reason also he may be placed in the ranks of the best Hebrew poets and hymn writers, although his poetry is characterized, not by lyrical flights and soulful effusions, but by reflections, maxims, and moralizings. Richard simon declared that "his style approaches that of Sallust."
See Also: jewish philosophy.
Bibliography: w. bacher, The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. j. singer, (New York 1901–06) 6:520–524. s. bernfeld, Encyclopaedia Judaica: Das Judentum in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Berlin 1928–34) 8:326–34l. c. levias, Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, (New York 1939–44) 5:523–525. j. cantera, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 2 1:60–61. d. rosin, "Die Religionsphilosophie Abraham Ibn Ezras," Monatschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judenthums 42–43. d. herzog, "Bemerkungen zu Abraham Ibn Ezra dem Historiker," ibid. 81. r. levy, Astrological Works of Abraham Ibn Ezra (Baltimore 1927).