I have always been drawn to the teaching of the Rebbe of Kotzk. His approach was predicated upon uncompromising truth and intellectual independence.This allowed him to be fearless and never to succumb to societal pressures.
He knew that Judaism was so much deeper and more profound than the way it was perceived by the masses and bent by religious populism.
These essays, although not necessarily Kotzker in essence, are certainly Kotzk inspired.
There is an unresolved and fascinating story surrounding Yitzchak,
the enigmatic son of Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra.
However, it appears
to be omitted from many historical accounts which just gloss over him without
telling us much about the individual himself.
In this article we will attempt to explore just what it is
that some writers are reluctant to share with us.
R. AVRAHAM IBN EZRA (1089-1164/7):
On the Astrolabe, Ibn Ezra, St Petersburg
R. Avraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra was a Spanish born Torah
poet, grammarian, philosopher, astronomer and astrologer. Though, unlike many
of his contemporaries who studied medicine, he was against the practice of
medicine and was not a physician.
The moon crater Abenezra is named after him.
Ibn Ezra struggled to make a living and once lamented;
“Were I to deal in candles, The sun would never set. Were
selling shrouds my business, No one would ever die. Were I to sell
weapons, The enemies would make peace.”
He also was not adept at holding a communal position of
leadership, so he wrote poems instead, which he sold to his various patrons in England,
Europe, North Africa and possibly even India. This caused him to be a wanderer
and in one of his poems he bemoans the fact that wandering affects family life (something
that may become significant later in the article).
He wrote of his hardships:
“Early I set out for the patron’s home;
They say: He is off riding;
I return toward evening,
They say: He is already sleeping;
He either mounts a horse or climbs into bed...”
Some of his commentaries
and writings have come down to us in two versions. This is because he was so
poor that he was sometimes forced to sell his original copies and then rewrite
them later from memory.
An example of the 'short commentary'.
He was very close to the other famous poet R. Yehudah haLevi
BLOG 93) whose daughter his son Yitzchak may have married.
According to some accounts Ibn Ezra died in Israel and
according to others he is buried in England, (which was where he wrote his
famous Iggeret haShabat, see KOTZK
IBN EZRA’S SON YITZCHAK:
By some accounts, Ibn Ezra had five children but only one
son survived, Yitzchak, who was also a poet.
“Like his father, Yitzchak also drew from the springs of
poetry; and some of the father’s brilliancy flashes in the songs of the son.”
(R. Yehuda Al Charizi)
Some of Yitzchak’s poems as well as other valuable documents
concerning him, have been recently discovered in the Cairo Geniza (see KOTZK
It appears that Yitzchak travelled together with (his
father-in-law) R. Yehuda haLevi from Spain to Alexandria, Egypt. From there he
journeyed on alone to Baghdad, where he arrived in 1143.
While in Baghdad, Yitzchak became a student of a
contemporary of Rambam, Netanel ben Ali. Netanel ben Ali had written a
commentary to the Book of Kohellet, which Yitzchak helped him compile.
It is said that Netanel ben Ali wrote about
the acceleration of falling bodies with successive increments of velocity
anticipating Newton’s second law of motion.
Then, in his old age, Netanel ben Ali converted to Islam,
and changed his name to Abu al-Barakat Hibat Allah, or Abu’l-Barakat
So respected was he by the Muslims that they referred to him
as Awhad al-Zaman, or Unique One in his Time.
Then, in an even more surprising turn of events, Yitzchak
follows his teacher’s example and also converts to Islam.
“But when he came to Eastern lands and the glory of G-d
no longer shone over him, he threw away the costly garments of Judaism, and put
on strange ones.“ (R. Yehuda Al Charizi)
Yitzchak died while his father, Ibn Ezra was still alive. It
took three years for Ibn Ezra to hear about his son’s passing.
When he eventually did find out the truth about what had
happened to his son, he was devastated. Some say this was the reason for his
wandering - to try find his son and bring him back to Judaism.
Ibn Ezra wrote two poems expressing his anguish over his
If Yitzchak had indeed authored this poem, it may support
the theory that Yitzchak’s ‘conversion’ may have had some deep political
Yitzchak was in Baghdad during a time of tremendous upheaval
within the Jewish religious and political world. The great communities of
learning in Babylonia were suffering financially and about to disintegrate (See
There was a strong Jewish migration westwards to North Africa and
Spain, and with it came the need to establish political and religious legitimacy
and authority in the fledgling communities. They had to be seen as independent
from Babylonia and the new Jewish West did not want to be reliant upon to the
old East any longer.
In order to create this independence the authority of the Babylonian
leadership had to be broken. By Yitzchak (and possibly also his teacher al-Baghdadi
- the ‘unique one’?), converting to Islam and gaining the favour of the
Islamic leadership, he could help in the transitioning of Jewish political and
religious power from East to West (particularly to Muslim Spain).
Yitzchak did indeed have a sphere of influence as he served
as court poet and secretary to the court physician (al-Baghdadi) of the
caliphate of al-Mustanjid.
If this theory is correct, then Yitzchak served as a
clandestine operative for Spanish Jewry, and sacrificed his religion to help
them break away from the stranglehold of Babylonia.
We are left with two questions:
1) Was Yitzchak’s conversion to Islam just part of a religious/political
plot to undermine the (sometimes corrupt) leadership of Jewish Babylonia?
was, it did succeed. And Yitzchak (and possibly also his teacher) did indeed
help swing the centre of Torah learning from Babylonia to Spain.
This is a rather radical theory but it is backed up to a degree by Yitzchak’s (alleged)
poem where he makes the distinction between his ‘heart’ and his ‘lips’.
2) Or was Yitzchak simply, as his Ibn Ezra’s poem put it, a ‘vagabond’
who betrayed his father and his people?
The answer may lie in which of the poems we choose to accept
as most authoritative – the father’s or the son’s.
Or maybe both?
popular historic account simply states; “About the same
time as his great contemporary, Rabbi Judah Halevi, he (Ibn Ezra) set
out for the Orient, together with his sonIsaac.”
is known as a ‘pshatist’ who was primarily concerned with the literal
and rational meaning of the text. In his introduction to his Torah commentary
known as Sefer haYashar he writes in rhyme; “This is Sefer haYashar
by Avraham the poet, it is bound by the cords of grammar, and approved by the
eye of reason, happy are those who adhere to it.”
See commentary to Exodus 21: 19. He writes on the verse “...and cause him to be
thoroughly healed”, that permission to use a doctor would, in his view, be
restricted to external wound only. Internal wounds would have to be left to G-d
There are many different versions of how Ibn Ezra was related to R. Yehuda
haLevi: Some say they were cousins. Some say they were in-laws (Shalshelet
haKaballah). Some say R. Yehuda was Ibn Ezra’s father-in-law (Meor
Enayim, by R. Azaria de Rossi).
in England, he visited a prison and noticed that the prisoners were fed
unleavened bread. Based on this observation he suggested, in his Torah
commentary, that unleavened bread must have been a common ‘prison food’ which
was similarly fed to the Israelite slaves in Egypt. Another observation he made
whilst in England which informed his commentary, was a thick fog arising from
the River Thames. He suggests that the plague of darkness also arose from the
Nile in a similar fashion.
(An interesting if not controversial commentary to
Genesis is that the word ‘bara’ does not mean creation ex nihilo
as is commonly inferred - because the same word is used to describe the ‘creation’
of Adam from pre-existent dust. Ibn Ezra had some radical views and it is said
that he wrote cryptically for this very reason, not wishing to spell out
exactly what he was intending because of possible backlash from the
Charizi, (Tachkemoni iii.) - Al Charizi (1165-1225) was a Spanish born
rationalist who translated Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed from Arabic to
Hebrew. (Not to be confused with Shmuel ben Yehudah Ibn Tabbon who similarly
translated the Guide into Hebrew.)
By the title, Kitab al-Mutabar (The Book of What has been Established by
Some say he did this because the Sultan’s wife had died whilst under Natanel
ben Ali’s care, as a physician.
It is interesting to note that Norman Roth writes that the story of Yitzchak’s
conversion to Islam is ‘probably false’ although he agrees that his teacher,
al-Baghdadi, together with another of his students, Sama’uel Ibn Abbas (who
went on to write a polemic against the Jews) did indeed convert. See Medieval
Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia, by Norman Roth.