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January 28: Ibn Ezra’s World

January 28, 2015

Abraham-Ibn-Ezra-300x288Medieval philosopher, poet, grammarian and mystic Abraham Ibn Ezra died on this date (some say January 23rd) in 1167. He wrote the first book about the Hebrew language in Hebrew since ancient times, and also introduced the decimal system to Jews of his time, with his invention of a Hebrew symbol for zero. He also wrote a commentary on the Bible that indicated his doubts about its authorship by Moses; he would use the phrase, “and the intelligent will understand,” whenever he was explicating a controversial insight. These included allegorical interpretations of the Garden of Eden and pantheistic perceptions of God that would strongly influence the kabbalists two centuries later. Ibn Ezra abandoned Spain in his fifties and led a wandering life until his death at 74 or 75, traveling to North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Italy, France, and elsewhere while writing most of his best-known works of philosophy, theology, and exegesis. The crater Abenezra on the Moon was named in his honor.

“Ibn Ezra’s philosophical legacy consists in the main of the following, rather short list of doctrines. The deity governs the terrestrial world by means of the heavenly bodies. Humans toil under astral destiny; though the stars are subservient, formally at least, to God, their domination over the material universe is for all practical purposes complete. Neither the precise structure of the human soul, nor the mode of its bonding with the body, may be known with certainty. However, one component or aspect of the human soul is of the same fiber as the supernal realm that is above the stars; nothing in existence is more similar to God. Nurturing this spiritual component offers the one hope of refuge from this world. Ibn Ezra’s poetry in particular gives very powerful expression to the themes of the soul’s alienation and longing to return to its heavenly abode. To be sure, weighty questions are involved in all of these teachings, but Ibn Ezra does not take any of them up in depth.” —Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy