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Latif, Isaac B. Abraham ibn

LATIF, ISAAC B. ABRAHAM IBN (1210–1280), one of the foremost spokesmen of Jewish *Neoplatonism in 13th-century *Spain. Ibn Latif was a unique philosopher and biblical commentator who lived and taught mainly at Toledo (the capital of Christian Castile) one generation after the publication of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed and one generation before the appearance of the Zohar.

Early Years

Although Toledo was reconquered by the Christians in 1212, Ibn Latif was still educated according to the Jewish-Andalusian legacy and was fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew. His first mature years however were spent in business, but then he decided (in his mid-twenties) to dedicate himself to an extensive study of the range of philosophical sciences from logic to metaphysics. His first book, Gate of Heaven (Sha'ar ha-Shamayim, MS. Vatican 335.1), written in Hebrew in 1238, combines philosophical allegorization of Scripture, interpretations of the commandments, commentaries on talmudic legends, and metaphysical discussions characterized by Neo-platonic esoteric terminology, derived from various sources, such as: The Book of Creation (Sefer Yeẓirah) and its Jewish philosophical commentaries, The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity (Rasa'il Ikhwan al-Ṣafa), Solomon Ibn Gabirol's Fons Vitae and Crown of Kingship (Keter Melkhut), Ibn Batalyawsi's Book of the Flowerbeds (Kitab al-Ḥada'iq), and the pseudo-epigraphic mystical treatises and letters of the Jewish Iyyun circle. It should be mentioned that Ibn Latif was the first known Jewish scholar to translate to Hebrew a few chapters and citations from Abu-Nasr Al-Farabi's Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Righteous City.

Attitude toward Maimonides

In spite of his strong affinity toward Neoplatonic sources, Ibn Latif's main influence, especially in his early books, is *Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed. In his Gate of Heaven, Commentary on Ecclesiastes (early 1240s, first printed: Constantinople, 1585, reprinted: Jerusalem, 1970) and Letter of Reply (Iggeret ha-Teshuvah, attributed to Ibn Latif, date unknown, ed. A. Berliner, in: Koveẓ al Yad, vol. 1, Berlin, 1885, pp. 46–70) there is extensive use of Maimonidean ideas and terminology, particularly in six fields: the enumeration of sciences, the doctrine of negative attributes, divine providence, intellectualist prophecy (and sub-prophecy), identification of the account of the chariot with philosophical metaphysics, and finally, human perfection. Those influences were carried forward to his later treatises: The King's Archives (Ginzei ha-Melekh, ed. A. Jellineck, in: Kokhvei Yiẓhak, Vienna, 1862–67), The Form of the Universe (Ẓurat ha-Olam, ed. Z. Stern, Vienna, 1860, reprinted: Jerusalem, 1970), and Lord of Activities (referring to human reason; see Rav Pe'alim, ed. S. Schoenblum, Berlin, 1885, reprinted: Jerusalem, 1970; see also: ed. H. Kasher, Ramat Gan, 1974), but without explicitly mentioning his intellectualist mentor.

Therefore, Ibn Latif can be treated as one of the earliest commentators of the Guide of the Perplexed. His early treatises contain some interpretive remarks and comments on various chapters and subjects in Maimonides' Guide. Moreover, Ibn Latif's independent philosophical reflections often parallel central issues in the Guide. Furthermore, in every instance in which Ibn Latif seems to stray from the world of Maimonides, he still bases himself on a Neoplatonic reading of the Guide, and therefore, according to his own understanding, he was only a dedicated disciple of the Guide.

Later Years

Since the membership and nature of Jewish leadership at Toledo changed extensively after the death of R. Meir ha-Levi *Abulafia (= Ramah) in 1244, after which the earlier Andalusian-philosophical legacy was replaced by the new emerging kabbalistic trend, Ibn Latif was forced to teach and write in new cultural conditions.

In the foreword to his treatise The King's Archives, Ibn Latif mentions a group of young students who asked him to reveal to them the hidden secrets of the Torah. As he thought their scientific knowledge was not sufficient for studying metaphysics, he avoided their company and stopped teaching in public.

Although Ibn Latif had a competent knowledge of the kabbalistic treatises of his time, and had scholarly connections with Toledo's community president and well-known kabbalist R. Todros ha-Levi *Abulafia (one of his short works, The Bundle of Myrrh (Ẓeror ha-Mor, ed. A. Jellineck, in: Kerem Ḥemed, 9 (Vienna, 1856), pp. 154–59) was dedicated to Abulafia, who is probably also the keen reader referred to as "a noble person, the leader of his nation" in Ibn Latif's The Form of the Universe (ch. 25)), Ibn Latif never considered himself a kabbalist, nor did he see himself as one of the Jewish philosophers and translators who worked at the court of Alfonso X, king of Castile (Form of the Universe, ch. 6).

Criticism against Philosophers and Kabbalists

In his later treatises Ibn Latif continued his consistent criticism of the partial and deficient knowledge of the philosophers of his city, who abandoned religious observance and adopted the "double faith theory" of the Averroeists. He was also sharp in his criticism of the kabbalists of his time, who, in his opinion, mistakenly combined wrongly knowledge based on Intellect with knowledge based on Imagination.


Ibn Latif's works influenced a few kabbalists of Castile and its region, such as Todros ha-Levi Abulafia, Abraham *Abulafia, Joseph *Gikatilla (early works), Moses de *Leon (early works), and *David b. Abraham ha-Lavan. One can obviously notice the affinity of these authors with Ibn Latif's work, but they never quote it explicitly.

Ibn Latif's works were quoted by later Jewish thinkers, such as Moses of Salerno (13th century); R. *Isaac ben Sheshet (= Ribash), Moses Botreal, and Johanan Alimmano (14th–15th century); R. Isaac *Abrabanel and R. Judah *Ḥayyat (16th century); R. Joseph Solomon *Delmedigo (= Yashar) and R. Abraham Kohen de Herrera (17th century); and recently by R. David Cohen (20th century, a leading disciple of R. Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen *Kook).

The fact that Ibn Latif's influence and citations of his works are found almost exclusively among kabbalists and that he cites the Sefer Yeẓirah and its various commentaries, has led scholars to present him both as a philosopher and as a kabbalist. Nevertheless, as suggested above, it seems that he based himself mainly on Neoplatonic sources and on his own Neoplatonic interpretation of both philosophical and rabbinic works, and therefore he should be regarded as a Neoplatonic philosopher rather than kabbalist.


S.O. Heller Willensky, "Isaac Ibn Latif's the Gate of Heaven: A Mystical Guide of the Perplexed," in: M.A. Shulvas (ed.), Perspectives in Jewish Learning, vol. 2 (1996), 17–25; idem, "Isaac Ibn Latif: Philosopher or Kabbalist?" in: A. Altmann (ed.), Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies (1967), 187–223; idem, "The Guide and the Gate: The Dialectical Influence of Maimonides on Isaac Ibn Latif and Early Spanish Kabbalah," in: R.L. Salinger (ed.), A Straight Path: Studies in Medieval Philosophy and Culture in Honor of Arthur Hyman (1988), 266–78; idem, "The First Created Being in Early Kabbalah and Isma'ílian Sources," in: Binah, 3 (1994), 65–77; H. Kasher, "The Book Rav Pe'alim by Isaac Ibn Latif " (M.A diss., Bar Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, 1974) (Heb.); idem, "On the Terms Kabbalah and Kabbalist in Latif's Treatises," in: Da'at, 41 (1999), 5–12 (Heb.); A. Melamed, "Ibn Latif and Falaquera on the Characteristics of the Philosopher-King," in: Tura, 2 (1992), 162–77 (Heb.); S. Raz, "Isaac Ibn Latif and the Guide of the Perplexed" (M.A diss., Bar Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, 2004) (Heb.).