Sunday 24 October 2021

355) R. Moshe Ibn Gigatila: The Psalms are just prayers



In the previous post, The Psalms are not prayers, we saw how Rav Saadia Gaon held the unusual view that psalms may not be used as prayers and that, like the Torah itself they are meant only to be studied but not prayed. Psalms are not liturgy. According to Rav Saadia, the psalms were used as a strictly controlled and regulated ritual during Temple times, but never as liturgy (supplications or prayers). On this view, the psalms were never an ‘early prayer book’ as was claimed by the Karaite Jews. It is believed that Rav Saadia formulated his unusual and limited view on the function of the psalms, in reaction to the Karaites, who had rejected the Rabbanite siddur and used the psalms as their prayer book instead.

In this article, however, based extensively on the work by Professor Uriel Simon[1], we explore another unusual view of the psalms. This is the view held by R. Moshe Ibn Gigatila, who believed that that the psalms are indeed prayers - but nothing more than prayers. And because they are just prayers, they are not profoundly holy nor do they carry any prophetic or spiritually subliminal innuendo.

Moshe Ibn Gigatila 


R. Moshe Ibn Gigatila, born in Muslim Spain in the late eleventh century, authored Arabic commentary on the psalms. Unfortunately, as is common throughout Jewish history, only the works translated from the vernacular (which was often Arabic) into Hebrew, have survived. Many commentaries by important commentators[2] have therefore been lost and only a few fragments have been found in the Cairo Geniza. Gigatila’s commentaries suffered that same fate although, fortunately, Ibn Ezra frequently quoted from him and thus some of the scope of his ideas has endured.


A ’great commentator’, ‘deceitful priest’ or messianic denier?


Gigatila was highly praised by Ibn Ezra who called him “one of the great commentators” (cited by Simon 1990:113-114). He was referred to as a rationalist rabbi by Maimonides (1135-1204)[3] because, like Maimonides, he too tried to restrict the role of miracles within Judaism to a minimum. However, the ‘father’ of Jewish mysticism, Nachmanides, referred to Gigatila as “the deceitful priest” (Gigatila was a kohen) because of his view that some prophetic works (such as Isaiah 11) described events in the time of Hezekiah and did not refer to a future messianic era. He also maintained that the writings in the second part of Isaiah refer to the time of the Second Temple, and he believed that Joel 3:1 does not refer to messianic times either but rather to the period of Elijah and Elisha.

Abravanel also criticised Gitgatila and his students for their “lack of faith”:

with regard to the coming of the Messiah…they had to distort the words of the prophets and have them refer to the past, and make the signs and future wonders they were foretelling into events that had already happened.[4]

But Simon (1990:115) points out that Gigatila did not deny the messianic belief in its essence, as he claimed it was even rooted in Deuteronomy 30:3, where Moses is said to have foretold of a future era when God would “return the captives” and “gather” them “from the nations” where they have been scattered”:

וְשָׁ֨ב יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת־שְׁבוּתְךָ֖ וְרִחֲמֶ֑ךָ וְשָׁ֗ב וְקִבֶּצְךָ֙ מִכׇּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר הֱפִֽיצְךָ֛ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ שָֽׁמָּה׃

Simon (1990:115 and 117) suggests that later, Ibn Ezra[5] may have drawn upon this idea from his predecessor, Gigatila, when he wrote:

There is no need for any prophet whatsoever [to expound on the Messiah][6], given what Moses said, which is the cornerstone of the matter.[7]

It, therefore, seems that the accusation of messianic denial levelled against Gigatila was unjustified. 

[And, in any case, Gigalila's view that certains prophetic sections do not relate to the Messiah is not nearly as radical as that expressed by R. Hillel (not to be confused with the earlier Hillel) and recorded in the Babylonian Talmud:

“There is no Messiah coming for the Jewish People, as they already ate from him (as all the prophesies relating to the Messiah were already fulfilled) during the days of Hezekiah.”  

And Rashi comments that according to R. Hillel, there will be no Messiah but G-d Himself will redeem the Jewish people instead.]


Non-Jewish commentaries


Gigatila also made frequent use of Christian biblical commentaries although he made it clear he did not follow Christological interpretations.




Gigatila was also comfortable dating many of the psalms to the Babylonian exile, which was centuries after the time of King David, who is often presented as the author of the psalms. Ibn Ezra quotes Gigatila as stating regarding psalms 42 and 47, for example, that 

            “this psalm was written in Babylonia” (Simon 1990:120).



In contrast to Rav Saadia Gaon, who saw Asaf and the Sons of Korach as singers in the time of David, Gigatila saw these titles as referring to the descendants of Asaf and the Sons of Korach, writing about their ancestors[8].

Again, in contrast to Saadia who saw all the psalms as written by David, Gigatila saw (some of[9]) the anonymous psalms as an indication that they certainly could not be ascribed to David (Simon 1990:124-125).




Gigatila had a novel interpretation as to why some psalms began with the term mizmor, (usually rendered as a song of praise). He suggested that mizmor could also mean to ‘prune’ or ‘detach’ and therefore the psalm simply indicated it had been ‘severed’ from its place in an original collection of psalms during some editorial process (Simon 1990:225).


Psalms as prayers


In keeping with Gigatila’s more rational approach, his reading of the psalms is significant because he believed they were to be understood only as prayers or poems but not relating to anything deeply mystical or prophetic at all. His argument is essentially a synchronic or literary argument, as the psalms appear to address God - unlike Rav Saadia, who saw the psalms as the words of the “Master” to the “servant”, hence the psalms were not to be used as prayers (see previous post). Gigatila saw the psalms as the very human poetry of the “servant” to the “Master”.

He adduces strong support for this notion because once the psalms were canonised, they were included in the biblical category of Writings and not Prophets. Thus, the intentional placement of the psalms in the Writings, emphasised their more mundane status and function. As Simon (1990:137) puts it, “the essence of prayer is the aspiration to deflect the future in the direction desired by the worshiper”, hence to conflate that with prophecy would require a redefining of the function of prayer.

Thus, according to Gigatila, the psalms contain no prophecy nor any intrinsic holiness as they simply reflect the human compositions of poems, prayers and nothing more.


Overarching gravitas of the mainstream


Gigatila’s stark view on the lack of spiritual status of the psalms can be highlighted against the more mystical view maintained by most mainstream commentators that the psalms were written with a spirit of prophecy and could foretell future events. 

For example, R. Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, better known as Malbim (1809-1879) points to problematic theological issues with the more fundamentalist mainstream assertion in his commentary on the psalms:

If they do predict the future, then they are in tension with a founding principle of Judaism which is freedom of choice. There can be no predetermination in a system that subscribes to absolute free will. Furthermore, on a more simplistic level, why would Levite singers lament the destruction of the Temple (by singing Psalm 137 and 89, for example) when the Davidic dynasty was at its height and full glory?

But Malbim does not leave it there. Even after raising the rational issue of predeterminism, he still defaults to the mystical thought pattern and gravitas of the current mainstream and insists that David “secretly” taught the Levites what they were to sing when the appropriate time was to arrive![10]


This was exactly what Gigatila sought to avoid. Prayer and prophecy must not be conflated because when they are, prayer no longer remains the words of the “servant” to the “Master”, but becomes instead the words “Master” to the “servant” (a point made by Rav Saadia as well, although he went so far as to forbid the use of psalms as prayer for the very reason that he considered them to be prophetic). For Gigatila, the psalms were prayers. That is why for Gigatila, prayer had to be real, authentic expressions of human vulnerability, rather than the all-knowing, certainty of prophecy. Prayer and the psalms must not, therefore, host any “secrets” or "certainties" of mysticism, but simply remain just prayer – nothing more, nothing less. 

 Further reading


For a third approach, see the view of R. Avraham Ibn Ezra, who frames the psalms as prophetically inspired liturgy which foretell future events, see The Parshan, Darshan … and Sadran?

[1] Simon, U., 1990, Four Approaches to the Book of Psalms: From Saadiah Gaon to Abraham Ibn Ezra, State University of New York Press, Albany.

[2] These include the commentaries by Samuel HaNagid, Judah Ibn Balaam, Isaac Ibn Samuel AI-Kanzi (Simon 1990:116).

[3] Maimonides, Treatise on Resurrection, ed. Y. Finkel, New York, 1940, 21.

[4] See Abravanel’s commentary on Joel 3.

[5] As evidenced from findings in the Firkovich collection by Eliahu Harkavy, other exegetes such as Ibn Balaam frequently based themselves on Gigatila on many matters, with and without attribution.

[6] Parenthesis mine.

[7] See Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Numbers 24:17.

[8] However, “For Yedutun”, according to Gigatila, is not referencing the author, but instead means “for Yedutun to perform”. Gigatilah understands Psalm 90, “Tefilah le Moshe”, as being authored by Moses, but “Li Shlomo” means it was about (not authored by) Solomon (Simon 1990:124).

[9] Not all anonymous psalms were considered by Gigatila as being authored at a later date. Psalms 20 and 110 were, in his view, written by David in his lifetime (Simon 1990:144 note 54).

[10] Hakham, A., 2003, The Bible: Psalms; with the Jerusalem Commentary, vol. 1, The Koschitzky ed., 1st ed., Mosad Harav Kook, Jerusalem, xvi.

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