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Abraham Ibn Ezra

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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First Period: to 1140.

Scholar and writer; born 1092-1093; died Jan. 28 (according to Rosin, Reime und Gedichte, p. 82, n. 6, 1167 (see his application of Gen.12:4 to himself). His father's name was Meïr and his family was probably a branch of the Ibn Ezra family to which Moses ibn Ezra belonged. Moses in his poems mentions Abraham by his Arabic name, Abu Isḥaḳ (Ibrahim) ibn al-Majid ibn Ezra (Steinschneider, "Cat. Bodl." col. 1801), together with Judah ha-Levi. Both were, according to Moses, from Toledo, and afterward settled in Cordova. Ibn Ezra himself once—in an acrostic—names Toledo as his native place ("Monatsschrift," 42:19) and at another time Cordova (beginning of the Ḥayyuj translation). According to Albrecht ("Studien zu den Dichtungen Abraham ben Ezra," in "Z. D. M. G." c. p. 422), it is certain that he was born in Toledo. Through his emigration from Spain his life was divided into two periods. In the first and longer of these, which extended almost to the year 1140, he won for himself in his native land a name as a poet and thinker. Moses ibn Ezra, who was an intimate friend of his, extols him as a religious philosopher ("mutakallim") and as a man of great eloquence; and a younger contemporary, Abraham ibn Daud, at the end of his history ("Sefer ha-Ḳabbalah," ed. Neubauer, p. 81), calls him the last of the great men who formed the pride of Spanish Judaism and who "strengthened the hands of Israel with songs and with words of comfort." In this first period of his life Ibn Ezra's creative activity was chiefly occupied with poetry; and the greater number of his religious and other poems were probably produced during that time. He likes to call himself "the poet" ("ha-shar," introduction to Pentateuch commentary) or "father of poems" (end of the versified calendar regulations); and in a long poem of lamentation (Rosin, "Reime und Gedichte des Abraham ibn Ezra," p. 88) he says: "Once in my youth I used to compose songs with which I decorated the Hebrew scholars as with a necklace." The fact, however, that Ibn Ezra had pursued serious studies in all branches of knowledge during his life in Spain, is shown by the writings of the second period of his life. The wealth and variety of their contents can be explained only by the compass and many-sidedness of his earlier studies.

His Friends.

The most prominent scholars among the Jews of Spain were Ibn Ezra's personal friends: in Cordova itself, which was his permanent residence, Joseph ibn Ẓaddiḳ and especially Judah ha-Levi. The latter was only a few years older than Ibn Ezra; and on one occasion addressed a very witty saying to Ibn Ezra's father-in-law (see Geiger, "Nachgelassene Schriften," 4:332). In his Bible commentary Ibn Ezra afterward reported many text interpretations from his talks with Judah ha-Levi (see Bacher, "Die Bibelexegese der Jüdischen Religionsphilosophen," etc., pp. 132 et seq.). That he associated and debated with the representatives of Karaism, which was so widely spread in Spain in his time, and that he was well acquainted with their literature, is shown by many passages in his commentary on the Bible.

His Son Isaac.

Ibn Ezra nowhere says anything about his family connections; but from a remark in a long comment on Exodus 2:2 it may be concluded that his marriage had been blessed with five children. They probably died early, however, except his son Isaac, who left Spain at the same time as his father, and who in 1143 composed in Bagdad songs in honor of the Arab Hibat Allah (Nathanael). According to Albrecht, however, Abraham left Spain after Isaac, perhaps because of the conversion of the last-named to Islam, and with the purpose of bringing him back to Judaism. Isaac's conversion was a severe blow to his father; and the latter expressed his grief in two moving poems ("Diwan," Nos. 203 and 205; Rosin, c. pp. 84 et seq.). Albrecht says Ibn Ezra left Spain in 1137. Unable to bring his son back to Judaism, he went to Rome (1140), where after many troubles he found a period of rest.

Second Period: After 1140.

In the second half of his life one must imagine Ibn Ezra a lonely man, who, bound by no family ties, led the unsettled life of a wanderer. Nevertheless he resided for periods of several years in various places each. The year 1140 is given as the definite date with which this second period begins. In that year he composed several works in Rome. This date, as well as those following, is furnished by Ibn Ezra in some of his works. He says of himself in the introductory poem to his Kohelet commentary: "He departed from his native place, which is in Spain, and came to Rome." But this proves nothing against the supposition that some at least of his journeys in northern Africa and Egypt, concerning which there is definite information, were made between his departure from Spain and his arrival at Rome. Ibn Ezra was perhaps in Africa at the same time with Judah ha-Levi. A statement of Solomon ibn Parḥon's ("Maḥberet he-'Aruk," 4b) seems to speak of their joint stay there, although his remark may have another meaning. But it is possible that Ibn Ezra's travels in the East, which, as many suppose, took him to Palestine and even to Bagdad (tradition states that he went even as far as India), interrupted his stay in Italy, or occurred between that time and his sojourn in Provence.

In Provence.

A whole series of works on Bible exegesis and grammar was the fruit of his stay in Italy. He is known to have been in the following cities: Rome (1140), Lucca (1145), Mantua (1145-46), Verona (1146-1147). In Rome he had for a pupil Benjamin b. Joab, for whose benefit he composed his commentary on Job. Ibn Ezra went to Provence before 1155, stopping in the town of Béziers, where he wrote a book on the names of God, dedicated to his patrons Abraham b. Ḥayyim and Isaac b. Judah. A native of that city, Jedaiah Bedersi, speaks enthusiastically, more than a hundred and fifty years afterward, of Ibn Ezra's stay in Provence (Solomon ibn Adret, Responsa, No. 418). Judah ibn Tibbon of Lunel, a contemporary of Ibn Ezra, speaks of the epoch-making importance of the latter's stay in southern France (preface to "Riḳmah"). Ibn Ezra was in Narbonne in, or shortly before, 1139, and answered certain questions for David b. Joseph. He made a stay of several years in northern France, in thetown of Dreux (department of Eure). On account of a corruption () of the Hebrew name of this town (), it was for a long time thought that Ibn Ezra wrote his works on the Island of Rhodes, and later (since Grätz) that he wrote them in the town of Rodez (Rhodez) in southern France ("R. E. J." 17:301; "Monatsschrift," 42:22). In Dreux Ibn Ezra completed several of his exegetical works, and, after recovering from an illness, began a new commentary on the Pentateuch ("Monatsschrift," 42:23). In 1158 Ibn Ezra was in London, where he wrote his religio-philosophic work "Yesod Mora" for his pupil Joseph b. Jacob, also his letter on the Sabbath.

In Northern France.

In northern France Ibn Ezra came into contact (at Rouen ?) with the celebrated grandson of Rashi, R. Jacob Tam, and a poem in praise of his brother R. Samuel b. Meïr written there by Ibn Ezra has been preserved (Rosin, c. p. 225).

In 1160 he was again in Provence, and at Narbonne he translated an astronomical work from the Arabic. If the dates given in a poem concluding his commentary on the Pentateuch are correct (comp. Rosin, c. p. 81), Ibn Ezra's life ended at the place where the second period of his activity began, namely, Rome, where he put the finishing touches to his commentary and probably also began his last grammatical work ("Safah Berurah"). In the introductory verse of this uncompleted work, which he wrote for his pupil Solomon, Ibn Ezra expresses the hope that "it will be a legacy of Abraham the son of Meïr, and will preserve his memory from generation to generation." These are the farewell words of a writer who at the same time feels his end approaching and reckons on lasting fame. If Abraham Zacuto's statement ("Yuḥasin," ed. London, p. 218)—which, however, is not substantiated—be accepted, that Ibn Ezra died in Calahorra-(in northern Spain on the boundary between Navarre and Old Castile), it must be supposed that a longing to see his old Spanish home made him leave Rome and that he died on the way on Spanish soil.

A Roving Scholar.

In one of his best-known poems ("Nedod Hesir Oni") Ibn Ezra has characterized the second period of his life in the words: "I resided in that place as a stranger, wrote books, and revealed the secrets of knowledge." He is the only example of a wandering scholar who developed an unusually rich literary activity in his roaming existence under the stress of circumstances, and who wrote works of lasting importance. Ibn Ezra himself regarded his life as that of an exile. He always called himself a Spaniard ("Sefardi"), and gives a touching expression of his love for his fatherland in an elegy on the persecution by the Almohades which began in 1142. In this poem ("Diwan," No. 169) he enumerates the Spanish and the North-African towns in which the communities fell victims to the persecution. His remark on the commandment concerning the festal bunch of greens (Leviticus 23:40) gives a glimpse into his longing for his beautiful native land: "Whoever is exiled from Arabian lands to the lands of Edom [Christian Europe] will understand, if he has eyes, the deep meaning of this commandment."

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:


Page from the First Edition of Abraham ibn Ezra's Commentary to the Pentateuch, Naples, 1488.
(In the Columbia University Library, New York.)

As Poet.

Some of Ibn Ezra's poems are contained in the "Diwan" (260 numbers), which was edited by I. Egers from the only manuscript in existence. This also contains the religio-philosophical poem "Ḥai b. Meḳiẓ" in rimed prose, the contents of which are based on an Arabic prose work of Avicenna (Ibn Sina). Besides those contained in the "Diwan," 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. Rosin has critically edited and translated a considerable number of these in several yearly reports of the Breslau Seminary (1885 to 1894). They have also been edited, together with an introduction and notes, by David Kahana, 2 vols., Warsaw, 1894.

Al-Ḥarizi ("Taḥkemoni," ) says of Ibn Ezra's poetry: "The poems of Ibn Ezra provide help in time of need, and cause refreshing rain in time of drought. All of his poetry is lofty and admirable in its contents." Zunz ("Literaturgesch." p. 207) says: "Through him the gap between piyyuṭ [synagogal poetry] and classic style came clearly to be recognized. Yet poetry was not his special line of activity. Number and measure lurk in his verses, and flashes of thought spring from his words—but not pictures of the imagination."

It should also be noticed that no work by Ibn Ezra in Arabic has been preserved, although he was perfectly familiar with that language.

  • Grätz, Gesch. , especially note 8;
  • Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. cols. 680-689;
  • idem, Abraham ibn Ezra, in Zeitschrift für Mathematik und Physik, , Supplement, pp. 28, 59;
  • D. Rosin. Reime und Gedichte des Abraham ibn Ezra, Breslau, 1885-94;
  • idem, in Monatsschrift, 42:18-26;
  • M. Friedländer, Essays on the Writings of Ibn Ezra, London, 1877;
  • W. Bacher, Abraham ibn Ezras Einleitung zu Seinem Pentateuchcommentar, Vienna, 1876;
  • idem, Abraham ibn Ezra als Grammatiker, Strasburg, 1882;
  • idem, in Winter and Wünsche, Die Jüdische Litteratur, 2:185-190,289-306;
  • Albrecht, Studien zu den Dichtungen Abrahams ben Ezra, in Z. D. M. G. 57:421 et seq.
W. B.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Abraham Ibn Ezra'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​a/abraham-ibn-ezra.html. 1901.
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