Abraham ibn Ezra

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Abraham ibn Ezra

Hebrew: אברהם אבן עזרא
Birthplace: Nafarroa, Nafarroa, Espainia
Death: Died in Calahorra, La Rioja, España
Managed by: Ilana Burgess
Last Updated:

About Abraham ibn Ezra

Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra אברהם אבן עזרא or ראב"ע, ابن عزرا; Abenezra (1089–1164) was born at Tudela, Navarre in 1089, and died c. 1167, apparently in Calahorra.

He was one of the most distinguished Jewish men of letters and writers of the Middle Ages. Ibn Ezra excelled in philosophy, astronomy/astrology, mathematics, poetry, linguistics, and exegesis; he was called The Wise, The Great and The Admirable Doctor.

He left Spain before 1140 to escape persecution of the Jews by the new fanatical regime of the Almohads. He led a life of restless wandering, which took him to North Africa, Egypt (in 1109, maybe in the company of Yehuda Halevi), the Land of Israel, Italy (Rome in 1140-1143, Lucca, Mantua, Verona), Southern France (Rodez, Narbonne, Béziers), Northern France (Dreux), England (London, and Oxford in 1158), and back again to Narbonne in 1161, until his death on January 23 or 28, 1167, the exact location unknown: maybe at Calahorra at the border of Navarre and Aragon, or maybe in Rome or in the Holy Land. There is a legend that he died in England from a fever and a sickness which came upon him after an encounter with a pack of wild black dogs. This legend is attached to the belief that he denied the existence of demons.

The Golden Age of Spain produced some magnificent Jewish scholars. One of these was Abraham Ibn Ezra. Born in 1089, Ibn Ezra was a friend of Judah HaLevi. Tradition maintains that Ibn Ezra married Judah HaLevi's daughter.

After three of his children died and one son converted to Islam, Ibn Ezra became a wanderer. It was during his self-chosen exile that he wrote his brilliant works. Ibn Ezra was a poet, astrologist, scientist, and Hebrew grammarian. All the Hebrew grammar books to that time had been written in Arabic including Saadia Gaon's famous work. When he discovered that the Jews of Italy didn't understand Hebrew grammar, he wrote an excellent book in Hebrew which became a best-seller. It elucidated for Jews living in Christian Europe Hayyuj's tri- letter root theory.

Ibn Ezra also introduced the decimal system to Jews living in the Christian world. He used the Hebrew alef to tet for 1–9, but added a special sign to indicate zero. He then placed the tens to the left of the digits in the usual way.

In his travels, ibn Ezra met Rabbenu Tam (the grandson of Rashi) in France, and they apparently discussed Halachah and Torah.

Ibn Ezra's most famous work was his commentary on the Bible. Unlike Rashi, Ibn Ezra didn't want to use midrash in his explanations. He concentrated on the grammar and literal meaning of the text. His most controversial beliefs were all couched in very careful language; scholars suspect that Ibn Ezra did not believe that the Torah was written by Moses on Mount Sinai. He found seams and grammatical problems which indicated that the Torah was written over a period of time. He didn't dare proclaim this opinion openly; it would have meant his death. However, there are hints of his suspicions within his commentary. He carefully used the phrase, "And the intelligent will understand" whenever he discussed a controversial insight.

Although Abraham ibn Ezra was not a systematic philosopher, he presented philosophical positions in his biblical commentaries. He was essentially neoplatonic and was strongly influenced by Solomon ibn Gabirol. He introduced into his biblical commentaries excerpts from Gabirol's allegorical interpretation of the account of the Garden of Eden. He described God's relation to the world in a pantheistic-emanationist manner and like Gabirol said of God that "He is all, and all comes from Him; He is the source from which everything flows." Ibn Ezra described the process of the world's emanation from God by the neoplatonic image of the process of the multiplication of numbers from the One, and as the process of speech issuing from the mouth of a speaker.

He suggested that the form and matter of the intelligible world emanated from God, whereas terrestrial matter was pre-existent and uncreated. The intelligible world, like God, was eternal, while the terrestrial world was created in time and through the mediation of the intelligible world.

The terrestrial world, however, was not created ex nihilo, but from pre-existent terrestrial matter. The biblical account of creation relates only to the terrestrial world. Accordingly, he interpreted the word Elohim ("God," Genesis. 1:1) as the intelligible world or angels, and the word bara ("created") as "He limited." Ibn Ezra divided the universe into three "worlds:" the "upper world" of intelligibles or angels; the "intermediate world" of the celestial spheres; and the lower, sublunar "world" which was created in time. His images of creation powerfully influenced later generations of kabbalists.

Works (Wikipedia)

At several of the above-named places, Ibn Ezra 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 ("Scales", 1140) and Zahot (Tzahot = "Dazzlings", 1141) are the most valuable, were the first expositions of Hebrew grammar in the Hebrew language, in which the system of Judah 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, the Books of Chronicles have 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.

Ibn Ezra also wrote a commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes. Uncharacteristically of either Ibn Ezra's other commentaries on biblical works, or of Jewish exegesis of the time, the commentary on Ecclesiastes begins with an autobiographical poem (written in the third person) relating his life experience to the material in Ecclesiastes. Although the poem states that he fled "from [my] home in Spain/Going down to Rome with heavy spirit," this does not resolve the question of what intermediate journeys Ibn Ezra may have made before settling in Rome, possibly in the company of R' Yehudah HaLevi.

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 is claimed by the proponents of the higher biblical criticism of the Pentateuch as one of its earliest pioneers. Baruch Spinoza, basing his opinion on verses cited by Ibn Ezra in the beginning of Deuteronomy, concludes that Moses did not author the Pentateuch and that the Pentateuch was written much later.[7] Spinoza and later scholars were able to expand on several of Ibn Ezra's hints and provide much stronger evidence for Non-Mosaic authorship.[8] Some Orthodox writers have recently addressed one of Ibn Ezra's hints that can be interpreted to be consistent with the Orthodox Jewish creed that the entire Pentateuch was divinely dictated in a word-perfect manner 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 which 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 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, among which "three treatises on numbers which helped to bring the Indian symbols and ideas of decimal fractions to the attention of some of the learned people in Europe"

In his commentary, Ibn Ezra adheres to the literal sense of the texts, avoiding Rabbinic allegories and Cabbalistic interpretations, though he remains faithful to the Jewish traditions. This does not prevent him from exercising an independent criticism, which, according to some writers,[11] borders on rationalism[citation needed]. In contrast his other works, the most important of which include The Book of the Secrets of the Law, The Mystery of the Form of the Letters, The Enigma of the Quiescent Letters, The Book of the Name, The Book of the Balance of the Sacred Language and The Book of Purity of the Language, demonstrate a more Cabbalistic viewpoint[citation needed]. They were written during his life of travel, and they reflect the unsteadiness of his outward circumstances.

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 study 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 ("Book of the Straight").

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-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

  • • 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. The most recent edition is Sefer Moznayim. Introducción (en castellano e inglés). Edición crítica del texto hebreo y versión castellana de Lorenzo Jiménez Patón, revisada, completada y reelaborada por Angel Sáenz-Badillos. Córdoba: Ediciones el Almendro, 2002.
  • • Translation of the work of Hayyuj into Hebrew (ed. Onken, 1844).
  • • Sefer ha-Yesod, or Yesod Diqduq, (see Bacher, "Abraham ibn Ezra als Grammatiker," pp. 8–17). It has been published by N. Allony: Yesod Diqduq. Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-rav Kook, 1984.
  • • Tzakhot (1145), on linguistic correctness, his best grammatical work, which also contains a brief outline of modern Hebrew meter; first ed. 1546. There is a critical edition by C. del Valle: Sefer Sahot. Salamanca: Univ. Pontificia de Salamanca, 1977.
  • • Safah Berurah (see above), first ed. 1830. A critical edition has been recently published: Śafah bĕrurah. La lengua escogida. Introducción (en castellano e inglés). Edición crítica del texto hebreo y versión castellana de Enrique Ruiz González, revisada, completada y reelaborada por Angel Sáenz-Badillos. Córdoba: Ediciones el Almendro, 2004.
  • • 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.
  • • A defence of Saadyah Gaon against Adonim's criticisms: Sefer Haganah ‘al R. Sa‘adyah Gaon. Ed. I. Osri, Bar-Ilan University, 1988.

Smaller Works, Partly Grammatical, Partly Exegetical

  • • Sefat Yeter, in defense of Saadia Gaon against Dunash ben Labrat, whose criticism of Saadia, Ibn Ezra had brought with him from Egypt; published by Bislichs 1838 and Lippmann 1843.
  • • Sefer ha-Shem, ed. Lippmann, 1834.
  • • Yesod Mispar, a small monograph on numerals, ed. Pinsker, 1863, at the end of his book on the Babylonian-Hebrew system of punctuation.
  • • Iggeret Shabbat, a responsum on the Sabbath, dated 1158, ed. Luzzatto, in "Kerem Hemed," iv. 158 et seq.

Religious Philosophy

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

Mathematics and Astronomy

  • • Sefer ha-Ekhad, on the peculiarities of the numbers 1-9.
  • • Sefer ha-Mispar or Yesod Mispar, arithmetic.
  • • Lukhot, astronomical tables.
  • • Sefer ha-'Ibbur, on the calendar (ed. Halberstam, 1874).
  • • Keli ha-Nekhoshet, on the astrolabe (ed. Edelmann, 1845).
  • • Shalosh She'elot, in answer to three chronological questions of David Narboni.


Ibn Ezra composed his first book on astrology in Italy, before his move to France:

  • • Mishpetai ha-Mazzelot ("Judgments of the Zodiacal Signs"), on the general principles of astrology

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.

  • • Reshit Hokhma ("The Beginning of Wisdom"), an introduction to astrology, perhaps a revision of his earlier book (tr. 1998, M. Epstein)
  • • Sefer ha-Te'amim ("Book of Reasons"), an overview of Arabic astrology, giving explanations for the material in the previous book. (tr. 1994, M. Epstein)
  • • Sefer ha-Moladot ("Book of Nativities"), on astrology based on the time and place of birth
  • • Sefer ha-Me'orot ("Book of Luminaries" or "Book of Lights"), on medical astrology
  • • Sefer ha-She'elot ("Book of Interrogations"), on questions about particular events
  • • Sefer ha-Mivharim ("Book of Elections", also known as "Critical Days"), on optimum days for particular activities
  • • Sefer ha-Olam ("Book of the World"), on the fates of countries and wars, and other larger-scale issues
  • • Translation of two works by the astrologer Mashallah ibn Athari: "She'elot" and "Qadrut" (Steinschneider, "Hebr. Uebers." pp. 600–603).
  • • Sela, Shlomo, ed./trans. Abraham Ibn Ezra: The Book of Reasons. A Parallel Hebrew-English Critical Edition of the Two Versions of the Text. Leiden: Brill, 2007.
  • • Discovered the lunar crater Abenezra

As Poet

Wikisource has original text related to this article:

  • The Song of Chess

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 - about love, friendship,wine, didactic or satyrical ; As his friend Yehuda Halevi used the Arabic poetic form of Muwashshah.

References and footnotes

  • 1. ^ It has been a common error to publish that he was born in Toledo, Spain, however this is due to an incorrect reading of Hebrew written documents.
  • 2. ^ Encyclopaedia Judaica, pages 1163-1164
  • 3. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia (online); Chambers Biographical Dictionary gives the dates 1092/93 – 1167
  • 4. ^ Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition www.sacred-texts.com chapter 3, pp. 26-27
  • 5. ^ BDB Lexicon, page 850
  • 6. ^ Jewishencyclopedia.com, entry for Ibn Ezra, Abraham Ben Meir http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7985-ibn-ezra-abraham-ben-meir-aben-ezra
  • 7. ^ http://www.sacred-texts.com/phi/spinoza/treat/tpt12.htm
  • 8. ^ See for example, "Who wrote the Bible" and the "Bible with Sources Revealed" both by Richard Elliott Friedman
  • 9. ^ http://text.rcarabbis.org/?p=434#comments , postings from Nov. 24-25, 2009
  • 10. ^ Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson, http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Ezra.html
  • 11. ^ see introduction to Yam Shel Shlomo by Rabbi Shlomo Luria
  • 12. ^ Shlomo Sela (2000), Encyclopedic aspects of Ibn Ezra's scientific corpus, in Steven Harvey (ed), The medieval Hebrew encyclopedias of science and philosophy: proceedings of the Bar-Ilan University conference., Springer. ISBN 0-7923-6242-X. See pp. 158 et seq.

Article references

  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906.
  • • Carmi, T. (ed.), "The Penguin book of Hebrew verse", Penguin Classics, 2006, London ISBN 978-0-14-042467-6
  • • Epstein, Meira, "Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra" - An article by Meira Epstein, detailing all of ibn Ezra's extant astrological works
  • • Glick, Thomas F.; Livesey, Steven John; and Wallis, Faith, Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia, Routledge, 2005. ISBN 0-415-96930-1. Cf. pp. 247–250.
  • • Goodman, Mordechai S. (Translator), The Sabbath Epistle of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra,('iggeret hashabbat). Ktav Publishing House, Inc., New Jersey (2009). ISBN 978-1-60280-111-0
  • • Holden, James H., History of Horoscopic Astrology, American Federation of Astrologers, 2006. ISBN 0-86690-463-8. Cf.pp 132–135.
  • • Jewish Virtual Library, Abraham Ibn Ezra
  • • Johansson, Nadja, Religion and Science in Abraham Ibn Ezra's Sefer Ha-Olam (Including an English Translation of the Hebrew Text)
  • • Langermann, Tzvi, "Abraham Ibn Ezra", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006. Accessed 21 June 2011.
  • • Levine, Etan. Ed., Abraham ibn Ezra's Commentary to the Pentateuch, Vatican Manuscript Vat. Ebr. 38. Jerusalem: Makor, 1974.
  • • Sela, Shlomo, "Abraham Ibn Ezra's Scientific Corpus Basic Constituents and General Characterization", in Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, (2001), 11:1:91-149 Cambridge University Press
  • • Sela, Shlomo, Abraham Ibn Ezra and the Rise of Medieval Hebrew Science, Brill, 2003. ISBN 90-04-12973-1
  • • Siegel, Eliezer, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra's Commentary to the Torah
  • • skyscript.co.uk, 120 Aphorisms for Astrologers by Abraham ibn Ezra
  • • skyscript.co.uk, Skyscript: The Life and Work of Abraham Ibn Ezra
  • • Smithuis, Renate, "Abraham Ibn Ezra's Astrological Works in Hebrew and Latin: New Discoveries and Exhaustive Listing", in Aleph (Aleph: Historical Studies in Science and Judaism), 2006, No. 6, Pages 239-338
  • • Wacks, David. "The Poet, the Rabbi, and the Song: Abraham ibn Ezra and the Song of Songs." Wine, Women, and Song: Hebrew and Arabic Literature in Medieval Iberia. Eds. Michelle M. Hamilton, Sarah J. Portnoy and David A. Wacks. Newark, Del.: Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 2004. 47-58.
  • • Walfish, Barry, "The Two Commentaries of Abraham Ibn Ezra on the Book of Esther", The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 79, No. 4 (Apr., 1989), pp. 323–343, University of Pennsylvania Press


  • • Rudavsky, Tamar M. (2007). "Ibn ʿEzra: Abraham ibn ʿEzra". In Thomas Hockey et al. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. New York: Springer. pp. 553–5. ISBN 978-0-387-31022-0. (PDF version)
  • • Levey, Martin (2008) [1970-80]. "Ibn Ezra, Abraham Ben Meir". Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Encyclopedia.com.
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Abraham ibn Ezra's Timeline

Nafarroa, Nafarroa, Espainia
Age 75
Calahorra, La Rioja, España