Abraham Ibn Ezra in Numbers


As I wrote in prior essays that focused on the brilliant thinker Abraham ibn Ezra’s biblical commentaries on Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus, there are ibn Ezra views that people will like and others they will not like, and may even feel are irrational. The following are examples from Numbers.


Both Moses Maimonides and ibn Ezra stress the importance of believing that a messiah will appear in the future, although they differ in details. Maimonides states[1] that the concept of the messiah is contained in the Torah and people who deny the belief deny the Torah. Ibn Ezra[2] refers to the book of Daniel and Deuteronomy 30:4, 5 as proof and warns that those who dismiss this biblical concept lack understanding. Both probably wrote that the idea of a messiah is in Scripture to aid the general population who were being mistreated badly by non-Jews at that time, to give them hope for the future, because a plain reading of the biblical texts they used to support their views do not mention the coming of a messiah.


Ibn Ezra’s writing style is quite concise, even cryptic. As a result, some of his commentaries are obscure. He seems to state in Numbers 22:22 that the being that confronted the pagan prophet Balaam’s mule was a heavenly angel visible to humans. However, the fourteenth century commentator on ibn Ezra, Joseph ben Eliezer Bonfils,[i]  argues that ibn Ezra actually concurs with Maimonides’ view[ii] that the angel’s appearance was not a reality, but only a vision or dream. Maimonides explains that whenever the Bible states that someone heard or saw an angel, “this happened only in a vision of prophecy[3] or in a dream whether this is explicitly stated or not.” Thus, the biblical story of Balaam and the she-ass speaking was a vision.


Ibn Ezra, as I wrote previously, believed in astrology, that the heavenly bodies affected everything on earth. His view on astrology led him to some unique, and perhaps strange, ideas: animal sacrifices are designed to overcome astrological forces, holidays were biblically set on specific dates for the same reason, the “secret of intercalation” assures that Jews offer saving prayers at the proper astrological time, the Yom Hakippurim scapegoat was sent outside the Temple to appease such powers, and Jews were given Israel and especially Jerusalem because of its astrological geographic power. Balaam used astrology deceptively. He consulted the stars and when he saw that evil would befall a person, he would curse him. Although he didn’t produce the evil as he claimed, people thought that he did so, and his fame grew.


It is possible to speculate that ibn Ezra believed that God did not dictate the Torah to Moses.  Numbers 33:2 states: “and Moses wrote their (the Israelites) breaking up of the (desert) camp for their journeying forth at the word of God.” Ibn Ezra states that “at the word of God” refers to “their journeying.” He may have said this to avoid saying that Moses wrote as a result of God’s dictation. Nachmanides seems to have understood ibn Ezra denying the divine origin of the Bible. In his commentary to this verse, Nachmanides mentions ibn Ezra’s interpretation and disagrees. He states that “at the word of God” refers to “And Moses wrote,” teaching that all parts of the Bible came from God.


Ibn Ezra repeatedly interpreted the oft-occurring number seven as a symbol of completeness.[iii] Three, he thought, is “always bad because it is half” of seven. It is the turning point to the change that will reach its climax with seven.[iv] The idea that seven signifies completeness is also contained in the writings of other Bible commentators, such as S. R. Hirsch[v] and B. H. Epstein.[vi] Maimonides saw no significance in numbers. He states, for example, that numbers mentioned in the Torah with regard to sacrifices have no significance, for “one particular number had necessarily to be chosen.”[vii] He sees seven as a mean rather than a symbol of completeness. He states that the number seven, as in the seven days of Passover, was chosen simply because it is the “mean between the natural day (which is too short a period for a celebration) and the lunar month” (which is too long).


Numbers 18:19 states “it is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord.” Saadiah, Rashi, Rashbam, Chazkunee, and others, understand that “salt” is a metaphor for “lasting,” since salt keeps foods wholesome. This is consistent with its use in II Chronicles 13:5. Ibn Ezra states that it is the opposite, “cut off, cut down, to cause to perish, destroy,” and in this verse means “to make (or cut) a covenant.”[viii]


Ibn Ezra makes an interesting comment on Numbers 15:37-41. The current practice is for males to wrap themselves in a tallit, a garment with tzitzit, fringes, during the synagogue service, in fulfillment of the command to wear tzitzit in Numbers 15:37-41, since this passage is read as part of the synagogue service. However “to my mind, it would appear that one should be more obligated to wrap oneself in the tzitzit at times other than the hours of prayer, so that one would remember (at these times) and not err and act improperly at these times; for (there is no strong benefit wearing the tzitzit) during the services (because during the services) he will not err.”


[1] In Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Malachim 11:1.

[2] In his commentary to Numbers 24:17.

[3] Maimonides defined prophecy as a higher level of thinking, not as a divine communication.

[i] Zaphnat Paniech on Numbers 22:28, pages 54-55.

[ii] Guide of the Perplexed 2:49.

[iii] See, for example, Exodus 3:15, Leviticus 22:27, 23:24, 26:18, Numbers 23:1 and Deuteronomy 28:7.

[iv] Genesis 34:25, where the people of Shechem were sickest on the third day.

[v] See, for example, his commentary to Leviticus 12:2, 3.

[vi] Tosaphot Barukh, pages 87-89 and Mekor Barukh, part 3, Chapter 26. Epstein has a list of where seven appears in Jewish holidays and practices.

[vii] Guide of the Perplexed 3:26.

[viii] This is consistent with the use of “salt” in Deuteronomy 29:22 and Psalms 107:34.