Ibn Ezra in Leviticus


I described some rational and irrational views of the brilliant sage Abraham ibn Ezra (born 1089 or 1092 and died at age 75) in my brief essay on his views in the biblical books Genesis and Exodus. We see the same phenomenon of seemingly contradictory views of the Torah and life in his biblical commentaries on Leviticus.


In his long and short commentaries to Exodus 23:19, Ibn Ezra explains that the Torah may prohibit “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” because it wants to train people to avoid cruel behavior. The Torah has the same goal 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 (1138-1204) explained (in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:37) that the prohibition was made because seething a kid in its mother’s milk was a pagan idolatrous practice and the Torah wanted to wean Israelites from idol worship. In fact, Maimonides felt that many Torah laws had this purpose. The Babylonian Talmud[1] extended the biblical prohibition to include a law of kosher foods, not mixing milk products with meat.


Rashi[2] understand Leviticus 8:3 “assemble the entire congregation at the door of the tent of meeting” literally. It was a miracle where a small area could contain a significantly large assembly of people.[3] Ibn Ezra rejects this interpretation and states that the passage is referring to only the people’s representatives: the tribal leaders and the elders. The Torah frequently uses the hyperbolic “all” or “entire” to mean many people, but not everyone.


While Maimonides is consistently rational, Ibn Ezra, as we have seen, is not. Maimonides did not believe in the existence of demons and other evil beings, but Ibn Ezra did. Opinions vary widely regarding the meaning of Azazel in Leviticus 16:8f and any statement about the word is pure speculation.[4] Leviticus states that the high priest selects two goats during the holiday of Yom Hakippurim.[5] He sacrifices one and sends the other to Azazel. Nachmanides writes that this second goat was offered to the demon Sammael, who was assigned power over the Israelites on the Day of Atonements if they acted improperly. The goat was sent to him as a bribe, to persuade him to beseech God to have mercy on the Israelites. Ibn Ezra had the same or a similar idea: the goat sent to Azazel is not a sacrifice but an enticement. Ibn Ezra expressed this notion in a cryptic remark, a habit of his whenever he rejected a traditional stance. The passages’ true meaning, he wrote, is a secret which will be revealed “when you are 33 years old.”  The number is a hint to the thirty-third verse following 16:8, which speaks of demons, namely 17:7, “They must cease offering their sacrifices to demons.” In total contrast, in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:46, Maimonides sees the goat as only a symbol. It reminds people to rid themselves of bad acts and behave properly.


Ibn Ezra, as I wrote in my essay on ibn Ezra and the book Exodus, felt that the land of Israel is holy. Thus, while worshipping idols is generally wrong, it is especially so in holy Israel. Ibn Ezra writes that this is why Molech worship in Israel (Leviticus 18:6 and 26 and Deuteronomy 31:16) and taking idols to Israel (even if they are only used for astrological purposes, as in Genesis 35:2) is prohibited. The holiness of Israel also prohibited non-Israelites from eating non-kosher foods in Israel (Leviticus 20:24, 25).  In fact, generally, non-Israelites living in Israel must live a holy life because of the sanctity of the land (Leviticus 20:7) and must be careful not to incur ritual uncleanness. Thus they are subject to the purifying rules of the Red Hefer (Numbers 19:10, 11). The law stating that a house could be struck with the plague of leprosy (Leviticus 14:34f) only applies in Israel because of its sanctity: for the temple is in it, and the honored one (God) is in the temple.

[1] Chullin 113a and other sources.

[2] Based on Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 10.

[3] The Torah speaks of over 600,000 males of military age, but there were also young and older men and many women.

[4] Some commentators, for example, thought Azazel was a mountain or an arid plain.

[5] The biblical holiday was Yom Hakippurim, the Day of Atonements. It is plural because this day was observed by the High priest bringing sacrifices to atone for himself, his family, the temple, and all Israel. When the temple was destroyed in 70 CE and sacrifices could no longer be brought, the holiday was changed to Yom Kippur, in the singular, a day when each individual would atone for his and her misdeeds.