Avraham Ibn Ezra (c. 1093 – c. 1167)
With the departure of Yehuda HaLevi for the Land of Israel and, several years later, the first wave of invasions by the North African Almohads, the Golden Age of Hebrew literature in Andalusia for all practical purposes comes to end. Its spirit, however, does not; instead, it moves north with many of the Jewish refugees from Muslim Spain and continues to develop, albeit along different lines, in Christian Spain and Provence. One of the most important transmitters of that Andalusian heritage was AVRAHAM IBN EZRA, who is sometimes considered a fifth major poet of the Spanish-Hebrew Golden Age. His astonishing life and literary production fall into two distinct parts. We know very little about the first, aside from the fact that he was born sometime between 1090 and 1093, in Tudela—then a border-town of Muslim Spain with a large Christian population—and that he passed most of the next fifty years in the south and Toledo. (He was not related to Moshe Ibn Ezra.) While much of Ibn Ezra’s work from that period has been lost, he apparently wrote many poems for patrons and friends in the conventional Andalusian modes and considered himself a professional poet. We know that he befriended Yehuda HaLevi at some point, perhaps in Toledo, or Cordoba, where they both settled, and he appears to have spent a good deal of time with the older poet, at one point even traveling with him to North Africa. His son would eventually marry HaLevi’s daughter and then leave Spain with his father-in-law.
It is the work of this post-Spanish period that made Ibn Ezra’s reputation. Sensing, Schirmann suggests, the imminent threat to Jewish life in Spain as he had known it, he made up his mind: by 1140, he was in Rome, where in a foreword to his commentary on Ecclesiastes he wrote: “And from his home / in Spain he fled, / descending to Rome, / his soul afraid.” In another commentary he noted the persecution that he’d faced in Spain, most likely under the Almoravids: “Oppressors have driven me out of Spain.” And in response to the Almohad invasion of the mid-1140s—word of which reached him in France—he wrote one of the most explicit elegies in the literature for the lost communities of Andalusia and North Africa. (“Lament for Andalusian Jewry,” below.) Over the next twenty-seven years Avraham HaSefaradi (the Spaniard), as he usually called himself, earned his living by writing for the edification of Jewish communities in North Africa, Italy, Provence, northern France, and even England, where some scholars believe he died in either 1164 or 1167. (Others say he died in France or in Italy and some suggest that he returned to Spain.) Working in Hebrew rather than Arabic—which the Jews of these northern and Mediterranean communities did not know—he composed some one hundred volumes on mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, poetics, and philology. He also translated a great deal of scientific work (treating medicine, physics, and the natural sciences) from Arabic into Hebrew and wrote a large body of innovative biblical commentary, which remains to this day among the most important of its kind.
Ibn Ezra’s poetry is equally wide ranging and on the whole is distinguished by its introduction of a vivid realism into the literary matrix. Stripped of the trappings and comforts of the Jewish courts of Spain, the itinerant Ibn Ezra took his knowledge out into the world, where he faced the trials of the medieval open road. As a result of that encounter, the thematic axis of his poetry shifts, and its tone and register change as well. In addition to his elegy on the lost Andalusian communities, his newly diverse subjects include chess, flies, his torn coat, his rotten luck, his offended honor, and the presence of God in the world. In his secular poetry—which has yet to be gathered in a critical volume—a new plain-spoken, humorous, and even self-ironizing voice emerges. Far from involving a decline or degradation of the Andalusian modes, Ibn Ezra’s work shows him to be, as one scholar has put it, “a great rebel” who sought to save Hebrew poetry from sinking into spiritual and formal epigonism. He left behind a vast body of sacred verse, and is often described as the last great liturgical poet of the age. Perhaps the most philosophical of all the Hebrew liturgical poets, he merged meditation and devotion, while also excelling at devotional verse in a more plain-spoken register that reflected some of his innovations on the secular side of the ledger. In his secular and sacred work alike, he was, first and foremost, a poet of exile.