Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, part II

A few weeks ago, we began reading about Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra. This is a continuation of that article.

Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, part II

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 now, 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: Touching Kuf

“If a sefer Torah was written in which the two parts of the letter kuf touch, is the sefer Torah invalid?”

Question #5: What is going on?

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

Introduction:

Rav Avraham ibn Ezra, one of the early rishonim, is known 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. In the first installment of this article, we discussed what we know of his personal history and his scholarship. At this point, we will discuss other aspects of ibn Ezra’s many contributions to Torah knowledge and observance.

Ibn Ezra and Kalir

One of ibn Ezra’s controversial positions was his strong opposition to the piyutim of Rav Elazar Kalir, the preeminent, prolific and perhaps earliest of the paytanim. In an essay incorporated in his commentary to Koheles (5:1), ibn Ezra levels harsh criticism against the piyutim authored by Rav Kalir. He divides his arguments into four categories.

Simplicity of language

Ibn Ezra notes that prayers should be recited in simple language. After all, a person should understand the prayers he utters. Since piyutim are usually intended as a form of prayer, one should not recite piyutim whose intent is not clear. Because of this, ibn Ezra advises reciting the piyutim written by Rav Saadyah Gaon, which can be understood literally.

Mixed language

Ibn Ezra’s second criticism of Kalir is that he mixed the Hebrew of his piyutim with vocabulary whose basis is in the Gemara, treating Talmudic language as if it were on the same level as the Hebrew of Tanach. As ibn Ezra notes, the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 58b) says “loshon Torah le’atzmah, loshon chachamim le’atzmo” which he understands to mean that the Hebrew used by the Gemara should be treated as a different language from that of Tanach. Therefore, one should not mix these two “languages” when reciting prayers.

Grammatical creativity

The third criticism of ibn Ezra is that he is unhappy with Kalir’s creative approach to Hebrew grammar and structure, allowing poetic style to influence the Hebrew that he used. Ibn Ezra also criticized Kalir’s creation of new words by changing masculine words to feminine, and vice versa, for poetic effect or to accomplish his allusions.

Use of midrashim

Ibn Ezra’s fourth criticism of Kalir is that his piyutim are filled with midrashim, which ibn Ezra contends should not be included in prayers.

Ibn Ezra notes that when Rav Saadyah wrote piyutim, he steered clear of these four problems. In fact, Sefardim do not recite piyutim of Rav Kalir, whereas among Ashkenazim he is the most commonly used paytan.

Ibn Ezra notes that there were those who took issue with him for criticizing Kalir, since the latter had passed on many years before and was unable to respond.

Response to ibn Ezra

We should note that Shibbolei Haleket quoted very selectively from this essay of ibn Ezra, omitting any mention of ibn Ezra’s criticism of Rav Kalir’s writings.

Furthermore, none of ibn Ezra’s criticisms should be taken as casting aspersion on Rav Elazar Hakalir’s greatness. Shibbolei Haleket records that when Rabbi Elazar Hakalir wrote his poem Vechayos Asher Heinah Meruba’os (recited in the kedusha of musaf of Rosh Hashanah), the angels surrounded him with fire (quoted by the Magen Avraham at the beginning of Siman 68). Similarly, Rav Chaim Vital writes that his teacher, the Arizal, recited only the piyutim written by the early paytanim, such as Rav Elazar Hakalir, since they are based on Kabbalah.

Mules, Megillas Esther and ibn Ezra

The Book of Esther uses a few words that appear to be transliterated terms of Persian origin. In some instances, the commentaries grapple with understanding the meaning of these words. For example, the Megillah describes how the “achashteranim benei haramachim” were sent to deliver an urgent message. But what do these words mean? The Gemara (Megillah 18a) mentions that the amora’im were unaware of the exact translation of these words. One of the halachic rishonim, the Rivash, concludes that the word achashteranim is a composite word meaning “mules whose mothers are mares,” citing ibn Ezra as his source (Shu”t HaRivash #390).

Ibn Ezra and halachah

Although ibn Ezra is noted primarily for his abilities in language, commentary, mathematics and astronomy, there are many places where he is cited by later authorities as a halachic source. For example, he is quoted authoritatively by the Avudraham, the Beis Yosef (Orach Chayim 188) and later authorities regarding a controversy surrounding the correct text of our bensching. He is also quoted by authorities in regard to the correct pronunciation of the name of Hashem (Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 124).

Here are some other areas of halachah in which the ibn Ezra is quoted:

Contract law

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

There is discussion among halachic authorities about this topic, including several rishonim, the Rema (Choshen Mishpat 333:3) and the Shach (ad locum 333:17). In this context, ibn Ezra’s comments on Chumash are quoted as halachic authority. He understands that an eved Ivri, a Jewish slave, who is purchased for a maximum of six years, has worked mishneh s’char sachir, twice the amount of time usually allowed for a worker to commit himself. This means that the Torah does not recognize an employment contract that is longer than three years. His exact words are: “We find written ‘three years as the duration of a hired hand’ (Yeshayahu 16:14), and this is proof that a person does not have authority to hire himself out for more than three years. Furthermore, the one paying the wages cannot hire him [for more than three years]. And this is the reason [in the pasuk regarding the eved Ivri] for the word ‘mishneh – double’” (commentary to Devorim 15:18), since a Hebrew slave can be purchased for up to six years, or twice as long as an employment contract normally allows.

Inheritance of positions

In an interesting discussion germane to the laws of inheriting positions, ibn Ezra is quoted as supporting the right of a son-in-law to his late father-in-law’s rabbinic position, where no direct descendants are appropriate for the post (Shu’t Doveiv Meisharim Vol. 4). This is based on ibn Ezra’s comment that, at times, a son-in-law is referred to as a son (Bereishis 19:12).

When to redeem?

There is a discussion among halachic authorities as to whether the proper time to perform the mitzvah of pidyon haben is on the 31st day after birth, or after a lunar month equivalent (29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3.3 seconds) has passed since birth. In this context, some authorities quote ibn Ezra in support of the second approach (Shu’t Shevus Yaakov 2:87).

When is nightfall?

Ibn Ezra is perhaps the earliest authority to determine when nightfall occurs on the basis of astronomical calculation. He notes that the length of time between sunset and nightfall varies from place to place and is dependent on how long it takes the sun to reach a certain point beyond the horizon – what is called today the solar depression angle.

Matzoh and Hagadah

Ibn Ezra is quoted among the list of authorities who contend that eating matzoh on Pesach after the first night fulfills some level of mitzvah. Another halachah quoted in his name is the mitzvah of reciting the Hagadah the entire night of Pesach. Ibn Ezra cites an approach that the words leil shimurim, describing the Seder night, mean that we are supposed to be shimurim, not that we are the ones being protected. He explains this to mean that one should be alert and “on guard” throughout the night, using the night exclusively to thank Hashem and to retell the wondrous deeds He performed leading to and including our exodus from Egypt. This interpretation is also quoted in his name by poskim (Shu’t Seridei Eish 1:47).

Ibn Ezra and the physician

Another interesting halachic insight is quoted in his name. The Avnei Neizer, one of the greatest poskim of the late nineteenth century, was asked the following: A person is seriously ill, and the physicians have recommended that he take a medication that is non-kosher. Granted that this is pikuach nefesh, a life-threatening emergency, and therefore supersedes the requirement to keep kosher, is the patient permitted to be stringent and not take the medicine, or does this violate the Torah’s laws?

Ibn Ezra contends that the Torah’s instructions to heed medical opinion apply only to external injuries, but not to an internal medical condition. He states that in the era of prophecy, a prophet’s opinion about what was happening inside the body was more accurate than a physician’s. A result of this idea is that one is not required – and perhaps, according to ibn Ezra, not permitted – to violate a mitzvah for an internal remedy advised by a physician.

Together with other halachic reasons and bases, the Avnei Neizer rules that the individual does have the right to rely on these opinions and not consume non-kosher (Shu’t Avnei Neizer, Choshen Mishpat #193).

It should be noted that the late Klausenberger Rebbe ruled that today, since we now have various methods for checking what is going on inside our bodies, what would have been considered an internal matter in earlier days is now under the heading of something that doctors should treat, even according to ibn Ezra – and that, therefore, a person should definitely follow doctor’s orders (Shu’t Divrei Yetziv, Likutim #114).

Aliyah la’regel

In an interesting responsum of Rav Moshe Feinstein to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Moshe rules that the mitzvah of being oleh regel, to visit the Beis Hamikdash grounds on the Yomim Tovim and offer korbanos, does not require that one walk to the har habayis, but that one may travel there in a different way (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Kodoshim #21. This responsum is located at the end of the first volume of Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim I). Rav Moshe brings support for this approach from the commentary of ibn Ezra.

Ibn Ezra and the kuf

One of the rishonim quotes ibn Ezra as the halachic authority to resolve the following question: If a sefer Torah was written in which the two parts of the letter kuf touch, is the sefer Torah invalid? The Tashbeitz, who was asked this question (Shu”t Tashbeitz 1:51), brings evidence from ibn Ezra that he held that it is perfectly fine, and even preferable, to write a sefer Torah this way. Although we do not follow this ruling, the Tashbeitz, based on ibn Ezra, did.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we see that ibn Ezra made many contributions to the halachic knowledge of Klal Yisroel. The main lesson to be learned from his life is that one should strive to grow in prayer and in studying and teaching Torah to the extent of one’s ability, notwithstanding the adversity of personal circumstances.