Another View on Rabbi Abraham Ibn-Ezra's Contribution to Medieval Hebrew Grammar

By Charlap, Luba | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview

Another View on Rabbi Abraham Ibn-Ezra's Contribution to Medieval Hebrew Grammar


Charlap, Luba, Hebrew Studies Journal


The purpose of this article is to illustrate the contribution of Abraham Ibn-Ezra to the study of Hebrew Grammar in the medieval period. While a broad consensus maintains that Ibn-Ezra disseminated the legacy of Jewish grammatical knowledge in Andalusia into Christian Europe, there is little agreement about his original contribution to the insights of his predecessors.

This article describes the setting of Ibn-Ezra's work and, through a series of focused case studies, examines how he used the body of knowledge available to him in working out original solutions to vexing grammatical questions.

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In this paper we present a perspective which further illuminates the contribution of Rabbi Abraham Ibn-Ezra to medieval Hebrew grammar.

Ibn-Ezra, born in Tudela, Spain, around 1089, was a disciple of Jewish-Andalusian scholars in the land of his birth. (1) Because of the political situation in Spain, he moved to Italy in 1140, and thereafter wandered, under miserable conditions, in France and England as well. By producing Hebrew translations of Yehuda Hayyuj's (2) philological books (that were originally written in Arabic) and by writing his own philological books and Bible commentaries in Hebrew during these travels, he distributed the legacy of the Andalusian tradition to the Jews in Christian Europe. (3) Indeed, in historical perspective, Ibn-Ezra is regarded as the main disseminator of this tradition.

Many researchers who dealt with his philological theory, either exclusively or in the general context of Medieval linguistics, do not consider Ibn-Ezra an original thinker. Wilhelm Bacher, undoubtedly the greatest researcher of Ibn-Ezra's works, described Ibn-Ezra's grammar in Abraham Ibn-Ezra als Grammatiker. In his introduction, Bacher describes Ibn-Ezra's books as "Lehrbucher" (study books), meaning by that term that they were not intended to innovate, but rather to explicate the theory of Yehuda Hayyuj and his predecessors to Jews who did not understand Arabic. (4) According to Bacher, as the first writer to present Hayyuj's Hebrew grammatical theory in the language to which it referred, Ibn-Ezra was essentially a major teacher and conveyor of Hayyuj's heritage.

This perception was accepted by researchers writing after Bacher. W. Chomsky wrote:

   [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

   One cannot find innovations in his grammatical books, but in these
   books, also in the grammatical notes that he integrated in his
   Bible commentaries, he succeeded in giving the opinions of Hayyuj,
   Ibn-Janah and (Shemuel) HaNagid a Hebrew format. (5)

The same opinion is expressed by D. Tene. Upon dividing studies of medieval Hebrew grammar into four periods, he refers to Ibn-Ezra as the ultimate representative of the last period, the period of dissemination, and views his writings merely as summaries of the ideas of Hayyuj, Ibn-Janah, Shemuel HaNagid and others. (6)

N. Aloni emphasizes that, although Hayyuj had some effect on the development of Ibn-Ezra's thought, the decisive influence on Ibn-Ezra (especially on his book Yesod Digduq) (7) was that of Yona Ibn-Janah. He concludes that Ibn-Ezra condensed Ibn-Janah's works and explicated them. Y. Levin's also characterizes Ibn-Ezra's books as "study books," that is, not research; in addition, he criticizes his mode of writing and the lack of a unified style. (8)

A. S. Badillos, however, evaluates Ibn-Ezra differently. He adjudges Ibn-Ezra to have formulated original ideas in addition to synthesizing the contemporary linguistic theories and distributing them to the European community. (9) Badillos concludes, "His contribution to the history of Hebrew philology deserves a very positive evaluation." (10)

Below, we present selected topics from Ibn-Ezra's grammatical theory that demonstrate that he was indeed an independent and unique thinker despite his eclecticism. (11) As a grammarian knowledgeable in the writings of his predecessors, he selectively accepted some of their theories, while rejecting others as inappropriate to his analyses. …

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