Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1164)
The commentaries of Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra mark the culmination of the Spanish‐Arabic period of exegesis. Ibn Ezra lived in Spain most of his life, but in 1140 he abandoned his homeland, probably for personal reasons, and set out on a journey that would take him to Rome and through much of France, arriving finally in England, where he died in 1164. As he traveled, he produced, often by commission, commentaries on various biblical books; in some cases, such as Exodus, Minor Prophets, Psalms, Esther, and Daniel, he produced two commentaries, one considerably longer and more detailed than the other. Ibn Ezra, in the Spanish tradition, based his methodology on the twin pillars of grammar and reason. He argued that only an exegete thoroughly grounded in Hebrew grammar and lexicography could properly understand the meaning of the biblical text. For him the text had but one meaning, which could be obtained only through the application of the rules of grammar. Furthermore, an acceptable interpretation had to be logically consistent and stand up to the test of reason.
In the introduction to his Torah commentary, he discusses four earlier approaches to biblical exegesis which he found wanting: (1) the geonic, which tended to stray from the matter at hand and lapsed into lengthy discussions of matters not germane to the text; (2) the Karaite, which rejected the oral tradition of the Sages, allowing every exegete to interpret according to his own understanding, even in matters of halakhah, thus undermining rabbinic authority; (3) the Christian, which tended to allegorize the text, including matters of halakhah, thus robbing it of its basic meaning and calling into question the necessity for religious observance; and (4) the midrashic, the way of the Sages, whose interpretations defied logic and reason and ignored context. This lack of exegetical control was totally unacceptable.
Ibn Ezra then articulates his own methodology: he will explain the grammar of each word only once, at its first occurrence, and then explain its meaning in context. He also declares that he will ignore the comments of the Masoretes, which he claims have no exegetical value, though they provided much material for homilists.
Ibn Ezra's exegesis represents a distillation of the finest achievements of the Spanish philological school of exegesis, avoiding its more radical elements such as Ibn Janaḥ's methods of lexical and consonantal substitution. He adopted Moses Ibn Ezra's stance (see below) that Scripture uses human language and therefore must conform to the rules of syntax and rhetoric; this led him to reject midrashim which tampered with the syntax, or interpretations based on plene or defectivespellings since these had no effect on the meaning of the text. Furthermore, the Bible speaks of God and the elements of nature in human terms, so that human beings can understand what it is saying. Expressions such as the “mouth of the earth” (Num. 16.32 ) or “the heart of the sea” (Exod. 15.8 ) are figures of speech and should not be understood literally.
Ibn Ezra fully accepted the Spanish exegetical tradition that did not assign significance to changes in spelling or wording if the meaning was not affected. As a result, he paid little attention to textual nuance, unusual spellings, and stylistic variation, which are popular now among modern students of the Bible. He ignored the differences in parallel passages, e.g., the two versions of the Decalogue, or Pharaoh's two dreams, and, saw no significance in the unusual form 'oholoh (Gen.9.21 ), instead of 'oholo, which Rashi as well as the midrash interpreted to refer to the fall of Samaria (called 'Oholah), brought down by drunkenness and depravity.
In his firm belief that Scripture could not contradict the demands of reason, he was a faithful follower of Saadia Gaon, invoking the method of tikun (correction or adaptation, based on the tawil of Quranic exegesis) in order to make a verse conform to reason by means of allegory or metaphor. But in order to avoid undermining the validity of the commandments, the historicity of the patriarchal narratives, or the truthfulness of the prophetic messages, he insisted, as did Saadia, that the method of tikun had to be applied only when absolutely necessary.
Ibn Ezra also followed Saadia in his steadfast defense of the oral tradition (kabbalah) of the Sages, particularly in matters of halakhah. In practical terms this meant that Ibn Ezra could not accept a peshat interpretation that contradicted halakhah, in contrast to other peshat exegetes, such as Rashbam, of the Northern French school, or Radak. Thus, for example, Exod. 13.9 and other passages which provide the scriptural basis for tefillin (phylacteries) are accepted as referring to the halakhic requirement to actually bind copies of these passages on the arm and place them on the head in leather boxes (phylacteries, or tefillin). Ibn Ezra argues that since the literal interpretation does not contradict reason and that the commandment it entails can be carried out, it must be accepted, unlike the verse “and you should circumcise the foreskin of your heart” (Deut. 10.16 ), which cannot be interpreted literally. The Karaites and Rashbam, on the other hand, interpret both these verses metaphorically as merely urging constant vigilance in remembering the commandments. But while the oral tradition of the Sages, the vast body of halakhah gathered in the Mishnah and Talmud, was sacrosanct, the same authority was not ascribed to the midreshei halakhah, the halakhic midrashim of the Sages meant to provide scriptural justification for the actual laws themselves. He felt no compulsion to defend these in the same way he defended the halakhic decisions of the Talmud (see, e.g., his short commentary to Exod. 21.8 ). Similarly, despite his respect for the halakhic decisions of the rabbinic Sages, Ibn Ezra feels no compulsion to accept their assignations of authorship to the various biblical books (e.g., he questions whether Jeremiah wrote Lamentations), or the midrashic identification of biblical characters (e.g., contra Rashi, he rejects the midrashic view that the prophet Joel was the son of the prophet Samuel).
Ibn Ezra had a very conservative view of the biblical text and rejected all attempts at emendation. On the other hand, he did have a penchant for higher criticism, pointing to later additions in the text (e.g., Gen. 12.6; 22.14; Deut. 3.11 ), and especially the last twelve verses of Deuteronomy (“the secret of the twelve”), which he claims were written prophetically by Joshua. Similarly, following Moses Gikatilla, he advocates the postexilic dating of the second part of Isaiah and of some of the psalms (e.g., Ps. 69 ).
Ibn Ezra was a serious philosopher, a Neoplatonist, heavily influenced by astrology. Although he never wrote any systematic theological or philosophical treatises, his thoughtmay be gleaned from his biblical commentaries. Indeed, many of Ibn Ezra's allusions to secrets (sodot) refer to his views on central issues of Jewish theology, such as God's relation to the land of Israel, the people of Israel, and the role of the sacrificial cult, especially the scapegoat (Lev. 16.8 ) in determining the fate of the Jewish people. His referring to these views as secrets, and alluding to them obliquely, may be an indication that they might be threatening to the religious well‐being of the Jewish masses and could only be tolerated and properly understood by the intellectual elite.
Ibn Ezra was one of the main conduits of Spanish‐Jewish culture to the rest of Western Europe, and as such his legacy is of inestimable value. Despite the impression given by his “modern” critical allusions and his tendency to be overly critical of his predecessors and contemporaries, he was not a radical exegete. His importance lies in his position at the end of a productive period in Jewish intellectual history and his ability to summarize in Hebrew the exegetical achievements of this period clearly, succinctly, and judiciously. Nevertheless, his commentaries presented challenges to the reader because of their concise, difficult nature, and scattered cryptic comments, which stimulated the production of a whole corpus of super‐commentaries that elucidate and elaborate upon them.
Interest in Ibn Ezra has continued down through the ages, making him one of the most influential cultural icons in Jewish history. In the Late Middle Ages, he was appropriated by nearly every intellectual school. Though he was a Neoplatonist, Maimonidean Aristotelians found common ground in him. Though he polemicized fiercely against the Karaites, these sectarians also claimed him as one of their own, perhaps because he often cited works by Karaite scholars. Baruch Spinoza cited him as the first biblical critic, making much of his so‐called higher‐critical comments and using his name to justify his own much more radical views. He was also much admired by the Christian Hebraists in the early modern period, who translated many of his works and quoted him approvingly. In the modern period, Jewish reformers and biblical critics saw him as a precursor of their views, as someone who was dedicated to the pur‐ suit of truth but could not express his views openly, and as someone, who, like Maimonides, was open to the outside world, willing to accept the truth from whatever source it came.