Sunday 14 January 2018


Sefer haGoralot, a treatise on astrology, by Ibn Ezra.

Avraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) was born in Tudela, Spain. He travelled extensively throughout North Africa, Egypt, Italy, France and even spent some time in Oxford and London. It appears that he passed away in England (allegedly after being attacked by wolves) and it is even suggested that he may have been buried there. He was widely respected as a poet and scholar and is probably best known for his various Torah commentaries.


Ibn Ezra’s acclaim was not only within Jewish circles. He even has the moon crater Abenezra named after him. This may have been because, in addition to his Biblical commentaries, he wrote a number of treatises on mathematics and numbers, in which he expounded on the old Indian system of mathematics, which later influenced the Arabic mathematicians. He also wrote about the ‘Galgal’ (the ‘circle’) otherwise known as the numeral zero, which he brought to the attention of some in Europe.[1]

(For more on Ibn Ezra see KOTZK BLOG 94.)


Ironically, it is the Master Commentator, Rashi, who is commonly known as the great expounder of the Pshat, or literal and simple meaning of the Torah text. Yet, even a cursory examination of Rashi, reveals that his commentary is not always Pshat. Rather it is replete with Medrashic sources and rabbinical allegories – which do not always adhere to the literal meaning of the text – and which instead often reveal a hidden meaning or a moral lesson.[2]

It is evident, however, that it was the purists from the Pshat School of biblical commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, who really expounded on the literal interpretation of the texts, without relying upon Medrashic allegory.


An example of this difference between Rashi and Ibn Ezra can be seen in their respective commentaries on Bereishit 14:14:

When Avraham learned that Lot had been taken captive, the Torah text says that he summoned 318 men[3] to save him.  Rashi, however, quoting the Rabbis, says it was not an army but just one man, namely, Eliezer his servant, whose name had the gematria or numerical value of 318:

Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, dismisses this ‘drash’ (allegorical interpretation) as it involves numerology. Numerology, he says, is no way to prove anything because it can be twisted and abused to create any outcome:


The Karaites were an influential, significant and large number of Jews who ignored the rabbinical interpretations of the Torah and relied solely upon the literal meaning of the text as they imagined the ancient Israelites to have done during biblical times. The movement may have had its roots going back to the second century BCE,[4] but they certainly crystallised under the leadership of Anan ben David (715-795 or 811).

They became so powerful that, at one time, with almost half of the Jewish population practising Karaism, it was thought to have been a strong contender for future Judaism. However, as we know, Rabbinical Judaism continued to remain the dominant mainstream.

(For more on the Karaites see KOTZK BLOG 63. and KOTZK BLOG 122.)

With the Karaite insistence on the pure and literal meaning of the Torah text, it is possible that Ibn Ezra, a ‘pshatist’, turned to some of their interpretations when he needed clarity on the Pshat.
In his book, Masters of the Word[5], R. Yonatan Koltach writes:

In his Torah commentary, Ibn Ezra quotes Karaite commentators extensively...
While he cites some Karaite interpretations with agreement and respect, such as...Aharon ben Yeshua and...Yeshua ben Yehudah, his stance...was principally defiant and discrediting.”


Ibn Ezra quotes Karaite commentators several hundred times in his Bible commentary.[6]
Indeed, he cites the Jerusalemite Karaite, Yeshua (ben Yehudah) at least forty times[7], seemingly in concurrence.

Moreover, Ibn Ezra quotes the Karaite, Yefet (ben Ali HaLevi...) more than one hundred times[8], often complementing his interpretations.”

By comparison, Philip Birnbaum writes that Ibn Ezra only quotes R. Saadia Gaon five times.[9]


These ideas did not sit well with other Torah scholars and thus we find that R. Shlomo Luria (1510-1573, also known as Maharshal) wrote:

(Ibn Ezra) has lent support to heretics...and those of little faith.”[10]

R. Yosef Delmedigo (1591-1655, also known as the Yashar miKandiya) who spent much time amongst the Karaites, writes that the majority of Ibn Ezra’s commentary is taken from Karaite sources!

In a similar manner, Abarbanel (1437-1508) writes:
(Ibn Ezra was) influenced by Karaite commentators and occasionally follows their opinions.”[11]


Rambam, on the other hand, had no issues with Ibn Ezra, and he also seems to have been well acquainted with the writings of Yefet ben Ali[12].
Quite to the contrary, Rambam praised Ibn Ezra as can be seen by what he wrote in the letter to his son:

Do not pay attention or divert your mind on commentaries, treatises and books other than those of Ibn Ezra, which alone are meaningful and profitable to all who study them with intelligence, understanding and deep insight’.[13]


Ibn Ezra, as mentioned, quotes the Karaite Yefet ben Ali over one hundred times.
Yefet ben Ali haLevi was born in the early 900’s in Basra (present-day Iraq) and died in Jerusalem around 980. He was known by the Karaites as the Maskil haGolah (Intellect of the Exile).

He wrote about his dispute with Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) and tried to prove the superiority of the Karaite view. Besides attacking the Rabbinites, as the mainstream Jews were called, he severely criticised Christianity as well as Islam.

From his commentary on Isaiah it is clear that in his view there are four categories of Jews:

1)      The Reish Galuta (Exilarchs) who pretend to have knowledge.
2)      The scholars to whom the Reish Galuta teaches the ‘nonsense’ of Talmud as well as sorcery.
3)      The common folk who do not study and only know about attending synagogue from Shabbat to Shabbat and to say ‘Shema’ and answer Amen.
4)      The ‘real’ Karaite Maskilm (Scholars) who truly understand Torah and teach generously without demanding payment for their services.

In another work[14] he argued that, in his view, there is no evidence of an Oral Tradition within the Written Torah, and purported that the Mishna and Talmud infringe on the Biblical prohibition of Lo Tosifu - “Do not add to the word I have commanded you.”[15]

Yefet ben Ali also broke with the general Karaite view that the study of secular science was to be discouraged. On the contrary, he insisted that it be studied as a pre-cursor to religious theology.
Besides the two exceptions of the Biblical stories of the Burning Bush and the Song of Songs, no other parts of the Torah were to be interpreted allegorically.

Amazingly, this was the man Ibn Ezra was prepared to quote from more than a hundred times!
According to E.Z. Melamed, the Karaites went so far as to claim that Yefet ben Ali was indeed Ibn Ezra’s teacher![16]


According to Professor Marc Shapiro:

“...Ibn Ezra has no reticence in citing Karaite interpreters, yet as we know, ArtScroll only cites ‘accepted’ authorities, and won’t even mention the Soncino commentary by name...(However) there are some times when ArtScroll errs in this matter.

For example, in its commentary to Jonah, p. 111 it cites ‘Yefes ben Ali’ (who is quoted by Ibn Ezra). Presumably, the ArtScroll editor assumed that he was a rishon.

In truth, he was a Karaite, and his inclusion in the Jonah commentary is diametrically opposed to the standard set up by ArtScroll with regard to which commentaries they will cite, a standard that opposes the Ibn Ezra-Maimonides approach (adopted by Soncino) of ‘accept the truth from whomever said it’”.[17]


To be clear, Ibn Ezra was a fervent Rabbinite and opposed the non-Halachic practices of the Karaites. However, this did not prevent him from making use of Karaite interpretations when it came to the actual literal meaning of some of the words of the Torah text.

The same debate over the permissibility of using ‘extraneous’ or ’outside’ source to enhance Torah knowledge still rages today. Can one, for example, use academic writings or research done by non-religious people, to compliment one’s Torah study?

The answer to that question would fundamentally lie in the view one adopts regarding the precedent set by people like Ibn Ezra.

(For an even more extreme example of ‘Karaite precedent’ in the Mesora, see KOTZK BLOG 122.)

[1] See (Article): A History of Zero, Ancient Indian Mathematics, by J J O’Connor and E f Robertson.
[2] Yet Rashi said of himself that he only came to expound on the Pshat.
[3] Or ‘desciples’.
[4] This is the view of R. Yehudah haLevi, who was Ibn Ezra’s friend, or possibly even his father-in-law. See Sefer haKuzari, by R. Yehuda haLevi, where the roots of Karaism are traced back to the reign of King Jannai.
[5] Vol 2, p. 280 and 309.
[6] (Emphasis mine.) Although in his introduction, Ibn Ezra does state that Karaite commentaries are unreliable.
[7] See Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Bereshit 28:12 and Shemot 7:12, 17:16.
[8] See Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Shemot 3:3, 12:16, 22:27.

[9] In the Minor Prophets alone, Ibn Ezra quotes Yefet ben Ali forty-four and Ran Saadia Gaon only five times. See: Yefet ben 'Ali and His Influence on Biblical Exegesis, by Philip Birnbaum, The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Jan.1942), pp. 257-271.

[10] See Introduction to Chullin and Introduction to Bava Kamma.
[11] See Abarbanel on Vayikra 19:20, Bamidbar 21:1.

[12] See: From Judah Hadassi to Elijah Bashyatchi, by Daniel  J. Lasker, p. 128

[13] See: Letters of Maimonides, Stitskin,  p156. It must be pointed out, though, that Rambam did not agree with all the writings of Ibn Ezra, particularly those which dealt with astrology (such as Sefer haGoralot which is pictured above).
[14] This was an epistle published by Pinsker under the title Likkutei Kadmoniyot, p. 19.
[15] Devarim 4:2.
[16] E Z Melamed (1975) pp. 676-679. (According to Marc Shapiro, this is a ‘false legend’.)
[17] See The Seforim blog:  More about Rashbam on Genesis Chapter 1 and Further Comments about ArtScroll, by Marc B. Shapiro.


  1. Searching for סעדיה with the help of the Bar Ilan Responsa I get 33 results in Ibn Ezras Work. How did you count 5?

    1. According to Phillip Birnbaum there are five references in the Minor prophets.