Ibn Ezra in Deuteronomy


I mentioned in my prior essays on the famed thinker Abraham ibn Ezra’s Bible commentaries that although he was generally a brilliant rational thinking, he wasn’t always so, and some of his ideas are not rational. The same phenomenon occurs in his views on Deuteronomy, as seen in the following.


Actions and speech are important to ibn Ezra, but only to aid thinking. Ever since the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, if not before, philosophers have stressed that being human means using one’s intelligence; failure to do so leaves men and women no higher than animals. Ibn Ezra agreed. No one can truly serve God without knowing as much as possible about the functioning of the world and using that knowledge to improve themselves and society. Thus, says ibn Ezra, Moses’ stay on the mountain for forty days was to learn; but this period, even for a man with Moses’ intellect was far too short, as Moses himself acknowledged in Deuteronomy 3:24: “O Lord God, You who let Your servant begin to see the works of Your greatness.”[i]


Baruch Spinoza felt that Ibn Ezra was the pioneer of biblical criticism and the first to present the view, albeit only with hints, that the entire Torah was not written by Moses.[ii] Ibn Ezra wrote that there is the “secret of the twelve,” but did not explain what he meant by this term. Spinoza argued that ibn Ezra’s “secret of the twelve” refers to the tradition drawn from Deuteronomy 27:3,[iii] but not explicitly stated, that Moses was able to write the entire Torah on twelve stones. Thus Spinoza understood that ibn Ezra was hinting that the Mosaic Torah must have been much shorter than the version in our hands.[iv] Most scholars reject Spinoza’s interpretation of ibn Ezra’s “secret of the twelve.” They say ibn Ezra was referring to the last twelve verses of Deuteronomy, which tells of Moses’ death and burial and could not have been written by Moses. These scholars say that ibn Ezra called this the “secret of the twelve,” meaning just as these twelve verses were not written by Moses, so too there were at least a half dozen other statements that Moses could not have composed. The difference between the views of Spinoza and the others is that Spinoza felt ibn Ezra questioned the divine origin of the entire Torah while the others saw him only finding problems with Moses’ composition of a half dozen verses.


As I wrote previously, ibn Ezra was convinced that astrology works, heavenly bodies control everything on earth, even people. He goes further in his interpretation of Deuteronomy 4:19, 20, which states that the stars were “allotted to all the peoples.”[v] He wrote that every nation and city, except Israel, has its own star and constellation to watch over and aid it. Jews, however, are assisted by God. This interpretation, which may suggests that non-Jews are allowed to worship stars who help them, is strongly denied in the Talmud.[vi] The Talmud adds that the Greek Septuagint translation was purposely changed to “which the Lord your God set aside to give light unto the entire world” to avoid this idolatrous misunderstanding.


When the Talmud[vii] states that “Israel has no mazal,” a word meaning “constellation” and “luck,” ibn Ezra explains that it teaches that as long as Jews observe the divine commands, God will make sure that the astrological forces will not harm them. God will find a way of saving them without altering the movements or powers of the stars.[viii] Thus, when the Israelites rejected God and worshiped the golden calf, God did not protect them and the stars harmed them.[ix] When ibn Ezra states that God protects people when they act correctly it should be understood to mean that when people use their intellect, they are protected against many dangers. This interpretation is necessary because of what ibn Ezra writes in other places, such as his belief that God only knows the general laws of nature, but not the details about people.


Maimonides and ibn Ezra disagree as to whether the Bible requires Jews to have a king or if Deuteronomy 17 only gives the nation permission to have one. Maimonides takes the former position[x] and Ibn Ezra the latter.[xi]


In his commentaries to Exodus 23:19, ibn Ezra explains the Torah prohibition: “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk”: the Torah wanted to remove people from cruel behavior, as it does in Leviticus 22:28, prohibiting slaughtering a cow and its ewe in a single day, and Deuteronomy 22:6, 7 forbidding the taking of a mother bird with its young. Maimonides interpreted the prohibition as one of many ways that the Torah was attempting to disassociate people from idol worship, for one of the ancient pagan methods of worship was  to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. Later rabbis developed the rule that Jews should not eat milk and meat products together and used this verse to support this teaching.


Ibn Ezra did not always interpret Scripture literally. For example, he understood Deuteronomy 34:6’s “And he buried him (Moses) in the valley,” not that God buried Moses, but Moses buried himself. The Bible commentator Sforno points out (in his commentary to 34:6) that if this were true, it must have been his disembodied soul that buried Moses’ body. Verse 5 states that Moses died on the mountain top, while verse 6 says he was buried in the valley.


In his long commentary to Exodus 20:1, ibn Ezra accepted the general rabbinic view that “I am the Lord your God” is the first of the Ten Commandments.[xii] However, in his commentary on Deuteronomy 5:6, he states that while he recognizes the rabbinic view, he prefers to see the conventionally understood first two commands as a single command. He was not the sole proponent of this view. Others such as Hasdai Crescas and the Masorites who divided the Torah into sections concurred.[xiii]





[i] Long Commentary to Exodus 31:18.

[ii] Tractatus Theologico – politicos, 1670, chapter 8. The Talmud also raised questions about the Bible text.  Also ibn Janach, who lived before Ibn Ezra, made over 200 textual emendations in Scripture. See N. Sarna, “Hebrew and Bible Studies of Medieval Spain,” The Sephardic Heritage, ed. R. D. Barnett, London, 1971, pp. 348-349.

[iii] See the commentary of Chazkunee on 27:2 in Torah Chayim, p. 227.

[iv] Spinoza either did not know or he ignored Ibn Ezra’s (and Saadiah Gaon’s) interpretation to 27:3 that only the commands were written on the stones.

[v] As did Pirke d’R. Eliezer and Isaac Abravanel in his Rosh Amanah, page 121.

[vi] Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zara 55a and Megillah 9a, b.

[vii] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 156a.

[viii] Long commentary to Exodus 6:3. Tosaphot on Babylonian Talmud, Nidah 16b, s.v. hakol, states “God does not want to change the movements of the constellations.”

[ix] Long commentary to Exodus 33:21.

[x] Sefer HaMitzvot, positive command 173.

[xi] Commentary to Deuteronomy 17:15.

[xii] See Don Isaac Abarbanel, Rosh Amanah, 5718m, pp. 104-111.  He lists the various talmudic and midrashic statements regarding this issue and shows that virtually all, but not all, consider “I am the Lord your God” as the first command.  Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Hamada 1:1) concurred.

[xiii] Ibn Ezra did not always agree that the traditional Masoretic division of the Bible was logical.