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R. Avraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra
ר' אברהם בן מאיר אבן עזרא, ראב"ע
|Dates||1092 – 1167|
|Location||Andalusia / Italy / Provence / France / England|
|Works||Commentaries on Torah and part of Nakh, math, science, and grammar works.|
|Influenced by||R. Saadia Gaon, R. Yonah ibn Janach, R. Yehudah Hayuj|
|Impacted on||Most Jewish Bible commentators, Chasidei Ashkenzaz|
- Name – Avraham ben Meir ibn Ezra1
- Dates – 1088/89-1164 or 1092-11672
- Location – Andalusia, Italy, France, Provence, England. Ibn Ezra's life can be divided into two main periods, until about 1140 in which he was centered in Andalusia,3 and from then until his death which he spent wandering through Christian lands.4 In the first period his primary literary output was in the field of poetry. His Tanakh commentaries, grammatical treatises, and other works were written in the later period.5 As such, it was first at about the age of fifty that Ibn Ezra began to write the scholarly works for which he is so well known.
- Education – Ibn Ezra was a polymath, engaging in many disciplines including Bible, Talmud,6 Midrash, grammar and philology, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, astrology,7 and poetry.8
- Occupation – Poet, teacher,9 and Bible commentator. From several of his poems, it is evident that Ibn Ezra struggled to make a living.10
- Family – Not much is known of Ibn Ezra's family. It is possible that he sired five children,11 but only one is known by name, Yitzchak, who was a poet of note.12 It is possible that Yitzchak predeceased his father.13
- Teachers –
- Contemporaries – R. Yehuda HaLevi,14 R.Moshe ibn Ezra,15 R. Joseph ibn Tzaddik,16 Rashbam, R. Tam.17
- Students –
- Time period – Ibn Ezra lived during the Almohad's invasion of Moslem Spain and their forced conversions of Jews to Islam on pain of death. This likely contributed to Ibn Ezra's leaving of Spain and his subsequent wanderings.18 He wrote an elegy, "אֲהָהּ יָרַד עֲלֵי סְפָרַד", lamenting the destruction of the Jewish communities in Spain in the aftermath of the invasion.19 In addition, the first (1095) and second crusades.(1150) took place during his lifetime.
Ibn Ezra was a prolific writer, leaving behind many works in a variety of fields from poetry to astronomy:20
- Biblical commentaries –
- Ibn Ezra wrote a commentary on all five books of the Torah, Yeshayahu, Trei Asar, Tehillim, Iyyov, the five Megillot, and Daniel.21 He is somewhat unique among commentators in having written two distinct commentaries for each of several books,22 including Bereshit,23 Shemot,24 Trei Asar, Tehillim, Esther, Shir HaShirim and Daniel.25 Two fragments of a third commentary on Bereshit, recorded by a patron and disciple, have also survived.26
- It is likely that Ibn Ezra wrote on the other books as well, as he himself periodically refers his reader to such explanations,27 but these works have not survived.28 The commentaries on Mishlei and Ezra-Nechemyah attributed to him were likely authored by Moshe Kimchi.29
- Grammar – Ibn Ezra wrote several grammatical works including: 30ספר מאזנים, ספר צחות31, שפת יתר,32 שפה ברורה33, and יסוד דקדוק34. He also translated several works of R. Yehuda ibn Hayyuj into Hebrew.
- Astronomy, mathematics and more– Ibn Ezra wrote many scientific works including (but not limited to): ספר המספר, טעמי הלוחות, כלי נחושת, ספר האחד, ראשית חכמה, ספר הטעמים, ספר המולדות,ספר המאורות, ספר העיבור and אגדת השבת.
- Rabbinics – No Talmudic novellae or Halakhic codes of Ibn Ezra are extant. There is, though, one citation that might testify to his having written on the Talmud. In his introduction to his commentary on Megillat Esther, R. Zecharyah b. Saruq writes, "ואנכי ראיתי חדושי הראב"ע מסכת קידושין והם בתכלית הדקות והאימות".
- Philosophy / Jewish thought – Ibn Ezra's philosophical views can be found scattered throughout his Torah commentaries, but he also wrote several works which heavily focused on such issues. His work, יסוד מורא וסוד התורה, discusses the rationale behind Biblical commandments.35 His ערוגת המזימה פרדס החכמה deals with the existence of God, while ספר השם discusses the names of God.
- Verse by verse – Ibn Ezra's commentary is generally a local, verse by verse commentary, marked by brevity and an emphasis on grammar and linguistics. However, there are many exceptions where Ibn Ezra includes lengthy discussions of philosophical and other issues36 including long excursuses on God's name,37 the Priestly Garments, Ten Commandments,38 Aharon's role in the Sin of the Golden Calf,39 and Moses' request to see the face of God.40
- Language of the commentary – Ibn Ezra, somewhat unique among commentators of his era who came from Islamic lands, wrote his commentary in Hebrew rather than Arabic.41 Ibn Ezra's language is often cryptic and obscure,42 making it difficult to understand.43
- Peshat and derash – Ibn Ezra distinguishes between the authority he grants the interpretations of the Sages in legal and narrative material, finding their words binding with regards to the former but not the latter.44 In his introduction to his second commentary, he provides three criteria for determining when one may reject or reinterpret the simple sense of the text: if the explanation goes against reason, contradicts another verse, or disputes tradition ("קבלה" / Oral Law).45 It is these criteria which inform Ibn Ezra's distinct attitude towards aggadic and halakhic Midrashim:
- Narrative material – According to Ibn Ezra, since aggadic interpretations are not binding (i.e. they don't fall under the realm of "קבלה"), if these do not accord with another verse46 or contradict logic,47 they might be rejected. Nonetheless, sometimes Ibn Ezra will cautiously add "but if it is a tradition, we will accept it".48 Elsewhere, he might maintain that the Midrash is correct in essence, but not meant to be taken at face value.49 There are also instances, though, where Ibn Ezra will not only reject a Midrashic interpretation but even belittle the very question it is asking, dismissing it as unnecessary.50
- Legal material – With regards to legal material, in contrast, Ibn Ezra will accept the opinion of the Sages, even if it appears to contradict the simple sense of the verse.51 In such cases, he often suggests that the verse is being used simply as an "אסמכתא", a hook to remind one of the law.52 In other cases he will attempt to show how the understanding of the Sages is really the simple sense of the verses.53 He notes, too, that if a verse can sustain two different logical interpretations, only one of which accords with that of the Sages,54 the Sages' explanation should be preferred.55 He often speaks of the need to rely on the Sages, noting that otherwise the law cannot be properly determined.56 There are, however, also cases where Ibn Ezra's explanations go against halakhah.57
- Grammar – Ibn Ezra's commentary is characterized by a heavy emphasis on grammar. He believed that knowledge of grammar is crucial to understanding the Biblical text, writing in the introduction to his Torah commentary: "ובעבותות הדקדוק נקשר". See below ("methods") for discussion and examples of his grammatical insights.
- Programmatic statements / introductions – In his introduction to his Torah commentary, Ibn Ezra lays out his methodology in interpreting the Biblical text. He first discusses and rejects four distinct approaches to Biblical exegesis, and then presents his own.58 He dismisses:
- Christian allegorical and typological interpretations as these do not match the simple, literal sense of the text59
- Karaite explanations60 since they do not accept the Oral law
- The extensive philosophical treatises of the Geonim as they have no place in a peshat Torah commentary whose goal is to interpret the verses61
- Homiletical exegesis which draws heavily on Midrash, seeing these as superfluous, having already been expressed by the Sages.62
- Regarding his own methodology, he writes that his goal is, "לבאר כל כתוב כמשפטו, ודקדוקו ופשוטו". Elsewhere in the introduction, he similarly notes: "ובעבותות הדקדוק נקשר / ובעיני הדעת יכשר", pointing to two hallmarks of Spanish exegesis: grammar and logic. Each of these will be discussed below.
- Grammar – Listed below are a few examples of some of the grammatical issues discussed by Ibn Ezra:63
- דרך קצרה – Ibn Ezra often uses this language to mark varied examples where Tanakh uses abridged phrases or sentences. Tanakh might omit a subject,64 object,65 or prepositions.66 It might employ an adjective or other descriptor but leave out the noun which it qualifies.67 At times, too, Tanakh will refrain from doubling a word, though this might have been necessary grammatically.68 In many cases, Ibn Ezra uses the language of "מושך עצמו ואחר עמו"69 to express that a letter/word/phrase which appears in one part of the verse applies to another part of the verse as well.70
- Missing / superfluous / interchangeable letters – Ibn Ezra points to many examples of such grammatical phenomena, noting that sometimes the vav conjunctive might be lacking,71 the letters בכל""ם are simply assumed,72 or the אהו"י letters might not appear in a word.73 He lays out rules for which letters might be substituted one for another (ש/ס or א/ה/ו/י) and which may not.74 He also notes letters which are extraneous, thereby clarifying otherwise difficult language.75
- Androgynous nouns / verbs – Ibn Ezra notes that several nouns might be treated as either masculine or feminine.76 He also notes verbs which combine the masculine and feminine forms, as in the word "וַיֵּחַמְנָה".77
- Tense – Ibn Ezra notes that Scripture at times employs the imperfect with the meaning of a perfect,78 the perfect with the meaning of an imperfect,79 or the perfect as a pluperfect.80
- Unique forms – Ibn Ezra will often note unique or strange grammatical forms, referring to these as "מלים זרות".81
- Reason – Ibn Ezra holds human reason as integral to proper interpretation and will reject explanations of verses which do not stand up to it.82
- Homiletical expositions of the Sages – See the discussion and examples above regarding his rejection of aggadic explanations which he finds illogical.83
- Mitzvot – Ibn Ezra notes that though we might not know the reason for all laws, it is impossible that any should refute logic.84 Thus, if the simple, literal meaning of a law appears irrational, it may be reinterpreted metaphorically.85 For instance, as Hashem obviously does not want man to kill himself, one must understand the statement "וּמַלְתֶּם אֵת עׇרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם" (Devarim 10:16) to mean that man must purify his heart or remove temptations, not to literally circumcise it.86
- Prophetic statements – In prophecy too, it is possible that not all statements are meant to be taken literally. As Hashem would never command a prophet to act in a foolish way, Ibn Ezra suggests that certain commands which appear to have been fulfilled in actuality, were in fact simply prophetic visions.87 Other statements are taken allegorically to minimize the miraculous.88
- טעמי המצוות – Ibn Ezra provides rationalist explanations for several mitzvot, suggesting, for example, that laws of forbidden foods might be health-related.89
- Lexical Issues
- Defining Words – When attempting to define a difficult word, Ibn Ezra will look both within the text to find Biblical parallels and without, to other related languages.90
- Use of Biblical parallels – Ibn Ezra will often explain difficult words by looking at Biblical parallels91 and/or laws of grammar.92
- Use of cognate languages – Often, too, Ibn Ezra will turn to cognate languages such as Arabic93 or Aramaic94 and will even note linguistic patterns95 or grammatical forms96 that are similar in the two languages.
- Loanwords – At times, Ibn Ezra posits that a Biblical word is actually a loanword from a different language.97
- Secondary Meanings – Ibn Ezra recognizes that many words have both a primary and secondary meaning.98 When such a word is being used according to its primary meaning he will often write, "פירושו כמשמעו".
- Synonymous language – Ibn Ezra views changes in word choice in parallel or synonymous passages as somewhat insignificant:
- הכתוב שומר הטעמים ולא המלות – When analyzing parallel passages, Ibn Ezra belittles the significance of changes in language, explaining that as long as the meaning is maintained, the choice of word is not important. Thus, for instance, one should not be troubled by the fact that the two versions of the Decalogue are not identical.99 Similarly, one need not be bothered by the fact that a word might be written "מלא" in one place and "חסר" in another.100
- Synonymous parallels (כפל הענין) – When a verse contains parallel phrases or words, Ibn Ezra will generally not attempt to distinguish between the two, but rather simply explain that the two phrases mean the same thing,101 writing " הטעם כפול" or the like.102 In his second commentary on Shemot 14:19 he notes that such poetic doubling is very common in the prophetic sections of Tanakh, but not so in regular narrative.103
- Literary sensitivity
- "צחות הלשון" – Ibn Ezra is attuned to the literary beauty of Tanakh, sometimes remarking on "צחות הלשון," noting when Tanakh employs plays on words104 or repeats a word for literary effect.105
- דרכי המקראות (Literary Devices) – Ibn Ezra will at times note Tanakh's literary devices, explaining that seemingly anomalous phenomena are simply "the way of the text":
- Resumptive repetition – Ibn Ezra notes that certain repetitions in the text are a literary device, and serve to indicate the resumption of a narrative that had been cut off by some digression (מפני שארכו הדברים).106
- Chiasmus – Ibn Ezra notes that chiasmus is a common Biblical literary structure. When Tanakh lists two things, and the next clause or statement refers back to them, it will often begin with the second item and only afterwards return to the first, in the form a-b-b-a.107
- מקרא מסורס
- Realia – Ibn Ezra will often explain the text in terms of the realia of either his own day or Biblical times:
- Customs, science, and human behavior of his day – Ibn Ezra often turns to the customs of his own day to elucidate the text, assuming, "כי מנהג ישראל היה כמנהג ישמעאל עד היום" (Second Commentary Shemot 38:8).108
- General human behavior, speech and customs – Ibn Ezra also explicates the text in light of more general human behavior.109
- Identification of unknown places, plants, animals – Ibn Ezra is hesitant to identify such objects110 unless there is a tradition regarding them111 or there is enough evidence in the verses to provide an identification.
- Realia of the Biblical period – At times, Ibn Ezra will point to the customs of Biblical times to explicate a verse.112
- Issues of Ordering – Ibn Ezra's local, atomistic view of Torah likely impacted his approach to ordering:
- אין מוקדם ומאוחר – Ibn Ezra often posits achronology in Torah.113 More often than not, he will not explain why the text chose to tell the story out of chronological order, though sometimes he will provide a literary114 or pedagogic reason.115 Often, too, he will simply explain that the perfect form of the verb actually implies a past perfect.116
- סמיכותת פרשיות – In legal sections of Torah, Ibn Ezra will often attempt to explain why one law is juxtaposed to the next,117 but he argues against the Karaites who learn out the nature of the law itself from the context.118 In other words, though the context might explain why certain laws are grouped together, it cannot be used to determine the specific nature and definition of any given law.119
- Philosophy – Throughout his commentary Ibn Ezra touches on philosophical issues.
- Incorporeality and anthropomorphism – In several places Ibn Ezra emphasizes that the Torah's anthropomorphic language is simply a figure of speech, a "משל" or "לשון בני אדם,"120 and does not mean that Hashem is corporeal or that he has such human traits as forgetting,121 changing His mind,122 or the like.123
- God's names – See Shemot Second Commentary 3:15 and 33:21.
- Prophecy – Ibn Ezra allows for the possibility that a prophet can lie if the circumstances call for it (such as in cases of danger to life).124 He also states that a prophet can err in worldly matters, pointing to Natan as an example.125 This relates to the fact that he believes that a prophet's knowledge of the future is limited to that which Hashem reveals to him.
- Miracles – Though Ibn Ezra will at times minimize the miraculous,126 quite often he cautions against those who over-rationalize and dismiss the possibility of the supernatural.127
- Polemics against the Karaites – Throughout his commentary, Ibn Ezra explicitly debates the Karaites, rejecting their interpretations which do not abide by the Oral Law.128
- Defense of Avot – Ibn Ezra sometimes defend seemingly problematic actions of our forefathers.129
- Attitude towards the Masoretic text – Ibn Ezra's attitude towards the Masoretic text is somewhat complicated:
- Accuracy of the text – Ibn Ezra believed in the accuracy of the Masoretic text, lauding the work of the Masoretes, "שומרי החומות", who guarded the text from mistakes and corruption.130 Viewing their work as complete, he did not think it necessary for one to become an expert in the discipline, or to delve into the issue of textual variants.131 This attitude affects his stance on several issues:
- קרי וכתיב – Ibn Ezra does not offer a full explanation of the phenomenon,132 simply asserting that the two variant readings have the same meaning and, thus, that the difference is insignificant.133
- Variations between parallel texts – When there are orthographic and other minor differences between parallel texts, Ibn Ezra is not troubled,134 stating that as long as the meaning is maintained the fact that there is a slight difference in language is inconsequential.135
- Tikkun Soferim – Ibn Ezra prefers not to apply this concept with its assumption that the Sages might have altered the text.136
- Interpreting in accordance with Masoretic markers – Ibn Ezra argues against interpretations which ignore verse markers137 or negate cantillation marks.138
- Authorship – In contrast to his conservatism regarding the accuracy of the text, Ibn Ezra is somewhat more radical with regards to issues of authorship. In several places Ibn Ezra hints to a "secret" regarding the authorship of individual verses which appear to have been recorded in a later era than the rest of the book, appearing to imply that these specific verses might be of non Mosaic authorship.139
- Astrology – Ibn Ezra often speaks of astrological phenomenon and the role of the stars in determining what will take place on earth.140
- Manuscripts –
- Printings –
- Textual layers – See Ibn Ezra's Torah Commentary for discussion of Ibn Ezra's own additions to his First Commentary.
- Earlier Sources –
- R. Saadiah Gaon (892-942 C.E.) – Ibn Ezra was heavily influenced by R. Saadia Gaon. He cites him close to 300 times in his commentary, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing.141
- R. Moshe ibn Chiquitillah(11th century) – Ibn Chiquitillah was another major influence on Ibn Ezra and is also cited more than 250 times in Ibn Ezra's various commentaries, most often in Tehillim.142
- Grammarians - R. Judah ibn Hayyuj ( c. 950-1000), R. Yonah ibn Janach (c. 920-c 970); R Menachem ben Saruk (c. 910- c. 970 C.E.); Dunash ben Labrat (920-990 C.E.)
- Teachers –
- Foils – As mentioned above, Ibn Ezra contrasts his own approach to Torah with the Midrashic approach of Chazal, the philosophic approach of the Geonim, the allegorical / typlogical approach of Christians, and the readings of Karaites who dismiss the Oral Law.
- Rashbam – Ibn Ezra and Rashbam lived at the same time, were both pioneers of "peshat" analysis, and some of their interpretations resemble one another, yet neither ever cites the other by name, leading scholars to debate the degree of influence they had upon one another.
- Was Ibn Ezra aware of Rashbam's commentary? Several scholars assume that Ibn Ezra did not have access to Rashbam's commentary when he wrote his First Commentary on Torah in Italy,143 but that by the time he wrote his Second Commentary in Rouen, he either had it in its entirety or was at least aware of individual comments.144 Similarly, it has been suggested that Ibn Ezra's Iggeret HaShabbat was written to combat Rashbam's explanation of Bereshit 1:4-8 where he implies that the day precedes the night. In addition, R. Merdler145 has demonstrated that Ibn Ezra in his Second Commentary on Bereshit is responding to Rashbam's Sefer HaDayyakot. See a comparison table here.
- Was Rashbam aware of Ibn Ezra's commentary? Noting the similarity between many of the exegetes' interpretations, some have suggested that Rashbam might have had access to individual interpretations of Ibn Ezra, or even to the entire First Commentary while writing his own work.146 Alternatively, though, it is possible that some of the overlap might simply be due to the similar style of exegesis or to shared sources.
- Rabbi Yehudah He-Chasid147
- Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235)
- Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (1195-1270)
- Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (1288-1344).
- Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508).
- Maimonides - The many parallels between the teachings of Ibn Ezra and those of Maimonides (1138–1204) have led some to suggest that the works of Ibn Ezra influenced Maimonides.148