Shlomo Ibn Gabirol
By Gershon Flechterman
Ibn Gibirol is unfortunately best known today as a main street in the fashionable section of Tel Aviv. But if you were to stop in one of the coffee shops or petite restaurants on that street and ask some one, "who was ibn Gabirol?" you would probably get a strange stare indicating that you must be unusual to even want to know.
Shlomo (Solomon) ibn Gibirol was one of the outstanding poets during the golden era of Spain, before the notorious Spanish Inquisition. He lived in the period in which poets flourished. But make no mistake, a poet during the time of ibn Givirol was not the same as the poets who flourish today.
In the times of ibn Gibirol, the poets were the philosophers, scientists, grammarians and Torah scholars who put their thoughts and ideas in poems. They brought the riddles of existence to those cultivated audiences whose minds were warmed and uplifted by their genius. Many of the liturgies of our prayers were composed by pious and intellectual sensitive men like ibn Gibirol.
Solomon ibn Gibirol was born in Malaga, a town in the south of Spain at the end of 1021 CE. His father, Yehudah, came from Cordova and was reckoned to have been a scholar. Solomon ibn Gibirol was left an orphan early in his life; he wrote elegies for his father and mother. He was of weak physique, small, and not considered handsome. He was frequently ill and suffered from a skin disease.
He grew up in Saragossa in the company of the contemporary scholars of the Jewish world. Who exactly were his masters is not known, but he may have been influenced by Shmuel HaNagid. He was conscious of his powers to arrange thoughts in the complicated meter of the poem, and excelled in this.
At the age of sixteen he began to write poems. His self-esteem verged on arrogance and brought him into frequent conflict with the influential men of his day. Yet to be a poet required the assistance of a patron who was willing to support the poet. This relationship to the men of wealth whom he generally abhorred coupled with the dependence on their good will caused him much pain.
At the age of nineteen, he wrote a poem about Rav Hai Gaon, the son of Rav Sherira Gaon. Also in this year he wrote a poem of some four hundred verses in which he set forth the rules of Hebrew grammar. In the following year, he completed an elegy of his first patron who was killed as a result of court intrigues which is regarded as one of the finest secular poems of that period.
Ibn Gibirol wrote passionately about various subjects and irritated many of his readers. There are those who speculate that Shmuel HaNagid was his patron for several years, but a quarrel broke out between the two. There is no known date as to when he died, some say that he died at the age of thirty, others say he lived to the mid forties.
His poems span a very large number of categories. One of his major works was call "Mekor Chayim" (the Source of Life) which was written in Arabic. It is no longer preserved in that language but was translated into Latin under the title Fons Vitae. It was written in the form of a student and his master, a style current in the Arabic philosophic literature of that period. It deals with the notions of universal matter and form, a description of the spiritual matter that underlies the corporeal form, and matter unto itself. It has been suggested that the great Bible commentator Abraham ibn Ezra was influenced by this writing.
Because this writing was translated into Latin and ibn Gibirol's name was corrupted to Avicebron, he was generally thought of as a Muslim. Eventually the Christians thought that he was a Christian and his work became a text for the Christian scholars. It was only in the 19th century that a French scholar discovered the texts and identified Avicebron as ibn Gibirol.
In addition to philosophy, ibn Gibirol wrote about Wisdom and Ethics. His mystical poems defy contemporary understanding. There is no Biblical commentary that is credited to him; however, it should be noted that Abraham ibn Ezra cites him three times in his commentary to the Bible. When it comes to knowledge of the Hebrew language, Abraham ibn Ezra held ibn Gibirol in highest of praise. (It must be mentioned here that to be a Bible commentator in those days, one had to have a complete mastery of the Hebrew language.)
In a poem called the "Reshut L'Neshama" ibn Gibirol shows his abilities in meter, which of course is lost in translation. Composed of five double lines to which the first of each of the five lines bear an initial of his name, Shlomo.
Humble of spirit, humble the knee, and statue
I approach you with much fear and awe.
In front of You, I consider myself
Like a worm, small in the ground.
You fill the world, there is no end to Your greatness,
Can one like me praise you? And with what?
The path in not sufficient for angels on high
And for myself, how much more so.
You have bestowed good and extended Your kindness,
And to You, let increase praise, the soul.
from the February 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine