Avraham Ibn Ezra
by Meira Epstein, C.A. NCGR-PAA
Avraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra was a renowned Jewish scholar, born in
eleventh century Spain. He was accomplished in many disciplines and
his prolific writing encompassed Biblical exegeses, Hebrew grammar,
personal, national and liturgical poetry, philosophy, mathematics,
geometry, astronomy and astrology. In mainstream Judaism he is known
and loved mainly for his Bible commentary as well as his poetry,
whereas to the Christian European world he became known through his
astrological and mathematical writings. This was the golden era for
the Jews in Spain, who flourished economically, scientifically and
culturally, and who were also instrumental in transmitting the Arabic
sciences and philosophy to Christian Europe. These were also the times
of the Crusades and the wars between the Moslems and the Christians in
Spain, and the Jewish communities were caught in the middle, suffering
persecutions both in North Africa and in Spain. All these
circumstances left their mark in Ibn Ezra’s life and work.
Ibn Ezra was born in
Tudela, Spain, but spent most of his life wandering from one country
to another, always restless, always seeking knowledge, writing his
books, teaching students, and always in great poverty, depending on
people's patronage. In one of his personal poems he ironically says
that at his nativity the stars changes their natural course to bring
him misfortune, so much so that if he decided to sell candles the sun
would never set, and if he decided to sell burial shrouds, no one
would ever die. There are many anecdotes and legends about his lack of
practicality in worldly matters on the one hand and his great wit and
wisdom in intellectual matters on the other.
At a young age he was
married and a son, Itz'hak, was born. Tradition maintains that his
wife was the daughter of the renowned Jewish poet and philosopher
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi. Years later, Itz'hak accompanied Yehuda HaLevi on
his journey to the Holy Land, but parted ways with him and stayed
behind in Baghdad, never to see his father again. In Baghdad,
following his host, Itz'hak converted to Islam, and a few years later
he died there of an illness. When Ibn Ezra received the news, he
poured out his broken heart in a poem, mourning his son’s death and
lamenting his own fate that deprived him of having a son to comfort
him at his old age.
Wandering and material
poverty was a way of life for Ibn Ezra. He began his travels going
south to the Moslem regions, and then proceeded to the Jewish
communities in North Africa, which he visited more than once, each
time returning to Spain. He was also said to have visited Egypt, the
Land of Israel (Palestine) and possibly further east, but there is no
real evidence of that.
In 1140 he left Spain
for good and began his travels among the Jewish communities in the
Christian world - Italy, France and England. During those years he
wrote his greatest works, including astrology. The Jews in those
communities had no access to the Islamic sciences, nor did they have
sufficient knowledge of the Hebrew grammar, so they welcomed Ibn
Ezra’s stay among them with great enthusiasm.
He first went to Rome,
where the Jews enjoyed relative prosperity and security under the
decrees of the Popes. By that time he had become well known, and
wherever he went he found a place to stay, students to teach and
Rabbis to discourse with. He left Rome heading north to other towns in
Italy, never staying long, never settling down, and practicing
astrology to make some living.
In 1146 in Lucca, near
Rome, he wrote most of his astrological treatises and completed them a
couple of years later. Some sources say that they were written in
Beziers (Bedersh) in the south of France, where he arrived in 1147 or
In 1152 he went from
Provençe towards the north of France, arriving at a town he calls
Rodos (Rodez?), where he became very ill at the age of 64. Through the
help of a benevolent patron, Moshe Bar Meir, he recovered and made a
vow, which he kept soon after, to write his commentary for the Bible
all over again in a long version.
Still restless, at age
70, he decides to go further north, to London, England, and again he
was received very well by the Jewish community. Here, too, he composed
important books, dedicated to his benefactors. In 1160 he translated
from Arabic into Hebrew the Explanation
of the Tables by Muhammad Al-Matani.
Ibn Ezra died at the age of 75 in the year
1164. In one version it was back in Rome. In another, it was in
Calahora, Spain. Yet, according to another source, found in a book
written 50 years after his death, he never left England and died
there. Apparently, he predicted his own death.
Israel Levin tells us that one of the copyists of Ibn Ezra’s
Commentary on the Torah wrote at the end of the book:
On Monday, on the
First of Addar I, in the year 4924, Ibn Ezra died, at the age of seventy
five, and he wrote for himself in the year of his death in his own hand
“Avraham was seventy five years old when he came out from under the
wrath of God”
The above date corresponds to Monday, 27
January 1164, Julian Calendar.
His Astrological Work
Ezra wrote nine astrological treatises as well as translation from
Arabic into Hebrew of two others, covering all branches of astrology -
natal, medical, horary, electional and mundane. He was well versed in
the different theories and sources. He knew his predecessors and
compared their ideas, frequently coming up with his own conclusions.
With proper acknowledgement, he refers to Hindu, Persian, and Arab
astrologers, yet mostly following Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos.
contents is traditional Hellenistic-Persian-Arabic astrology, rarely
mentioning religion or mysticism. Yet, at times, his "Jewishness"
shines through in small Biblical phrases, and in what can be called a
Talmudic style, which is apparent in most of the texts.
writing is concise, scholarly, analytical, critical and didactic,
frequently pointing out how the inner logic of astrology is derived
from its elementary components. He is also conversational and
personal, often speaking in the first person, addressing the reader
Some of the books were
twice - a short version and a long version, as is the case with The
Book of Reasons (both are edited and published.)
This is Ibn Ezra’s best known astrological
text. Edited from Hebrew manuscripts with cross-reference from an Old
French translation (Hagin le Juif, Le
Commencement de Sapience, 1273) and translated into English for
the first time by Raphael Levy and Francisco Cantera, John Hopkins
Press, Baltimore, 1939.
Second translation from Hebrew by Meira B.
Epstein, ARHAT publications, 1998.
The short version was edited from manuscript
by Naphtali Ben Menahem, Mosad Harav Kook publication, Jerusalem 1941.
The long version was edited by Rabbi Yehuda Fleishman, 1951.
Translated from Hebrew (short version
supplemented from the long version) by Meira B. Epstein, Project
Hindsight publication, 1994
Gontents: Commentary and
additional material for all the topics in The
Beginning Of Wisdom, providing more in-depth discussion meant for
those who already know the basics.
Book of Nativities (Se'fer
Contents: An expanded discussion
of the houses in the chart, plus additional topics.
- The specific signification of each house in
- The issue of the fate of the individual
within that of the collective.
- Astrology’s answer to the controversial
question of Nature vs. Nurture, or the relative influence of the
- A discussion on chart rectification,
evaluating Ptolemy’s method (Nimodar), as well as the method base on
the moment of conception (the Epoch).
- A brief discussion of some aspects of
- Timing by the Triplicity Rulers, the Firdar
method, Ptolemy’s Ages of life, the Profection method, the Solar
Return chart and its calculation,
- Integrating the method of Profection with
the Solar Return for annual, monthly and daily observations.
Book of Lights (Se'fer
Edited by Yehuda Leib Fleischer, Bucharest,
Medical astrology - the Decumbiture chart
- General motions of the Sun and the Moon and
their function in the horoscope.
- Judgement for the condition and recovery
from illness from the Moon and eclipses in the decumbiture chart.
- Evaluating the effects of benefic and
malefic planets, their motions, their strength and their aspects in
the decumbiture chart.
Book of Elections (Se'fer
Edited from manuscript by Yehuda Leib
Fleischer, Timishuara, Romania 1939.
Contents: Electional Astrology
- Whether one can affect a desirable outcome
by electing a good time to begin an endeavor.
- The need to also consider the nativity and
what to do when it is not known.
- Identifying the appropriate house in the
election chart that signifies the purpose of the election.
- The various considerations for each house
and planet in the election chart.
Book of Questions (Se'fer
Contents: Horary astrology.
Book of the World (Se'fer
Edited by Yehuda Leib Fleischer, Timishuara,
Contents: Mundane astrology.
- Discussion on the accuracy of the
calculations of the rising sign at the time of
Jupiter-Saturn conjunction and at the time of the Solar annual
- Using instead the time of the New or Full
Moon before the Aries Ingress
- The Firdar periods (from Persian
- Mention of the Kabbalistic text ‘Sefer Yetsira’;
- On Eclipse interpretation (from Ptolemy);
- A list of specific sign & degree
associated with countries and cities (found in a book);
- Finding whether it will rain or not in the
year and in the month;
- The phases of the Moon;
- The Lunar Mansions;
Made In the Year 1154 (He'zionot
Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra She'haza Al Sh'nat 4914 La'Ye'tsira)
Published by Meir Ben Itzhak Bakkal,
A very short treatise containing mundane
forecast based on the great Conjunction of Jupiter-Saturn in
Capricorn, which was coming up in 1166.
Horoscope Analysis for a Newborn
Published by Meir Ben Itzhak Bakkal,
Contents: The method of chart
A very short treatise instructing how to read
a horoscope, based on birth data that seems to fit October 14, 1160,
roughly around 10 PM, at Narbonne, France. Determination of the Hyleg;
the rule of not reading the horoscope before the native has reached
age 4; directing the Hyleg to crisis times; general success and mental
quality and observations about both parents.
Treatise of the Astrolabe (Kli
First edited and published by H. Edelmann, at
Published by Meir Ben Itzhak Bakkal,
Contents: An astronomy treatise,
essential for astrological chart calculation.
It holds 36 chapters, describing the use of
the astrolabe in computing the length of day and night, the diurnal
and nocturnal uneven hours, the ecliptical longitude and latitude
position of the Sun and the planets, the culminating degree, the
rising and setting according to the clime and, finding the
geographical latitude of a city, whether the planet is direct or
retrograde, the disappearance and appearance of the Moon, the Lunar
Mansions, computation of the 12 houses of the horoscope, how to
determine the astrological aspects, Fixed Stars of the First and the
Second Magnitude, their names and description, computing their
Precession rate in the Tropical Zodiac, computing the height of any
tall or short or deep object, what to do when there is no table for
the exact geographical latitude or when the astrolabe is not
bin Almatani’s Explanations For The Astronomical Tables of
Muhammad al-Khwarizmi (Ta’amei
interesting account of the introduction of Hindu astronomical
calculations into Islam.
Comparison of the calculations to Ptolemy’s Almagest.
Discussion of the Precession error found in older texts in determining
the position of the Fixed Stars and the Constellations.
text is interspersed with Ibn Ezra’s additional explanations.
Ibn Ezra’s translation from Arabic into Hebrew.
Published by M. Grossberg, London, 1902.
- The effect of the planets are relative to the
- Sign classification by elements and by gender,
etc. and their effect on the weather.
- Judging the weather and world affairs from the
Aries Ingress and from total or partial eclipses and from eclipses of
the Sun and the Moon.
- The Great Conjunction of Jupiter-Saturn, the
Medium Conjunction of Mars-Saturn, and the Small Conjunction of
Mars-Jupiter, and their effect in the world.
Naftali Ben Menahem
tells us about Rabbi Moshe Taku who wrote a book about Ibn Ezra 50
years after his death - Ktav Tamim, in Regensburg, Germany, in which he mentions a book by
Ibn Ezra called The Book of Life (Sefer
haHaim). This book might the same one mentioned right below here.
Ibn Ezra's astrological writings were very
popular, as evidenced by the numerous translations, manuscript copies
and printings that were made over the centuries.
There are known to exist at least 33 series
containing his astrological treatises; not all of them are complete
but most of them include The
Beginning of Wisdom. To this must be added 43 single treatises.
Eight of the manuscripts are owned by the Library of the Jewish
Theological Seminary in New York. Eight more are in the Bibliotheque
Nationale in Paris, and other are scattered throughout Europe in
private and public collection. The Hebrew University in Jerusalem and
the Vatican Library also possess some of the manuscripts.
His best known book, The
Beginning of Wisdom, was translated from Hebrew into French in
1273 by Hagin le Juif (Hagin
the Jew), under the auspices of Henry
One by Henry
Bate in 1281 and 1292, another by Peter
de Abano in 1293 and a third by Arnoul
de Quinquempoix sometime before 1326.
A translation was made independently from the Hebrew original into Catalan, by
Martin of Osca (or Huesca), Aragon. From this Catalan
version, The Book of Nativities
was translated into Latin
by Louis de Angulo in 1448.
‘It is a Latin
translation made from the French translation of the Hebrew, and anyone
who has access to it must control it carefully, since the style is
considered impure and inaccurate.’
circumstances pertaining to the French translation by Hagin are
explained in a colophon, which is reproduced at the end. Many years
ago Paulin Paris (1847) remarked: “One can readily see that Hagin
was obliged to dictate his translation to a copyist, because he
himself did not know how to write them in French; for, if it had been
a question merely of having them transcribed clearly and elegantly, he
would have probably called upon a better calligrapher than Obert de
Montdidier.” This procedure of a Jew dictating a French translation
to an amanuensis explains the curious fact that it was written in
Roman characters, whereas all other contemporary texts, extant in
Judaeo-French, were written in Hebrew characters. Consequently it may
serve as a guide in deciphering the French texts written in Hebrew
characters. Nothing else is known about Hagin le Juif nor about the
scribe, but the name of Montdidier is significant because it gives a
clue to the Picard dialect of the scribe. Henry Bate, under whose
aegis the translation was executed, has already been referred to as
one of the three translators from French into Latin.
system of translating the Hebrew of Ibn Ezra into the French of Hagin
transcribed by Obert has resulted in an awkward style. Hagin has
interpreted the original in a servile manner and often given a literal
equivalent word for word. In addition to the large proportion of
solecisms and anacolutha, Hagin has interspersed his text with
Hebraisms, while Obert suffered from an inevitable confusion in
centuries, especially in the modern era, a vast number of scholars of
various disciplines, studied his works extensively.
One of the greatest
Biblical commentators of the Middle Ages, one of the forerunners of
modern criticism, and much admired by Spinoza on that account.
was one of the first to translate writings of Muslims into Hebrew.
wrote various books on mathematics and astrology, on the calendar, and
on the astrolabe; eight treatises on astrology were completed at Lucca
of his main titles to fame is that through his wanderings in Provence,
France and England, he helped to propagate among the Jews of Christian
Europe (who, unlike their Spanish brethren, did not know Arabic) the
rationalistic and scientific points of view which had been developed in
Spain by Muslims and Jews on the basis of Greco- Muslim knowledge.
translated from Arabic into Hebrew three treatises on grammar by Judah
Hayyuj (second half of the tenth century), Rome 1140; two treatises on
astrology by Mashallah, before 1148; al-Biruni's commentary on al-Khwarizmi's
tables, Narbonne 1160.
last mentioned is known only through Ibn Ezra's version.
Ezra's mind was a strange mixture of rationalism and mysticism. His
writings show his deep interest in magic squares and the mystical
properties of numbers.
explained a decimal system of numeration using the first nine letters of
the Hebrew alphabet, plus a circle for the zero, with place value.
they do not directly concern us, Ibn Ezra's commentaries on the Old
Testament were so influential, even outside of their own sphere, that
something must be said of them.
explained his methods in the introduction to his commentary on the
Pentateuch (Perush ha-Torah); he distinguished between the 'peshat', simple or literal meaning; the 'derash', common sense explanation; and the 'midrash', more philosophic explanation; trying hard to steer a
middle course between excessive literalism and loose interpretations.
an instance of his boldness, I may mention his conclusion that the Book
of Isaiah contains the sayings of two prophets, a view confirmed by
popularity of his commentaries is attested by the large number of super-
The Old French translation of Hagin le Juif
has served Raphael Levy for
comparative study with modern French (see bibliography); F. Godefroy, Dictionnaire de l’ancienne langue française; E. Lommatzsch in
Tobler’s Altfranzösisches Wörterbuch;
A. Thomas in Romania; D. S.
Blondhein, Les Parlers judéo-romans
et la Vetus latina; L. sainéan,
Autour des sources indigénes.
of the Astrological Treatises of Ibn Ezra
From R. Levy’s
introduction to Beginning of Wisdom, p.14:
The number of citations
of the astrological treatises of Abraham ibn Ezra is legion. The Hebraists
who cited them from the twelfth to the seventeenth century include:
Abu Nasr ibn Abbas, Eleazer ben Juda ben Kalonymos, Jedaiah ben
Abraham Bedersi, Levi ben Abraham ben hayyim, Estori Farhi, Mordecai
Comtino, Moses ibn Habib, Leon Mosconi, Joseph ben Eliezer of
Saragossa, Samuel ibn Seneh Zarza, Samuel ben Saadia ibn Motot, Shem-Tob
ben jehudah ibn Mayor, Immanuel ben Jacob Bonfils, Hayyim of Briviesca,
Joseph Albo, Moses ben Elijah of Greece, Abraham ben Solomon of
Torrutiel, Hayyim Vital, Eliezer of Germany, Joseph Solomon Delmedigo.
Latin literature, a list of
references to these astrological treatises made in the fourteenth,
fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is also quite imposing:
of Saxony, Firminus de Bellavalle, Nicolas de Cues, William Raymond
Moncada, John of Glogau, Pico della Mirandola, Symon de Phares,
Christopher Columbus, Abraham Zacuto, Augustinus Ricius, Johann
Stoeffler, Luca Gaurico, Francesco Giuntini, Joseph Scaliger, Johann
Bayer, Robert Fludd, Manasseh ben Israel, Athanasius Kircher, Aegidius
modern scientific literature, one finds these treatises mentioned
by the leading historians of astronomy and kindred science:
R. H. Allen, F. Boll, P. Duhem, C. de la Ronciere, C. A.
Nallino, Dr. George Sarton, D. E. Smith, L. Thorndike, E. Tiede.
Ibn Ezra was a profoundly religious man, but
astrology did not seem to cause any conflict with his faith.
Throughout his work it is evident that he fully embraced astrology, in
a hard-nosed and intelligent way, with no doubts, no hesitations and
no religious dilemmas. Yet, there is hardly any cross-over of
religious thought into his astrological writings. Some reconciliation,
however, is found in his theological writings, as mentioned above, and
also in the opening of The
Beginning Of Wisdom:
The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God,
for it is the instruction. For when a man does not follow his eyes and
heart to fulfill his [worldly] desire, then wisdom will rest in him.
Moreover, the fear of God will protect him from the laws and
decrees of the heavens all the days of his life, and when his soul
separates from his body it (the fear of God) will endow him with
eternity and he shall live forever.
& Other Sources
Levin Israel, Abraham
Ibn Ezra - Reader, annotated texts with introduction and
commentaries. Hebrew. Israel Matz Publications, Tel Aviv and New York,
Yehuda Leib Fleischer, introduction to his edited
publication of The Book of The
World, Timishuara, Romania, 1937.
levy, The Astrological Works of
Abraham ibn Ezra – A literary and linguistic study with special
reference to the Old French Translation of Hagin, John Hopkins
Press, Baltimore, 1927.
Levy, introduction to the Levy-Cantera translation of The Beginning of Wisdom. 1939.
Leib Fleischer, introduction to his editions of The Book of The World, 1937 and The
Book of Elections, 1939, The
Book of Reasons (long version) 1951.
Georges Sarton, Introduction
To The History Of Science, vol II /1 pp 1105-1107, Philosophic
2002 Meira B. Epstein