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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Few details of Ibn Gabirol’s life are known. He was born in Malaga, Spain, where a modern statue of him is to be found near the sea-shore. But the statue depicts him as a tall, venerable old sage, whereas, in fact, he died before reaching the age of 40.
It is known that while Malaga was his native city (he signs some of his poems as Malki, meaning ‘from Malaga’), he was taken as a child to Saragossa where he received a sound education and acquired a reputation as a scholar. Ibn Gabirol’s poems, together with those of Judah Halevi, are considered to be the choicest of medieval Hebrew poetry. Some of his poems were composed when he was no more than 16 years of age.
Ibn Gabirol’s philosophical poem, Keter Malkhut (The Kingly Crown) is still recited by Sephardi Jews at the Neilah service on Yom Kippur. This poem is in three parts: 1. a hymn celebrating the divine attributes; 2. a description of the wonders of creation, rising from contemplation of the sun, moon, stars, and planets to the ultimate mystery of the Godhead; 3. confession, penitence, and supplication.
Ibn Gabirol’s philosophical work, Mekor Hayyim (Source of Life), composed under the influence of Neoplatonic thought, was written in Arabic and translated into Latin as Fons Vitae. This work, treating the relationship between form and matter, makes no reference to the Bible or to the Rabbinic literature and is so universalistic in character that it was attributed by Christian writers to an unknown Christian or Muslim philosopher operating solely in philosophical categories. It was not until the nineteenth century that S. Munk identified Ibn Gabirol as the author.
Ibn Gabirol also wrote an ethical work, Tikkun Middot Ha-Nefesh (Improvement of the Soul’s Qualities). This work, also written in Arabic, was translated into Hebrew and was widely read by Jews seeking edification.
The influence of Ibn Gabirol’s thought on subsequent Jewish religious thought is largely indirect, except for the ideas found in his religious poems. Many of the ideas found in the Kabbalah, especially that of emanation and God as wholly other, are found in Ibn Gabirol.
Some of the sentiments expressed in The Kingly Crown, for instance, are found in almost the same form in the Zohar; although in Ibn Gabirol’s scheme God’s will stems from His wisdom, whereas in the Zohar Will belongs to the highest of the Sefirot, and from it Wisdom emanates.
An oft-quoted stanza in The Kingly Crown sees all men as worshipping God without knowing the object of their worship; the act of worship itself is sufficient evidence that this is so:
"Thou art God, and all creatures are Thy slaves and worshippers,
and Thy glory is not diminished by those who worship others than Thee,
for the goal of all of them is to attain to Thee."
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