About Judah ben Saul Ibn Tibbon
Judah ibn Tibbon was born in Granada in or around the year 1120. When the Almohads entered the city in 1148 and demanded the conversion of all Jews who wanted to stay there, Judah emigrated north to the city of Lunel in Provence. According to Benjamin of Tudela, Lunel was a center of Torah studies, and Judah ibn Tibbon, a physician by profession but learned in philosophy and thoroughly versed in Arabic, helped to support others who came there to study. His arrival in Lunel fortuitously coincided with a growing desire of the Jews of Southern Europe to learn the wisdom of al-Andalus. Important members of the Lunel community—among them Meshullam ben Jacob, the rosh ha-yeshiva—commissioned him to do Hebrew translations of the Andalusian philosophical and scientific corpus, and it is precisely in this capacity that Judah ibn Tibbon became a fundamental and transcendent figure in Hebrew culture.
The greatest difficulty that Judah faced as a pioneer translator was the lack of an appropriate technical language for writing philosophy in Hebrew. As he stated in the prologue to one of his translations, “For all we possess of the Hebrew language is what we find in the Bible, which is not adequate for the needs of every speaking person” (quoted in Sáenz-Badillos, p. 256). As a consequence, he had to initiate the difficult but fruitful process of creating philosophical terminology. The importance of the language that he and his successors developed is so remarkable that in the history of the Hebrew language, it is common to speak of “ Tibbonian Hebrew.”
Of the very extensive corpus of philosophical works in Arabic, which included Greek, Muslim, and Jewish authors, Judah devoted himself to the Jewish writers, clearly leaning toward works of a philosophical-moral nature. Thus he translated Saʿadya Gaon’s Book of Beliefs and Opinions (Heb. Emunot ve-Deʿot; ed. Amsterdam, 1648); Baḥya ibn Paqūda’s Duties of the Hearts (Heb. Ḥovot ha-Levavot; trans. between 1161 and 1180; ed. A. Zifroni, 1927/28), Judah ha-Levi’s Kuzari (ed. A. Zifroni, 1924), and Solomon ibn Gabirol’s Improvement of Moral Qualities (Heb. Tiqqun Middot ha-Nefesh; in 1167; ed. and trans. S. Wise, 1902) and Choice of Pearls (Heb. Mivḥar Peninim; ed. and trans. B. Ascher, 1859). All of these works achieved great popularity in his Hebrew versions. He also translated two works by the great grammarian Jonah ibn Janāḥ, the Book of Roots (Heb. Sefer ha-Shoreshim; ed. W. Bacher, 1896) and The Book of Variegated Flower-Beds (Sefer ha-Riqma; ed. M. Wilensky, 1964). His grandson Moses ibn Tibbon noted that Judah had translated a book on logic by the Muslim philosopher al-Fārābī.
Judah’s translation work was continued by his son and grandson, and for this reason, and because of his pioneering contributions to the field, he became known as “the father of translators.” Before his death, Judah wrote a testament, or ethical will, to his son Samuel in which he advised him on aspects of family life and the practice of medicine. He also discussed such matters as the art of writing (both calligraphy and correct grammar), translation, and love for the Torah and for knowledge. He speaks proudly of the great library he and his son have amassed and alludes to a treatise he wrote on the last chapter of Proverbs, of which there is no documentary evidence.
Abrahams, Israel. Hebrew Ethical Wills (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1976).
Sáenz-Badillos. Angel, A History of the Hebrew Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
Steinschneider, Moritz. Die hebräischen Übersetzungen des Mittelaters und die Juden als Dolmetscher (Berlin: Kommissionsverlag des Bibliographischen Bureaus, 1893; repr. Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1956).
Cite this page
Lola Ferre. "Ibn Tibbon, Judah ben Saul." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online, 2013. <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world/ibn-tibbon-judah-ben-saul-COM_0011200>
Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon (1120 – after 1190) was a translator and physician. Born in Granada, he left Spain in 1150, probably on account persecution by the Almohades, and went to Lunel in southern France. Benjamin of Tudela mentions him as a physician there in 1160. He died around 1190, in Marseille, France.
Judah lived on terms of intimacy with Meshullam ben Jacob and with Meshullam's two sons, Asher and Aaron, whom in his will he recommends as friends to his only son, Samuel. He was also a close friend of Abraham ben David of Posquières and of Zerahiah ha-Levi, the latter of whom he freely recognized as a greater scholar than himself, and whose son he also wished to have as a friend for his own son. He had two daughters whose marriage caused him much anxiety.
Judah's works include the translation into Hebrew of the following: * • Bahya ibn Paquda's Chovot ha-Levavot. The Arabic title of this work was "Al-Hidayah ila Fara'id al-Hulub." In English, 'The Duties of the Heart'.
- He was induced to undertake this work by Meshullam ben Jacob and his son Asher, at whose desire he translated the first treatise, in 1161. After its completion Joseph Kimhi translated the other nine treatises and afterward the first one also. At the wish of Abraham ben David of Posquières, Judah continued his translation of the work. Judah's translation is the only one that has held its place.
- • Solomon ibn Gabirol's Tikkun Middot ha-Nefesh (printed together with the first-mentioned translation at Constantinople in 1550).
- • Judah ha-Levi's Kitab al-Ḥujjah, under the title Sefer ha-Kuzari (1167). In this instance as well, Judah's translation drove that of his rival, Judah ibn Cardinal, out of the field, so that only a small portion of the latter's work has been preserved.
- • Two works by Ibn Janah:
- • His grammar, Kitab al-Luma' , under the title Sefer ha-Rikmah (1171; edited by B. Goldberg, with notes by R. Kirchheim, Frankfurt-on-the-Main, 1856). The translator's preface is interesting for the history of literature, and it gives Judah's opinions on the art of Hebrew translation.
- • Kitab al-Uṣul, under the title Sefer ha-Shorashim (edited by Bacher, Berlin, 1896). Isaac al-Barceloni and Isaac ha-Levi had already translated this dictionary as far as the letter lamed, and Judah finished it in 1171.
- • Saadia's Kitab al-Amanat wal-I'tiḳadat, under the title Sefer ha-Emunot weha-De'ot (1186; first ed. Constantinople, 1562).
Judah's ethical will, with its homely style and frankness, is one of the most interesting in this class of literature. It gives insight into the soul of the man and his relation to his son, also a scholar and translator, Samuel. Against the latter his chief complaint is that he never initiated his father into his literary or business affairs, never asked for his advice, and, in fact, hid everything from him.
He recommends Samuel to practise writing in Arabic, since Jews like Samuel ha-Nagid, for example, attained rank and position solely through being able to write in that language. He exhorts him to morality and to the study of the Torah as well as of the profane sciences, including medicine. He is to read grammatical works on Sabbaths and festivals, and is not to neglect the reading of "Mishle" and of "Ben Mishle."
In regard to his medical practise he gives his son sage advice. He further advises his son to observe rigorously the laws of diet, lest he, like others, become ill frequently in consequence of intemperate and unwholesome eating, which would not fail to engender mistrust in him as a physician on the part of the general public. Interesting are Judah's references to his library as his "best treasure", his "best companion", and to his book-shelves as "the most beautiful pleasure-gardens." He adds:
I have collected a large library for thy sake so that thou needest never borrow a book of any one. As thou thyself seest, most students run hither and thither searching for books without being able to find them. . . .
Look over thy Hebrew books every month, thy Arabic ones every two months, thy bound books every three months. Keep thy library in order, so that thou wilt not need to search for a book. Prepare a list of the books on each shelf, and place each book on its proper shelf. Take care also of the loose, separate leaves in thy books, because they contain exceedingly important things which I myself have collected and written down. Lose no writing and no letter which I leave thee. . . . Cover thy book-shelves with beautiful curtains, protect them from water from the roof, from mice, and from all harm, because they are thy best treasure.
His fine linguistic sense and his conception of the art of translating are shown by his counsels on this subject.
See also • Ibn Tibbon a family list. • Hachmei Provence