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Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra 

(1089-1164)

  by Meira Epstein, C.A. NCGR-PAA

CONTENTS:

Rabbi 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.

 His Life

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 1148.

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.

 His Death

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

Ibn 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.

The 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.

His 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 directly.

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.)

  1) The Beginning of Wisdom (Re'shit Ho'khmah)

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.

Contents: Basic astrology encompassing the fundamentals of the horoscope.

The book contains ten chapters, describing the tropical and sidereal signs; the fixed stars; the decanates and the images contained in them as well as those that are co-rising; the division of the wheel and the houses; the attributes of the planets and the luminaries; the aspects; the relative strength of the planets; the various ways planets conjoin bodily and by aspect; an extensive list of the Arabic Parts.

 2) The Book of Reasons (Se'fer Ha'Te'amim)

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.

 3) The Book of Nativities (Se'fer Ha'Moladot)

 Contents: An expanded discussion of the houses in the chart, plus additional topics.

- The specific signification of each house in the chart.

- 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 environment.

- 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 Electional astrology.

- 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.

 4) The Book of Lights (Se'fer Ha'Me'orot)

Edited by Yehuda Leib Fleischer, Bucharest, Romania, 1932.

 Contents:  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.

 5) The Book of Elections (Se'fer Ha'Miv'harim)

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.

 6) The Book of Questions (Se'fer Ha'She’elot)

 Contents: Horary astrology.

 7) The Book of the World  (Se'fer Ha'Olam)

Edited by Yehuda Leib Fleischer, Timishuara, Romania, 1937.

 Contents: Mundane astrology.

- Mathematical formula for calculating the maximum possible number of planetary conjunctions;

- The Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions;

- Discussion on the accuracy of the calculations of the rising sign at the time of

   the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction and at the time of the Solar annual revolution;

- Using instead the time of the New or Full Moon before the Aries Ingress

- The Firdar periods (from Persian astrologers);

- Mention of the Kabbalistic text ‘Sefer Yetsira’;

- The sign ruler of a country and the Mars-Saturn conjunction (from Mashallah);

- 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;

 8) Predictions 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, Jerusalem, 1971.

 Contents: Mundane astrology

A very short treatise containing mundane forecast based on the great Conjunction of Jupiter-Saturn in Capricorn, which was coming up in 1166.

 9) Horoscope Analysis for a Newborn  (Mishpatei Ha'Nolad)

Published by Meir Ben Itzhak Bakkal, Jerusalem, 1971

Contents: The method of chart analysis.

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.

 10) The Treatise of the Astrolabe (Kli Ha’Ne'hoshet)

First edited and published by H. Edelmann, at Königsberg, 1845.

Published by Meir Ben Itzhak Bakkal, Jerusalem, 1971.

 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 sufficiently accurate.

 11) Muhammad bin Almatani’s Explanations For The Astronomical Tables of Muhammad al-Khwarizmi (Ta’amei Lu’hot al-Khwarizmi)

A translation from Arabic into Hebrew and an Introduction by Ibn Ezra.

The full names in the text:

Muhammad bin Mussi (Mussa) al-Khwarizmi

Muhammad Bin Almatani bin Abbed Albarassi Alkarrutz bin Ali Isma’il

Parma version, edited and translated into English by Baruch Rephael Goldstein, Urim veTumim Publications, New Haven & London, 1967.

 Contents:

- An 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.

- The text is interspersed with Ibn Ezra’s additional explanations.

 12) A Book by Mashallah on the Eclipses of the Sun and the Moon.

Ibn Ezra’s translation from Arabic into Hebrew.

Published by M. Grossberg, London, 1902.

 Contents:

- The effect of the planets are relative to the clime.

- 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.

 Yet Unknown Books

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.

David Kahanah tells us that Ibn Ezra wrote an autobiographical book called Kohot Shnot ha-Adam in which he tells about his life from birth to the year of his death, also listing all the books he had written.

 Translations and Publications

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 Bate.

This translation served as a basis for three translations into Latin, still extant:

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.

Raphael Levy provides a word of caution with regard to the 1507 printing of the Peter de Abano translation:

‘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.’

‘The 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.

Naturally, the 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 homonyms.’

 Ibn Ezra’s Work as Subject of Scholarly Research

Throughout the centuries, especially in the modern era, a vast number of scholars of various disciplines, studied his works extensively.

George Sarton, (1884-1956), the founder of History of Science, said of Ibn Ezra:

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.

He was one of the first to translate writings of Muslims into Hebrew.

He wrote various books on mathematics and astrology, on the calendar, and on the astrolabe; eight treatises on astrology were completed at Lucca in 1148.

One 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.

He 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.

The last mentioned is known only through Ibn Ezra's version.

Ibn 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.

He explained a decimal system of numeration using the first nine letters of the Hebrew alphabet, plus a circle for the zero, with place value.

Though 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.

He 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.

As 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 modern criticism.

The popularity of his commentaries is attested by the large number of super- commentaries.

Philology and Lexicography

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.

Citations 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:

Samuel 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.

In Latin literature, a list of references to these astrological treatises made in the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is also quite imposing:

John 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 Strauch.

In 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.

Astrology and Religion

His Hebrew editors are usually apologetic when it comes to Ibn Ezra’s involvement with astrology and the publication of these works, explaining it by the need to properly understand his Biblical commentaries, in which he extensively resorts to astrological concepts and imagery.

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.

 Bibliography & Other Sources

Levin Israel, Abraham Ibn Ezra - Reader, annotated texts with introduction and commentaries. Hebrew. Israel Matz Publications, Tel Aviv and New York, 1985.

Yehuda Leib Fleischer, introduction to his edited publication of The Book of The World, Timishuara, Romania, 1937.

Raphael 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.

Raphael Levy, introduction to the Levy-Cantera translation of The Beginning of Wisdom. 1939.

Naphtali Ben Menahem, introduction to his edition of The Book of Reasons (short version) 1941.

Yehuda 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 Background. 

Copyright 2002 Meira B. Epstein

  

 

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