Sunday 2 April 2023

424) Avraham Ibn Chasdai's references to 'a certain Chacham'


The thirteenth-century Moznei Tzedek by R. Avraham bar Chasdai,


I have based parts of this article on the research presented in ‘Judaism Adventures,’ and have additionally included some of the original Hebrew texts as well as other observations. For contextualisation, I have drawn on Peter Cole’s The Dream and the Poem.[1] 

Sefer Moznei Tzedek is a fascinating thirteenth-century work by R. Avraham bar Chasdai, also known as Ibn Chasdai, which gives us a rare window into rabbinical writings from around the time of Maimonides. Like Maimonides, Ibn Chasdai quotes Aristo (Aristotle) and he also is well-acquainted with Islamic teachings. He even cites sections of the Quran. 

Ibn Chasdai, was a staunch follower of Maimonides, and fought against R. Yehuda ibn Alfakhar and R. Meir haLevi Abulafia to withdraw their opposition to the Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed). This is interesting because Ibn Chasdai went on adapt or translate a work by the Islamic mystic, al-Ghazali, which we shall soon explore. 

The work

Moznei Tzedek literally means “precise scales” for weights and measurements. The work, as we have it today, was first published in 1839 by Dr Yakov Goldenthal who maintained that he found the manuscript in Leipzig. The frontispiece of Moznei Tzedek opens with: 

חברו הפלוסוף הגדול אבו חאמד אל גזאלי והעתיקו מלשון הגרי לעברי החכם ר׳ אברהם בר חסדאי 

“This is a compilation by the great philosopher Abu Chamad al-Ghazali and translated from the language of Hagar (Arabic) into Hebrew by the Chacham R. Avraham bar Chasdai.” 

Around the thirteenth-century, many Arabic works were translated into Hebrew. Rambam, too, had written his Moreh Nevuchim in Arabic which was later translated into Hebrew. Ibn Chasdai based himself on the work Mizan al Amal (The Scale), by Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali.[2] HebrewBooks, however, has the author of Moznei Tzedek as al-Ghazali and not Ibn Chasdai.[3] 

מחבר: אלע’זאלי, מחמד בן מחמד

“Author: al-Ghazali, Muhammed ben Muhammed.” 

In other words, according to the classification in HebrewBooksMoznei Tzedek is just a translation into Hebrew of an Arabic work by the Islamic philosopher and mystic, al-Ghazali.

But ‘Judaism Adventures,’ I think, rightly questions the attribution of this work to al-Ghazali and counters: 

“it can’t be said that Ghazali was the author of Moznei Tzedek.”  

Goldenthal, who published this work, himself writes that this in not just a translation but a reworked version. Although it was based on the Mizan al Amal by al-Ghazali, Ibn Chasdai presented a ‘Jewish version’ to a Jewish readership.  

It can be said that Rambam (whom Ibn Chasdai references in his work) employed a similar strategy when he selected and presented some of Aristotle’s ideas to a Jewish audience. Ibn Chasdai describes Rambam's lofty view of Aristotle as follows: 

ואריסטו זה היה הפילוסוף האחרון אשר באומות יון. והוא חתימת חכמיהם. ואדון ראשוניהם ואחרונהם: ועליו כתב הרב רבינו משה בן הרב ר׳ מיימון ז״ל בחכמתו...אולם אריסטו באמת ששכלו היה בתכלית השכל האנושי. אלא מי שישפיע עליהם שפע אלו-הי ויהיו נביאים 

“Aristotle was the last philosopher from the nation of Greece. He was the culmination of their wise men and the master of their early and later [scholars]. Regarding Aristotle, R. Moshe ben Maimon wrote in his wisdom that he had the most complete human knowledge and received the G-dly flow in abundance and became a prophet” (P. 3, translation mine). 

Yet Rambam did not accept everything that Aristotle said. Instead, he endorsed some of his concepts and, as we see from this excerpt, at least according to Ibn Chasdai, he even elevated some of his ideas to the level of ‘prophecy.’ 

Other rabbis at that time also based themselves not just on Aristotle but on some Islamic works as well. Some were influenced by Islamic rationalism while others were influenced by Islamic mysticism. Al-Ghazali was mystic and profoundly influenced by Sufi ideas. Perhaps Ibn Chasdai was using al-Ghazali to promote mysticism in the same way Rambam used Aristotle to promote rationalism. 

Either way, Ibn Chasdai certainly adopted and adapted some of al-Ghazali’s teachings and intended to endorse them for the Jewish world. Goldenthal describes this ‘adaptation’ as follows: 

“…see how [Bar Hasdai] purified [Ghazali’s words] in the cauldron of his understanding, and dressed them in the holy garb of his language…say in your heart ‘this one is from the Hebrew children!’ ”[4] 

Thus, Ibn Chasdai selected certain ideas and concepts he believed appropriated for, and beneficial to, his Jewish readership. In his Introduction, he writes: 

[Ghazali] brought evidence and proof in many places from the works of their faith and their lore which were available to their scholars…Therefore I decided to bring evidence in those places from our holy books, words that are parallel to theirs, so that I would be able to follow on the path of the author.”[5] 

Ibn Chasdai praised al-Ghazali the same way as Rambam praised Aristotle. He writes: 

ומזני צדק קראתיב. כי בצדק כל אמרי פיו 

“I have called my book Moznei Tzedek [just measures] because all his [al-Ghazali’s] words are just [true]” (P. 4, translation mine). 

‘Judaism Adventures,’ goes on to explain some of this adaption process and how it became appropriate for a Jewish audience: 

“…although Ghazali’s philosophical ideas were religiously neutral (and often derived from Aristotle anyway), the evidence he would offer in support of these neutral ideas came from the Quran, not the Torah. So Bar Hasdai simply swapped these Quranic verses for Torah or Talmud quotes that would deliver essentially the same message.” 

However, sometimes, Ibn Chasdai did not always bring Torah or Talmudic supports for al-Ghazali’s ideas but simply left the Quranic verses in their original place. This resulted in a very unusual format for a Jewish Sefer which, in this case, contained verses from the Quran as supports for various philosophical and theological ideas. But Ibn Chasdai didn’t say that these verses were from the Quran. He disguised them by stating that these were simply teachings emanating from a certain “Chacham” (wise man). 

Examples of teachings of a certain "Chacham"

‘Judaism Adventures,’ brings a number of examples which follow: 

וכמו שחק בני אב אחד הוא. שיאהבו ולא ישנא זה את זה. כן חק בני המלמד. ולא בני המלמד בלבד אלא אף בני דת אחד...אמר חכם. המאמינים אחים  

“Just like the children of one father are one unit, and they love each other and do not hate each other; so too are the students of one teacher [close to each other]. And not only the students of one teacher but also the members of one faith [are close to each other]. A wise man said: ‘Believers are brothers.’” (P. 182, translation mine). 

According to the Quran 49:10: 

“Surely the believers are none but brothers unto one another, so set things right between your brothers…” 

Here the Chacham (wise man) is presented instead of the Quran. 

Then, in another section, Ibn Chasdai writes: 

“Therefore one sage said: ‘Good speech shall rise. And the rightness of the action will lift it up.’”  

Compare this to the original work of al-Ghazali which reads (in an English translation): 

“Allah, the Most High, states:

{To Him pious speech rises, And the righteous action advances it higher}.” 

In both examples, one can clearly see how Ibn Chasdai carefully omitted overt Islamic references to the Quran and to Allah. While the content of the teachings remained exactly the same, instead of referring to Muhammed and Allah, it was presented in the name of a Chacham of Israel. 

‘Judaism Adventures,’ then points to an example in Moznei Tzedek of a possible resemblance to Islamic theology on prophecy that differs quite dramatically from the mainstream Jewish perspective. Prophets in the Tanach are usually depicted as communicating directly with G-d. In Islamic belief, however, Muhammed is said to have communicated with the angel Gabriel who went on to reveal the Quran to him. Yet Ibn Chasdai writes: 

הנביא הוא אמצעי בן בני אדם והמלאכים 

“The prophet is the intermediary between humans and the Angels” (P. 60, translation mine). 

This seems to be a strained interpretation of Jewish prophecy and appears more aligned with Islamic thought. 

Adaption or translation?

Taking all this into consideration, ultimately, we are left with the question as to what degree Ibn Chasdai was adapting the Islamic work for a Jewish audience. Was his Moznei Tzedek essentially an adaption (as per Goldenthal), or a translation of al-Ghazali (as per HebrewBooks), or perhaps something in between? 


Peter Cole may provide some context to our discussion. He notes in his book entitled The Dream of the Poem, that Ibn Chasdai was interested in foreign literature, which: 

“characterized the Hebrew readership of the day” (Cole 2007:221). 

This creates a significant backdrop to understanding Ibn Chasdai. It indicates that what he was doing by conducting forays into other cultural forms of rational and mystical literature was not out entirely of step with the religious demands and trends of his time. 

In keeping with this theme, Cole reminds us that Ibn Chasdai wrote another well-known work entitled Ben HaMelech veHaNazir (The Prince and the Monk) where he similarly: 

“adapts and Hebraicizes a Sanskrit tale that was transmitted through Arabic, via old Persian, and tells the story of the life of the young Buddha” (Ibid). 

This similarly reflects Ibn Chasdai’s “adaptation” and “Judaization” or “Hebraization” of Moznei Tzedek from al-Ghazali’s Mizan al Amal mentioned earlier. 

Clearly, “with what may well be Sufi influences” (Ibid), Ibn Chasdai was drawn to these mystical oriental teachings and personalities. This, again, is interesting for someone who simultaneously supported the rationalism of Maimonides. Cole points out that the original tale of The Prince and the Monk also attracted the attention of later writers like Shakespeare. 

Accordingly, Ibn Chasdai seems to have borrowed Buddhist, Islamic, rationalist Aristotelian and Sufi mystical ideas and concepts and, where they corresponded, he incorporated them into his writings on the authority of Sages of Israel, verses from the Torah and Talmudic teachings. 

Ibn Chasdai also wrote poetry. Here are two of his short poems: 

Which is more bitter 

“My soul’s seen much, though I still don’t know which is more bitter of what I’ve been through: serving friends who betrayed me or being a traitor to one who was always true” (cited in Cole 2007:223). 

Wisdom’s Mantle 

“As long as a man seeks out wisdom, wisdom will have him hold sway over men; but once he thinks he’s wearing its mantle— know it has just been taken from him” (Ibid).[6] 


One gets the impression that in those days, around the thirteenth century, mystics ventured over towards rationalism and visa-versa. Rationalism was often openly taken from Greek sources like Aristotle and mysticism was similarly sometimes unashamedly taken from Buddhist, Sufi or other Islamic sources. The openness and reciprocity are astounding when compared to attitudes prevalent today. 

It is a great irony that the “Moznei Tzedek” by Ibn Chasdai has a contemporary counterpart with a work by a similar title which deals with the precise limitations and boundaries of Halachic measurements, like sizes for Matzah and others such matters. 

The Moznei Tzedek or scales, yardsticks and measurements of the past included outrageous topics incorporating ideas traversing almost limitless areas we would never dare go to today. Our focus now has shifted to a more limited and mundane conceptualisation of the spectrum and parameters of Moznei Tzedek as the paradigms of “just measurements” seem to have changed.

Further Reading





[1] Cole, P., 2007, The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, Princeton University Press, 221-224. 

[2] Al-Ghazali (c.1056–1111) was one of the most prominent and influential philosophers, theologians, jurists, and mystics of Sunni Islam. See al-Ghazali (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

[4] These quotations and translations have been taken from ‘Jewish Adventures.’

[5] Translation from ‘Jewish Adventures.’

[6] This resonates with a Kotzker teaching that one can only find G-d by searching and questioning. But as soon as one thinks one has found G-d and knows the “answer,” one has, instead, distanced oneself from G-d.

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