Stories from Jewish History | Ibn Ezra in England

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Dr. Tamar Marvin
Dr. Tamar Marvin
Hello and welcome to the mid-Tishrei edition of the newsletter Stories from Jewish History, which you can read more about here. After the holidays I’ll be back to writing weekly; below is an extra-long, especially fascinating a story to last you all the way to Simchat Torah. Here’s wishing you chag sameach - a joyful Sukkot.

A manuscript of Iggeret Shabbat dated 1382. Talmud Tora Library of Livorno, Italy Ms. 40.
A manuscript of Iggeret Shabbat dated 1382. Talmud Tora Library of Livorno, Italy Ms. 40.
At the end of his life, after years of itinerant scholarship, the great commentator Avraham Ibn Ezra found himself at the far edge of the world: England. It is there (probably) that he wrote an exposition of his philosophy, known to us as Yesod Mora; and there, too, that he wrote the unusual Iggeret ha-Shabbat. We even have a third commentary of Ibn Ezra’s on Bereshit, as recorded by his English (probably) pupil and patron. Yet the details of this chapter of Ibn Ezra’s life are spare and rife with question marks. Below, a closer look at the story of this consummate Sefardi thinker in England.
Avraham Ibn Ezra, the Ibn Ezra, was peripatetic, and from colophons and offhand comments, his travels can be fairly well reconstructed, as can the many versions of his work he left in the hands of patrons and students throughout Europe. He was born in Tudela, Navarra (today in northern Spain) in the waning decades of the 11th century—when exactly will depend on how you read the sources. Ibn Ezra lived a whole life in the leading cities of Sefarad as a well-regarded but hard-of-luck poet, making forays into northern Africa. Then, likely due to the political situation in Iberia, he moved, in his forties, to Italy, Provence, northern France, and…England.
Ibn Ezra’s life is rich with stories and not a few mysteries, and three big ones emerge from his English period. Two of these are elicited by Iggeret ha-Shabbat, a three-part treatise relating to the calculation of the day, month, and year. It belongs, in a way, to Ibn Ezra’s group of writings on calendrication, but has noteworthy features: first, it is prefaced by a unique poem voiced by a personified Shabbat, and second, it is highly polemical against the sectarian claim that the biblical day begins at sunrise. The questions are, did Ibn Ezra really write the unusual poem at the head of Iggeret ha-Shabbat? And was his polemic addressed to his great French contemporary, Rashbam, who in a once-lost and sometimes censored version of his Torah commentary, suggests just this in his comment to Bereshit 1:6? To these we can add a third question, of where this storied wanderer found ultimate rest—there are a number of medieval attestations about the place where Ibn Ezra died, one of the contenders being England. Each of these enigmatic questions requires a lot of ink to explore, so for today, we’re going to focus on what brought Ibn Ezra to England and what we can say more broadly about his time there.
When did Ibn Ezra go to England?
In the years before he’s attested in England, Ibn Ezra records the place in which he wrote a number of works as רדום (Radom), or its variants like רדוס, דרום, and דרוס. This locale is almost certainly Rouen, the medieval capital of Normandy, which appears in some vernacular sources as Radom; and not Dreux, a different town in northern France, or the more general darom, “South.” This matters because if indeed Ibn Ezra spent several years in Rouen (probably 1154 through 1156), it makes sense that he identified London as a good place to head next. English Jewry was in the 12th century a small community, an offshoot of Tzarfat (northern France) and more particularly of Norman Jewry. His Norman contacts could have assured him of a warm reception in London, which he seems to have gotten. But, it’s also plausible that he would make a move from another northern French city to London.
Ignore the late medieval grand architecture of Rouen; Ibn Ezra probably wandered around streets that looked more like this. Source: "Tudela, (Navarra) España." by Txemari - Argazki. CC PDM 1.0
Ignore the late medieval grand architecture of Rouen; Ibn Ezra probably wandered around streets that looked more like this. Source: "Tudela, (Navarra) España." by Txemari - Argazki. CC PDM 1.0
The latest colophon we have from Radom/Rouen is from Ibn Ezra’s second commentary on Trei Asar (the Latter Prophets), dated 1 Tevet 4917, which works out to December 16, 1156. (It’s worth noting that in the robust manuscript tradition we have for Ibn Ezra, the dated colophons do not appear in all or even most copies.) The next dated/localized colophon after this Trei Asar commentary is from the book known to us as Yesod Mora (The Foundation of Awe, though probably not so named by Ibn Ezra), about the reasons for the commandments (ta'amei ha-mitzvot). Its colophon reads Tammuz-Av 4918 or 4919 (June-July 1158 or 1159)—there are two extant versions of the colophon and they disagree on the year, as well as the spelling of the locale. This colophon reads:
אני אברהם הספרדי בן ר’ מאיר הספרדי הנקרא אבן עזרא התחלתי לחבר וכתבתי זה הספר בהעיר לונדריש (ששנדיריש) בהאי אינגלטירא בחודש תמוז והשלמתיו בחודש אב בסוף השבוע הרביעית בשנת ד"א תתקי"ח (תתק"ט) לב"ע
I, Avraham the Spaniard, the son of Rabbi Meir the Spaniard, who is called Ibn Ezra, began to compose and wrote this book in the city of Londres [London] in the island of Angleterre in the month Tammuz, and completed it in the month of Av at the end of the fourth week, in the year 4918 (4919).
(You can see one of these colophons here, in Palatina Library, Parma Ms. 2217 (de Rossi 314) on leaf 054 in the digitized manuscript, in lighter ink.)
This permits us, on the reasonable basis that the garbled spelling of London in the one colophon is a scribal error, to place Ibn Ezra in England by 1158, and possibly for the unattested year of 1157.
Within the body of Yesod Mora there is one solid piece of evidence, though inconclusive, that the work was written in England. Ibn Ezra writes in chapter one:
כי הנה בין ירושלם ובין זו האי ד’ שעות ישרות שהשמש זורחת עליהם
For between Jerusalem and this island there is four hours’ difference in when the sun shines on them.
The problem is, this statement isn’t true for anywhere in England. It’s been suggested that Ibn Ezra made this calculation based on the largest possible difference between day lengths; another solution is that Ibn Ezra’s 4-hour difference is based on a theoretical calculation of Jerusalem’s ideal geographical placement. However, “this island” does strongly suggest England.
So what was he doing there?
"Tower of London alley" by Anita363 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
"Tower of London alley" by Anita363 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Ibn Ezra's English patron
In some manuscripts of Yesod Mora, there is an additional line in the dedicatory portion at the beginning that reads:
אודה בהשלימי לא-ל ולידידו יוסף בנו יעקב על מתנת ידו
I will thank G-d upon completion, along with his dear one, Yosef the son of Yaakov, for his generosity.
This Yosef b. Yaakov is known to us from other manuscripts, as we’ll soon get to, and in those Yosef identifies himself as being from a place called מורוויל (Morville), which some read as מודוויל (Modville) and identify as Maudville or Mandeville, in Normandy. Uriel Simon argues that it refers to a small Jewish outpost in central England. Though it seems clear that Ibn Ezra instructed Yosef in England, if Yosef had Norman roots, perhaps that was the connection that drew Ibn Ezra to England.
The Third Commentary on Bereshit
A fragment of a third commentary by Ibn Ezra on Bereshit exists for most of parashat Vayishlach and parts of Vayechi in a total of five manuscripts. (This is in addition to the standard commentary and the long commentary, which are printed in most Mikraot Gedolot; the third commentary has been published in scholarly publications, in Bar-Ilan’s Keter edition of Mikraot Gedolot, and online by Al haTorah.) Some versions of the third commentary include the following explanatory notes:
ואני יוסף בר’ יעקב ממורויל שמעתי ממנו פירוש אלה הפרשות בלונדרש על פה וכתבתים בלשוני
I, Yosef the son of Rabbi Yaakov of Morville, heard from him the commentary on these parashot in Londres [London] orally and wrote them in my own words. [Before Vayishlach]
זאת הפרשה פירש לי החכם, ואני פרשתיה כאשר מפיו הבינותי
This parashah the sage interpreted for me, and I wrote it as from his mouth as I understood it. [After Vayishlach]
אני יוסף בר׳ יעקב ממורויל שמעתי מפי זה החכם פירוש זאת הפרשה בלונדרש וכתבתיה בלשוני.
I, Yosef the son of Rabbi Yaakov of Morville, heard this parashah from the mouth of the sage in Londres [London] and wrote it in my own words. [Before Vayechi]
This fascinating information is the piece of the puzzle that gives us the place of origin of Ibn Ezra’s patron (Morville/Maudville/Mandeville) and places their teacher-student relationship squarely in London. It also indicates that the aged Ibn Ezra dictated Torah commentary to his pupil. In addition to this, a similar note appears in a manuscript of Ibn Ezra’s aforementioned commentary on Trei Asar, in which Yosef again gives his full name and states that he copied it from Ibn Ezra’s autograph, adding dictated comments. The place where it was copied is not given.
Whereabouts
Ibn Ezra (maybe) implies that he also stayed elsewhere in England, in a (curiously) unspecified town outside of London. The introductory poem of Iggeret ha-Shabbat begins,
ויהי בשנת ארבעת אלפים ותשע מאות ותשע עשרה בחצי ליל שבת בארבעה עשר יום לחדש טבת, ואני אברהם הספרדי הנקרא אבן עזרא, הייתי בעיר אחת מערי האי הנקרא קצה הארץ שהוא בגבול השביעי מגבולות הארץ הנושבת.
It was in the year four thousand, nine hundred and nineteen in the middle of the the night of Shabbat, on the fourteenth day of the month Tevet, and I, Avraham the Spaniard, who is called Ibn Ezra, was in a city, one of the cities of the island which is called the end of the earth, which is in the seventh zone of the zones of the inhabited land.
It is not at all certain that the opening poem is the work of Ibn Ezra, and thus that this information is authentic. Despite this, it forms a core part of the evidence marshalled in favor of Ibn Ezra’s English chapter.
Another claim I’ve seen made is that Ibn Ezra refers to the London fog in his description the darkness of Egypt. This seems to refer to the following comment (in the long commentary on Shemot 10:22, which he wrote in Rouen):
לא ידעו שהוא שלשת ימים אלא על פי ישראל שהיה להם האור. והנה ים אוקינוס יבא חשך עב, שלא יוכל אדם להפריש אם יום ואם לילה, ויעמוד זה פעמים חמשה ימים. ואני הייתי שם פעמים רבות.
The Egyptians did not know that it [the darkness] lasted for three days except by means of the Israelites, who had light. And indeed a thick darkness comes from the ocean (yam okyanus [the sea of oceanus]), such that a person can’t distinguish whether it is day or night, and sometimes it stays like that for five days. I have been there many times.
Assuming that Ibn Ezra is referring here to the Atlantic Ocean, this does not necessitate him being in England. His claim that he has often experienced such a thick fog coming from the Atlantic also seems to indicate not a novel experience but a long-standing one. It’s also not clear that Ibn Ezra revised the long commentary on Shemot in England, although it’s possible.
A final claim sometimes adduced in favor of Ibn Ezra’s English years is that he compared matzah to the bread he saw prisoners receiving in England. The story about the prisoner’s bread was recorded in the name of “Ben Ezra” by R. Yehosef ha-Ezovi, a 13th century Provençal poet; it shows up in a number of places, including the Passover section of the law code Orchot Chayim by R. Aharon ha-Kohen of Lunel (I wrote about this code in a blog post) and in Abudarham’s haggadah commentary (here). This legend, however, actually claims that Ibn Ezra witnessed or experienced the prisoners’ bread in India, not England; it is, in fact, the basis of a wholly different claim with its own story and highly tendentious premise, that Ibn Ezra visited India. (Spoiler alert: unfounded, but with interesting implications about the spread of Indian ideas in the Islamicate world.)
Ibn Ezra's purported death in England
And finally, we have Moshe Taku’s bitter tale of Ibn Ezra’s sad demise at the hands of demons in an English wood. Moshe b. Chasdai Taku, a 13th-century rabbi from possibly Dachau, Bavaria or Tachov (Tachau), Bohemia, is quite a personality. His polemical work Ketav Tamim is known for its invective against both the mystical movement of Hasidei Ashkenaz and the rationalist movement represented for him by Rav Se'adyah Gaon. As you might imagine, Taku was not a big fan of Ibn Ezra. Fancifully, he recorded (in the aformentioned Ketav Tamim, some 100 years after Ibn Ezra’s death):
והנה אבן עזרא כתב בספרו ‘ודאי אין שד בעולם’… והנה אבן עזרא טעה בשדים שהיו מלוין אותו תמיד… ואף על פי כן שדים הראו לו שישנם בעולם. ושמעתי מבני איגלאנט, ששם מת ביניהם, כי פעם אחת היה רוכב ביער ובא בין רוב כלבים שהיו עומדים ומעיינים עליו, וכולם שחורים. ודאי אלו הם שדים. כשיצא מביניהם אז נסתכן וחלה ומת מאותו חולי.
Here, Ibn Ezra wrote in his book, “there is certainly no demon in the world” and yet Ibn Ezra was mistaken about the demons that were always accompanying him…and even so, demons showed him that they are present in the world. I heard from people of England that there he died among them, when once he was riding in the forest and came upon a pack of dogs that were standing and threatening him, all of them black. Certainly these were demons. When he went out among them, then he was endangered, and became ill and died of that same illness.
Note that the Ashkenazi Taku uses the term England (איגלאנט) as opposed to the Norman-French Angleterre (אינגלטירא) used by Ibn Ezra in the surviving Yesod Mora colophon, suggesting the latter’s stay in Tzarfat.
There are several other intriguing clues that began circulating in the Middle Ages about Ibn Ezra’s place of death; my favorites place him back in his beloved Sefarad or, at last, in Eretz Yisrael. Those are stories for another time. For now, I’ll just note that only a narrow thread of evidence suggests that Ibn Ezra ever left northern Europe: it has to do, really and truly, with a horoscope, ascribed to Ibn Ezra, written for a child born in October 1160 in Narbonne (titled משפטי הנולד משנת ד'תתקכ"א, see here and here). For this reason, some scholars place Ibn Ezra back in southern France at the end of his life. Others, Taku’s demons notwithstanding, suggest that England, his last known port of call, makes logical sense.
Astrological diagram from a 14th-century compendium of Ibn Ezra's astronomical & astrological works. Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Ms. LJS 57.
Astrological diagram from a 14th-century compendium of Ibn Ezra's astronomical & astrological works. Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Ms. LJS 57.
If we marshal all the sources, accepting them as basically accurate and viewing them in totality, it seems clear that Ibn Ezra moved from Rouen, Normandy to London, England around 1157, in his sixties. There he taught a young patron, Yosef b. Yaakov, dictating commentaries on Tanakh to him and writing for him a book on the meanings behind the commandments of the Torah. Ibn Ezra also continued his scientific work, writing an opinionated treatise on the calendar and heading it with poetry in quantitative meter. He may have spent time in other English Jewish communities. It is possible that he died in England.
But, like a lot of information about the distant past, much of this evidence is dependent upon cross-references, hints, attributions, and narrowly-surviving texts. So this is a story about the unlikely coming of a Sefardi rabbi to the Jewish outpost of London, “the end of the earth,” and it’s also a story of how we make our stories about the past. Ibn Ezra’s improbable English chapter is less definitive than we might imagine it to be. But that its echoes survive make it all the more amazing.
Question for you: Would you like to see sources added to the newsletter? I initially left them out because really, footnotes in a newsletter? But, just links don’t seem like enough. What format would you prefer for notes?
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Dr. Tamar Marvin
Dr. Tamar Marvin @tamar_marvin

A weekly newsletter featuring lesser-known stories from Jewish history—and what they can tell us about Jewish life today. Written by a semikha student at Yeshivat Maharat and PhD in Medieval and Early Modern Jewish Studies.

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