Abū Hārūn Mōs̲h̲ē ben Yaʿḳōb ibn ʿEzra, (ibn Ezra) (deceased) MP

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Managed by: Jaim Harlow
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About Abū Hārūn Mōs̲h̲ē ben Yaʿḳōb ibn ʿEzra, (ibn Ezra)

Chronologically, Moses (Abū Har­ūn) ibn Ezra (d. after 1138) was the third of the four most artistically distinguished Hebrew poets of the Andalusian Golden Age of Jewish culture. Born early in the second half of the eleventh century, Ibn Ezra belonged to Zirid Granada’s Jewish aristocracy. As was typical for a young man from so privileged a background, he studied with Isaac ibn Ghiyyāth, the renowned head of the rabbinical academy of Lucena, and so too, throughout his formative years and early adulthood, was deeply engaged in the Andalusian Arabo-Islamic cultural environment.

During the century of political instability and internecine rivalry within Andalusian Islam, the Granadan Jewish community attained such prominence that the city was identified as “Granada of the Jews” (Ar. Gharnātat al-Yahūd). In the years before the Almoravids put an end to the Andalusian mulūk al-ṭawāʾif (party kingdoms), Ibn Ezra and his family seem to have been well connected to the Muslim elites of Granada. As a poet of means, Ibn Ezra had little need for patrons until a critical turning point later in his life, and his dīwān abounds in epistolary lyrics, some seventy of them written as “friendship poems” to other men of letters, rabbinic learning, and courtiers rather than as panegyrics, the professional poet’s stock-in-trade. His circle of teachers, friends, and associates reads like a list of the most eminent figures of the period, including courtiers (Abraham ibn Muhājir), poet-rabbis (Judah ibn Ghiyyāth and Joseph ibn Sahl), grammarian-lexicographers (Isaac ibn Barūn and Levi ibn al-Tabbān, also a poet), and, in particular, the legendary Judah ha-Levi, a protégé of sorts who addressed Ibn Ezra as the “light of the West . . . the learned scholar of Hebrew (ʿ ever) and Arabic (ʿ arav), Moses the Master (ha-rav).”

Ibn Ezra’s literary orientation, even as a young man, inclined toward conservatism and a complete fusion of Arabic and Hebrew elements. Each chapter of his early book of epigrammatic tajnīs (paronomasia) mannerisms is devoted to rhetorical exercises on a different thematic staple of Arabic-style Hebrew verse (e.g., panegyric, lament, wine, garden, love, meditative poetry). With this collection Moses already demonstrates the skill and expert control of ornate rhetorical style (al-badīc ), form, and conventional content that would earn him acclaim as the consummate master of Hebrew and Arabic tradition and as a poet’s poet, one whose poetry “is more pleasing to poets than the others because of his rhetoric and his delightful craftsmanship,” according to a literary-historical review authored by the twelfth-century bellelettrist Judah al-Ḥarīzī. Ibn Ezra’s dīwān includes longer compositions in virtually every Arabic-style Hebrew genre represented in the book of mannerisms. Many poems devoted to serious themes were self-evidently composed during the poet’s later years; nevertheless it is not possible to date unmistakably to Ibn Ezra’s youth the social lyrics in his oeuvre on the themes of wine, love, and the garden, some of which strike a keenly hedonistic poetic chord (“As the cup rides his hand to his mouth, turn and look at that handsome fawn: he raises it so to see his face and I see the sun, being kissed by the moon” [trans. Cole 2007, p. 124]).

Because Ibn Ezra’s poetic voice frequently seems to be the conventional voice of tradition, he is often considered the least innovative of the four Golden Age luminaries. Yet even a conservative literary identity associated with mastery of the complex, composite structures of the Arabic qaṣīda left the poet abundant room for creative literary transactions. Ibn Ezra adapted classical pre-Islamic Arabic thematic elements, such as “the abandoned campsite,” and fused them in unique ways within the Hebrew qaṣīda, on occasion extending the fusion of Arabic literary tradition and biblical Hebrew language to his liturgical verse.

Sometime after 1090 and the Almoravid occupation of Granada, Ibn Ezra was forced to flee from Granada for reasons that escape us. For the next forty-odd years, he wandered as an exile in the Iberian Christian kingdoms, searching (futilely, he reminds the reader at every opportunity) for like-minded literary and religious intellectuals. His poignant cycle of highly personal lyrical complaints dates from this period. These lyrical complaints, which identify the poet as a “prisoner of separation,” stand out as among Ibn Ezra’s signature compositions: they were the perfect conventional literary vehicle with which to express his social alienation, despair, and loneliness in exile and to voice his profound nostalgia for his former home and cultural environment. In one of his most hauntingly beautiful lyrics, the poet speaks of himself in the third person and addresses a little dove in the treetop crooning a mournful tune:

Mourn for him, bemoan his exile

but do not exult in song.

Lend him your wings to fly away to them

and delight in the dust of their land.

The poems in this cycle are also significant for the uncommonly bold manner in which Ibn Ezra obscures the line between his personal travails as an exile from Granada (“How long are my feet consigned to exile, yet to find a resting place? . . . If God will yet restore me to the splendor of Granada, my ways will prosper again”) and his people’s historical exile from its homeland in Palestine, which is addressed elaborately in Jewish tradition. Along the same lines, Ibn Ezra’s appropriation of the emotional valence of the topos of Israel’s collective exile and his application of it to the situation of the individual soul in his liturgical and devotional verse rank among his most creative poetic operations.

In the area of sacred poetry, Ibn Ezra is admired by tradition as the prolific author of deeply penitential strophic liturgical compositions (seliḥot) for the period before the Jewish New Year. For example, the twelfth-century historiographer Abraham Ibn Daʾud (writing shortly after the center of Iberian Jewish life had shifted from al-Andalus to the Christian north) portrays Ibn Ezra as the consummate Andalusian courtier-rabbi “of the family of officials, a great scholar learned in the Torah and Greek wisdom, and a composer of poems and hymns [of such quality] as to melt the heart of his hearers and fill them in awe of their Creator.” Although he was not a philosopher, strictly speaking, Ibn Ezra, like all religious intellectuals, was drawn to philosophical concerns and conversant in the philosophical language of his time. He devoted numerous liturgical compositions to the Neoplatonic theme of the individual soul’s metaphysical quest and its redemption through the practice of contemplation. Ibn Ezra also authored philosophically oriented devotional works in which the poet meditates critically upon the soul and its unique place in Creation. One such contemplative composition, Be-Shem El Asher Amar (In the Name of God Who Spoke), apparently inspired by Solomon ibn Gabirol’s Keter Malkhut (Kingdom’s Crown), serves as a magisterial 164-line poetic introduction to Ibn Ezra’s philosophical-aesthetic-exegetical Arabic treatise (on which see below).

While exiled in the Christian north, Ibn Ezra authored two extant Arabic prose works in the adab (literary miscellany) style. They are both of surpassing importance in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic letters because they typify the interests and concerns of an Andalusian Jewish literary and religious intellectual. Kitāb al-Muḥāḍara wa ʾl-Mudhākara (Book of Conversation and Discussion), ostensibly written in response to eight questions put to Ibn Ezra by a friend, is an artful defense of Andalusi Hebrew poetry in which he sketches the history of the Hebrew verse of al-Andalus and outlines its rhetorical poetics, especially in relation to the (neoclassical Eastern) Arabic poetry which served as its inspiration and model. Ibn Ezra discusses twenty-three tropes of Arabic-Hebrew poetics, offering illustrations from the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’ān, Arabic poetry and Andalusi Hebrew verse, including examples from his own poetry. In the process Kitāb al-Muḥāḍara touches upon a wide range of topics and includes biographical material (more complaints about his exile and intellectual isolation), literary anecdotes, literary-critical remarks (critiques of intemperate poets and praise of outstanding literary and religious intellectuals he admires), personal reflections on the art and craft of poetry, and philosophical comments.

By contrast Maqālat al-Ḥadīqa fī Maʿnā al-Majāz wa ʾl-Ḥaqīqa (Treatise of the Garden on Figurative and Literal Language) is a somewhat more focused work dealing with various issues critical to Neoplatonic thought, including divine unity and incorporeality, and principally with the aesthetic properties of figurative language and their interference with the demands of reason in reading Scripture. That is, like so many philosophically minded works of the period, Maqālat al- Ḥadīqa is concerned with the acute theological problem posed by the anthropomorphic passages in the Hebrew Bible, and it follows the approach of the Muʿtazila and Saʿadya Gaon in reading such unsettling scriptural passages.

Ibn Ezra’s prose literary production from the period when he no longer lived in al-Andalus, as much as his poetic accomplishments, earned him the reputation of a zealous advocate for and stalwart defender of the intertwined worlds of Hebrew and Arabic learning informing Andalusi Jewish culture.

Ross Brann


Brann, Ross. The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), pp. 59–83.

Cole, Peter. The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950–1492 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 121–136.

Fenton, Paul. Philososphie et exégese dans le jardin de la métaphore de Moîse Ibn Ezra, philosophe et poete andalou du XIIe siècle (Leiden: Brill, 1997).

Pagis, Dan. Shirat ha-Ḥol ve-Torat ha-Shir le-Moshe ibn ʿEzra u-Veney Doro (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1970).

Scheindlin, Raymond P. “Moses ibn Ezra,” in Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Al- Andalus, ed. M. R. Menocal, R. P. Scheindlin, and M. Sells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 252–264.

Schirmann, Ḥayyim. The History of Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain, ed., suppl., and annot. Ezra Fleischer (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1995) [Hebrew].

Tanenbaum, Adena. The Contemplative Soul: Hebrew Poetry and Philosophical Theory in Medieval Spain (Leiden: Brill, 2002), pp. 106–145.

Ross Brann. " Ibn Ezra, Moses." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. Jim Harlow. 09 July 2012 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world/ibn-ezra-moses-COM_0010550>

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