A poet, exegete of the Bible, astronomer and astrologer, mathematician, grammarian and translator, Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1165) has a unique place in the history of Jewish culture and thought. Of Andalusian origin, he played an essential role in transmitting and diffusing elements of Islamic and Judaeo-Arabic culture in northern Europe during the twelfth century.
After long travels in Italy, North Africa, Egypt and Provence, Ibn Ezra settled in Rouen around the year 1149, when his immense knowledge was at its peak. Rashbam was then head of the rabbinic school there, and the consequent intellectual reputation of the city may explain why one of the most eminent Jewish intellectuals of the time chose to settle there. It was in Rouen, in 1153, that the 64-year-old man began his seminal work on Exodus. In the poem that serves as a preface to the work, he himself accounts for the choice of this theme. In Rouen, he had fallen ill, but, as he writes, the Lord helped him recover …health, so I vowed …to comment on the Law given at Sinai. The Rouennaise Jew who had aided him during his illness until he again resembled a green shoot, was himself named Moses, and it was to him that the work was dedicated.
The colophon of the work indicates how important it was to Ibn Ezra: The book of Exodus, a writing of Abraham, finished in the year 4913 (1153 A.D.), as precious as onyx. From manuscripts of this work we learn that there was conceived to be a difference in longitude of three hours between Jerusalem and Rouen.
Two years later, he had finished a commentary on the Psalms, another on the Twelve Minor Prophets and, a few years later, another on the Book of Daniel. After a sojourn in England, where he wrote Yessod Mora and the Epistle on the Sabbath (1158), he returned to Rouen and engaged in various literary projects, from biblical commentaries (the Book of Esther, the Song of Solomon) to astrological works and translations from Arabic into Hebrew of treatises on Hebrew grammar.
During his stay in Rouen, Ibn Ezra also played an essential part in the propagation of writings known in Islamic countries but not communicated elsewhere because they had been composed in Arabic.
He may be the translator of The Book of Beliefs and Opinions by Sa’adiah Gaon, the great sage of Baghdad, which inspired Berakhiah, the Rouennaise author of two ethical treatises written at the end of the twelfth century. What is certain is that, in his commentary on Exodus, he refers to the exegesis of Sa’adiah at least seventy-five times. Many other writers, thinkers, and scientists, Jewish as well as Muslim, from the Near East, North Africa, and Andalusia, were revealed to the scholars of Rouen thanks to him. His works also abound in details concerning customs prevalent in Arab countries: the way food is cooked, fa-shion, women’s jewelry, childbearing, the death penalty, and rituals. Ibn Ezra not only made the literature and science of these far-away countries known, but also revealed what daily life was like there and what otherwise unknown substances they used, such as musk, fine wheat flour, and rice.
It was also in Rouen that he gave the final touch to his researches on astronomy and astrology. In 1153, he finished his Tables of the Heavens (i.e., the Astronomical Tables and the Nativities). His works thereupon became known not only to the Jewish scholars of Normandy, England, and France who had access to the original Hebrew texts, but also to non-Jewish scholars through Latin translations. Thus, the translation of the Astronomical Tables into Latin in 1154 allows us to infer that Ibn Ezra had been in contact with Christian scholars who, in Rouen, were interested in astronomy. Later on, his works were translated often, were studied at the University of Paris and became famous throughout Europe.