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Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra

(circa 4852-4927; 1092-1167)

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Rabbi Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra (usually called simply "Ibn Ezra"), a true giant of the spirit, was perhaps not such a great poet as Rabbi Judah Halevi, but as a man of Torah scholarship, art and secular knowledge, he surpassed all his contemporaries, and his influence upon learning and writing in Italy, Southern France and England was greater than that of any other Jewish figure.

His adventurous, almost legendary life began in Toledo, Spain, where he was born about the year 4852 (1092). He was a man of so many excellent gifts, and such a wealth of universal knowledge, that one is at a loss to judge his mastery of learning, poetry, philisophy, Jewish grammar, astronomy or mathematics. He spent the first half of his life in the various cities of the Arabic part of Spain, always in financial difficulties and dire need. In one of his poems he makes fun of his ill fortune and complains that "if he were to sell candles, the sun would never set; if he should deal in shrouds, no one would ever die." Life was made somewhat easier by the generosity of his admirers, who appreciated the elegance and stylishness of his poetry and other writings.

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra spent the second half of his life travelling from country to country, studying peoples and countries, languages and cultures. About the same time as his great contemporary, Rabbi Judah Halevi, he set out for-the Orient, together with his son Isaac. He visited Africa, Egypt, and the Holy Land, where he learned Kabbalah, the deepest and most mysterious part of Torah study, from the sages in Safed and Tiberias. Then he traveled to Babylon and Persia, where the Caliph of Baghdad had permitted the Jews to have their own prince. Finally he returned to Italy where he lived in Rome, Salerno, Lucca and Mantua. There he wrote most of his great commentaries to the Bible, and his books on Jewish grammar and philosophy. He wrote poems in honor of his friends and spent much of his time teaching a great number of disciples who gathered about him.

Ibn Ezra did not stay in Italy. He moved to Provence, in Southern France, where he was received with much honor and respect. For it was there that the two great lines of Jewish tradition, the Sephardic in Spain, and the Ashkenazic from Northern France and Germany, met. After three years of quiet study, in Beziers, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra again took up the wanderer's staff and went across the channel to London, where at that time a rich colony of enthusiastic Jews were eager to have this great representative of Jewish learning and art in their midst. Yet before his death Rabbi Abraham wanted to return to his old home. At the age of about 75 years he died in Calahora, between Navarra and Castilia.

II.

As a student and writer, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra was as tireless as a traveller. His style and form in poetry were considered even more perfect than that of Rabbi Judah Halevi. While Rabbi Judah Halevi's poems and prayers are full of feeling and longing for the restoration of the Jewish people and the Temple, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra wrote poems which clothed some of the deepest thoughts and mysteries of learning into verse. Unless one is very well acquainted with the entire literature of the great Sages before him, it is sometimes almost impossible to understand the true meaning of Ibn Ezra's writing. This is also true of his greatest work, the commentary to the Bible, generally known under the name "Ibn Ezra." It is a mixture of the most lucid explanations and implications of deep mysteries.

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra wrote also several books on Hebrew grammar, a profound dissertation on philosophy called "Yesod Mora," and several books on astronomy and mathematics. His "Chidoth," riddles in poetic form, and his small poems written on innumerable occasions, made him the meter of all rhymers in Spain. It has been told that Rabbi Judah Halevi once wrote a poem of which each line began with a letter of the Aleph Beth. When he came to the letter "Resh" he could not find a suitable thought. Finally he fell asleep. When he awoke he saw that a stranger had fitted a perfect line to his poem, beginning with a "Resh." Full of joy and admiration he is said to have exclaimed: This is either the work of an angel or Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra.

III.

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra is dear to us, not so much because of his elegance of writing, his poetry, philosophy or science, but as the man who with all his familiarity with secular knowledge, was full of piety and the spirit of G‑d. Warmth and deep feeling, which is said to be lacking in his secular poetry, permeate all his religious poems, prayers and writings. It is here that Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra shows his true nature, his boundless faith and absolute confidence in G‑d. Through all his work rings his despair over the separation of the Jewish people from G‑d, the Torah and the Holy Land, and with the fervor of his soul he prays for the reunion of these three in the time of the Messiah.

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July 31, 2006
I was doing a project on Ibn Ezra, and your article was just what I needed! Superbly written, with all the facts, it is exactly what I expected from Nissan Mindel and Chabad.org. Keep up the great work!
R Feldman