Abraham ibn Ezra
An illustration of Ibn Ezra (center) making use of an astrolabe.
|Born||c. 1089 - 1092|
|Died||c. 1164 - 1167|
|Known for||writing commentaries, grammarian|
|Children||Isaac ben Ezra|
Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra (Hebrew: אַבְרָהָם בֶּן מֵאִיר אִבְּן עֶזְרָא ʾAḇrāhām ben Mēʾīr ʾībn ʾĒzrāʾ, often abbreviated as ראב"ע; Arabic: إبراهيم المجيد ابن عزرا Ibrāhim al-Mājid ibn Ezra; also known as Abenezra or simply Ibn Ezra, 1089 / 1092 – 27 January 1164 / 23 January 1167) was one of the most distinguished Jewish biblical commentators and philosophers of the Middle Ages. He was born in Tudela in northern Spain.
Abraham Ibn Ezra was born in Tudela, one of the oldest and most important Jewish communities in the present-day Spanish province of Navarre. At the time, the town was under the Muslim rule of the emirs of Zaragoza. However, when he later moved to Córdoba, he claimed it to be his place of birth. Ultimately, most scholars agree that his place of birth was Tudela.
Little is known of Ibn Ezra's family from outside sources; however, he wrote of a marriage to a wife that produced five children. While it is believed four died early, the last-born, Isaac, became an influential poet and later convert to Islam in 1140. The conversion of his son was deeply troubling for Ibn Ezra, leading him to pen many poems reacting to the event for years afterward.
Ibn Ezra was a close friend of Judah Halevi, who was some 14 years older, and the two became close friends. When Ibn Ezra moved to Córdoba as a young man, Halevi followed him. This trend continued when the two began their lives as wanderers in 1137. Halevi died in 1141, but Ibn Ezra continued travelling for three decades, reaching as far as Baghdad. During his travels, he began to compose secular poetry describing the lands through which he was travelling as well as beginning to pen the deeply rational Torah commentaries he would be best remembered for.
In Spain, Ibn Ezra had already gained the reputation of a distinguished poet and thinker. However, apart from his poems, the vast majority of his work was composed after 1140. Written in Hebrew, as opposed to earlier thinkers' use of Judeo-Arabic, these works covering Hebrew grammar, Biblical exegesis, and scientific theory were tinged with the work of Arab scholars he had studied in Spain.
Beginning many of his writings in Italy, Ibn Ezra also worked extensively to translate the works of grammarian and biblical exegetist Judah ben David Hayyuj from their original Judeo-Arabic to Hebrew. Published as early as 1140, these translations became some of the first expositions of Hebrew grammar to be written in Hebrew.
During his time of publishing translations, Ibn Ezra also began to publish his own biblical commentaries. Making use of many of the techniques outlined by Hayyuj, Ibn Ezra would publish his first biblical commentary, a commentary over Kohelet in 1140. He would continue to publish such commentaries over mostly works from Ketuvim and Nevi'im throughout his journey, though he would manage to publish a short commentary over the entire Pentateuch while living in Lucca in 1145. This short commentary would be amended into longer portions beginning in 1155 with the publication of his expanded commentary on Genesis.
Aside his commentaries over the Torah, Ibn Ezra would also publish a multitude of works on science in Hebrew. In doing so, he would continue his mission of spreading the knowledge he had gained in Spain to the Jews throughout the areas he visited and lived. This can be seen particularly in the works he published while living in France. Here, many of the works published can be seen as relating to astrology, and use of the astrolabe.
In his commentary, Ibn Ezra adhered to the literal sense of the texts, avoiding Rabbinic allegory and Kabbalistic interpretation. He exercised an independent criticism that, according to some writers, exhibits a marked tendency toward rationalism.
Indeed, Ibn Ezra is claimed by proponents of the higher biblical criticism of the Torah as one of its earliest pioneers. Baruch Spinoza, in concluding that Moses did not author the Torah, and that the Torah and other protocanonical books were written or redacted by somebody else, cites Ibn Ezra commentary on Deuteronomy. In his commentary, Ibn Ezra looks to Deuteronomy 1:1, and is troubled by the anomalous nature of referring to Moses as being "beyond the Jordan", as though the writer was oriented in the land of Cana'an (west of the Jordan River), although Moses and the Children of Israel had not yet crossed the Jordan at that point in the Biblical narrative. Relating this inconsistency to others in the Torah, Ibn Ezra famously stated,
"If you can grasp the mystery behind the following problematic passages: 1) The final twelve verses of this book [i.e., Deuteronomy 34:1–12, describing the death of Moses], 2) 'Moshe wrote [this song on the same day, and taught it to the children of Israel]' [Deuteronomy 31:22]; 3) 'At that time, the Canaanites dwelt in the land' [Genesis 12:6]; 4) '... In the mountain of God, He will appear' [Genesis 22:14]; 5) 'behold, his [Og king of Bashan] bed is a bed of iron [is it not in Rabbah of the children of Ammon?]' you will understand the truth."
Spinoza concluded that Ibn Ezra's reference to "the truth", and other such references scattered throughout Ibn Ezra's commentary in reference to seemingly anachronistic verses, as "a clear indication that it was not Moses who wrote the Pentateuch but someone else who lived long after him, and that it was a different book that Moses wrote". Spinoza and later scholars were thus able to expand on several of Ibn Ezra's references as a means of providing stronger evidence for Non-Mosaic authorship.
However, Orthodox writers have stated that Ibn Ezra's can be interpreted consistent with traditional Jewish tradition stating that the Torah was divinely dictated to Moses.
Ibn Ezra's commentaries, and especially some of the longer excursuses, contain numerous contributions to the philosophy of religion. One work in particular that belongs to this province, Yesod Mora ("Foundation of Awe"), on the division and the reasons for the Biblical commandments, he wrote in 1158 for a London friend, Joseph ben Jacob. In his philosophical thought neoplatonic ideas prevail; and astrology also had a place in his view of the world. He also wrote various works on mathematical and astronomical subjects.
Ibn Ezra composed his first book on astrology in Italy, before his move to France:
In seven books written in Béziers in 1147–1148 Ibn Ezra then composed a systematic presentation of astrology, starting with an introduction and a book on general principles, and then five books on particular branches of the subject. The presentation appears to have been planned as an integrated whole, with cross-references throughout, including references to subsequent books in the future tense. Each of the books is known in two versions, so it seems that at some point Ibn Ezra also created a revised edition of the series.
There are a great many other poems by Ibn Ezra, some of them religious and some secular – about friendship, wine, didactic or satirical. Like his friend Yehuda Halevi, he used the Arabic poetic form of Muwashshah. His relative Moses ibn Ezra was also a famous poet.
Robert Browning's poem "Rabbi Ben Ezra", beginning "Grow old along with me/The best is yet to be", is derived from a meditation on Ibn Ezra's life and work which appeared in Browning's 1864 Dramatis Personae. 
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "IBN EZRA, ABRAHAM BEN MEÏR (ABEN EZRA)". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
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