Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Abraham ibn Ezra

Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra (also known as Ibn Ezra, or Abenezra) (1092 or 1093-1167), was one of the most distinguished Jewish men of letters and writers of the Middle Ages.

He was born at Toledo, left his native land of Spain before 1140 and led until his death a life of restless wandering, which took him to North Africa, Egypt, Italy (Rome, Lucca, Mantua,Verona), Southern France(Narbonne, Beziers), Northern France (Dreux), England (London), and back again to the South of France.

At several of the above-named places he remained for some time and developed a rich literary activity. In his native land he had already gained the reputation of a distinguished poet and thinker; but, apart from his poems, his works, which were all in the Hebrew language, were written in the second period of his life. With these works, which cover in the first instance the field of Hebrew philology and Biblical exegesis, he fulfilled the great mission of making accessible to the Jews of Christian Europe the treasures of knowledge enshrined in the works written in Arabic which he had brought with him from Spain.

His grammatical writings, among which Moznayim (the Scales, written in 1140) and Zahot (Correctness, written in 1141) are the most valuable, were the first expositions of Hebrew grammar in the Hebrew language, in which the system of Hayyuj and his school prevailed. He also translated into Hebrew the two writings of Hayyuj in which the foundations of the system were laid down.

Of greater original value than the grammatical works of Ibn Ezra are his commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, of which, however, a part has been lost. His reputation as an intelligent and acute expounder of the Bible was founded on his commentary on the Pentateuch, of which the great popularity is evidenced by the numerous commentaries which were written upon it. In the editions of this commentary (ed. princ. Naples 1488) the commentary on the book of Exodus is replaced by a second, more complete commentary of Ibn Ezra, while the first and shorter commentary on Exodus was not printed until 1840. The great editions of the Hebrew Bible with rabbinical commentaries contained also commentaries of Ibn Ezra's on the following books of the Bible: Isaiah, Minor Prophets, Psalms, Job, Pentateuch, Daniel; the commentaries on Proverbs, Ezra and Nehemiah which bear his name are really those of Moses Kimhi. Ibn Ezra wrote a second commentary on Genesis as he had done on Exodus, but this was never finished. There are second commentaries also by him on the Song of Songs, Esther and Daniel.

The importance of the exegesis of Ibn Ezra consists in the fact that it aims at arriving at the simple sense of the text, the Peshat, on grammatical principles. It is in this that, although he takes a great part of his exegetical material from his predecessors, the originality of his mind is everywhere apparent, an originality which displays itself also in the witty and lively language of his commentaries. Ibn Ezra belongs to the earliest pioneers of the higher biblical criticism of the Pentateuch.

His commentaries, and especially some of the longer excursuses, contain numerous contributions to the philosophy of religion. One writing in particular, which belongs to this province (Vosod Mera), 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 neo-platonic 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 died on the 28th of January 1167, the place of his death being unknown.

Table of contents
1 His Mission
2 Biblical Commentaries
3 Hebrew Grammar
4 Smaller Works, Partly Grammatical, Partly Exegetical
5 Religious Philosophy
6 Mathematics, Astronomy, Astrology
7 As Poet

His Mission

The wandering life of an exile, such as Ibn Ezra led for nearly three decades, gave him the opportunity to carry out a mission which was to an eminent degree historical. He became a propagator among the Jews of Christian Europe, who were unacquainted with Arabic, of the science of Judaism, a science which had been founded long before with that language as its literary medium. He was fitted for this mission, as no one else, through the versatility of his learning and through his clear and charming Hebrew style. The great compass of his literary activity will be seen from the following résumé of his works:

Biblical Commentaries

His chief work is the commentary on the Torah, which, like that of Rashi, has called forth a host of super-commentaries, and which has done more than any other work to establish his reputation. It is extant both in numerous manuscripts and in printed editions. The commentary on Exodus published in the printed editions is a work by itself, which he finished in 1153 in southern France.

The complete commentary on the Pentateuch, which, as has already been mentioned, was finished by Ibn Ezra shortly before his death, was called "Sefer ha-Yashar."

In the rabbinical editions of the Bible the following commentaries of Ibn Ezra on Biblical books are likewise printed: Isaiah; the Twelve Minor Prophets; Psalms; Job; the Megillot; Daniel. The commentaries on Proverbs and Ezra (with Nehemiah) which bear Ibn Ezra's name are by Moses Kimhi. Another commentary on Proverbs, published in 1881 by Driver and in 1884 by Horowitz, is also erroneously ascribed to Ibn Ezra. Additional commentaries by Ibn Ezra to the following books are extant: Song of Solomon; Esther; Daniel. He also probably wrote commentaries to a part of the remaining books, as may be concluded from his own references.

Hebrew Grammar

(1) "Moznayim" (1140), chiefly an explanation of the terms used in Hebrew grammar; as early as 1148 it was incorporated by Judah Hadassi in his "Eshkol ha-Kofer," with no mention of Ibn Ezra (see "Monatsschrift," xl. 74), first ed. in 1546.

(2) Translation of the work of Ḥayyuj into Hebrew (ed. Onken, 1844).

(3) "Sefer ha-Yesod," or "Yesod Diḳduḳ," still unedited (see Bacher, "Abraham ibn Ezra als Grammatiker," pp. 8-17).

(4) "ẓaḥot" (1145), on linguistic correctness, his best grammatical work, which also contains a brief outline of modern Hebrew meter; first ed. 1546.

(5) "Safah Berurah" (see above), first ed. 1830.

(6) A short outline of grammar at the beginning of the unfinished commentary on Genesis. The importance of Ibn Ezra's grammatical writings has already been treated in Grammar, Hebrew.

Smaller Works, Partly Grammatical, Partly Exegetical

(1) "Sefat Yeter," in defense of Saadia Gaon against Dunash ben Labraṭ, whose criticism of Saadia, Ibn Ezra had brought with him from Egypt; published by Bislichs 1838 and Lippmann 1843.

(2) "Sefer ha-Shem," ed. Lippmann, 1834.

(3) "Yesod Mispar," a small monograph on numerals, ed. Pinsker, 1863, at the end of his book on the Babylonian-Hebrew system of punctuation.

(4) "Iggeret Shabbat," a responsum on the Sabbath, dated 1158, ed. Luzzatto, in "Kerem Ḥemed," iv. 158 et seq.

Religious Philosophy

"Yesod Mora" (1158), on the division of and reasons for the Biblical commandments; 1st ed. 1529.

Mathematics, Astronomy, Astrology

(1) "Sefer ha-Eḥad," on the peculiarities of the numbers 1-9. (2) "Sefer ha-Mispar" or "Yesod Mispar," arithmetic. (3) "Luhot," astronomical tables. (4) "Sefer ha-'Ibbur," on the calendar (ed. Halberstam, 1874). (5) "Keli ha-Neḥoshet," on the astrolabe (ed. Edelmann, 1845). (6) "Shalosh She'elot," answer to three chronological questions of David Narboni. (7) Translation of two works by the astrologer Mashallah: "She'elot" and "Ḳadrut" (Steinschneider, "Hebr. Uebers." pp. 600-603).

As Poet

There are a great many other poems by Ibn Ezra, some of them religious (the editor of the "Diwan" in an appended list mentions nearly 200 numbers) and some secular.

See also: Rabbi, Rabbinic literature