Sunday 18 September 2016




Did Rabbi Saul Berlin (1740-1794) write the famed halachik work ‘Besamin Rosh’ (which contained some controversial halachik rulings) and fraudulently claim that he was not expressing his own views but merely publishing the authentic five hundred year old work of a Rishon?

Did R. Saul Berlin (who is known to have had strong leanings towards the Enlightenment or Haskalah Movement) attempt to undermine traditional rabbinic Judaism by ‘reforming’ it from within – by introducing leniencies and claiming that they were in fact the writings of the famous halachist known as the Rosh (Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel, 1250-1327)?[1]

Was this simply a devious tactic of the Enlightenment Movement to erode the strictures of halacha, not by its typical ‘modern rational reasoning’ - but instead by (allegedly) using the words of one of its most authoritative halachists?

- Or was Besamin Rosh in deed written by the Rosh himself? 


R. Saul Berlin was born in Glogau[2], and was the son of the Chief Rabbi of Berlin.[3] The young Saul received a thorough religious and secular education and was in constant contact with members of the Enlightenment. Eventually R. Saul became the rabbi of Frankfurt an der Oder.
His rabbinic position together with his allegiance to the Enlightenment created an uncomfortable tension for him, and he was torn between traditionalism and modernism.[4]


He began his writing career with a letter Ketav Yosher[5] which he authored anonymously beacuse it attacked the traditional Torah schools and claimed the system left no room for development and aspiration. It is presented in the form of a dialogue between and old-fashioned rabbi and a modern young man.  His writing style is engaging, humorous and quite to the point. Because of the controversial nature of the subject matter he did not append his name or title to the work.


His next contribution was the more elaborate Mitzpeh Yoktiel[6] which he wrote under a pseudonym[7]. This was a response to the very popular Torat Yekutiel, which was written by R. Refael haKohen, a so called ‘zealous rabbinic advocate’ who was also a fierce opponent of the Enlightenment. It is no coincidence that R. Refael haKohen had been vying for the Berlin rabbinate in opposition to R. Saul’s father!

In this work R. Saul Berlin attacked the pilpul style of the book saying that; “It was a sin to use up the paper which the author had wasted with his foolish theories.[8]  He went so far as to attack the very character of R. Refael haKohen by accusing him of taking bribes.

In an elaborate cover up, the publishers tried to hide the true author’s identity by writing that both R. Saul Berlin and his father did not approve of the book.

The problem was that R. Refael haKohen was the Chief Rabbi of the ‘Three Communities’ (Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbeck).

The ‘Three Communities’ were so incensed by the attack on R. Refael haKohen that they placed the author (who many suspected to be R. Saul Berlin) and the book under cherem or ban.[9]

When a copy of the book reached R. Saul Berlins’ father in Berlin, he too was about to declare the author to be banned until someone pointed out that it was in fact his own son who had written it!

Eventually R. Saul Berlin admitted that he was the author.


As if all this was not enough, R. Saul Berlin went on to publish a major work known as Besamin Rosh (Spices of the Rosh).

The book included 392 responsa (allegedly) by the Rosh.[10] He allegedly acquired old original manuscripts written by the Rosh, during his travels to Italy.

The responsa contained a number of very lenient halachic rulings in the name of the Rosh. These included the permissibility of shaving on Chol haMoed - eating kitneyot (legumes) on Pesach and claiming it was a Karaite custom - saying a blessing over non-kosher food -redefining the rulings regarding mourning for a suicide[11] - warnings against being too strict[12] - sanctioning the of drinking yayin nesech (non-kosher wine)[13] - the extolling of the value of secular studies[14] - and allowing riding a horse on Shabbat[15].

It contained statements like:

To grasp the basic elements of our Torah...we cannot be content with commentaries of our sages, but must also diligently study the philosophical books of the nations of the world.[16]


It is time to do for G-d...If the time might come when the commandments of the Torah would bring evil on our nation...or cause unhappiness...then we would throw off the yoke (of Torah) from our neck.”


Many doubted whether all the rulings in the book were actually from the Rosh. Most believed some rulings had been ‘adjusted’ by R. Saul Berlin. His torrid history with writings and texts hadn’t helped either. 

According to the Seforim Blog; “In the academic world, the Besamin Rosh is written off as aTrojan Horse’ intended to surreptitiously get R Saul’s maskilic (‘progressive’ and ‘enlightened’) positions out in the masses...”[17]

R. Saul Berlin’s father, the Chief Rabbi of Berlin, came immediately to his son’s defence. He claimed that he had seen the original manuscripts of the Rosh which he had had in his possession for eleven years and that the work of his son was accurate! 

Even the Chida[18] supported the claim. As did the Nodah be Yehudah (who even wrote an approbation to Besamin Rosh).

But most regarded Besamim Rosh as a forged document.  

The first published work to cast aspirations on Besamin Rosh was (a rare book) Ze’ev Yetrof (1793), by R. Ze’ev Wolf Landsberg. It points out that there are eight teshuvot (responsa) that raise eyebrows because they appear not to be within rabbinic norm.

The second person to challenge Besamim Rosh was R. Yaakov Katzenellenbogen (who happened to be an in-law of R. Refael haKohen who R. Saul had attacked previously). He raised questions on 13 of the teshuvot.  

The Chatam Sofer also disputed the originality of the writing and considered the entire work to be a forgery! He referred to the book as kitzvei haRosh, or Lies of the Rosh.[19]

The Avnei Nezer suggested that the only respectable thing to do to with Besamim Rosh is to burn it (even on Yom Kippur that fall out on Shabbat).

Others took an interesting middle of the road position acknowledging that it was not the work of the Rosh, but praising its scholarship nonetheless:

R. Matityahu Strashun (son of Rashash) see Kotzk Blog 95 wrote;

After all these analyses, even if we were able to prove that the entire Besamim Rosh from beginning to end is the product of R. Saul, one cannot brush the work aside.... as the work is full of Torah like a pomegranate, and the smell of besamim is apparent, it is a work of great insight and displays great breath, the author delves into the intricacies of the Talmud and the Rishonim, the author is one of the greats of his generation..”[20]

When Besamim Rosh was reprinted in 1984, Sefardic Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef wrote in his approbation to the new edition that he believes it was the work of R. Saul Berlin, but that it nevertheless is still of great halachic value.[21]


Eventually R. Saul Berlin resigned from the rabbinate and went to live in London where he died soon after. In his will he asked not to be buried in a cemetery but rather on some ‘lonely place’.

As if R. Saul Berlin’s father did not want to make the same mistake twice, it’s interesting to see that his younger son (by 21 years) Solomon Hirschel was raised with little secular education and eventually became the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, a position he held for 40 years (1802 -1842). 

He was far from being the modernist that his brother was and it is said he could hardly speak English (with much of the communication done through his secretary). He is known for his unsuccessful attempt to stop Reform Judaism by excommunicating its leaders.

R. Saul Berlin’s son, Aryeh Yehuda, also received a thorough Talmudic education and became the Chief Rabbi of Silesia. 

Sadly in 1809 he left Judaism and converted to Christianity.


It does seem as if an overwhelming number of scholars believe the Besamim Rosh to be either wholly or partly the creation of R. Saul Berlin. As we have seen, some regard it as an entire forgery and some as only a partial ‘adaptation’. A small minority believe it to actually be the work of the Rosh himself.

Yet today the book is still generally studied by the mainstream rabbinic world, notwithstanding its controversial history. No one denies the scholarship and it is nevertheless still regarded as part of the rabbinic cannon. 

(In a newer edition of Besamim Rosh some of the problematic teshuvot are omitted, although the page numbers are still there and just blank spaces remain.)

In a great irony, as pointed out by R. Adam Mintz, the very work that was intended to undermine rabbinic authority has become one of its strongest (and strangest) bastions.[22]


Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky writes strongly against publicizing R. Saul Berlin’s fraudulent attributing of Besamim Rosh to the Rosh. 

He gives a number of reasons:

1) It is disrespectful to his family.
2) His soul may already have been rectified in the 150 years since his passing, and bringing these events to the fore may harm him.
3) It discredits all the rabbis who mistakenly supported him.
4) It will weaken the faith of many who will become confused to see how a great Torah personality can fall to heresy.

It is up to the reader to decide whether this is just another ‘conspiracy of silence’ - or a noble attempt at preserving dignity (which then for the same reasons, should also to be applied equally across the board to everyone else on all sides of Jewish history).

If Torah faith can only stand on a foundation that withholds (admittedly) factual information, then what value is that faith?


Regarding the issue of riding a horse through a town on Shabbat instead of having to rely on the ‘kindness of strangers’, I discussed this ruling with Rabbi Chaim Finkelstein who has this interesting halachik take:

"In response to the seemingly bizarre ruling that one may continue riding on Shabbos through a town that is foreign to the rider to avoid debasing one's self to ask for hospitality; since kavod habriyos, human dignity supersedes even a Torah injunction. 

Although I haven't seen the Teshuva inside and it's not a matter of halacha lemaaseh, only an academic discussion, I offer a plausible explanation for this ruling, that the source in Gemara Brochos 19a amongst many sources (cf. ad loc.) stating the degree of severity given to human dignity over other commandments means that Rabbinic injunctions were suspended when they cause human suffering and discomfort. 

This is termed a Torah prohibition as all Rabbinic enactments involve the prohibition of "lo tasur" - do not veer from the path provided by the Rabbonon. So to assume that a lone rider be allowed to continue riding into Shabbos, which is itself only a Rabbinic concern, to avoid the humiliation of begging for hospitality, is not bizarre by any stretch of the imagination. 

Although it is a poor reflection of Jewish hospitality if that's what strangers feel in a Yiddishe shtetel..."

- Rabbi Chaim Finkelstein, Rosh Yeshiva L'Rabbonus Pretoria. 

[1] The Rosh was such an important halachik figure that when R. Yosef Karo compiled his Shulchan Aruch, he included him together with Rambam and Rif as one of the three main decisors of upon which all of Jewish Law is built.
[2] Part of the Habsburgs, Prussia and today Poland.
[3] Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Levin (Berlin).
[4] See KOTZK BLOG 95) for an understanding of how the Enlightenment Movement adopted different positions regarding Orthodoxy and religion. In some locations (such as Vilna and the Czech Lands) it was quite compatible with rabbinic Judaism, while in others it was radically and diametrically opposed to it.
[5] Lit. Letter of Justice
[6] Lit. Watch-Tower of Yoktiel.

[7] ‘Ovadiah ben Baruch ish Polanya (of Poland)’.

[8] See The Berlin Haskalah, by Israel Zinberg p. 194 This is quite a strange accusation to make because R. Saul Berlin’s own commentary to Besamim Rosh also seems to relish in pilpul. See Shaking the Pillars of Exile; ‘Voice of a Fool’, by Talya Fishman, p.174.
[9] As an aside there were two interesting questions regarding this ban; Can a ban in one city be applied to another city? And can a ban in fact even be considered effective if it is simply a response to a personal character assassination?
[10] It also had his own commentary, known as kasa deharsena. The publication contained two approbations; One from R, Tvi Hirsh Berlin (R. Saul’s father) and the other from R. Yechezkel Landau (the Chief Rabbi of Prague), known as the Nodah beYehudah.  [The number of responsa is 392 which happens to be the numerical value of besamim. 392 corresponds to Shin Bet Tzaddi, or Saul ben Tzvi.]
[11] Since most suicides are not the result of a premeditated suicidal philosophy but rather of extreme stress and pain - the suicide is therefore not considered a ‘technical suicide’. For this reason, many of the laws of mourning would still apply. Interestingly enough, for the most part, we follow this ruling and definition today and do not consider every suicide to be a ‘technical suicide’.
[12] #115,118. He warns against being a chasid shoteh (righteous fool).
[13] #36
[14] The Rosh was known for his opposition to secular studies.
[15] #375.  This is where a traveller was riding a horse and Shabbat was fast approaching. Instead of relying on the kindness of strangers, the rider was permitted to continue on his way on Shabbat. Kavod habriyot doche lo ta’aseh (Respect to fellow humans overrides a negative commandment). See Note 2. at the end of this essay.
[16] #251
[17] See Seforim Blog: Besamim Rosh and its History by Dan Rabinowitz and Eliezer Brodt.
[18] Rabbi Yosef Chaim David Azulai
[19] Orach Chaim 154
[20] Shmuel Yosef Finn, Kiryah Ne’amanah p. 93 (Cited by Seforim Blog)
[21] In the second approbation to the same edition, R. Binyamin Silber wrote that he believed the work was a forgery.
[22] Rabbi Mintz points out that a similar process took place with the controversy over the authorship of the Zohar, yet it still stands as a bastion for Jewish mysticism despite its question of authorship. See Kotzk Blog 87.

Sunday 11 September 2016




Rashash's commentary to Talmud Bavli

Rabbi Shmuel Strashun (1793-1872) was the famed Rashash who authored the great appendix to the Babylonian Talmud known as Hagaot haRashash al Talmud Bavli.[1] These notes are on almost every page of the Babylonian Talmud. He followed the path of Lithuanian scholarship as set out by the Vilna Gaon.

The Rashash became interested in history and old texts and in 1864 he joined the Chevrat Mekitze Nirdamin (‘Society of those who Awaken the Sleeping’), an organization that collected and published old and forgotten manuscripts.

Many would be surprised to discover that in addition to being the great scholar that he was, he was also a ‘prominent maskil’(a member of the Enlightenment movement).[2]


The Rashash had a son, Rabbi Matityahu Strashun (1817-1885) who was also great Talmudic scholar and a leader of the Vilna Jewish community. Like his father, his commentaries (to Bava Batra and Eruvin) are included in the Vilna edition of the Talmud.

But he also had another side which is often overlooked and sometimes not recorded.
He too was a maskil - a very active member of the Enlightenment movement![3]
Many biographical accounts of R. Matityahu, make no mention whatsoever about the Haskalah (Enlightenment) connection of neither father nor son.

One account concerning R. Matityahu states; “From his early youth to the day he died, he was immersed in Torah study with great diligence, studying anywhere from 10 to 15 hours a day.”[4]

From a tender age the young Matityahu began showing signs of great genius. He started writing marginal notes in every book he studied. Coming from a wealthy family, special teachers were hired to tutor the exceptional child. One of the teachers was R. Menashe of Ilya who was a student of the Vilna Gaon.[5] He also studied under R. Yisrael Salanter. Eventually, R. Matityahu Strashun would produce 63 publications of his commentaries and annotations.

He studied astronomy and this led to one of his great contributions to the Halachik world when he resolved the controversy over the precise moment for the new moon. His ruling is still accepted as binding today.

He associated with great Torah scholars including R. Tzvi Hirsh Chayut[6] and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg[7].

-Rabbi Chayut is the only commentator included in the Vilna Shas who had a PhD. 

-Rabbi Mecklenburg’s commentary drew from the writings of the Vilna Gaon, Shadal and sometimes from secular sources like Julius Furst.

When he passed away R. Yitzchak Elchanan, the Rov of Kovno delivered his eulogy.


In addition to his Torah scholarship, from the age of 16, Matityahu began to study mathematics and science. He also began to correspond with other maskilim, who were so impressed by his wisdom that they quoted the young man in their writings.

Being aware that his connection to maskilim could be detrimental to his public religious life, he used a pseudonym (Ani veHu) when contributing to the writings of the Enlightenment Movement.

By the 1830’s R. Strashun no longer hid the fact that he was a maskil.

In 1841 when two new schools affiliated to the Haskalah Movement opened in Vilna (which offered both religious and secular subjects) he became a teacher in one of the institutions.

In 1843 he tried to persuade the government to outlaw traditional Jewish garb, as he believed there was no need for a Jew to be alienated from modern society.

So impressed by him were the secular Jews as well as non-Jews, that 1868, he was appointed a member of the Vilna State Bank, for which he was later to be honoured for ten years service and presented with a gold medallion. He also served on the Vilna City Council.

There was even a street in Vilna named after him.


Like his father, R. Matityahu was interested in texts and from the age of bar mitzvah he began collecting books. Later he journeyed out of Russia in order to find and acquire as many books as he could. He had the means to buy and amass what eventually became thousands of books and 150 manuscripts[9].

He created his own library which he wanted to style around the great secular libraries of the world. It was known as Likute Shoshanim (Selections of Roses)[10] and was situated in Vilna. Apparently he had a copy of every Jewish book that had ever been printed, and he never placed them on his shelves until he had read them from cover to cover.

He eventually bequeathed the huge library to the Vilna community and it had an average of 200 visitors a day. From 1928 the University of Vilna began to send to the new library, a copy of every Hebrew or Yiddish book ever published in Poland. The collection of books continued to grow and in 1930 there were over 35, 000 books. It was possibly the largest Jewish library in the world.

Visitors to the library included; “rabbis and Talmudic scholars who were studying Responsa and Halachik works” and simultaneously the “younger generation who were reading Haskala works.”[11] 

The Chafetz Chaim was known to have also visited the library.

Khaykl Lunski (1881-1943) who had studied in both Slonim and Mir yeshivas, was the chief librarian.  He wrote;

On a Jewish street, on the courtyard near the large synagogue, there stands a two-storied house. This house is the temple of the spirit, the palace of wisdom, the pride of Vilna. Young and old, learned and wise (religious scholars), writers and scientists (secular scholars), are drawn to this house to acquire from it Torah and knowledge.[12]

When the Nazis occupied Vilna in 1941, they forced the Jews to select a few thousand books which they put 
into crates to become part of their proposed new 'Library of the Extinct Race".

Some of the books were save after being hidden under a Catholic church in Vilna.[13] 


R. Matityahu Strashun, as well as his father the Rashash - and many others of that generation -managed to straddle both the secular and religious worlds and excel at both. We today would consider courting the Enlightenment Movement as an absolute departure from Torah Judaism. Had they lived in our generation, many would have considered them to be ‘outside of the camp’.

It is unfortunate that the only way they can still be venerated today is when their true stories and positions are somewhat obfuscated and covered over.

Vilna was known as one of the greatest centres of Torah scholarship in the modern era. But (as opposed to the Hungarian community for example. See KOTZK BLOG 41.) - the Vilna community was also known for its tolerance, acceptance and open-mindedness.

And it wasn’t just Vilna where this embracing of secular knowledge took place. The same thing occurred in the Czech Lands;

The bunker mentality that came to characterise Hungarian Orthodoxy in the 1820’s and 1830’s was foreign to the yeshivas of Bohemia and Moravia...Far from shunning extratalmudic learning many leading rabbis embraced secular studies and even encouraged their students to broaden their educational horizons...‘secular studies (hokhmot) were a daily portion for the Jews, and the rabbis did not open their mouths in dismay. (on the contrary) the rabbis themselves would educate their sons in the study of secular knowledge.’” [14]

-This was personified by both R. Shmuel (Rashash) his son R. Matityahu Strashun and many others. And it must have been acceptable because they were both incorporated into the Vilna edition of the Babylonian Talmud!

Some would argue that their broadness and openness was despite their great Torah scholarship.

Others would say this was because of it. 


It should be pointed out that the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment Movement was never the broad monolithic anti religious movement it is often made out to be. It did have extremely radical elements, particularly in Berlin, but it also encompassed a moderate element that was respectful of rabbinic teachings.

In a similar vein, as we shall see, there was never a total antagonism towards the Enlightenment by the religious camp. Both groups did manage to overlap at various times although when they did oppose each other it was indeed a fierce opposition.

It is true that at times it did develop a strong an anti-orthodox agenda, but elements of the movement that we are referring to in this essay, which were courted by the Strashuns, were compatible with their hashkafic (philosophical) and halachik views.

There is even a view that the Vilna Gaon himself may have been one of the architects of the Haskalah.

This view was put forth by his student R. Baruch of Shklov, and is based on the Gaon’s encouraging Torah scholars to also study secular knowledge in order to create a Kiddush HaShem. See KOTZK BLOG 65. Some do contest this view.[8]

[1] R. Shmuel Strashun also wrote analytical notes to Midrash Rabbah, Rambam, Orach Chaim section of Shulchan Aruch and the Five Megillot.
He is not to be confused with R. Shalom Sharabi, the famed Yemenite Kabbalist, who is also known as Rashash.
[2] See Yivo Encyclopaedia, Strashun Shemuel and Matityahu.

The Jewish Enlightenment Movement (Haskalah) was an ideological and social movement that began in Eastern Europe in the early 1800’s. Its members were known as maskilim. The Haskalah mirrored the European Enlightenment which began a century earlier. The Haskalah intended to exploit the new possibilities of economic, social and cultural integration that became available to Jews in the 1800’s with the removal of legal discrimination. (From YIVO Encyclopedia)

[4] See Hevrat Pinto, Rabbi Matityahu Strashun of Vilna.
[5]Another teacher of his was R. Yeshaya David of Lebedev.
[6] Chidushei Maharatz Chayut on the Talmud.
[7]haKetav veHa Kaballah.
[8]See  The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and his Image, by Immanual Etkes, p. 37
[9] The books included Talmudic, Karaite, Chassidic and even secular literature.
[10] See Samuel and Matityahu Strashun: Between Tradition and Innovation, by Dr. Mordechai Zalkin.
[11] Frida Shor (2012) Mi Likute Shoshanim. (Based on her doctoral dissertation for Bar-Ilan University).
[12] See Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire, by Jeffrey Veidlinger, p. 32.
[13] There is an ongoing project to digitalize the library by 2020.
[14] See Rabbis and Revolution: The Jews of Moravia in the Age of Emancipation, By Michael Miller.

Sunday 4 September 2016



There is an unresolved and fascinating story surrounding Yitzchak, the enigmatic son of Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra.

However, it appears to be omitted from many historical accounts which just gloss over him without telling us much about the individual himself.[1]

In this article we will attempt to explore just what it is that some writers are reluctant to share with us.

R. AVRAHAM IBN EZRA (1089-1164/7):

On the Astrolabe, Ibn Ezra, St Petersburg

R. Avraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra was a Spanish born Torah commentator[2], poet, grammarian, philosopher, astronomer and astrologer. Though, unlike many of his contemporaries who studied medicine, he was against the practice of medicine and was not a physician.[3]

The moon crater Abenezra is named after him.

Ibn Ezra struggled to make a living and once lamented;

Were I to deal in candles, The sun would never set. Were selling shrouds my business, No one would ever die. Were I to sell weapons, The enemies would make peace.”

He also was not adept at holding a communal position of leadership, so he wrote poems instead, which he sold to his various patrons in England, Europe, North Africa and possibly even India. This caused him to be a wanderer and in one of his poems he bemoans the fact that wandering affects family life (something that may become significant later in the article).[4]

He wrote of his hardships:

Early I set out for the patron’s home;
They say: He is off riding;
I return toward evening,
They say: He is already sleeping;
He either mounts a horse or climbs into bed...”[5]

Some of his commentaries[6] and writings have come down to us in two versions. This is because he was so poor that he was sometimes forced to sell his original copies and then rewrite them later from memory.
An example of the 'short commentary'.

He was very close to the other famous poet R. Yehudah haLevi (see KOTZK BLOG 93) whose daughter his son Yitzchak may have married.[7]

According to some accounts Ibn Ezra died in Israel and according to others he is buried in England, (which was where he wrote his famous Iggeret haShabat, see KOTZK BLOG 75).[8]


By some accounts, Ibn Ezra had five children but only one son survived, Yitzchak, who was also a poet.

Like his father, Yitzchak also drew from the springs of poetry; and some of the father’s brilliancy flashes in the songs of the son.” (R. Yehuda Al Charizi)[9]

Some of Yitzchak’s poems as well as other valuable documents concerning him, have been recently discovered in the Cairo Geniza (see KOTZK BLOG 91).

It appears that Yitzchak travelled together with (his father-in-law) R. Yehuda haLevi from Spain to Alexandria, Egypt. From there he journeyed on alone to Baghdad, where he arrived in 1143.

While in Baghdad, Yitzchak became a student of a contemporary of Rambam, Netanel ben Ali. Netanel ben Ali had written a commentary to the Book of Kohellet, which Yitzchak helped him compile.[10]  

It is said that Netanel ben Ali wrote about the acceleration of falling bodies with successive increments of velocity anticipating Newton’s second law of motion.

Then, in his old age, Netanel ben Ali converted to Islam[11], and changed his name to Abu al-Barakat Hibat Allah, or Abu’l-Barakat al-Baghdadi.

So respected was he by the Muslims that they referred to him as Awhad al-Zaman, or Unique One in his Time.

Then, in an even more surprising turn of events, Yitzchak follows his teacher’s example and also converts to Islam.[12]

But when he came to Eastern lands and the glory of G-d no longer shone over him, he threw away the costly garments of Judaism, and put on strange ones.“ (R. Yehuda Al Charizi)[13]

Yitzchak died while his father, Ibn Ezra was still alive. It took three years for Ibn Ezra to hear about his son’s passing.

When he eventually did find out the truth about what had happened to his son, he was devastated. Some say this was the reason for his wandering - to try find his son and bring him back to Judaism.
Ibn Ezra wrote two poems expressing his anguish over his son:

In my declining years I had hoped
That he would bring me relief and deliverance.
Alas, I laboured in vain
And sired a son to dismay me.”

When I recall, three years past,
His death among foreigners,
And his vagabond life,
And my longing for him...”[14]


 Although not conclusive, in a poem which is said to have been written by Yitzchak, it appears as if his conversion to Islam may not have been as absolute as previously thought:

I am convinced that the prophet of Allah is a madman,
Although I thanked him in every prayer
With my lips only, while my heart said,
‘You lie and your testimony is false’.”[15]

If Yitzchak had indeed authored this poem, it may support the theory that Yitzchak’s ‘conversion’ may have had some deep political implications:

Yitzchak was in Baghdad during a time of tremendous upheaval within the Jewish religious and political world. The great communities of learning in Babylonia were suffering financially and about to disintegrate (See KOTZK BLOG 92). 

There was a strong Jewish migration westwards to North Africa and Spain, and with it came the need to establish political and religious legitimacy and authority in the fledgling communities. They had to be seen as independent from Babylonia and the new Jewish West did not want to be reliant upon to the old East any longer. 

In order to create this independence the authority of the Babylonian leadership had to be broken. By Yitzchak (and possibly also his teacher al-Baghdadi - the ‘unique one’?), converting to Islam and gaining the favour of the Islamic leadership, he could help in the transitioning of Jewish political and religious power from East to West (particularly to Muslim Spain).

Yitzchak did indeed have a sphere of influence as he served as court poet and secretary to the court physician (al-Baghdadi) of the caliphate of al-Mustanjid.[16]

If this theory is correct, then Yitzchak served as a clandestine operative for Spanish Jewry, and sacrificed his religion to help them break away from the stranglehold of Babylonia.


We are left with two questions:

1) Was Yitzchak’s conversion to Islam just part of a religious/political plot to undermine the (sometimes corrupt) leadership of Jewish Babylonia? 
If it was, it did succeed. And Yitzchak (and possibly also his teacher) did indeed help swing the centre of Torah learning from Babylonia to Spain.[17] This is a rather radical theory but it is backed up to a degree by Yitzchak’s (alleged) poem where he makes the distinction between his ‘heart’ and his ‘lips’.

2) Or was Yitzchak simply, as his Ibn Ezra’s poem put it, a ‘vagabond’ who betrayed his father and his people?

The answer may lie in which of the poems we choose to accept as most authoritative – the father’s or the son’s.

Or maybe both?

[1] One popular historic account simply states; “About the same time as his great contemporary, Rabbi Judah Halevi, he (Ibn Ezra) set out for the Orient, together with his son Isaac.” 
[2] He is known as a ‘pshatist’ who was primarily concerned with the literal and rational meaning of the text. In his introduction to his Torah commentary known as Sefer haYashar he writes in rhyme; “This is Sefer haYashar by Avraham the poet, it is bound by the cords of grammar, and approved by the eye of reason, happy are those who adhere to it.
[3] See commentary to Exodus 21: 19. He writes on the verse “...and cause him to be thoroughly healed”, that permission to use a doctor would, in his view, be restricted to external wound only. Internal wounds would have to be left to G-d to heal.
[4] See Gavhu Shechakim.
[5] Kahane, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra 1; 69,70
[6] He wrote a ‘long’ and ‘short’ commentary.
[7] There are many different versions of how Ibn Ezra was related to R. Yehuda haLevi: Some say they were cousins. Some say they were in-laws (Shalshelet haKaballah). Some say R. Yehuda was Ibn Ezra’s father-in-law (Meor Enayim, by R. Azaria de Rossi).
[8]While in England, he visited a prison and noticed that the prisoners were fed unleavened bread. Based on this observation he suggested, in his Torah commentary, that unleavened bread must have been a common ‘prison food’ which was similarly fed to the Israelite slaves in Egypt. Another observation he made whilst in England which informed his commentary, was a thick fog arising from the River Thames. He suggests that the plague of darkness also arose from the Nile in a similar fashion.
 (An interesting if not controversial commentary to Genesis is that the word ‘bara’ does not mean creation ex nihilo as is commonly inferred - because the same word is used to describe the ‘creation’ of Adam from pre-existent dust. Ibn Ezra had some radical views and it is said that he wrote cryptically for this very reason, not wishing to spell out exactly what he was intending because of possible backlash from the establishment.)
[9] Al Charizi, (Tachkemoni iii.) - Al Charizi (1165-1225) was a Spanish born rationalist who translated Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed from Arabic to Hebrew. (Not to be confused with Shmuel ben Yehudah Ibn Tabbon who similarly translated the Guide into Hebrew.)
[10] By the title, Kitab al-Mutabar (The Book of What has been Established by Personal Reflection).
[11] Some say he did this because the Sultan’s wife had died whilst under Natanel ben Ali’s care, as a physician.
[12] It is interesting to note that Norman Roth writes that the story of Yitzchak’s conversion to Islam is ‘probably false’ although he agrees that his teacher, al-Baghdadi, together with another of his students, Sama’uel Ibn Abbas (who went on to write a polemic against the Jews) did indeed convert. See Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia, by Norman Roth.
[13] Al Charizi ibid.
[14] See Twilight of a Golden Age: Selected Poems of Abraham Ibn Ezra, by Leon J. Weinberger.
[15] Ibid. p. 2 
[16] See The Newest Testament: A Secular Bible, by M. B. Goldstein, p. 280
[17] The reader is urged to see The Four Captives where the urgency to replace Babylonian authority with Spanish Authority is explored.


Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia, by Norman Roth

Twilight of a Golden Age: Selected Poems of Abraham Ibn Ezra, by Leon J. Weinberger

Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, by David Kahane