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Moses ben Jacob Ibn Ezra

(c. 1055 – after 1135)

Moses ben Jacob Ibn Ezra, (also known as Abu Harun), was a Spanish Hebrew poet and philosopher.

Born in Granada, he was a pupil of Isaac ibn Ghayyat in Lucena, “the city of poetry.” In his youth, Moses acquired a very comprehensive Jewish and Arabic education.

He appears to have held an honored position in the province of Granada, since his name is qualified by the Arabic title “???ib al-shur?a” (lit. “head of the police,” but also “his excellency”). Ibn Ezra encouraged Judah Halevi in his early poetic efforts and invited him to come to Granada where he supported him, and the two formed a lasting friendship.

In 1090, a decisive change took place in his life: Granada was captured by the Almoravids, its Jewish community was destroyed, and the members of the Ibn Ezra family dispersed. It is not known why Ibn Ezra remained in Granada for a while. After much effort and suffering he also succeeded in fleeing to Christian Spain but he was not allowed to return to his native city for which he yearned all his life.

Ibn Ezra’s later years were full of misfortune and bitter delusions the cause of which it would seem, from the poet’s own rather vague references, was his niece, daughter of his eldest brother, Isaac (an assumption which has, however, been disputed). He also suffered other disappointments: his brother Joseph deserted him when he was in trouble and his own children forsook him. He was obliged to seek the aid of munificent patrons in return for which he had to sing their praise. Ibn Ezra wandered through Christian Spain but could neither adapt himself to the manners of its Jewish population nor to their low cultural standard. He died far from his native city.


Ibn Ezra is one of the most prolific poets of the Spanish school; his mastery of the language is attested by the beauty and versatility of his secular and sacred verse. He was also interested in the theory of poetics and was probably the greatest authority of his day on the subject; his treatise on rhetoric and poetry, Kit?b al-Mu???ara wa al-Mudh?kara, is one of the earliest works on Hebrew poetics and as such is unique in medieval Hebrew literature. It was written in his old age (after 1135) in answer to eight questions on Hebrew poetry posed by a friend and is thus correspondingly divided into eight chapters. Only a small part of the Arabic original was published by P. Kokowzoff (1895). B.Z. Halper translated it into Hebrew under the title Shirat Yisrael (Leipzig, 1924). A valuable historical source for Spanish Hebrew poetry in general and for biographical data on individual authors, the work also tries to establish a relationship between the poet and his environment. While much of the book is devoted to a general discussion on poetry, its essence, its nature, and its value, the last chapter (comprising about half the work) is a close study of what he called “poetic ornaments” (rhetorical forms and metaphorical language) to embellish the content of the poem. Definitions of terms and linguistic and poetical (metrical) rules set down by scholars of Arabic literature form the basis of the work, which is written in the Arabic adab form, an informal casual style. Ibn Ezra, in taking many of his examples of “ornaments” or metaphorical language from the Bible, shows an appreciation for its literary charm and beauty, a field neglected until modern times.

In his poetry Ibn Ezra pedantically observed the principles of prosody and some of his poems are models of prosodic perfection to which Al-?arizi’s statement “and the verse of R. Moses ibn Ezra appeals more than any other poetry to poets because of the rhetoric,” bears witness. His exaggerated desire for a beautiful external poetic form and a rhetoric language, replete with “ornaments,” at times restricts the flow of free poetic expression, especially in some of his secular poems; there are, however, a considerable number of poems that are perfect in every aspect. Many of the poetic images and linguistic patterns in Ibn Ezra are so intricate that only the discerning eye of a poet can unravel the complexity of their composition. Much of his poetry bears a note of personal grief which may be attributed to the troubles that the poet had experienced. His loneliness in “the exile of Edom” and his yearning for his native city are at times expressed with warmth and great simplicity.

Poems in celebration of life, whose main themes are love, wine, and nature, belong mostly to his early poetry, and form a considerable part of Sefer ha-Anak, sometimes called Tarshish (the Hebrew letters standing for the numerical value of its 1,210 verses). Ending in homonymic rhyme, these poems are the first of their kind in Hebrew literature. The work served as a model for medieval poets. It was first published by Baron David Guenzberg (Berlin, 1886) and is included in Brody’s edition (see below); a commentary was written by Saul b. Abdallah Joseph in his book Mishbe?et ha-Tarshish (1926).

Sefer ha-Anak is divided into ten chapters and written in the Arabic poetic style tajn?s in which words recur in different stanzas but acquire a novel meaning in each repetition. Other themes in the work are rural life, infidelity in friendship, old age, vicissitudes in luck, death, trust in God, and the beauty of poetry. Ibn Ezra’s secular poetry is the most sensual in the Jewish Spanish school. It is in the tradition of Samuel ha-Nagid, one of his favorite poets, in which the overall theme is also a zest for life. Both poets achieved an aesthetic blend of contradictory outlooks in which the negation is usually couched in clever witty language.

Ibn Ezra celebrated the joys of life also in his later poetry: the exquisite verse on banquets and romance found in the introduction to poems written in his old age show his great mastery of prosody. This was a time when the poet was bitter and dejected yet this mood neither impeded his great poetic sense nor undermined his joyful poetry. Much of his secular poetry is included in the diwan (a collection of poems) which, together with shirei ezor (girdle poems called in Arabic Muwashsha??t) and letters, were published in a scientific edition by H. Brody in two volumes (1935–42).

His poetic power found its greatest expression in his reflective poetry: meditations on life and death. These poems are also in the tradition of Samuel ha-Nagid (in “Ben Kohelet,” etc.) While Ibn Ezra is original neither in thought nor in approach he holds and moves the reader with the honesty of his emotions and the vigor of his style. In his epigrams on the vanities of the world and his poems on the feelings evoked at the sight of a cemetery, he skillfully blended direct aesthetic expression with analytical thought and ethical teaching.

Among Ibn Ezra’s corpus of piyyutim, the seli?ot (penitential prayers) are the most impressive. Early scholars probably regarded them as the most consummate expression of his talent and called him Ha-Sallah, the writer of seli?ot. Most of them show intricate artistic variation in their strophic form; their rhymes and rhythm evincing a very developed musical sense which by itself imparts great aesthetic pleasure. Ibn Ezra’s penchant for analyzing and preaching at times, however, restrains, even in the seli?ot, direct poetic expression; he tends to be repetitive and uses cliché idioms and images, yet some of his religious verse is considered among the finest in the Hebrew piyyut. They are the aesthetic expression of a contrite soul who longs for his Maker. Introspection and meditation are focal points: Ibn Ezra calls on man to look at himself, at the absurdity of life, the bluster of worldly aspirations and achievements, the inevitable disenchantment of the hedonist, and the inexorability of divine judgment. Hope is found in penance and contrition. Some of his piyyutim also have a national motif. He condemns those who see the biblical messianic prophecies merely as a spiritual symbol and those who interpret them rationally or are skeptical about the miracles that center around the redemption.

In Ibn Ezra’s sacred poetry there are traces of ideas, images, and idioms from his secular verse which was directly influenced by Arabic literature. The Jewish religious and Arabic secular elements are, however, very effectively interwoven. While many of his piyyutim are included in the diwan manuscript, most of them are scattered in the prayer books of different rites. Selected piyyutim by Ibn Ezra were published in various anthologies. H. Brody and S. Solis Cohen published a collection of selected poems of Moses ibn Ezra (Philadelphia, 1934) and an incomplete edition, containing 237 poems, was published by S. Bernstein in 1957.

[Encyclopedia Hebraica]


H. Brody and S. De Solis Cohen (eds. and transl.), Selected Poems of Moses ibn Ezra (1934); ?.N. Bialik and H. Rawnitzki (eds.), Shirei Moshe ben Ya'akov ibn Ezra, 1 (1928); Schirmann, Sefarad, 1 (1959), 25–37; 2 (1956), 683, bibl.; idem, Shirim ?adashim min ha-Genizah (1966), 219–30; D. Yarden, Sefunei Shirah (1967), 25–37; D. Pagis, Shirat ha-?ol ve-Torat ha-Shir le-Moshe ibn Ezra u-Venei Doro (1970); A.M. Habermann, Toledot ha-Piyyut ve-ha-Shirah (1970), 180–2; Davidson, O?ar, 4 (1933), 439–43; H. Brody, in: JQR, 24 (1933/34), 309f.; Baer, Spain, 1 (1961), 59ff., 83f., 390 n. 36. IN PHILOSOPHY: S. Pines, in: Tarbiz, 27 (1957/58), 218–35; Husik, Philosophy, index; Saul ben Abdallah Joseph, Mishbe?et ha-Tarshish (1926); W. Bacher, Die Bibelexegese der juedischen Religionsphilosophen des Mittelalters vor Maim-ni (1892), 95–105; A. Harkavy, in: MGWJ, 43 (1899), 133–6; A.S. Halkin, Sefer ha-Iyyunim ve-ha-Diyyunim (original Arabic in Hebrew transcription with a translation; 1975).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.