Who was the brilliant Abraham ibn Ezra?


It is well-worth spending time reading the brilliant Bible commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra even though he frequently wrote his comments in a very brief manner, a manner that some people will find difficult to understand. He was a Bible commentator, philosopher, physician, and scientist, who was born in Tudela, Spain, in 1089 or 1092 and died at the age of 75.

Ibn Ezra, like Maimonides, was a great, original, and influential author of Spanish Jewry. He and Maimonides began their lives in a common culture, in a similar milieu, had the same religion, shared the same problems, were acquainted with the philosophic debates of twelfth-century Spain, and relied on at least some of the same Arabic philosophers. Maimonides states that whereas people of other nations have erroneous ideas, Spanish Jews have clung to the truths of the philosophers in so far as they do not run counter to Jewish law.

Unlike Jews in Christian countries during the early years of ibn Ezra who were constantly persecuted and were unable to obtain a secular education, the Jews of Spain enjoyed a comparative peace in Moslem countries from the eighth to the middle of the twelfth century when the Almohades, or “Unitarians,” brought an end to the golden age of Spanish Jewry and the peaceable lives of Ibn Ezra and Maimonides. The founder of the Almohades was a short, ugly, misshapen son of a lamplighter, Ibn Turmart, who sought compensation for his physical defects and poverty in piety and power, and forced Jews and Christians to choose between conversion to Islam or death.

Ibn Ezra left Spain in 1140 because of this religious Islamic persecution. He was not a systematic philosopher, and wrote only two brief philosophical treaties and a philosophical letter; nevertheless, philosophical problems were basic to many of his ideas. He generally expressed his views in his non-systemic biblical commentaries in an enigmatic, elliptical, and frequently obscure style, stating that “the intelligent will understand.” His biblical commentary has both lower and higher biblical criticism. He is somewhat conservative with the former, which deals with wording, but radical and innovative concerning the latter, on subjects such as who wrote Scripture.

His philosophical orientation was generally rationalistic. He wrote, for example, that at least a half dozen events recorded in the Five Books of Moses could not have been composed by Moses, as many traditionalists believe. An example is the story of Moses’ death and burial mentioned at the end of the Torah. He believed that God only knew the laws of nature that God created, but not anything else that occurred on earth. Since God did not know whether people acted properly or not, ibn Ezra rejected the idea held by many Jews, an idea that is not in the Torah, that God will reward people for their good deeds and punish them for what they did wrong. He therefore also rejected the idea that God speaks to prophets. Like Maimonides, he felt that prophecy was not miraculous; it is the use of a higher level of intelligence. Thus, unlike Yehuda Halevi who felt that only Jews could be prophets, the two considered the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle a prophet.


There are several problems with the biblical commentaries of ibn Ezra. They are very concise and often even cryptic, as if he was writing in code or more likely that he wanted to hide his non-traditional views from the general population who would feel threatened by them simply because they wouldn’t know how to deal with them. For example,, rather than reveal that he doubted that Moses composed all of the Pentateuch, he wrote that people should understand that this portion is involved in the secret of the twelve. He was frequently inconsistent. When he wrote a long and a short commentary on a book, as he did with the book Esther, one commentary of ibn Ezra might say that he rejected an idea, while the other would claim it was true. He peppered his commentaries with occasional Midrashim, as did Rashi’s grandson Rashbam (1085-1174), even though both were strongly antagonistic to imaginative often unrealistic Midrashim.[1]  Most likely the two did so to add some spice to their commentaries, even though they did not believe what they wrote. Similarly, from time to time, ibn Ezra will tell us that a certain man said something and perhaps mock the view or at least imply that he rejects it, yet a careful analysis of the stated idea in context with ibn Ezra’s other writings seem to indicate that this is ibn Ezra’s opinion, an opinion he felt he could not ascribe to openly.[2] Additionally, ibn Ezra was not a consistent rationalist, as Maimonides. He mentioned ideas occasionally that reasonable people would reject. For instance, while Maimonides rejected astrology as being non-scientific and wrong, ibn Ezra joined the general population in not only believing that astrology works, but he interpreted many biblical events as being the result of the use of astrology, such as the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 were not angels but men who were well trained in astrology and who could use it to help them decide who they should marry.


[1] Ibn Ezra said this in both of his Introductions to the Pentateuch. He also wrote mockingly: Rashi states that he translates the Torah according to its plain meaning and he is correct – one time out of a thousand.

Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, who wrote a generally rational Bible commentary, criticized his grandfather harshly for inserting midrashic explanations into his commentary and not sticking to the plain meaning of the biblical passages. In his commentary on Genesis 37:1, he told his readers that he upbraided his grandfather for the way he explained the Torah, and wrote that Rashi assured him that he agreed with him. Rashi told him that if he had years to write new explanations, he would write a book like Rashbam wrote his commentary.

In Genesis 49:17, where Rashi states that the verse is referring to the judge Samson, who would not be born for another couple of centuries, Rashbam angrily writes that anyone who thinks that this passage is speaking about Samson doesn’t know how to understand the Torah.

In Deuteronomy 15:18, Scripture mandates that slave owners must give their Hebrew slaves gifts when they set slaves free. The Torah continues: “It should not seem hard to you … because he gave you double the service of a hired man.” Rashi (based on Midrash Sifrei) proposes that Scripture’s “double” means that Hebrew slaves work day and night, while hired employees works only during the day; the nighttime work is when the master gives the slave a Canaanite slave so that he can have children from the union that would belong to him as slaves. Rashbam calls this interpretations “foolish” and “vapor.” The plain meaning of the verse, he says, is that the “master” should not feel bad in having paid for slaves twice, when he purchased slaves and now when he must also give them gifts.


[2] Ibn Ezra was not alone in attempting to hide his true views from the general public. Many philosophers who lived in a religious community did so. Leo Strauss of the University of Chicago was convinced that Maimonides wrote for two audiences, intellectuals and the general population, and that he frequently hid his true views from the non-intellectuals, convinced that the more philosophically-minded could mine what he wrote and understand what he really thought. See Strauss’s introduction to Maimonides’s “Guide of the Perplexed,” translated by Shlomo Pines.