Abraham ibn Ezra, the Scholars' Rabbi

    February 2011            
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The Ibn Ezra, Torah Scholar Par Excellence


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Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra

By Avi Lazerson

Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra was one of the greatest of the biblical scholars that lived. He was a scholar’s scholar and an expert in Hebrew grammar, science, astronomy, astrology and mathematics. He wrote many books on grammar, philosophy and composed many poems. His commentary on the Five Books of Moses, the Torah, graces all editions of the printings that include the classic commentators, known as the Mikrot HaGedolot. Although his commentary is not as well known by the layman or as often studied by the local rabbi as that of Rashi, still, to the astute scholar, his commentary maintains a place equal to, and often, in opposition to that of Rashi’s. Often the Ramban, another early classic commentator, known also as Nachmanadies, in his commentary will evaluate the differences between Rashi and ibn Ezra.

Abraham ibn Ezra was born in Toledo, Spain, in about the year 1092 (Jewish year: 4852) and lived to see the age of 75. He lived a life of poverty to the extent that he lamented himself by stating that if he were to sell candles, the sun would never set; if he were to deal in shrouds, no one would ever die. The first half of his life he spent traveling through out the Arabic areas of Spain where his admirers enjoyed his poems and provided him with a means of livelihood.

The second half of his life he spent traveling from country to country visiting Africa, Egypt and the land of Israel where he learnt the Kabbalah in Sfad and Tiberius. He traveled to Babylon and Persia and then to Italy where he began to write his great commentary on the Torah, books on grammar and philosophy. He visited France and even England before he decided at an advanced age to return to his home land where he died.

Where as both Rashi and ibn Ezra have come to explain the ‘simple’ meaning of the Torah text, Rashi bases his commentary on the words of the early sages from the time of the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various Midrashim, (a group of Jewish commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures compiled between 400 C.E. and 1200 C.E. and based on exegesis (extrapolating a meaning from the verse that is not indicated by the simple meaning), parable, and aggadic legend) such as Midrash Tanchuma, Midrash Rabba, etc.

According to our sages, the Torah is understood in four methods, called in Hebrew ‘pardes’: Peshat, (simple or plain meaning) Remez, (not written but a hinted meaning) Drash, (exegesis) and Sod (Kabbalistic understanding). The beginning four letters of these words: P, R, D, and S make up the Hebrew word ‘pardes’ (orchard) and indicate that these are four different and important fields (methods) of understanding the Torah. Rashi draws much upon Midrash to explain the difficulties in the Torah. Although his explanation is directed at the average person, yet since it is based upon the words of the early sages of the Talmud his explanations can be simple and deep at the same time.

Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, has a totally different approach. Where as he does not reject Midrash as a valid means to explain difficulties in the biblical text, he does not accept Midrash as a substitute for Peshat. Rather he relies on his expert skills in understanding the grammatical construction of the Torah and of his vast and exacting knowledge of the Torah to explain difficult passages. His style of explanation was not meant for the average individual but rather for the scholar. He brings to light many contemporary and early scholars and either shows why they error in their explanation or he explains why they are correct. In many cases he can be very acidic and can even mock those who try to explain difficulties in the text, yet lack sufficient expertise in Hebrew grammar to properly explain the text.

Ibn Ezra can be acidic with those who explain the meaning of the text, yet lack his level of expertise. As an example, in Exodus 21:35 the verse states: “If the bull [of a] man butts the bull [of his] friends...” The words in the brackets are mine, since in Hebrew the words showing relationship are often indicated by the closeness of the words. Ibn Ezra brings down the commentary of Ben Zutta who says that the word “friends” is referring to the word “bull”, meaning the bull's friend. Ibn Ezra tartly retorts that Ben Zutta missed the beginning statement “bull [of a] man” that means the bull belonging to a man. As you can not say that it means a bull's man, likewise you can not say a bull's friend but rather the bull of a friend. He continues to say that the only friend that a bull has is Ben Zutta!

Many of his poems are written in a difficult manner for us to understand. His famous poem on the opening of the Torah is a riddle-poem called the Chiddot which is basically impossible to understand had it were not for the great scholars who analyzed it and provided an explanation for us. Similarly, his explanation on the Torah is rarely studied except for scholars due to the difficulties for the average untrained person to understand Hebrew grammar or understand the various explanations rabbis who preceded the ibn Ezra whom he but briefly mentions. One of the greatest explanations of the ibn Ezra on the Torah was written over a hundred years ago by an amazing rabbinical scholar by the name of Yehuda Lieb Krinsky who published a book called “Michochay Yehuda” in which he explains the ibn Ezra’s vague references in a clear manner. Although it is unfortunate that this five volume book is out of publication, but fortunately it can be downloaded from the Internet in PDF form together with many of the ibn Ezra’s other works.

His prime work on philosophy is the Yesod Moreh in which he delves into manners of divine providence, the after life and problems in belief. It was his belief that true piety causes man to reflect and to meditate on the Most High, on His wisdom and goodness, whenever he can free himself from the bondage of his body. The more man is able to commune in this way with God, the surer he will fulfill his mission, and thus obtain for his soul after its separation from the body, the everlasting reward, namely, that of continually enjoying the perception of the perfect truth.

His grammar books, Ma'aznim and Tzachot explain the basics of Hebrew in a clear form. It is unfortunate that in our times few people are willing to put in the effort to understand them for they shed much light on Hebrew grammar structure some of which is lacking even in modern spoken Hebrew.

Abraham ibn Ezra was always a commentary studied by the learned scholars and because of that reason his greatness is not apparent to us. Perhaps with the availability of his books in PDF form, free on the internet, more people will begin to reexamine his contribution to our Jewish heritage and grow in their knowledge and respect of this great sage.


from the February 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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