The Particulars Are Constantly Being Destroyed (Abraham Ibn Ezra) (Sefer Yesod Mora ve-Sod Ha-Torah)

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I’m willing to speculate that Abraham ibn Ezra named this little book for the double rhyme between yesod and sod, mora and ha-Torah. It provides a little order or structure. I stumbled across a reference to the translation of this text by H. Norman Strickman, so I ordered a copy of Sefer Yesod Mora ve-Sod Ha-Torah and gave it a read. In English, the title is Treatise on the Foundation of Awe and the Secret of the Torah. There’s more to this little book than meets the eye.

A lot of what’s on the surface won’t come as a surprise. There’s the interest in grammar and natural science as a foundation upon which to understand Torah. There are also the taamei mitzvot by which the author understands the purpose of the commandments as relating to physical health and healing, perfecting the heart, thoughts and imagination, and the coordination of belief, speech, and action. In addition to God as King, ibn Ezra presents to us God as Physician. Elegant and graceful, all of this is kind of lovely, a little jewel in the crown of the Sephardic medieval tradition in Judaism.

What’s getting at ibn Ezra under the surface is the tension between disorder and order. He’s bothered by change, motion, flux. It is as if the world has become large. There are the heavenly bodies that change course. The particular meanings of Scripture that are not clearly established. The variety between contingent versus fundamental mitzvot, various types of birds mentioned in the Torah, different counting of mitzvot, for which there actually seems to be no number. Some are obsolete, others specific to Moses.

Ibn Ezra wants firm foundations provided by those fundamental, eternally binding, universal commandments (p.39). This universal and the desire for that which is eternally binding is in tension with what seems to be the larger point about contingent existence. Indeed, a quick read through ibn Ezra’s text confronts the reader with a bewildering count of precepts and points of grammar. That larger point regarding contingent existence would be this. “When studying all arts and sciences, one does not seek to know all the particulars, for it is not in man’s capacity to know their ultimate number. The particulars are constantly being destroyed and their number changes from moment to moment” (p.38-9)

 

 

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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