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Jewish Commentators — Their Lives and Works

 

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Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra
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Hebrew Name(s): אברהם אבן עזרא
Other Names: Abraham ben Meir, Abenezra, Ibn Ezra, Even Ezra
Period: Rishonim — 12th Century
Location: Toledo, Cordova, Rome
Dates: c. 1089–1167

Biography:
A poet and exegete, grammarian and philosopher, scientific writer and physician, Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra was born in Tudela and later settled in Cordova. He later moved to Rome (c. 1140-45), Verona (1147-48), France (1148-58) and London and Oxford (1158-60) before returning to France and Spain. Throughout his life he was a roving scholar, travelling and writing through Europe.
 
Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra published a number of books dealing with Hebrew grammar, secular poetry and liturgical poems, mathematical works and books on astronomy. (He is the author of the Sabbath hymn, Ki Eshmerah ShabbatBecause I keep the Sabbath.) He also produced religio-philosophical works and included his philosophical views throughout his commentaries. His work showed the neoplatonic influence of Solomon ibn Gabirol.  
 
As a biblical commentator Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra's popularity has endured, exceeded only by Rashi. His style is concise and pointed and focused on the peshat (plain meaning of the text) according to grammatical principles. He avoids allegorical (midrashic) and kabbalistic interpretations. Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra is credited with being one of the earliest pioneers of higher biblical criticism and some scholars suggest that his careful language concerning the provenance of the Torah suggests that he did not accept that the Torah was written by Moses but believed that "seams" and grammatical problems indicated that the Torah was written over a period of time.
 
Ibn Ezra is believed to have composed commentaries for almost all the books of the Bible. Not all have been preserved, however. Those that exist show that he worked on them continually throughout his lifetime, revising, addingnew  material, and cross references to his other works, so that it is difficult to establish an exact sequence to his work. His Commenatry on the Pentateuch, which exists in at least three editions, has attained great and enduring popularity. The biblical commenatries of Ibn Ezra are distinguised by the broad scholarship of the author, his knowledge and use of preceding liturature, his efforts to grasp and explicate the peshat (simple meaning) of the text and his search for reality, at times expressing through critical observations his doubts regarding the authenticity of certain Biblical traditions.
 
Ibn Ezra rejected the secular influences which were reflected in the works of many Geonim, especially Saadia Gaon. He also insisted on the unqualified acceptance of both the Oral and Written Torah (against the Karaites), criticised the allegorical method of exegesis, and the spiritualising of the Torah (as did the Christians,) and stressed the importance of Hebrew grammar.
 
Ibn Ezra was the first to write Hebrew grammar books in Hebrew. Prior to Ibn Ezra all grammatical works on Hebrew had been written in Arabic with the consequence that European Jews did not understand Hebrew grammar. Ibn Ezra's work help to elucidate the tri-letter root theory of Judah ben David Ḥayyuj, a Spanish-Jewish grammarian who applied the theories of Arabic grammarians to Hebrew grammar and taught the three letter root theory of Hebrew stems.
 
Ibn Ezra composed seven books (written in Béziers in 1147–1148) which provided a systematic presentation of astrology, starting with an introduction and a book on general principles, followed by five books on particular branches of astrology. The works are an integrated whole, cross-referenced throughout and include references to subsequent books in the future tense. Each of the books is known in two versions, so it seems that at some point Ibn Ezra also created a revised edition of the series.
 
Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra was a friend of Joseph ibn Tzaddik and Judah HaLevi.
 
R. Abraham ibn Daud, at the end of his history (Sefer ha-Ḳabbalah, ed. Neubauer, p. 81), calls Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra the last of the great men who formed the pride of Spanish Judaism and who "strengthened the hands of Israel with songs and with words of comfort." Ibn Ezra's early activities where chiefly involved with poetry. The introduction to he Commentary on the Pentateuch records that he liked to call himself "the poet" (ha-shar) or "father of poems" and records of himself that: "Once in my youth I used to compose songs with which I decorated the Hebrew scholars as with a necklace."  His life's work, however, showed him to have diverse interests and his most serious works which show his scholarship in all disciplines was produced in the second period of his life.
 
The crater, Abenezra, on the moon was named in his honor.

Works:
Commentary on the Pentateuch, Sefer ha-Yashar (Book of the Straight); Commentary on Exodus; Sefer ha-Shem (The Book of The Name); Sefer Yesod Morah VeSod Torah (The Foundation of Awe and the Secret of the Torah); Moznayim (Scales); Tzahot (Dazzlings); The Mystery of the Form of the Letters; The Enigma of the Quiescent Letters; The Book of the Balance of the Sacred Language; Safah Berurah (Pure Language); Sefer haYesod (Elements of Grammar); Sefer Sefat Yeser; Sefer Yesod Mispar; Sefer VaYosef Avraham; Sefer Kli Nechoshet; Sefer HaEchad; Sefer Haganah ‘al R. Sa‘adyah Gaon; Iggeret Shabbat; Lukhot; Sefer ha-'Ibbur; Shalosh She'elot; Mishpetai ha-Mazzelot (Judgments of the Zodiacal Signs); Reshit Hokhma (The Beginning of Wisdom); Sefer ha-Te'amim (Book of Reasons); Sefer ha-Moledot (Book of Nativities); Sefer ha-Me'orot (Book of Luminaries or Book of Lights); Sefer ha-She'elot (Book of Interrogations); Sefer ha-Mivharim (Book of Elections or Critical Days); Sefer ha-Olam (Book of the World)

Comments:
Sefer ha-Yashar is Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra's complete Commentary on the Pentateuch which was completed shortly before his death. Sefer Ha-Yashar is an exegetical work which became so popular that many commentaries were written on it.
Ibn Ezra finished his Commentary on Exodus published in the printed editions is a work by itself, in 1153 in southern France.  A shorter Commentary on Exodus, more like the commentaries on the remaining books of the Pentateuch, was first published in 1840 at Prague.
Sefer ha-Shem is a treatise on the Divine names.
Sefer Yesod Morah veSod Torah deals with the division of, and reasons for, the Biblical commandments. A monograph on the rationale underlying the biblical commandments, Yesod Mora was written in London very late in his life, for his pupil, Joseph b. Jacob. It was the first major book on Jewish philosophy to be written in Hebrew In its time it was one of the few philosophical books available to those who did not understand Arabic.
Tzahot—a grammatical work dealing with linguistic correctness and contains a brief outline of modern Hebrew meter.
Ibn Ezra's last grammatical work, Sefer Safah Berurah, was not completed due to his death his death.
Sefer Sefat Yeser is a grammatical work Ibn Ezra wrote as a defense of R' Saadiah Gaon against R' Dunash Ben Labrat.
Sefer Yesod Mispar is Ibn Ezra's philosophical and mathematical work on the names of numbers.
Sefer VaYosef Avraham is Ibn Ezra's commentary on Megilat Ester.
Ibn Ezra's Sefer Kli Nechoshet is an astronomical work explaining the design and use of an astrolabe—an instrument formerly used to make astronomical measurements, before the development of the sextant.
Sefer HaEchad is a commentary by on the peculiarities of the numbers 1-9.
Sefer Haganah ‘al R. Sa‘adyah Gaon (also known as Sefat Yeter) is a grammatical work written in defense of Sa‘adyah Goan against the criticisms of Adonim (Dunash Beb Labrat).
Iggeret Shabbat is responsum on the Sabbath.
Lukhot is a work containing astronomical tables.
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra composed a treatise, Sefer ha-'Ibbur, on the Jewish calendar. He was in part motivated by those who denied the validity of the fixed Jewish calendar. They claimed that the fixed calendar was in conflict with Scripture and had no basis in Biblical law. Ibn Ezra demonstrates that Scripture is purposefully vague on how the Jewish calendar should be constructed, leaving it to the Rabbis to develop such a calendar.
Shalosh She'elot provides an answer to the three chronological questions raised by David Narboni. Narboni corresponded with Abraham ibn Ezra, to whom, in 1139, he addressed three questions concerning chronology. [These questions have been edited, with Ibn Ezra's answers, by Steinschneider (Berlin, 1847).] The first question was: "How did it happen that in 1139 the difference in time between the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter amounted to four weeks?"
Mishpetai ha-Mazzelot discusses the general principles of astrology.

 

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