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

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