Sunday 10 December 2017


Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera's Sefer haMevakesh.


Besides the seventeen works Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera (around 1225–1295) left us, little is known about this poet turned ‘scholar- activist’. No one is quite sure where he was born or if he ever married, although it is assumed he was born and lived in Spain. Why do we know so little about someone who wrote so much?

Ibn Falaquera started out as a poet.

Here is one of his poems:

Time says to the Fool,

Become a doctor and kill people and take their money;

Because you will have an advantage over the Angel of Death,

Who kills for no revenue.


As the poet approached mid-life, he recorded in his Sefer haMevakesh (or Book of the Seeker) that he was writing ‘a bill of divorce’ to his poems and was betrothing ‘wisdom’ instead.
He wrote (about himself): 

After his middle years, the rational soul awakens in him and converses with him. At that time, the life of the body is on the decline and, as physical existence approaches complete extinction, it descends lower and lower, while the soul rises higher and higher. Then the flames of confusion are extinguished, and the sun of the eternal soul shines forth.”[1]

He then adopted the view that:

Poetry is dangerous because it persuades men not by its content and its truth, but by its beauty and eloquence.”[2]

Thus began his new quest for truth and wisdom which included the study of secular sciences, which he claimed was not a contradiction to the wisdom of the Torah:

“...the study of the true sciences by whoever is worthy of them and whom God in his mercy has favored with an intellect to discover their depths is not prohibited from the point of view of our Law, and that the truth hidden in them does not contradict a word of our belief”[3]

Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera held the view that physical science has the advantage of proofs, which can be discarded if not corroborated by facts. This was different to metaphysics where many questions remain, as they must, unresolved. 

He felt that unresolved metaphysical issues should be kept to the barest minimum and not built, expanded and capitalised upon.


One must remember that Ibn Falaquera was born just twenty-one years after Rambam had passed away. He found himself in an era where there was much controversy regarding Rambam’s rationalist views. He took it upon himself to champion the cause of Torah study combined with secular wisdom, as the latter, he said, only enhances the former. 

In fact, according to him, it would be impossible to fully understand Torah without the aid of secular philosophy and science. See KOTZK BLOG 59.

It wasn’t long before Rashba[4] declared a ban against secular studies until the student had reached the age of twenty-five.

Falaquera, on the other hand, went on an outreach campaign to encourage all religious Jews to study all forms of wisdom. He went even one step further than Rambam, who believed that only the intellectual elite should study philosophy. Falaquera, however, attempted to make the secular sciences accessible to everyone.

Falaquera’s only prerequisite was that his reader is intent on understanding Torah with the intellect as opposed to, what he called, the imagination.  As for the rest of the population who didn’t want to join him, he said: “...tradition without knowing the reason is sufficient.”

In this sense, he was still somewhat of an elitist but not to the extent as was Rambam. (Rambam clearly wanted a Judaism deeper than the model adopted by the lowest common denominator or as only he could put it, the ‘ignorant masses’.) 

Ibn Falaquera authored another book, Iggeret haVikuah, specifically for the religious Jew who was afraid to be corrupted by the sciences. It was an introduction to philosophy, written in the form of a conversation between a chacham and a chassid, where the scholar shows the pietist (both equally religious) how it is possible to maintain one’s piety whilst embracing aspects of the outside world.

In this book he tried to assuage the anti-Rambamists and the anti-rationalists by presenting convincing arguments, hoping the rationalists would become more influential and thus shape the Judaism of the future.[5] 

In the book the scholar emerges victorious, and Falaquera promises to write three more books for the pietist (which he does).


Perhaps his most well-known work was the Moreh haMoreh which he wrote in 1280. This Guide to the Guide was a commentary on Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed.

Another of Ibn Falaquera’s works was Reishit Chochma, where he paraphrased the most important Greek and Islamic philosophers. This was to be an introductory guide for “the seeker of the beginning of his studies.”  In this book, he sometimes brought Jewish sources to show that the sciences do not contradict the Torah.

He used a similar technique in his De’ot haFilosofim, which was effectively the first Hebrew encyclopaedia of science and philosophy which he collated and translated from Arabic sources: “so that whoever wishes to grasp them will find them in one book and will not need to weary himself by reading all the books.”[6]

While Ibn Falaquera did say that if the Torah appears to say something contrary to that which is proven and known beyond a doubt – then, in his view, the way we interpret the Torah needs to be revisited and a different interpretation must be pursued. 

However, he was at pains to stress that if philosophy conflicts with a Torah law or concept, then the philosophy must be rejected.


Ibn Falaquera engaged in the pursuit of history which was a neglected study in those days, and produced one of the early chronicles of Jewish history. 

Henry Malter writes:  “Considering the paucity of historic documents, such a work would be invaluable to the modern historian.”[7] Sadly, ‘contemporary indifference’ allowed for the work to be lost.


In one of his very esoteric interpretations, Flalquera writes that most Jews believe that it is imperative to believe in creation ex nihilo (from nothing). And that Jews do not believe that the world was eternal as if it always existed. This is how he explains creation in Iggeret haOlam.[8]

However, in his Moreh haMoreh, he appears to deviate from that view. He introduces us to the notion of creation from some form of eternal matter (although there is some debate around the exact interpretation of his words).

This he repeats later when he clearly writes: “Plato’s view inclines towards the view of our holy Torah.”[9]

And he continues:

It appears to me that there is no need to say that the Creator brought into existence the existent from non-existence (me-ha-heder), but rather that he brought it into existence after complete non-existence, for this is possible according to our faith. Therefore, those that say that He brought (the world) into existence from nothing do not express a precise belief; rather, He brought it into existence after nothing, that is, He brought it into existence after the thing did not exist.”

In other words, there is a technical difference between G-d creating the world me-ha-heder (from nothing) and achar ha-heder (after the nothing). In this way, the world is not created from total non-existence, by rather from the privation of form[10].

To make this complicated concept easier to understand, perhaps it would be helpful to imagine three distinct categories which theoretically could exist before creation: On the one extreme is total non-existence, on the other extreme there is existence – and then somewhere in the middle is the privation of form. In this middle category privation of form (or achar ha-heder), the created object is ‘imagined’ or ‘designed’ but not yet created. 

This would be like the ‘form’ an architect envisions in his mind before the building is constructed.

What is fascinating is that Falaquera, in his more popular works, called the mainstream view of creation from nothing; the ‘main root and principle of our faith’– but in his Moreh haMoreh (which he knew fewer people would read) he presents a view similar[11] to Plato’s view and then claims it as one which emanated from the Sages.

According to Henry Malter:

To explain the presumed harmony existing between the teachings revealed in the Bible and the doctrines taught by pagan philosophy, an ingenious theory had been developed. In substance it was as follows: the wisdom of the Greeks and of other nations had their source among the Jews. 

The original works were lost in the Exile, but through translations, the ideas were transmitted to the Chaldeans and Persians, and subsequently to the Greeks and Romans...Pythagoras, it was supposed, had studied under King Solomon; or according to others, he was the disciple of the prophet Ezekiel...Plato was a pupil of Jeremiah and Aristotle studied under Simon the Just. 

This view, so flattering to the pride of the Jews, was entertained also by the Arabs and the Christians...Hence, Palquera argued, it is a sacred duty to restore the treasures of science, of which Judaism had been despoiled...”[12]


Some might say that it is a shame that Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera is hardly known today. One of the reasons for his historical obscurity may have been that his works were intentionally targeted and suppressed. Avrabanel, for example, denounced Falaquera as belonging to that ‘damnable sect’ of misinterpreters of the Torah, and this may have ‘served to deter pious readers[13] from engaging with his work.

Ironically, in more recent times, no less a mystic than the Chida[14] attached his approbation to Ibn Falaquera’s Sefer haMevakesh:

(The samech tet stands for ‘Sefardi Tahor’ or ‘of pure Sephardic extraction’.)

Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera fervently tried to promote a type of Judaism where Torah was able to merge with the sciences – which had anyway, he believed, originally emerged from it. His vision was for empirical knowledge to supersede imaginary speculation.

But of course, we all know that the historic reality became one where the anti-rationalists and the mystics indeed went on to dominate the future. 

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera is hardly even known today.



The following is a summary of some of his work which shows the immense scope of his writings:

·        Iggeret Hanhagat haGuf ve haNefesh, a rhymed work in about the control of the body and the soul.
·        Tzeri haYagon, on fortitude in times of misfortune. (He did write about the hardships a Jew faced in those times)
·        Iggeret haVikuach, a dialogue between a scholar and a pietist, both religious Jews, where secular sciences and philosophy are shown to be compatible with Torah values.
·        Reshit Chokhmah, about the importance of studying the sciences.
·        Sefer haMa'alot, on the varying degrees of human perfection.
·        Sefer haMebakesh, The Book of the Seeker in rimed prose.
·        Sefer haNefesh, a psychological treatise according to the Arabian Peripatetics.
·        Moreh haMoreh, commentary on Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed with an appendix containing corrections of the Hebrew translation of Shmuel Ibn Tabbon.
·        A letter in defence of the Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed, which had been attacked by several French rabbis.
·        De'ot haFilosofim, containing Aristotle's Physics and Metaphysics.
·        Iggeret haMusar, a compilation of ethical teachings.
·        Megillat haZikaron, a historical work, no longer extant.
·        Iggeret haChalom, a work on dreams.

[1] Sefer haMevakesh 11.
[2] Falaquera's Epistle, by Steven Harvey 128–132
[3] Iggeret ha-Vikkuah 56. Also known as The Epistle of the Debate, with the subtitle: “In Explanation of the Agreement that Exists between the Law and Wisdom.
[4] R. Shlomo Ibn Aderet  (1235-1310).
[5] See: Maimonidean Controversy of the 1230s, by Steven Harvey.
[6] From Introduction to De’ot ha-Filosofim.
[7] See: Shem Tov ben Joseph Palquera, by Henry Malter. The Honourable Mr Jack Bloom pointed out to me that Rav Kook explained that one of the reasons why we never had a sense of history at that time was because we had no national identity. We simply adopted the history of the cultures in which we found ourselves, neglecting the cohesive history of the Jews as a whole. 
[8] Iggeret haOlam 489.
[9] Moreh haMoreh 259, on Guide for the Perplexed II, 13.
[10] This is the term used to describe achar ha-heder by the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
[11] Similar, because he may not necessarily follow Plato’s pure view of the Eternity of the Universe, but instead writes that some secular philosophers do: “believe in the production (of the world) but not in the way that we believe in it.” (Sefer haMevakesh, 65)
[12] See: Shem Tov ben Joseph Palquera, by Henry Malter.
[13] Ibid.
[14] R. Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806).

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