My journey with Abraham ibn Ezra began on Sproul Plaza of the University of California. You might think I would have begun my studies of ibn Ezra in my first year of study in Israel. No. Perhaps when I began studying with Jacob Milgrom or Baruch Bokser. No. It began on a grey autumn day in Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Sproul Plaza is one of those quintissential college locations. Organizations created by and for students set up their tables and did their best to snag anyone passing by and convince them of the hard and vast truth of their opinions. Chaim Citron’s “Encounter With Chabad” table stood out for the reason of its quietude. Day after day, Chaim would sit reading a book and chat with anyone who cared to chat with him.
At some point I discovered that Chaim was no ordinary Chabadnik. Actually, he wasn’t a Chabadnik at all, if by that term one means a person born and raised in the Lubavitch community. Chaim was a child of the same part of the world from which I hailed, the Bronx. If I remember correctly he was from the somewhat nicer sections of the North Bronx than the South which was my lot in early life. His education was traditionally Jewish, but not Lubavitch–he attended a synagogue and Yeshiva affiliated with the Young Israel movement. While to outsiders Young Israel might look like the ultra-Orthodox, they are better thought of as the moderate branch of Orthodoxy.
I can’t recall how Chaim decided to sign up with Chabad, but he did and somehow he drew the Berkeley portfolio. And so it was that he was sitting at a table in Sproul Plaza as I wandered by on my way to or from a class on rabbinic Judaism or Classical Greek. He had a table near Sather Gate draped with a banner that read “Encounter With Chabad.” Between visitors he would while away the hours reading, usually some exotic-looking Hebrew text. Normally I preferred to keep away from these tables, but there was something about Chaim I found enchanting–it was 1975 and so it is anachronistic to say–but he resembled Dumbledore. At some point we struck up a conversation, and then it became a friendship. For a while, I even attended services at Chabad House. (Eventually, my strong pro-feminist feelings made it too uncomfortable for me to continue doing so, but I never tired of talking to Chaim.)
One gray day in the late Autumn, as I passed by Chaim’s table I noticed him chuckling. I wandered over to see what was so funny and I saw that he was studying a page in the Miqra’ot G’dolot (the great Rabbinic Bible which includes the text of the Bible, translations into Aramaic, and a variety of commentators). “Care to share the joke?” I said. Chaim replied (and it is almost 40 years ago, so you’ll have to forgive the paraphrase), “I’ve read ibn Ezra’s comment to this verse in Genesis many times, but I think I understand it now!” What follows is my recollection of what we learned, slightly embellished to make things a little more plain for a general audience.
The verse is Genesis 29:17, and the story regards Jacob’s apprenticeship with his uncle Laban. Jacob fell in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel and asked for her hand. Laban agreed, but when the marriage was performed, Jacob found himself wed to the older daughter, Leah. The question of why Laban did this is easy to answer–he insisted that the older daughter had to be married first (and readers must recall that this was a polygamous society, so marrying Leah would be no obstacle to an additional marriage to Rachel). But why did Jacob not care for Leah to begin with? The author supplies the answer: “The eyes of Leah were rakot (רַכּ֑וֹת)”. I left the word in Hebrew because that is the crux–we know that the word rakh means “soft.” But what is the implication of “soft eyes”?
Various interpretations over the milennia have sought to explain the text. Even without Hebrew knowledge, you can test this by looking in some common English translations of this text. The oldest English translation in common use (the King James Version) says: “Leah was tender eyed, but Rachel was beautiful.” Why is tender not beautiful? The original version of the Jewish Publication Society (1917) says “And Leah’s eyes were weak but Rachel was of beautiful form.” This version seems to explain the Hebrew term as conveying a physical impairment which might explain why Jacob would have been uninterested. This is as good an explanation as any, but I am personally dissatisfied. Among other reasons, I don’t find anything in all the stories about the remainder of Leah’s life with Jacob to suggest that she has such an impairment. The revised JPS (1962) keeps the rendering weak. The American Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1952) also adopts the reading of weak.
The original version of the New English Bible–in my opinion one of the most innovative and interesting of modern translations reads the verse “Leah was dull-eyed, but Rachel was graceful and beautiful.” Still, what does “dull-eyed” mean?
By this point you may be getting impatient. So what is the correct answer? What was wrong with Leah’s eyes? And what does any of this have to do with Abraham ibn Ezra?
It turns out that a medieval commentator named ben Ephraim thought he had the answer. Ben Ephraim wrote a commentary on Genesis and at 29:17 he wrote haser aleph. We wouldn’t have heard of ben Ephraim if it weren’t for ibn Ezra, because ibn Ezra quotes from his commentary, but no full edition of ben Ephraim’s commentary has survived. ibn Ezra cites ben Ephraim, and then replies “v’hu hayah haser aleph.” What does this mean?
ibn Ezra goes on to explain that ben Ephraim was suggesting that the text was incorrect. Instead of rakot one should add back the missing aleph and read it arukhot (ארכות). arukhot means long. So ben Ephraim emends the text. Whatever you might think about the idea of emending the Biblical text, you have to ask, how does “long eyes” improve the meaning of the text? ibn Ezra’s caustic retort plainly says that it doesn’t. But what did ibn Ezra mean? That was the reason why Chaim Citron was chuckling–he figured it out.
v’hu hayah haser aleph roughly translates to: “And he was lacking aleph.” In Hebrew, the term “was lacking” can be rendered “he should have been lacking”. Just as ben Ephraim was suggesting that we should add an aleph into the text, ibn Ezra suggests that we remove an aleph from ben Ephraim. What happens when you remove the aleph? You get “ben Parim”, which translates to son of bulls. To get the full flavor of this in English, (and please forgive the crudity), ibn Ezra was saying, “and ben Ephraim was a bullshitter.” This may also convey something of the reasons why ibn Ezra led a peripatetic life in his last few decades. A more gentle explanation, by the way, is that “haser aleph” means “lacking an education” as the term aleph-bet is commonly used as an indication of learning.
So, you might ask, what was ibn Ezra’s explanation for rakot? He says simply, “It means what it means.” (k’mashme`o). In other words, it means soft. If you want to know what soft means, look at other instances of the word in the Bible. But the important lesson here is that whatever it means, ibn Ezra was a consummate grammarian and whether or not he would be open to the notion of emending the text, he certainly didn’t think it worth emending one difficult text to make it even more difficult!
Without intending to disparage my professorial mentors at Berkeley, I have to say that the lesson I learned at the side of Rabbi Chaim Citron that day had more of an intellectual impact on me than any classroom Bible lesson I can easily recall. The sparkle in his eye and the simple delight of getting a joke written a milennium ago was priceless.