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.