The Life, Work, and Wanderings of Abraham Ibn Ezra

Nov. 17 2022

Born in the Spanish city of Tudela in 1089, and having probably died in England in the 1160s, Abraham Ibn Ezra was a rabbi, poet, and polymath. Centuries later, Robert Browning would dedicate a poem to him. Ibn Ezra’s work, Tamar Marvin writes, is characterized by his “love of language, dark humor, penchant for astrology, personal bitterness, and dour personality.” She tells his unlikely life story, and what led him to write his biblical commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, which are today his best-remembered works:

Despite having an upper-crust education, he couldn’t quite hack it in one of the gentlemanly occupations of the day: physician, dayan (rabbinic judge), merchant, courtier. . . . In want of patronage, he wandered from Tudela in the north to Córdoba, the New York City of its day, then to Seville, where he raised his son, to Toledo, one of the earliest Muslim territories to fall to Christian forces, in 1085.

Ibn Ezra [then] went to Rome. No one needed to hire a poet in Italy (the first buds of humanism wouldn’t blossom for some time yet), so Ibn Ezra took to tutoring the sons of the wealthy, primarily in Tanakh. At their behest, he wrote down his lessons as commentaries. Ibn Ezra brought with him a generations-old Sephardi tradition of grammatical Bible commentary.

Today, it is usually in Ibn Ezra’s Bible commentaries that we encounter his philosophical and grammatical insights and his wacky ideas about brain function, numerology, and astral influence. We watch him fell his intellectual interlocuters with sardonic panache, convince us with his brilliance, and, when we’re lucky, stumble upon a great secret (sod) which, he says pointedly, he’ll merely hint to us, and if we’re smart, we’ll keep quiet about it.

These secrets for me are the distance between our postmodern subjectivity and his medieval confidence in the ability of reason to uncover truth. I have no doubt that Ibn Ezra had an actual secret in mind, and I want to know it.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Stories from Jewish History

More about: Abraham ibn Ezra, Biblical commentary, Judaism, Middle Ages, Poetry

Condemning Terrorism in Jerusalem—and Efforts to Stop It

Jan. 30 2023

On Friday night, a Palestinian opened fire at a group of Israelis standing outside a Jerusalem synagogue, killing seven and wounding several others. The day before, the IDF had been drawn into a gunfight in the West Bank city of Jenin while trying to arrest members of a terrorist cell. Of the nine Palestinians killed in the raid, only one appears to have been a noncombatant. Lahav Harkov compares the responses to the two events, beginning with the more recent:

President Joe Biden called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to denounce the attack, offer his condolences, and express his commitment to Israel’s security. Other leaders released supportive statements as well. Governments across Europe condemned the attack. Turkey’s foreign ministry did the same, as did Israel’s Abraham Accords partners the UAE and Bahrain. Even Saudi Arabia released a statement against the killing of civilians in Jerusalem.

It feels wrong to criticize those statements. . . . But the condemnations should be full-throated, not spoken out of one side of the mouth while the other is wishy-washy about what it takes to stave off terrorism. These very same leaders and ministries were tsk-tsking at Israel for doing just that only a day before the attacks in Jerusalem.

The context didn’t seem to matter to some countries that are friendly to Israel. It didn’t matter that Israel was trying to stop jihadists from attacking civilians; it didn’t matter that IDF soldiers were attacked on the way.

It’s very easy for some to be sad when Jews are murdered. Yet, at the same time, so many of them are uncomfortable with Jews asserting themselves, protecting themselves, arming themselves against the bloodthirsty horde that would hand out bonbons to celebrate their deaths. It’s a reminder of how important it is that we do just that, and how essential the state of Israel is.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Lahav’s Newsletter

More about: Jerusalem, Palestinian terror