This great Hebrew poet and philosopher was born in Malaga, Spain, about the year 4782, (1021), and died in Valencia, Spain, at the age of 36 or 37.
Despite his very short life, Solomon ibn Gabirol won great fame during his own lifetime, and even more so after his death when his writings became more widely known.
His father Judah, was a native of the famous city of Cordova which was at the time under Arab domination. About ten years before Solomon's birth, when war broke out in that part of the Spanish peninsula, his father moved to Saragossa, also under Arab domination. Later they moved to Malaga, where Solomon was born.
Losing his parents at an early age, Solomon nevertheless continued his studies of the Talmud, in which he found his only solace. The young Solomon was an ardent scholar and became very proficient in the Hebrew as well as Arabic languages and grammar. He also studied astronomy, geometry, and philosophy:
Ibn Gabirol began writing Hebrew poetry when he was very young. At the age of 16 he wrote a famous poem beginning with the words, "I am the master, and Song is my slave." This poem entitled "Azharoth," is based on the Taryag (613) commandments of the Torah, and was included in the Shovuoth service of many congregations.
In that year, the famous Rav Hal Gaon died in Babylon, and Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote four dirges (obituary poems) on the passing of this great scholar.
Ibn Gabirol sang the praises of Rabbi Samuel Hanagid and also of another Jewish minister, Jekuthiel ibn Hasan of Saragossa. The latter became Ibn Gabirol's friend and patron. Unfortunately, Ibn Hasan met with a violent death through a false accusation by his enemies. Ibn Gabirol, who was about eighteen or nineteen years old at that time, composed a touching eulogy on the loss of his friend.
A number of Ibn Gabirol's religious hymns were included in the prayer book. These include in addition to "Azharoth" mentioned above, his "Shir Hakovod" (Song of Glory), and "Shir Hayichud" (Song of Unity). Another of his famous poems is "Kether Malchuth" (Royal Crown). Ibn Gabirol also wrote "Kinoth" (dirges) on the destruction of the Temple and the plight of Israel.
Ibn Gabirol's life was not a very happy one, for he was a lonesome young man with a sensitive soul. He did not hesitate to use his poetic gifts in denouncing the lack of Jewish feeling on the part of some prominent members of his community. As a result of this, he acquired many enemies who made life in Saragossa miserable for him. Eventually, Ibn Gabirol was banished from his native town and spent some years as a luckless wanderer, suffering many hardships. No wonder there is a touch of bitterness in his poems, but this is often coupled with a sense of humor.
At the age of only 23, Ibn Gabirol wrote his book "Tikkun Middoth Hanefesh," (Improvement of the Qualities of the Soul). About the same time he also wrote "Mivchar Hapeninim,"(Choice of Pearls). Both were written in Arabic and subsequently translated into Hebrew by Judah ibn Tibbon. In these books, Ibn Gabirol presents a collection of moral sayings and maxims from Jewish as well as non-Jewish sources.
Ibn Gabirol's most famous book is "Mekor Chayim," (Origin of life), which he wrote at about the age of 28, again in Arabic. This is a philosophical work which gained great popularity in its Latin translation "Fons Vitae," (Fountain of Life). The Arabic original was lost but the Latin version is fully preserved, and a Hebrew translation of it was published in 1926.
The manner of Ibn Gabirol's death is shrouded in mystery. Legend has it that he was trampled to death by an Arab horseman, much in the same way that Rabbi Judah Halevi lost his life.