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Abraham Ibn Ezra

(1089 - 1164)


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The Golden Age of Spain produced some magnificent Jewish scholars. One of these was Abraham Ibn Ezra. Born in 1089, Ibn Ezra was a friend of Judah HaLevi. Tradition maintains that Ibn Ezra married Judah HaLevi's daughter.

After three of his children died and one son converted to Islam, Ibn Ezra became a wanderer. It was during his self-chosen exile that he wrote his brilliant works. Ibn Ezra was a poet, astrologist, scientist, and Hebrew grammarian. All the Hebrew grammar books to that time had been written in Arabic including Saadia Gaon's famous work. When he discovered that the Jews of Italy didn't understand Hebrew grammar, he wrote an excellent book in Hebrew which became a best-seller. It elucidated for Jews living in Christian Europe Hayyuj's tri- letter root theory.

Ibn Ezra also introduced the decimal system to Jews living in the Christian world. He used the Hebrew alef to tet for 1–9, but added a special sign to indicate zero. He then placed the tens to the left of the digits in the usual way.

In his travels, ibn Ezra met Rabbenu Tam (the grandson of Rashi) in France, and they apparently discussed Halachah and Torah.

Ibn Ezra's most famous work was his commentary on the Bible. Unlike Rashi, Ibn Ezra didn't want to use midrash in his explanations. He concentrated on the grammar and literal meaning of the text. His most controversial beliefs were all couched in very careful language; scholars suspect that Ibn Ezra did not believe that the Torah was written by Moses on Mount Sinai. He found seams and grammatical problems which indicated that the Torah was written over a period of time. He didn't dare proclaim this opinion openly; it would have meant his death. However, there are hints of his suspicions within his commentary. He carefully used the phrase, "And the intelligent will understand" whenever he discussed a controversial insight.

Although Abraham ibn Ezra was not a systematic philosopher, he presented philosophical positions in his biblical commentaries. He was essentially neoplatonic and was strongly influenced by Solomon ibn Gabirol. He introduced into his biblical commentaries excerpts from Gabirol's allegorical interpretation of the account of the Garden of Eden. He described God's relation to the world in a pantheistic-emanationist manner and like Gabirol said of God that "He is all, and all comes from Him; He is the source from which everything flows." Ibn Ezra described the process of the world's emanation from God by the neoplatonic image of the process of the multiplication of numbers from the One, and as the process of speech issuing from the mouth of a speaker.

He suggested that the form and matter of the intelligible world emanated from God, whereas terrestrial matter was pre-existent and uncreated. The intelligible world, like God, was eternal, while the terrestrial world was created in time and through the mediation of the intelligible world.

The terrestrial world, however, was not created ex nihilo, but from pre-existent terrestrial matter. The biblical account of creation relates only to the terrestrial world. Accordingly, he interpreted the word Elohim ("God," Genesis. 1:1) as the intelligible world or angels, and the word bara ("created") as "He limited."

Ibn Ezra divided the universe into three "worlds:" the "upper world" of intelligibles or angels; the "intermediate world" of the celestial spheres; and the lower, sublunar "world" which was created in time.

His images of creation powerfully influenced later generations of kabbalists.


Sources: Gates to Jewish Heritage

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