Ibn Ezra and Karaites

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In the comments to a recent post, a debate emerged regarding the Ibn Ezra’s attitude towards Karaite commentators to the Bible. Hirhurim contributor and frequent commenter Steve Brizel cited R. Yonatan Kolatch’s recent book Masters of the Word and some confusion emerged regarding this position. Below are the relevant excerpts from R. Kolatch’s lengthy masterpiece on Jewish Bible commentary. As is true throughout the book, R. Kolatch represents an informed but conservative view.

R. Yonatan Kolatch, Masters of the Word, vol. 2 pp. 280, 309:
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In his Torah commentary, Ibn Ezra quotes Karaite commentators extensively, occasionally even detailing his debates with them.[35] While he cites some Karaite interpretations with agreement and respect, such as those of certain eleventh century Jerusalem Karaites (the grammarian, Aharon ben Yeshuah and the communal leader, Yeshua ben Yehudah),[36] his stance vis-à-vis Karaism was principally defiant and discrediting. Apparently he was contesting not merely ancient Karaite views that had gained a foothold in various Middle Eastern Jewish communities over several centuries, but active Karaite contemporaries in his native Spain…

Ibn Ezra quotes Karaite commentators several hundred times in his Bible commentary. According to his introduction, their commentaries are detached from the Oral Tradition and therefore unreliable. Ibn Ezra reserves some of his most vicious language for these commentators, pronouncing them “intellectually deficient,”[141] “mindless,”[142] “lacking in faith,”[143] and “empty-headed.”[144] He refers to Karaites as “Sadducees” and “the deniers.”[145]

Nevertheless, Ibn Ezra was castigated for quoting their misguided views, thereby legitimizing them somewhat, and for appearing to agree with some of them.[146] Indeed, he cites the Jerusalemite Karaite, Yeshua (ben Yehudah) at least forty times,[147] seemingly in concurrence. Moreover, Ibn Ezra quotes the Karaite Yefet (ben Ali HaLevi, late tenth century) more than one hundred times,[148] often complimenting his interpretations.[149] Thus, Maharshal (R. Shlomo Luria, circa 1510-1573) writes that Ibn Ezra’s commentary “has lent support to heretics and Sudducees [i.e., Karaites] and those of little faith,”[150], while Abarbanel (1437-1508) notes disapprovingly that Ibn Ezra was “influenced by Karaite commentators and occasionally follows their opinions.”[151]

Recent scholars have countered that Ibn Ezra wrote his commentary to refute Karaite legal interpretations. The complex issue of Ibn Ezra’s relationship to the Karaites has been discussed at length[153] but remains a subject of much debate.

[35] See, for example, Ibn Ezra commentary to Vayikra 7:20.
[36] D. Frank (2000), pp. 120, 125.
[141] Ibn Ezra on Bereishit 32:33.
[142] Ibn Ezra on Bereishit 15:13.
[143] Ibn Ezra on Devarim 33:2.
[144] Ibn Ezra on Bereishit 33:18.
[145] Mikraot Gedolot Torat Chaim (1986), vol. 1, p. 6.
[146] This condemnation came from Abarbanel and Maharshal, mentioned below, as well as Shadal, cited by R. Zer (2000), introduction. Sarna presents several theories as to why Ibn Ezra quotes Karaite commentators so often. See N. Sarna (2000), p. 152.
[147] For example, see Ibn Ezra on Bereishit 28:12; Shemot 7:12, 17:16.
[148] For example, see Ibn Ezra on Shemot 3:3, 12:16, 22:27.
[149] For example, Ibn Ezra often commends Yefet with the words ויפה פירש (a play on words of his name, meaning, “He explained nicely”). See E.Z. Melamed (1975), pp. 676-679. Karaites even claimed that Yefet was Ibn Ezra’s teacher! See R. Zer (2000), p. 101; M. Friedlaender (1873), p. xi.
[150] S. Luria (1970), vol. 1, first introduction to Chullin, and introduction to Bava Kamma.
[151] Abarbanel on Vayikra 19:20, Bamidbar 21:1, and elsewhere.
[152] See P. Weiss (1944).
[153] See R. Zer (2000), pp. 97-104.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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