The unorthodox secrets of ibn Ezra
Anyone who wants to understand the rational philosophy of Abraham ibn Ezra and his method of interpreting scripture needs to read this Hebrew book because Bonfils reveals the ibn Ezra ideas that he hinted at in his commentary but did not reveal explicitly. For example, he speaks several times that there is a “secret of the twelve,” but does not reveal that he is referring to at least a half dozen portions of the Five books of Moses that could not have been written by Moses, such as the last twelve verses of the Torah which describe his death and burial.
Five generations of the descendants of Maimonides (1138-1204) served as Nagid, or leader, of Egyptian Jewry. The last to serve as Nagid encouraged the noted French scholar Joseph Bonfils to write a super-commentary on the biblical commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra. The Nagid believed that it would be a shame for the public not to understand the teachings of the wise Abraham ibn Ezra and thus pleaded with Bonfils to make his writings accessible to all. Bonfils wrote the book Tzafnat Paneach, “Revealing the Secrets.”
Abraham ibn Ezra was a Bible commentator par excellance, a philosopher and a physician. He was born in Tudela, Spain – the country of Maimonides’ birth – in 1089, about forty-nine years before the birth of Maimonides. He left Spain in 1140, when he was roughly fifty-one years old, due to Moslem religious persecution. He died at the age of seventy-five, around the year 1164. The last years of his life were spent moving from country to country, a wandering scholar. His wanderings took him to Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Italy and London.
Ibn Ezra was not a systematic philosopher like Maimonides. He did not write a book of philosophy, but his ideas can be extracted from his Bible commentaries. His philosophy is generally rationalistic neo-Platonism, many of his views contrary to mainstream Judaism. It is one of the ironies of Jewish history that the printers of the rabbinic Bibles – that is, Bibles that contained many rabbinic commentaries – include the commentary of ibn Ezra. Perhaps they did not understand what he was saying; or, perhaps, and this is preferable, they did understand and felt that his views also demanded attention.
Abraham ibn Ezra’s Method of Understanding Scripture
In his two introductions to his Bible commentary, ibn Ezra describes five kinds of people who write Bible commentaries. He insists that he falls into the fifth of these categories.
- Those who write commentaries to show off the extent of their learning. According to ibn Ezra, these writers insert extraneous matters into their works that are unrelated to the text they are explaining in order to flaunt the knowledge they have.
- Those who use only their own reasoning without taking rabbinical explanations into account.
- Those who read the Bible as if it were composed entirely of allegory or mystery.
- Those who accept midrashic explanations of the text while ignoring its simple and straightforward meaning.
- Those, like him, who seek the text’s simple meaning, but accept the talmudic rabbis’ interpretation of halakhah, the legislative part of the Pentateuch.
A careful reading of ibn Ezra’s commentary reveals that he does not keep his promise in all cases. While his stated goal is to explain the literal meaning of the Bible by analyzing the etymological and grammatical aspects of a passage, at times he employs the methods of the very commentators he criticizes.
Ibn Ezra frequently abstains from explaining his controversial ideas in detail – to avoid the criticism of the general populace – and writes, “the intelligent will understand.”
Examples of ibn Ezra’s Interpretations
Ibn Ezra’s approach to understanding Scripture diverges radically from that of mainstream Jewish thinking; that is, the thinking of uneducated unphilosophically- minded Jews. He focuses on the literal meaning of the passage, refusing to use the text as a basis upon which to build novel imaginative interpretations or glorifications of biblical characters, their lives and their acts.
- Rejecting the rabbinical approach to the text’s meaning on non-halakhic matters and accepting the views of the “despised” Karaites: Ibn Ezra will occasionally mention the opinion of a Karaite teacher, accompanying it with witty sarcastic remarks, seemingly highlighting how wrong and even ridiculous the view is. However, modern scholars have noticed that while ibn Ezra is generally very brief, he sometimes explains the Karaite’s view quite extensively. These scholars suspect that ibn Ezra cites the views and expands on them because he himself agrees with them. Another supporting factor for this conclusion is that ibn Ezra is interested in presenting the simple meaning of the biblical passages without the rabbinic expansions. This was also the Karaite approach, for Karaites rejected the rabbinic oral law. Ibn Ezra was, however, faced with a problem: how could he espouse a view of the hated Karaites and ignore the preference of the average Jew for the rabbinic elaboration rather than the text’s simple meaning? He solved the dilemma by presenting the Karaite view in detail, leaving the “intelligent who will understand” to comprehend that the expressed explanation is consistent with his own.
- Insistence on a realistic understanding of biblical events: Ibn Ezra presents a realistic and, at times, unflattering portrayal of an aged Moses: Why was Moses on Mount Sinai for forty days? Ibn Ezra states that the Israelite leader was on the mount to learn about God. But, he continues, even a man of Moses’ intellect cannot learn about God in the short period of forty days. Therefore, Moses states in Exodus 31:18, “O Lord God, You who have let Your servant begin to see the works of Your greatness.”
- Moses had difficulty speaking the language of the Egyptians because he was absent from Egypt for some forty years in a different land in which the language was not spoken. Moses never spoke directly to the Israelites because of these language difficulties. Aaron spoke for him.
- One must keep in mind, ibn Ezra writes, that Moses was an old man of eighty. Therefore he walked using a staff to support him.
- When the Israelites fought against Amalek and Moses’ hands had to be raised as a signal to his army, two people held his arms for him; he was not capable of that type of effort due to his old age.
- Viewing the Bible from a rational and historical perspective rather than seeking moralistic and spiritual reasons for scriptural events and statements:
- Why is God’s name missing from the book of Esther? Mordechai purposely kept it out, ibn Ezra writes, so that when the Persians copied the scroll, they would not insert their god’s name.
- Esther 9:31 states: “Esther the queen had enjoined them [to observe Purim at its appropriate time] as they [the Jews] had ordained for themselves and their descendants the matters of fasting and lamentation.” Ibn Ezra notes that some commentators understand “the matters of fasting and lamentation” to refer to the Fast of Esther, which many Jews observe on the day before Purim, on the thirteenth of the month of Adar. He objects to this interpretation because the fast clearly did not exist during the lifetime of Esther; it is first mentioned in the post-talmudic treatise Soferim in the eighth century, a millennium after the book of Esther was composed. Furthermore, a fast could not have been observed in Esther’s time on the thirteenth of Adar because at that time the Jews celebrated a holiday on the thirteenth of Adar called the Day of Nicanor. It commemorated the victory of Judah Maccabee against the Syrian Greek general Nicanor. The holiday was established in 161 B.C.E. and was celebrated for many centuries after the death of Esther. Ibn Ezra suggested that “the matters of fasting and lamentation” alludes to the fasts mentioned in the biblical book Zechariah 6:9, which were instituted by prophets and accepted by Jews. Esther, he says, was requesting that the Jews agree to observe the holiday she and Mordechai were establishing, even though neither the Pentateuch nor the prophets introduced it, just as they had agreed to observe “the matters of fasting and lamentation,” that is, the observance of the prophets’ fasts. (This ingenious explanation also explains the plural “matters of fastings and lamentations,” which remains unexplained by those who contend that the verse refers to the singular fast of Esther.)
- In his commentary to Genesis 41:45, ibn Ezra humorously comments on the name that Pharaoh gave Joseph, Zaphenath Paneach. “If this is an Egyptian word, we do not know its meaning [since we do not know the language of the Egyptians], and if it is a [Hebrew] translation [of an Egyptian name that was give to him], we do not know Joseph’s name [what he was called in Egyptian].”
- Rejecting the impossible and finding philosophical truths:
- When Genesis 5:22, 24 relates that “Enoch walked with God,” which is physically impossible, ibn Ezra explains it to mean that Enoch developed his intellect. The words “he was not, for God took him” is a figurative way of saying that when he died his body ceased functioning, but his intellect continued to exist, which conforms to his and Maimonides’ concept of life after death.
- Ibn Ezra was convinced that the story of the “tree of good and evil” in Genesis 3 is not a tale of a tree with supernatural powers, but an allegory that also suggests the lessons of human responsibility and life after death. The tree, he writes, is the intellectual ladder that humans should climb to achieve everlasting life.
- This affected his understanding of Genesis 6:2–4, which states that the “sons of Elohim saw the daughters of men that they were fair. They took them as wives … and bore children of them. They were mighty men of old, men of renown.” Obviously, the words “sons of Elohim,” could not mean “sons of God,” the usual translation of Elohim – a philosophically untenable idea.
- Some commentators resolve the problem by recognizing that the root of Elohim is el, which means “powerful.” God is Elohim because He is all-powerful. Thus “sons of Elohim” means “sons of the powerful,” an idiom meaning the outstanding people of the age. However, ibn Ezra identifies the outstanding people, not as political powerful individuals or intellectuals, but people who understood astrology. They, according to ibn Ezra, were able to use their astrological skills to find excellent wives who would be able to produce outstanding children.
- In Genesis 31:19, Rachel takes her father’s teraphim, figures that ibn Ezra believed were used to enhance astrological powers. Ibn Ezra explains that she did so in order to prevent her father from using the astrological instruments to find her and the rest of her family when they were trying to run and hide from him.
- When Pharaoh’s advisers tell him (Exodus 8:15) that the lice plague was the “finger of God,” ibn Ezra explains that this is a metaphoric phrase meaning “mighty power,” denoting that Moses produced his attack against Egypt through astrological means, and that they as astrologers have the knowledge to do the same.
- In ibn Ezra’s opinion, animal sacrifices can overcome astrological forces, although he does not explain how this is done.
- Jewish holidays, ibn Ezra contends, occur at the precise time when astrological forces will not interfere in Jewish lives.
- How, according to ibn Ezra, should one combat negative astrological forces? Since humans are unable to alter the course of heavenly constellations, ibn Ezra suggests that the way to protect oneself is to use one’s intelligence. For example, if one learns through astrology that a city will be flooded, the rational solution is to leave the city.
Ibn Ezra’s Bible commentary contains many penetrating and thought-provoking ideas. A host of them would not be acceptable to mainstream Jewish thinkers because of his rationalistic approach to life, his tendency to portray biblical figures as more human and less heroic, and his focus on the plain literal meaning of the Torah text, in contrast to the current popular attempts to tear scriptural words from their context and mine halakhah and derash from the isolated biblical words.
Realizing that he could not state all of his views openly, ibn Ezra hid them in various ways. One method was to allege that certain interpretations, offered by a Karaite, were worthy of rejection – yet these were, in fact, his own views.
It is rather remarkable that the printers of the rabbinic Bibles – which contain the commentaries of various rabbis – included this iconoclast’s opinions of the Bible. Many examples of his unique approach can be cited. He viewed Moses, for example, as an aged man, a human being with understandable limitations and physical problems, not a supernatural character assisted by God.
 I adapted this from my first Maimonides book “Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind.”