The Life, Work, and Wanderings of Abraham Ibn Ezra

November 17, 2022 | Tamar Marvin
About the author:

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.

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