Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra


Born: 1092 in Tudela, Emirate of Saragossa (now Spain)
Died: 1167 in Calahorra, Spain

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Rabbi Ben Ezra lived in Muslim Spain. Little is known of his life except that he was on friendly terms with the eminent poet and philosopher Judah ha-Levi, who some historians believe was ibn Ezra's father-in-law. Ibn Ezra made his reputation as a scholar and a poet. It is recorded that during this period of his life, up to 1140, he travelled to North Africa and possibly visited Egypt.

From 1140 to 1160 ibn Ezra's life changed markedly. He was forced to wander throughout Europe during this period and he eventually settled down in Rome, then Lucca, for a few years before his death. It was during this latter period of his life that he composed his most famous works. In addition to his poetry, ibn Ezra wrote on [7]:-

... grammar, exegesis, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and astrology.

In addition to these topics, ibn Ezra wrote on permutations and combinations, the calendar, the astrolabe, and Biblical studies. He is of particular importance because he spread the learning of the Arabs through Europe at a time when scholarship in Christian Europe had been been neglected for five hundred or more years.

Of the most interest to us in this archive devoted to the history of mathematics is ibn Ezra's work on numbers. He wrote three treatises on numbers which helped to bring the Indian symbols and ideas of decimal fractions to the attention of some of the learned people in Europe. The Book of the Unit is a work on the Indian symbols 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. A second work is the Book of the Number which describes the decimal system for integers with place values from left to right. In this work ibn Ezra uses zero which he calls galgal (meaning wheel or circle). Despite ibn Ezra's books, these ideas would not become accepted into mainstream European mathematics for several more centuries.

Ibn Ezra translated al-Biruni's commentary on al-Khwarizmi's tables and made interesting comments on the introduction of Indian mathematics into Arabic science in the 8th century. Historians of science try today to quantify precisely how much Arabic mathematics was influenced by knowledge of Indian mathematics, so ibn Ezra's writing on this topic are carefully studied.

Ibn Ezra's writings on grammar and poetry were often motivated by the "paytanim" [2]:-

Synagogues began ... to appoint official precentors, part of whose duty it was to compose poetical additions to the liturgy on special Sabbaths and festivals. The authors were called "paytanim" (from the Greek poietes, "poet"), their poems "piyyutim". The keynote was messianic fervour and religious exuberance. Besides employing the entire biblical, Mishnaic, and Aramaic vocabularies, the paytanim coined thousands of new words. ... Abraham ibn Ezra... attacked the language and style of the early paytanim; he [was] the first to use Arabic metres in religious poems.

In fact to ibn Ezra there was no conflict between science and religion for he considered that science and astrology were at the basis of Jewish learning [7]:-

For ibn Ezra revelation and reason are ultimately perfectly congruent. His critical reading of the biblical text and his astrological interpretations of some biblical passages arise from his consistent application of a naturalist and rationalistic exegetical method and express his commitment to the view that rationality in inherent in revelation itself.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

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List of References (11 books/articles)

Some Quotations (2)

Mathematicians born in the same country

Honours awarded to Rabbi Ben Ezra
(Click below for those honoured in this way)
Lunar featuresCrater A ben Ezra

Cross-references in MacTutor

  1. History Topics: A history of Zero

Other Web sites
  1. Encyclopaedia Britannica

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    JOC/EFR November 1999
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    School of Mathematics and Statistics
    University of St Andrews, Scotland
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