Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra

June 14, 2006

Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra was born in 1089 in Spanish Toledo and died, after traveling extensively throughout Europe, in 1167, probably in Calahorra. He excelled in Talmud but made his greatest contribution to Jewish Literature in the area of Biblical Commentary, that emphasized knowledge of the Hebrew language and its grammar. Despite his extensive travels, which may have taken him to London, he remained true to his Sephardic roots by successfully combining Torah scholarship on the highest level with enthusiastic pursuit of secular subjects. Thus, he became expert in philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and, most significantly, poetry. This was in line with the prevailing Islamic culture, which to a large extent was the trend-setter in the culture of that time.

Ibn Ezra lived a life of great misfortune and tragedy. His wife died at a young age and several of his children died in infancy. Probably the greatest tragedy of his life was the apostasy under great pressure of his son Yitzchak. He laments in one of his poems, “If I were a manufacturer of shrouds, the Angel of Death would refuse to carry out his duties.”

His approach to the understanding of the Bible can be gleaned from his introduction to his commentary on Bereshit. There, he demonstrates from arguments such as the lack of specifity of the Written Torah that Moshe Rabbeinu must have relied on the Oral Torah. Another principle that he advocates is that logic is the foundation for the study of the Torah. He rejects idle philosophical questions such as what was the state of the world before Creation. And he believes that explanations of the Torah cannot stray from the plain meaning of the text. He believes strongly in the importance of grammar as an exegetical tool. Once he has determined what the text means literally, he proceeds to search for its underlying meaning. And the last line of his Introduction reads “Our ancestors were masters of truth, and everything they said was truth, and May the G-d of Truth lead his servant in the pursuit of truth.”

He is one of the few Torah giants who were memorialized by English poets. But Robert Browning wrote ca. 1862 the poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra” about Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra. Recognizing the difficulties of the scholar’s life, he wrote:

Then welcome each rebuff
That turns earth’s smoothness rough,
Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go!
Be our joy three-parts pain!
Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!

He used the Jewish metaphor of the Potter and the wheel to capture Ibn Ezra’s feelings about time:

Ay, note that Potter’s wheel,
That metaphor! And feel
Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay –

And he captures the faith of the Jewish poet in these lines:

My times be in Thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!

If the greatness of Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra was realized by this insightful representative of the non-Jewish world, how much more should we appreciate his place among the immortal leaders of our People.