Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra

Those who would like to read articles about Shabbos Rosh Chodesh should note that there are several articles on the subject on this website.

Among the rishonim in this week’s parsha, we find a dispute as to when the rainbow was created. The pesukim imply that the rainbow was created after the mabul as a covenant, and, indeed, the Ibn Ezra explains the verse this way, disputing an earlier interpretation of the posuk from Rav Saadyah Gaon. However, the Ramban contends that the rainbow was created during the six days of Creation. This provides us with an opportunity to discuss a great rishon, about whom most people know very little.

Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra

Question #1: The Right Bensch

“What is the correct text of our bensching?”

Question #2: Contract Law

“I signed a five-year employment contract, and, three years later, I have an offer that is much better for me. Am I halachically required to turn down the new offer?”

Question #3: Pidyon Haben

“When should I schedule the pidyon haben of my son?”

Question #4: Light Refraction

“When did water begin to refract light?”

Question #5: What is going on?

“What do the previous questions have to do with one another and with the title of this article?”


Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra, one of the early rishonim, is known primarily as a commentator on Tanach, for his massive knowledge of Hebrew grammar (dikduk), philosophy, mathematics and astronomy, and for his skills as a paytan, a poet. Since this is a halachah column, the second part of this article will discuss his little-appreciated contribution to halachic knowledge. But, first, I will share some details of his very tragic personal life.

According to the estimate of historians, ibn Ezra was born in Moslem Toledo, Spain, about the year 4853 (1093), or perhaps a bit earlier, and passed away about 4927 (1167). In his younger years, in Spain, he was a close friend of Rav Yehudah Halevi, the author of the Kuzari and many piyutim and kinos, including the poem Yom Layabasha, traditionally sung at brissin and as part of davening on the seventh day of Pesach.

In addition to ibn Ezra’s famous work on Tanach, he also authored many works on Hebrew grammar, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. One of his works, Sefas Yeser, is a defense of Rav Saadyah Gaon’s approach to dikduk that was challenged by Dunash ibn Labrat. Dunash, who is quoted by Rashi dozens of times, was a grammarian, Hebraist and Tanach expert who lived in the tenth century, and was himself a talmid of Rav Saadyah. Notwithstanding this, he often disagreed with his rebbe, and he even wrote a sefer delineating his points of dispute. Ibn Ezra wrote a response to this work, in which he explained why he felt Rav Saadyah was correct. By the way, Dunash is also known for his poetry. We are all familiar with two of his compositions, Dror Yikra, the Shabbos zemer, and Devei Haseir, recited at weddings and sheva brachos.

Ibn Ezra was highly respected, both by his contemporaries and by other great Torah leaders. For example, in a lengthy letter written to the Rashba by a talmid chacham from Provence, ibn Ezra is described as “a tremendously wise, well-known scholar, whose understanding of the truth, intensity in his pursuit of wisdom, and distancing errors in faith in the Torah and the writings of the Prophets surpassed all those who preceded him. Our forefathers told us of the rejoicing of the great scholars of our area when he passed through our area. For their benefit, he wrote commentaries on the Torah and the Prophets, and wherever he noticed something that required clarification, he pointed this out, sometimes with a full commentary and sometimes with just a short hint, depending on the need. He also wrote a short book called Yesod Hamora, explaining the reasons for the mitzvos and briefly alluding to deeper nuances of words. He wrote another book, explaining the secret of the Holy Name…. He also wrote works on Hebrew grammar, punctuation and the proper writing of the letters, and short works on engineering, language structure, mathematics and astronomy” (see Shu’t HaRashba 1:418).

Ibn Ezra wrote much poetry, including two of our standard Shabbos zemiros, Tzomoh Nafshi and Ki Eshmera Shabbos.

His primary fame for most talmidei chachamim is his commentary to Tanach. The Ramban writes, in the introduction to his own commentary on the Torah, that he used two commentaries, those of Rashi and of ibn Ezra, and he does not comment on a posuk that they already explained unless he has something to add.

Ibn Ezra and Chumash

In his poetic introduction to his commentary on Chumash, ibn Ezra mentions numerous commentaries on Chumash, most of which would otherwise be completely unknown to us, and notes their widely varying styles. There, he categorizes them into five styles of commentary, and he criticizes four of them, either for not being relevant to understanding the chumash, or for errors in their comprehension of Hebrew grammar. He saves his most scathing attacks for the Karaite commentaries, several of which he mentions by name, and strongly refutes their scholarship.

Ibn Ezra often quotes from Rav Saadyah Gaon’s commentary to Chumash, always translating Rav Saadyah’s Arabic commentary into Hebrew. In ibn Ezra’s commentary to Tanach, he utilizes his vast understanding of dikduk, and also his knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and geography.

Ibn Ezra held that studying Chumash or Tanach requires one to understand the exact meaning of the verses, even when the result of this study conflicts with the midrashic interpretation of Chazal and even if it does not agree with halachah. This is how he understood the axiom, ein mikra yotzei midei peshuto, every verse should be explained on the basis of its literal meaning. In this approach, he differed with Rashi and the Ramban, both of whom reject any interpretation of a posuk that conflicts with halachah. Although the rishonim accepted ibn Ezra’s right to differ with them in this policy, not all Gedolei Yisroel were happy with his approach. For example, the Maharshal, who lived hundreds of years later, writes very strongly against those who explain pesukim not according to halachah, singling out ibn Ezra for his criticism (Introduction to Yam shel Shelomoh commentary to Chullin).

It is interesting to note that we find this dispute among rishonim reflected among the later commentaries on Chumash written in the nineteenth century. Whereas the Kesav Vehakaballah, Hirsch and the Malbim all follow the approach of Rashi and the Ramban that every interpretation of Torah shebiksav must fit perfectly with Chazal’s understanding of the Torah shebe’al peh, the Netziv, in his commentary Ha’ameik Davar, occasionally accepts or offers a commentary that is not necessarily reflected by the Torah shebe’al peh, thus following the general approach of ibn Ezra regarding this issue.

Ibn Ezra and the Nochosh

In some instances, we are indebted to the ibn Ezra for providing us with background to the writings of early Gedolei Yisroel that would otherwise have become completely lost. For example, in his commentary to Bereishis (3:1), he reports that Rav Saadyah Gaon held that the nochosh walked on two feet and was an intelligent animal, smarter than all the other animals except for man, but smart enough to have a conversation with man. Ibn Ezra then quotes a debate on this topic in which Rav Shmuel ben Chofni, son-in-law of Rav Hai Gaon, disagreed with Rav Saadyah, and in which Rav Shelomoh ibn Gabirol came to the defense of Rav Saadyah’s position. This entire debate was saved for posterity due to its inclusion in ibn Ezra’s commentary.

Ibn Ezra on Tanach

We have access to ibn Ezra’s commentary on all of Tanach, except for the books of Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel. It remains historically unresolved whether he never wrote on these books or whether he did write commentaries but they were lost.

Although he was obviously quite fluent in Arabic, he wrote his works in Hebrew, although until his time most works on Hebrew grammar or philosophy had been written in Arabic. He thereby became one of the earliest sources of bridging the Torah that was spread in Spain and North Africa, which at the time were Arabic speaking areas, to the Ashkenazic communities of France and Germany and to the communities of the Provence. (The Jews of the many communities of the Provence, in southern France, such as Montpellier, Lunel, Marseille, Narbonne and Posquieres, were technically neither Ashkenazim nor Sefardim. The customs prevalent there represented their own unique minhagim. For example, the communities of the Provence began reciting V’sein Tal Umatar on the seventh of Marcheshvan, which we know as minhag Eretz Yisroel, but which reflects neither Ashkenazic nor Sefardic normative practice.)

Ibn Ezra had very strong opinions about the role of piyutim and selichos in our liturgy. In his commentary to Koheles (5:1), he takes very strong umbrage at the piyutim of Rav Elazar Hakalir. Aside from ibn Ezra’s objection to the grammatical liberty that Kalir takes in constructing new words and new usages, ibn Ezra also objects to the writing style of Kalir – often, his words allude to ideas and events but have no obvious meaning. Ibn Ezra notes that piyutim and selichos are prayers, and as such, the main focus should be ensuring that people understand what they are saying, something very challenging in Kalir’s works. Instead, ibn Ezra recommends the piyutim of Rav Saadyah, which can be understood easily because they are written clearly.

In this, ibn Ezra influenced the style of the Sefardic piyutim, where the poetry is easier to understand, and is therefore often very different from that of the Ashkenazim, which is heavily based on and influenced by the poetry of Rav Kalir. This difference is noted by many authorities. For example, Shu’t Maharshdam (Orach Chayim #35), writes that he prefers the piyutim of the Sefardim, written predominantly by Rav Yehudah Halevi, ibn Ezra and Rav Shelomoh ibn Gabirol, because they write in a clear way that is easy to understand. (The Ashkenazic use of Rav Kalir’s writings is somewhat influenced by the opinion of the Arizal, who, although he lived among Sefardim, himself used the piyutim of Kalir which, he said, are based on deep kabbalistic understanding [see, for example, Shu’t Minchas Elazar 1:11].)

Had ibn Ezra’s approach been accepted, our Tisha B’Av kinos, most of which are taken from the writings of Kalir, would be far more comprehensible. The same can be said for much of our piyutim on Yomim Nora’im and, for those who recite them, on the other Yomim Tovim.

His Personal History

In addition to his prolific writings of piyutim and selichos, ibn Ezra authored much personal poetry, in some of which he describes aspects of his difficult life. He was born and lived his early life in Moslem Spain, but was forced to flee Spain during an uprising and civil war between rival Moslem groups. (Does any of this sound familiar?) His travels at this time took him wandering through Italy, France, England, and back to France. He lived in dire poverty, and it appears that he spent the rest of his life wandering from community to community. There is evidence that he may at one time have traveled as far as Eretz Yisroel and Egypt. For example, he is very familiar with Egyptian geography, describing in detail the distance between the land of Ramses and the government headquarters at the time prior to the Exodus, which he notes was a distance ofe six parsa’os, or about 4.5 miles (commentary to Shemos 12:31). He understood that the purpose of some of the pyramids was to store the grain in Yosef’s day (commentary to Shemos 12:31).

He suffered much great personal tragedy, including the loss of his wife as a young woman and several of his children. While ibn Ezra was wandering through Europe, one son, Yitzchak, apparently a talmid chacham of note, fled to Baghdad, where he was forced to convert to Islam. When he was able to, he returned to Judaism, and wrote that he had always observed the mitzvos and made a statement recognizing Islam only in order to avoid being killed. Shortly thereafter, Yitzchak passed on. Meanwhile, his father, back in Europe, was unaware of these events, and found out about them some three years after his son’s passing.

We have no idea where ibn Ezra was when he died, or where he was buried.

Ibn Ezra and Rabbeinu Tam

During his travels in France, ibn Ezra made the acquaintance of Rabbeinu Tam, and they continued their correspondence afterward. In two places (Rosh Hashanah 13a s.v. De’akrivu and Kiddushin 37b s.v. Mimacharas), Tosafos mentions Torah discussion between ibn Ezra and Rabbeinu Tam. In a third place (Taanis 20b s.v. Behachinaso), Tosafos mentions ibn Ezra in an interesting context. Tosafos there explains the concept of family names, something unheard of among Ashkenazic Jewry in their day, whereas ibn Ezra was, indeed, a family name. As Avraham ibn Ezra, our hero, mentions in the introduction to some of his works, his father’s name was Meir.

We will continue this article about ibn Ezra in a few weeks, be”H.