Ibn Ezra, Avraham

Ibn Ezra, Avraham

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Rabbi Avraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra was a renowned Jewish scholar born in eleventh-century Spain. He was accomplished in many disciplines and his prolific writing encompassed biblical exegeses; Hebrew grammar; personal, national, and liturgical poetry; philosophy; mathematics; geometry; astronomy; and astrology. In mainstream Judaism, he was known and loved mainly for his Bible commentary as well as his poetry, whereas to the Christian European world he became known through his astrological and mathematical writings. This was the golden era for the Jews in Spain, who flourished economically, scientifically, and culturally, and who were also instrumental in transmitting the Arabic sciences and philosophy to Christian Europe. These were also the times of the Crusades and the wars between the Moslems and the Christians in Spain, and the Jewish communities were caught in the middle, suffering persecutions both in North Africa and Spain. All these circumstances left their mark in Ibn Ezra’s life and work.

His Life

Ibn Ezra was born in in 1089 in Tudela, Spain, but spent most of his life wandering from one country to another, always restless, always seeking knowledge, writing his books, teaching students, and always in great poverty, depending on people’s patronage. In one of his personal poems he ironically says that at his nativity the stars changed their natural course to bring him misfortune, so much so that if he decided to sell candles the Sun would never set, and if he decided to sell burial shrouds, no one would ever die. There are many anecdotes and legends about his lack of practicality in worldly matters on the one hand, and his great wit and wisdom in intellectual matters on the other.

At a young age he was married and a son, Itz’hak, was born. Tradition maintains that his wife was the daughter of the renowned Jewish poet and philosopher Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi. Years later, Itz’hak accompanied Yehuda HaLevi on his journey to the Holy Land, but parted ways with him and stayed behind in Baghdad, never to see his father again. In Baghdad, following his host, Itz’hak converted to Islam, and a few years later he died there of an illness. When Ibn Ezra received the news, he poured out his broken heart in a poem, mourning his son’s death and lamenting his own fate that deprived him of having a son to comfort him at his old age.

Wandering and material poverty was a way of life for Ibn Ezra. He began his travels going south to the Muslim regions and then proceeded to the Jewish communities in North Africa, which he visited more than once, each time returning to Spain. He was also said to have visited Egypt, the Land of Israel (Palestine), and possibly further east, but there is no real evidence of that.

In 1140, he left Spain for good and began his travels among the Jewish communities in the Christian world—Italy, France, and England. During those years he wrote his greatest works, including astrology. The Jews in those communities had no access to the Islamic sciences, nor did they have sufficient knowledge of the Hebrew grammar, so they welcomed Ibn Ezra’s stay among them with great enthusiasm.

Ibn Ezra first went to Rome, where the Jews enjoyed relative prosperity and security under the decrees of the popes. By that time he had become well known, and wherever he went, he found a place to stay, students to teach, and rabbis with whom to discourse. He left Rome heading north to other towns in Italy, never staying long, never settling down, and practicing astrology to make some living.

In 1146, in Lucca, near Rome, he began most of his astrological treatises and completed them a couple of years later. Some sources say that they were written in Beziers (Bedersh) in the south of France, where he arrived in 1147 or 1148.

In 1152, Ibn Ezra went from Provençe towards the north of France, arriving at a town he calls Rodos (Rodez?), where he became very ill at the age of 64. Through the help of a benevolent patron, Moshe Bar Meir, Ibn Ezra recovered and made a vow, which he kept soon after, to write his commentary for the Bible all over again in a long version.

Still restless, at age 70, Ibn Ezra decided to go further north, to London, England, and again he was received very well by the Jewish community. Here, too, he composed important books, dedicated to his benefactors. In 1160, he translated from Arabic into Hebrew the Explanation of the Tables by Muhammad Al-Matani.

His Death

Ibn Ezra died at the age of 75 in the year 1164. In one version, his death took place in Rome. In another, it was in Calahora, Spain. Yet, according to another source, found in a book written 50 years after his death, he never left England and died there. Apparently, he predicted his own death. Israel Levin reports that one of the copyists of Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the Torah wrote at the end of the book:

On Monday, on the First of Addar I, in the year 4924 [which corresponds to Monday, January 27, 1164, on the Julian calendar], Ibn Ezra died, at the age of seventy five, and he wrote for himself in the year of his death in his own hand “Avraham was seventy five years old when he came out from under the wrath of God.”

His Astrological Work

Ibn Ezra wrote nine astrological treatises, as well as a translation from Arabic into Hebrew of two others, covering all branches of astrology—natal, medical, horary, electional, and mundane. He was well versed in the different theories and sources. He knew his predecessors and compared their ideas, frequently coming up with his own conclusions. With proper acknowledgment, he referred to Hindu, Persian, and Arab astrologers, yet mostly following Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos.

The contents of Ibn Ezra’s work is traditional Hellenistic-Persian-Arabic astrology, rarely mentioning religion or mysticism. Yet, at times, his “Jewishness” shines through in small biblical phrases and in what can be called a Talmudic style, which is apparent in most of the texts.

His writing is concise, scholarly, analytical, critical, and didactic, frequently pointing out how the inner logic of astrology is derived from its elementary components. He is also conversational and personal, often speaking in the first person, addressing the reader directly.

Some of the books were written twice—a short version and a long version—as is the case with The Book of Reasons (both are edited and published).

Ibn Ezra’s Works

The Beginning of Wisdom (Re’shit Ho’khmah) is Ibn Ezra’s best known astrological text. It was edited from Hebrew manuscripts with cross references from an Old French translation (Hagin le Juif, Le Commencement de Sapience, 1273) and translated into English for the first time by Raphael Levy and Francisco Cantera in 1939. The ten-chapter book contains basic astrology that encompasses the fundamentals of the horoscope. It describes the tropical and sidereal signs; the fixed stars; the decanates and the images contained in them as well as those that are co-rising; the division of the wheel and the houses; the attributes of the planets and the luminaries; the aspects; the relative strength of the planets; the various ways planets conjoin bodily and by aspect; and an extensive list of the Arabic Parts.

The short version of The Book of Reasons (Se’fer Ha’Te’amim) was edited from manuscript by Naphtali Ben Menahem in 1941. The long version was edited by Rabbi Yehuda Fleishman in 1951. It was translated from Hebrew (short version supplemented from the long version) by Meira B. Epstein in 1994. The book contains commentary and additional material for all the topics in The Beginning of Wisdom, providing more in-depth discussion meant for those who already know the basics.

Ibn Ezra’s Book of Nativities (Se’fer Ha’Moladot) was edited from a 1436 manuscript. A translation from Hebrew by Meira B. Epstein was published in 2002. The book contains discussions about the houses in the chart; the specific signification of each house in the chart; the issue of the fate of the individual within that of the collective; astrology’s answer to the controversial question of nature vs. nurture, or the relative influence of the environment; chart rectification, including an evaluation of Ptolemy’s method (Nimodar), as well as the method base on the moment of conception (the Epoch); some aspects of electional astrology; the timing by the Triplicity Rulers, the Firdar method, Ptolemy’s ages of life, the profection method, the solar return chart and its calculation; and an integration of the method of profection with the solar return for annual, monthly, and daily observations.

Ibn Ezra’s Book of Lights (Se’fer Ha’Me’orot) was edited by Yehuda Leib Fleischer in 1932. It contains discussions on medical astrology; the Decumbiture chart; general motions of the Sun and the Moon and their function in the horoscope; judgments for the condition and recovery from illness from the Moon and eclipses in the decumbiture chart; and evaluations of the effects of benefic and malefic planets, their motions, their strength, and their aspects in the decumbiture chart.

The Book of Elections (Se’fer Ha’Miv’harim) was edited from manuscript by Yehuda Leib Fleischer, in 1939. Its contents focus on electional astrology: whether one can affect a desirable outcome by electing a good time to begin an endeavor; the need to also consider the nativity and what to do when it is not known; identifying the appropriate house in the election chart that signifies the purpose of the election; and the various considerations for each house and planet in the election chart.

The Book of Questions (Se’fer Ha’She’elot) focuses on horary astrology.

The Book of the World (Se’fer Ha’Olam) was edited by Yehuda Leib Fleischer, in 1937. Its contents focus on mundane astrology. The book covers a mathematical formula for calculating the maximum possible number of planetary conjunctions; the Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions; a discussion on the accuracy of the calculations of the rising sign at the time of the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction and the solar annual revolution; using the time of the new or full moon before the Aries ingress; the Firdar periods (from Persian astrologers); the Kabbalistic text (Sefer Yetsira); the sign ruler of a country and the Mars-Saturn conjunction (from Mashallah); eclipse interpretation (from Ptolemy); a list of specific signs and degrees associated with countries and cities; predictions of monthly rain amounts; the phases of the Moon; and the lunar mansions.

Predictions Made in the Year 1154 (He’zionot Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra She’haza Al Sh’nat 4914 La’Ye’tsira) was published by Meir Ben Itzhak Bakkal in 1971. Its contents focus on mundane astrology and include a short treatise containing a mundane forecast based on the great conjunction of Jupiter-Saturn in Capricorn, which was coming up in 1166.

Horoscope Analysis for a Newborn (Mishpatei Ha’Nolad) was published by Meir Ben Itzhak Bakkal in 1971. Its focus is on the method of chart analysis.

Included is a short treatise on how to read a horoscope, based on birth data that seems to fit October 14, 1160, roughly around 10 p.m., at Narbonne, France. Other topics cover the determination of the hyleg; the rule of not reading the horoscope before the native has reached age four; directing the hyleg to crisis times; and general success and mental quality and observations about both parents.

The Treatise of the Astrolabe (Kli Ha’Ne’hoshet) was first edited and published by H. Edelmann in 1845. It was later republished by Meir Ben Itzhak in 1971. The book contains an astronomy treatise, essential for astrological chart calculation. It holds 36 chapters, describing the use of the astrolabe in computing the length of day and night; the diurnal and nocturnal uneven hours; the ecliptical longitude and latitude position of the Sun and the planets; the culminating degree; the rising and setting according to the clime; finding the geographical latitude of a city; whether the planet is direct or retrograde; the disappearance and appearance of the Moon; the Lunar Mansions; computation of the 12 houses of the horoscope; how to determine the astrological aspects; fixed stars of the first and the second magnitudes, including their names and description and computing their precession rate in the tropical zodiac; computing the height of any tall or short or deep object; and what to do when there is no table for the exact geographical latitude or when the astrolabe is not sufficiently accurate.

Muhammad bin Almatani’s Explanations for the Astronomical Tables of Muhammad al-Khwarizmi (Ta’amei Lu’hot al-Khwarizmi) is a translation from Arabic into Hebrew and includes an introduction by Ibn Ezra. This version was edited and translated into English by Baruch Rephael Goldstein in 1967. The book contains an account of the introduction of Hindu astronomical calculations into Islam; a comparison of the calculations to Ptolemy’s Almagest; and a discussion of the precession error found in older texts in determining the position of the fixed stars and the constellations. The text is interspersed with Ibn Ezra’s additional explanations.

In A Book by Mashallah on the Eclipses of the Sun and the Moon (1902), Ibn Ezra provides an Arabic-to-Hebrew translation. It contains a discussion of how the effect of the planets are relative to the clime; a sign classification by elements and by gender, etc. and their effect on the weather; a judgment of the weather and world affairs from the Aries ingress and from total or partial eclipses and from eclipses of the Sun and the Moon; and coverage of the great conjunction of Jupiter-Saturn, the medium conjunction of Mars-Saturn, and the small conjunction of Mars-Jupiter, and their effect in the world.

Unpublished Books

Naftali Ben Menahem reports on Rabbi Moshe Taku who wrote a book, Ktav Tamim, about Ibn Ezra 50 years after his death, in which he mentions a book by Ibn Ezra called The Book of Life (Sefer ha-Haim). This book might be the same as Kohot Shnot ha-Adam, an autobiography whose possible existence was reported by David Kahanah.

Translations and publications

Ibn Ezra’s astrological writings were very popular, as evidenced by the numerous translations, manuscript copies, and printings that were made over the centuries. At least 33 series containing his astrological treatises exist; not all of them are complete but most include The Beginning of Wisdom. There are 43 single treatises, eight of which are manuscripts owned by the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Eight more are in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and others are scattered throughout Europe in private and public collection. The Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Vatican Library also possess some of the manuscripts.

Ibn Ezra’s best-known book, The Beginning of Wisdom, was translated from Hebrew into French in 1273 by Hagin le Juif (Hagin the Jew), under the auspices of Henry Bate. This translation served as a basis for three translations into Latin, still extant: one by Henry Bate in 1281 and 1292, another by Peter de Abano in 1293 and a third by Arnoul de Quinquempoix sometime before 1326. A translation was made independently from the Hebrew original into Catalan, by Martin of Osca (or Huesca), Aragon. From this Catalan version, The Book of Nativities was translated into Latin by Louis de Angulo in 1448.

Raphael Levy provides a word of caution with regard to the 1507 printing of the Peter de Abano translation:

It is a Latin translation made from the French translation of the Hebrew, and anyone who has access to it must control it carefully, since the style is considered impure and inaccurate.

The circumstances pertaining to the French translation by Hagin are explained in a colophon, which is reproduced at the end. Many years ago Paulin Paris (1847) remarked: “One can readily see that Hagin was obliged to dictate his translation to a copyist, because he himself did not know how to write them in French; for, if it had been a question merely of having them transcribed clearly and elegantly, he would have probably called upon a better calligrapher than Obert de Montdidier.” This procedure of a Jew dictating a French translation to an amanuensis explains the curious fact that it was written in Roman characters, whereas all other contemporary texts, extant in Judaeo-French, were written in Hebrew characters. Consequently it may serve as a guide in deciphering the French texts written in Hebrew characters. Nothing else is known about Hagin le Juif nor about the scribe, but the name of Montdidier is significant because it gives a clue to the Picard dialect of the scribe. Henry Bate, under whose aegis the translation was executed, has already been referred to as one of the three translators from French into Latin.

Naturally, the system of translating the Hebrew of Ibn Ezra into the French of Hagin transcribed by Obert has resulted in an awkward style. Hagin has interpreted the original in a servile manner and often given a literal equivalent word for word. In addition to the large proportion of solecisms and anacolutha, Hagin has interspersed his text with Hebraisms, while Obert suffered from an inevitable confusion in homonyms.

Ezra’s Work as Subject of Scholarly Research

Throughout the centuries, especially in the modern era, a vast number of scholars of various disciplines, studied his works extensively. An especially prominent one was George Sarton (1884–1956), the founder of History of Science. Of Ibn Ezra, he wrote:

One of the greatest Biblical commentators of the Middle Ages, one of the forerunners of modern criticism, and much admired by Spinoza on that account. He was one of the first to translate writings of Muslims into Hebrew.

He wrote various books on mathematics and astrology, on the calendar, and on the astrolabe; eight treatises on astrology were completed at Lucca in 1148.

One of his main titles to fame is that through his wanderings in Provence, France and England, he helped to propagate among the Jews of Christian Europe (who, unlike their Spanish brethren, did not know Arabic) the rationalistic and scientific points of view which had been developed in Spain by Muslims and Jews on the basis of Greco-Muslim knowledge.

He translated from Arabic into Hebrew three treatises on grammar by Judah Hayyuj (second half of the tenth century), Rome 1140; two treatises on astrology by Mashallah, before 1148; al-Biruni’s commentary on al-Khwarizmi’s tables, Narbonne 1160. The last mentioned is known only through Ibn Ezra’s version.

Ibn Ezra’s mind was a strange mixture of rationalism and mysticism. His writings show his deep interest in magic squares and the mystical properties of numbers. He explained a decimal system of numeration using the first nine letters of the Hebrew alphabet, plus a circle for the zero, with place value.

Though they do not directly concern us, Ibn Ezra’s commentaries on the Old Testament were so influential, even outside of their own sphere, that something must be said of them. He explained his methods in the introduction to his commentary on the Pentateuch (Perush ha-Torah); he distinguished between the peshat, simple or literal meaning; the derash, common sense explanation; and the midrash, more philosophic explanation; trying hard to steer a middle course between excessive literalism and loose interpretations. As an instance of his boldness, I may mention his conclusion that the Book of Isaiah contains the sayings of two prophets, a view confirmed by modern criticism. The popularity of his commentaries is attested by the large number of super-commentaries.

Philology and Lexicography

The Old French translation of Hagin le Juif has served Raphael Levy for comparative study with modern French; Frédéric Godefroy in Dictionnaire de l’ancienne langue française; Erhard Lommatzsch in Adolf Tobler’s Altfranzösisches Wörterbuch; A. Thomas in Romania; David Simon Blondheim in Les Parlers judéo-romans et la Vetus latina; and Lazar Sâineanu in Autour des sources indigènes.

Citations of the Astrological Treatises of Ibn Ezra

In the introduction to Beginning of Wisdom, Raphael Levy writes:

The number of citations of the astrological treatises of Abraham ibn Ezra is legion. The Hebraists who cited them from the twelfth to the seventeenth century include: Samuel Abū Nasr ibn Abbas, Eleazer ben Juda ben Kalonymos, Jedaiah ben Abraham Bedersi, Levi ben Abraham ben hayyim, Estori Farhi, Mordecai Comtino, Moses ibn Habib, Leon Mosconi, Joseph ben Eliezer of Saragossa, Samuel ibn Seneh Zarza, Samuel ben Saadia ibn Motot, Shem-Tob ben jehudah ibn Mayor, Immanuel ben Jacob Bonfils, Hayyim of Briviesca, Joseph Albo, Moses ben Elijah of Greece, Abraham ben Solomon of Torrutiel, Hayyim Vital, Eliezer of Germany, Joseph Solomon Delmedigo.

In Latin literature, a list of references to these astrological treatises made in the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is also quite imposing: John of Saxony, Firminus de Bellavalle, Nicolas de Cues, William Raymond Moncada, John of Glogau, Pico della Mirandola, Symon de Phares, Christopher Columbus, Abraham Zacuto, Augustinus Ricius, Johann Stoeffler, Luca Gaurico, Francesco Giuntini, Joseph Scaliger, Johann Bayer, Robert Fludd, Manasseh ben Israel, Athanasius Kircher, Aegidius Strauch.

In modern scientific literature, one finds these treatises mentioned by the leading historians of astronomy and kindred science: R. H. Allen, F. Boll, P. Duhem, C. de la Ronciere, C. A. Nallino, Dr. George Sarton, D. E. Smith, L. Thorndike, E. Tiede.

Astrology and Religion

Ibn Ezra’s Hebrew editors are usually apologetic when it comes to his involvement with astrology and the publication of these works, explaining it by the need to properly understand his Biblical commentaries, in which he extensively resorts to astrological concepts and imagery.

Ibn Ezra was a profoundly religious man, but astrology did not seem to cause any conflict with his faith. Throughout his work it is evident that he fully embraced astrology, in a hard-nosed and intelligent way, with no doubts, no hesitations and no religious dilemmas. Yet, there is hardly any cross-over of religious thought into his astrological writings. Some reconciliation, however, is found in his theological writings and also in the opening of The Beginning of Wisdom:

The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God, for it is the instruction. For when a man does not follow his eyes and heart to fulfill his [worldly] desire, then wisdom will rest in him. Moreover, the fear of God will protect him from the laws and decrees of the heavens all the days of his life, and when his soul separates from his body it [the fear of God] will endow him with eternity and he shall live forever.

—Meira B. Epstein

Sources:

Ben Menahem, Naphtali. The Book of Reasons. 1941.
Fleischer, Yehuda Leib. The Book of The World. Timishuara, Romania, 1937.
Levin, Israel. Abraham Ibn Ezra: Reader. Tel Aviv: Israel Matz Publications, 1985.
Levy, Raphael. The Astrological Works of Abraham ibn Ezra: A Literary and Linguistic Study with Special Reference to the Old French Translation of Hagin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1927.
Levy, Raphael, and Francisco Cantera, eds. The Beginning of Wisdom. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1939.
Sarton, George. Introduction to the History of Science. Baltimore: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1927–48.
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