Abraham Ibn Ezra

A master Torah commentator who foreshadowed biblical criticism

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Abraham Ibn Ezra--poet, philosopher, grammarian, and biblical exeget (1089-1164)-- was born in Tudela, Spain, where he lived until he left in 1140 to wander to other lands. His life is consequently divided by historians into two periods, that of his residence in Spain, where he wrote many of his poems, and that of his sojourn in various Jewish communities outside Spain in which his other works were compiled.

Few details of his personal life in Spain are known, or why he left that country. It has been conjectured that the reason for his "troubled spirit," as he puts it, in Spain, was that his son, Isaac, was converted to Islam, though the son later returned to Judaism. His wife seems to have died after he had left Spain. Details of Ibn Ezra's wanderings are, however, known from the names of the places he recorded in his works. Through these it is known that he lived in Italy, France, and England. He appears to have earned his living in these places by teaching the sons of wealthy Jews and, though of a fiercely independent temperament, he allowed himself also to be supported by a number of patrons of learning.

He writes that, from time to time, he tried to engage in various business enterprises but met with no success in these. In a satiric poem, he writes that if he manufactured candles it would never get dark and if he sold shrouds no one would die! The picture which emerges is of a highly gifted wandering scholar (he was, in addition to his other attainments, a mathematician and astronomer of note and he dabbled in astrology) who, undeterred by the odds, somehow managed to survive to compile works of permanent value. He is the hero of Browning's poem "Rabbi Ben Ezra."

Poetry and Theology

Ibn Ezra's poems, both secular and religious, are among the choicest examples of Hebrew poetry. One of his liturgical compositions is printed at the beginning of many prayer books.

His theological works include Sefer Ha-Shem (Book of the Name), on the names of God, and Yesod Mora (Fountain of Fear) on the meaning of the precepts of the Torah. His Iggret Ha-Shabbat (Letter on the Sabbath) was written while he was staying in England. The Sabbath, he says, came to him in a dream to urge him to compile the work as a refutation of the heretical opinion that Sabbath begins in the morning and ends on the next morning in contradiction to the traditional view that it begins at sundown and ends at sundown the following day.

But Ibn Ezra is chiefly important and influential in the history of the Jewish religion for his commentaries to the bible, chief of which is his commentary to the Pentateuch. This work was first published in Naples in 1488, has since been printed many times in editions of the Pentateuch together with the text, and has taken its place beside the works of Rashi, Rashbam, Nahmanides among the standard Jewish commentaries to the Pentateuch, the Torah.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.