Abraham ibn Ezra’s explanations of the Biblical Laws

In Abraham ibn Ezra’s masterpiece, the twelve chapters of “Sefer Yesod Mora Ve-Sod Ha-Torah,” Treatise on the Foundation of Awe and The Secret of the Torah, ibn Ezra gave some of his explanations of the biblical commandments. He felt that each command, without exception was rational. The following are some of his other ideas.

The rational idea behind the Torah commandments

  • The ancient sages transmitted the meaning of the Torah. “It should be noted that were it not for [this] tradition, one would be able to explain these [Torah] commandments differently [because without their explanations, the commands would be obscure].”
  • Sometimes the sages found what they considered somewhat clear evidence for their explanation in the Torah. On other occasions, their view is midrashic. At still other times, they found mere supports for their view. “One who is intelligent can discern when the sages understand a text literally and when they do so midrashically.”
  • There are many commandments by the sages that are not mentioned in the Torah. Ibn Ezra mentions many of them, including: the obligation to pray, grace after meals, the recitation of the shema, the eruv, Kiddush, Havdalah, eating three meals on the Shabbat, lighting Shabbat candles, the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, that Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgment, the use of four items on Sukkot, counting the Omer, the prohibition against eating meat of an animal whose vital organs have been perforated, mourning laws, visiting the sick, burying the dead, the Hanukkah lights, reading the scroll of Esther, the four cups of wine on Passover, and many more. [In my first book of “Mysteries of Judaism,” I showed that the sages changed all of the biblical holidays.]
  • An intelligent person should have no difficulty observing the negative commandments because they are designed to protect people from harm. It is as if God were a physician who instructs his patient who is unaware of the foods that could harm him. No intelligent person desires to eat anything that will harm him even if people tell him that the food has an excellent taste.
  • When the Bible uses the word heart, it means the mind. Improving the mind and using it to live properly and aid in improving society, is the goal of the Torah. “[A]ll the precepts written in the Torah, transmitted by tradition, or enacted by the rabbis aim in perfecting the heart. This is the case even though most of the commandments are observed by action or speech.”
  • The purpose of the law of circumcision is to remind men not to defile themselves in an act of sexual intercourse that is contrary to God’s law or the laws of nature.
  • Ibn Ezra felt that the Decalogue’s “I am the Lord your God” directs us to believe wholeheartedly that it was the Lord who took us out of Egypt and is a positive commandment. Maimonides also felt it was a positive command but did not say it was a matter of belief. He felt that it was a command to “know” that God exists. Referring to Exodus 33, Maimonides said that we come to “know” God by knowing science and the laws of nature that God created. In contrast, the Masorites who proceeded the two of them, divided the Torah into paragraphs and saw the initial statement as God introducing the Ten Statements. This Masoretic division done by spacings is in the Torah scrolls used in synagogues. The Masorites kept the idea of ten statements by dividing what ibn Ezra and Maimonides considered the tenth statement/command into two.
  • Ibn Ezra considered Deuteronomy 6:13 “You should fear the Lord your God and serve Him” as “one verse that embodies all the commands,” because once one fears God one does all that God commands. This is in stark contrast to Rabbi Akiva who wrote that the principle law of the Torah is to love your neighbor as yourself and Hillel who put the statement in a negative manner, what you hate to have done to you, do not do to others.
  • After Jacob’s oldest son Reuben had intercourse with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah, Jacob no longer had sex with Reuben’s mother Leah.
  • He considered as things that are “to be taken literally but also have an esoteric meaning” the account of the Garden of Eden, the tree of knowledge, the tree of life, and the angelic cherubim. In his commentary to Genesis 3:24, he states that the story of the Garden of Eden alludes to immortality and how to attain it.
  • Ibn Ezra explained away the words of the sage in the Babylonian Talmud Yoma 67b that Jews are obligated to observe all the commandments and all the laws of the sages without trying to find why these commands were given. Like Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:26, and as stated previously, ibn Ezra was convinced that there are good rational reasons for the commands and knowing the reasons improves the individual’s ability to get the most out of dong what is required. But he said, the Talmudic sage was talking about children and uneducated adults who are incapable of understanding the wisdom of the commands. They should observe them even if they do not understand them.
  • Believing in the power of astrology and how that power affects humans, he felt that the number seven, which occurs frequently in Jewish practices is significant because according to astrological teaching there is a change in nature and fate when seven occurs such as the Sabbath on the seventh day. Thus, according to ibn Ezra, for example, is why a person suspected of suffering from a plague is quarantined for seven days.
  • The Ephod worn by the high priest was an astrological instrument that the priest used to predict the future.
  • The Urim and the Tummim that the high priest wore were also astrological instruments.
  • The law in Deuteronomy 22:5 forbidding a man and a woman from wearing the clothes of the opposite sex is, according to ibn Ezra, forbidden because God wants the sexes to be distinct. [The problem with offering a reason that tells what God wants is that we should ask how ibn Ezra knew this. Maimonides approach of focusing on what people get out of an observance is rational.]
  • He explained that the Israelite worship of the golden calf was not idol worship it was worship of the true God, but it was a violation of using an image in the worship of the Lord.
  • It is wrong for an intelligent person to seek anything in this world. He should seek what will benefit him in the world to come.

Summary

Readers of the forgoing may be disappointed to see that the brilliant thinker Abraham ibn Ezra had so many non-rational views such as Jacob ceasing to have sex with his wife Leah, Reuben’s mother because Reuben slept with Jacob’s concubine, ibn Ezra’s idea that God can command belief, his identifying fear of God as embodying all the commands, and more. His ideas are totally unlike the explanations for the commands that Maimonides gives in part three of his Guide of the Perplexed. While Maimonides sees the biblical commands from a human perspective, ibn Ezra focuses on God. Maimonides listed three goals of the Torah: teaching some lessons, helping people improve themselves, and aiding the creation of a good society. Ibn Ezra emphasized beliefs such as the belief that God took the Israelites out of Egypt as the meaning of the introduction to the Decalogue. Maimonides understood the introduction differently. He recognized that it is impossible to force people to believe. He stressed action such as knowing God by studying the laws of nature that God created.

It may be that ibn Ezra was not as consistently rational as Maimonides. However, it is also possible that ibn Ezra wrote his Secrets of the Torah for the common Jew, not the intellectual, and included ideas that are not rational but ideas that would stimulate these readers to act properly, what Plato called “noble lies” and Maimonides called “essential truths.” A possible support for this latter view is that ibn Ezra included lots of examples of positive and negative biblical commands, a list that the more educated Jew would not need.

And there is a third possibility. There is no doubt that some of ibn Ezra’s ideas are brilliant. We can accept those that meet this criterion and reject the rest.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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