Skyscript home page

The Medieval Jewish Background
Life and Work of Abraham
Abraham and Astrology
About the Author

120 aphorisms for astrologers by Abraham Ibn Ezra. Click here to view

The life and work of Abraham ibn Ezra by David McCann

The Medieval Jewish Background

When the Arabs conquered the Near East in the 7th century, they found themselves rulers of lands which had a far higher cultural tradition than their own and a great diversity of faiths. This circumstance had two results: firstly, the fruits of ancient scholarship were translated into Arabic, initially from Syriac and Persian, later directly from Greek; secondly, education was established as a non-denominational activity, since it was originally provided by non-Muslims. In the field of astrology, Albategnus was a pagan; Alcabitius, a Muslim; Alfraganus, a Christian; and Messahala, a Jew. All wrote in Arabic and all presented their work in a context free from religious associations. An even more striking case is that of the 'Arab' philosopher Avicebron, widely read in medieval Europe - only in the 17th century was it realised that he was Solomon Ibn Gabirol, the Jewish liturgical poet.

An important part in transmitting the Classical heritage back from the Arabs to Western Europe was played by the Jews of Spain, for they moved freely on either side of the divide between Islam and Christendom. Since they did not learn Latin, which was then only taught by the Church, translation often involved collaboration between a Jew, who translated from Arabic into Castilian or Catalan, and a priest, who turned the vernacular version into Latin. Thus Plato of Tivoli, who made the first Latin version of the Tetrabiblos in the 1130s, worked with Abraham bar Hiyyah. Alfonso the Wise of Castile, who supervised the production of the Alfonsine Tables for the calculation of planetary positions (ca. 1270), similarly made much use of Jewish scholarship.

The position of the Jews in Spain had always been difficult and notable pogroms took place during Abraham's lifetime. The Christians were generally protected by their superior numbers, for persecuting them might have led to a peasant rising. The situation had deteriorated in 1085 when the Almoravid Berbers from Morocco united Andalusia under a Shiite regime. Although that state collapsed in 1144, the Arab rising which brought this about hardly encouraged good public order. Many Jews moved to the Arab east or the Christian north. The latter migration no more caused the '12th Century Renascence' than the fall of Constantinople produced the 15th century one, but it must have helped. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism eventually led to Arabic education passing into the hands of the religious authorities, and it also rendered that education less worth having. By the end of the 12th century, Samuel Ibn Tibbon could write from Italy to North Africa

"I have seen that the true sciences are widespread in the lands where I live, far more than in Mahometan countries."

The popular idea that the Jews were generally oppressed in medieval Europe is wide of the mark for the civilised Mediterranean lands. In Castile, the penalty for injuring a Jew was the same as that for injuring a nobleman. The relations between Jew and Christian could be closer than between Jew and Muslim, for they worked together not only in fields like astrology, but even in Old Testament criticism. By the Renascence, the Italian universities had opened their doors to Jews: five centuries before their English counterparts!

Life and Work of Abraham

Abraham ben Me'ir ibn Ezra, (known in the Middle Ages as Avenezra), was born at Tudela in Spain (then in the Emirate of Saragossa) in 1092 or 1093. Members of his family seem to have held important official posts in Andalucia, but, like many poets and scholars, Abraham disclaimed any skill at earning a living: 'If I sold candles', he wrote, 'the sun would never set; if I dealt in shrouds, men would become immortal'. No doubt as a result of the conditions in Spain, he spent most of his life abroad. Up to the 1140s, he made many journeys to North Africa and even to Iraq. The rest of his life was spent moving around Italy and France, and from 1158 to 1160 he even lived in London. He appears to have relied on the hospitality earned by his poetry and teaching, though the welcome was not always warm:

I come at morn to the nobly born: they say 'He's away'
I return at night: 'He needs his rest', they say.
With my patron asleep or riding afar,
I clearly live under an evil star.

Nor was the traveling always comfortable:

To whom shall I cry in my anguish?
O where shall I flee from these flies?
They sing in my ears all their love songs,
And crawl on my brow and my eyes.

Jews in Arab lands normally wrote in Arabic, the language of both literature and everyday urban speech, but Abraham (like the Jews of Christendom) always used Hebrew. His poetry was nevertheless much influenced by Arabic verse in its style. It covered a great range of moods and themes: love, wine, religion, didactic topics, and occasional verse. He even anticipated 'the Mouse's Tale' in Alice in Wonderland, with a poem in the shape of a tree.

His prose works, numbering over one hundred, were produced after his move to Italy. The most famous was his complete Bible commentary. Most of this survives and is still used today. It sometimes appears rather modern: ancient and medieval exegesis usually involved the assumption that the text means more than it says; Abraham said that all that is necessary is to define the words, sort out the grammar, and accept that the sentence means exactly what it says. In practice, he often went a great deal further, but his Platonist philosophy was discreetly veiled so as not to offend the ultra-orthodox. Thus in commenting on the first verse of Genesis, he showed that the verb bara 'to create' can also mean 'to shape' or 'to divide' and then added a favourite comment: 'let him who can understand, do so'. In other words, without actually saying so, he implied that the physical world was shaped from pre-existing elements, rather than created from nothing. Most of his philosophy was presented obliquely in this fashion. In the exact sciences, he covered mathematics, the calendar, and the use of the astrolabe and planetary tables.

Other books dealt with such diverse fields as nutrition, how to play chess, and the relation between the Hebrew and Arabic languages. Ibn Ezra died in 1167: some say in Rome, others that, knowing his end was approaching, he set out for his native Spain and died just over the frontier.

Abraham and Astrology

Abraham's writings on astrology comprise about a dozen short books, covering natal, electional, horary, medical, and mundane astrology. They naturally rely on earlier Arabic sources but Abraham normally added his own opinions. In the 13th century some of these works were translated into French; later, all were rendered into Latin by the astrologer Pietro d'Abano. In 1939 Rachael Levy and Francisco Cantera undertook the translation of The Beginning of Wisdom, recently republished in a new translation by ARHAT Publications, who have also added The Book of Reasons to their list. Ezra's Critical Days has long been available in English, having been reproduced within Culpepper's 17th century text The Astrological Judgement of Disease.

Following Aristotle and the Platonists, Abraham divided the universe into three parts: the spiritual, celestial, and sublunary worlds. The celestial world serves to link the two others, transmitting God's will to earth. This is why astrology played such a central part in medieval thought, providing a basic framework for explanation and classification: e.g. a modern textbook on mineralogy classifies rocks by their composition, but a medieval one by their astrological rulership. Like all medieval philosophers, Abraham accepted that the stars exercised a direct influence; but only on the body, for the soul belongs to the spiritual world. This influence can only be altered miraculously, but that can be done not just by God, but also by virtuous people (like the prophets of Israel) who have united themselves to God. Like many modern astrologers, Abraham also held that it is possible to modify the influence of a planet by accepting it. In other words, if you have a transit of Saturn, any sort of Saturnian activity voluntarily undertaken will fulfil the requirements of fate and prevent further, less welcome, Saturnian experiences. In this context, he explained the ancient Jewish ritual of driving out and stoning the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement as an acceptance of the influence of Mars for the year, by a Martian action towards a Martian animal. Similarly, he held that it was possible to attract the favourable influences of the planets by the use of things ruled by them - i.e. through the sort of planetary magic later associated with Marsilio Ficino - though he admitted that this is prohibited by Talmudic law.

Abraham frequently went his own way in astrology: he was one of the few to follow Ptolemy on the calculation of the Part of Fortune. He also wrote 'If you come across a book by Albumassar on the conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn, ignore it: no sensible man would agree with it.' This was not a rejection of the effect of the great conjunctions however, since elsewhere he quoted Ibn Gabirol's interpretation of a passage in Daniel, to the effect that the Messiah would be born after a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. It is notable that such a conjunction did occur in 7 BC. Somewhere he encountered what we now know as the Placidian house system, for he outlines its connection with directions in his book on the astrolabe. The instructions for finding the cusps which follow are, however, for the Alcabitius system, but this may be the work of a copyist who thought he was correcting a mistake.

The Beginning of Wisdom summarises the foundations of astrology, rather like the first book of the Tetrabiblos. Abraham gives a condensed but detailed account of the signs of the zodiac and their subdivisions; the aspects; the houses; the planets and how their natures are affected by position, phase, and aspect; and the planetary parts. The chapter on the parts is based on the well known work of Albumassar, but unlike Albiruni, who gave the same list with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, Abraham found space to explain the use of the less obvious parts in mundane astrology, such as the part of rain and the various parts of commodities. His eighth chapter - reproduced on this site from the Levy-Cantera translation - contained 120 aphorisms and generalizations on astrology, highly relevant for the art of horary.

The Book of Reasons was intended to be read alongside The Beginning of Wisdom as a commentary, explaining everything in the rationalistic way inherited from Ptolemy and so popular in the Middle Ages. But he also added new material, such as an explanation of how to find the hyleg. One ingenious idea is his method of calculating solar returns. One year is approximately 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes in length. This means that the first return occurs 5 hours 49 minutes after the birth time and each successive return is later than the previous one by the same amount. Using this method, Abraham could get reliable returns, by-passing the inaccuracy of the old ephemerides. Even for a middle-aged client, the error was only 10 minutes; by contrast, the error in the returns of Lilly and his contemporaries could be half an hour or more. As ever, he was never overawed by established authority: he has tried Ptolemy's method of rectification many times, he tells us, and it doesn't work.

Although not a household name in medieval astrology, like Alcabitius or Guido Bonatti, Abraham was admired and often quoted by his contemporaries. The translation efforts of modern astrologer-linguists such as Meira Epstein may ensure that all of his known works become available in English. For details of publications presently available, refer to her site at:

Jewish Scholars in Medieval Europe

Jewish Scholars
in Medieval Europe

 Read: 120 Aphorisms from Ibn Ezra

David McCann, who lives in London, is an expert on the history and philosophy of astrology. His articles have been published in many international journals of astrology and he was a regular contributor to the Traditional Astrologer magazine, where this article first appeared.

© David McCann, 1995
This article was first published in The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, issue 10, August 1995