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Abraham Ibn Ezra’s, The Book of Reasons by Dr. Shlomo Sela

Book Review

Abraham Ibn Ezra’s The Book of Reasons
Edited, translated, and annotated by Shlomo Sela

ISBN: 978 90 04 15764 4, Hardback, xii, 400 pp.
Published by Brill, 2007.
Price: € 115.00 / US$ 161.00.

Reviewed by Steven Birchfield

I have been studying a new translation of Abraham Ibn Ezra’s, The Book of Reasons (Sefer ha-Te‘amim). Perhaps there are some few who are familiar with this work. It was translated fairly early in Project Hindsight’s beginnings by Meira B. Epstein (for details click here). Mrs. Epstein then translated Ibn Ezra’s, The Beginning of Wisdom (Reshit Hokhmah) for Rob Hand’s ARHAT. Until this year, these were the only modern translations of these works from the original Hebrew. Well, that’s not exactly true. The Beginning of Wisdom was published first in 1939 by Raphael Levy and Fransisco Cantera which incorporated the Hebrew text, an inadequate English translation of the Hebrew original, and an edition of the old French version of 1273. This is the text that Mrs. Epstein used in her translation to which we owe a great debt of thanks for her efforts.

First I need to explain a little about the author of this work and the project he is engaged in. This new translation is done by Dr. Shlomo Sela who is a Ph.D (1998) in the History of Science at Tel-Aviv University and is a lecturer in the Bible and Jewish Philosophy Departments at Bar-Ilan University. His research focuses on Jewish attitudes toward the sciences, with special interest in the history of astrology in the Middle Ages. If anyone is interested in the life of Ibn Ezra then I strongly recommend another book Dr. Sela published in 2003 entitled, Abraham Ibn Ezra and the Rise of Medieval Hebrew Science, which is also available through Brill Publishers right now at a special offer of €69 or US $99. The main focus of this book is the study of Abraham Ibn Ezra’s (1089-1167) scientific thought within the historical and cultural context of his times. The first part of the book provides a comprehensive picture of Ibn Ezra’s scientific corpus. The second part studies his linguistic strategy. The third and fourth parts study Ibn Ezra’s introductions to his scientific treatises and the fifth part is devoted to studying four ‘encounters’ with Claudius Ptolemy, the main scientific character featuring in Ibn Ezra’s literary work. Without a doubt, Dr. Sela is currently the world’s leading authority on Ibn Ezra.

This current publication is actually only the first product of a larger enterprise—a scholastic edition of all twelve of Ibn Ezra’s astrological treatises. This current volume of The Book of Reasons offers a critical Hebrew text of the two versions of Ibn Ezra’s Sefer ha-Te'amim, accompanied by an annotated English translation and commentary. While Dr. Sela has done the translating it is the product of a collaboration of several leading authorities. For example Dr. Charles Burnett collaborated with valuable suggestions on astrological, astronomical and linguistic topics. For those who may not know the name, Dr. Burnett is responsible for the translations of Abu Ma’shar’s Abbreviated Introduction to Astrology, the massive compendium of the same author’s work On Conjunctions, and is currently translating the entire Greater Introduction from the original Arabic. He is also the translator of Al Qabisi’s (Alchabitius in the Latin) work from the original Arabic and is collaborator on many numerous projects concerning the restoration of original Arabic science and astrology.

The two treatises presented here in Dr. Sela’s first volume, were designed by Ibn Ezra to offer “reasons”, “explanations”, or “meanings” of the raw astrological concepts formulated in the introduction to astrology that Ibn Ezra entitled Beginning of Wisdom. Now it may seem a bit strange that there are two versions of The Book of Reasons. But once one understands a bit about Ibn Ezra’s life, then that strangeness becomes awareness. In his introduction, Dr. Sela tells us in general what he explains in more detail in his earlier volume on Ibn Ezra,

Two general statements can be made about Ibn Ezra’s astrological work. First, although composed of at least twelve separate treatises, it may be considered to constitute a single astrological encyclopaedia, whose unity derives from a network of cross-references, or a single major work divided into chapters, which deal separately with the four main systems of Arabic astrology: nativities, elections, interrogations, and general (mundane) astrology. Second, most of the individual treatises were composed in at least two different versions or recensions, which indicates that Ibn Ezra supported himself by his pen, writing a new version of an old work for a new patron when he arrived in a new town, and that he could keep stimulating the attention and curiosity of readers all along his itinerary through Latin Europe.

I should point out here that as far as the historical record is concerned, there is absolutely no evidence that Ibn Ezra ever held a position as a practicing astrologer and that he was, by all accounts, simply a philosophical, religious and scientific commenter and writer. It was his writing that was popular and from the second half of the thirteenth century until the nineteenth century, translations appear in Latin, French and other European languages.

Some of the interesting points with this work are Ibn Ezra’s sources which he quotes continually and in his comments also raises some glaring inconsistencies concerning the real identities of his sources. One such inconsistency surrounds the personage of Ptolemy. For example, in the first chapter of the first version, Ibn Ezra writes,

The explanation of the natures of the planets is complicated and may be found in the Tetrabiblos by Ptolemy; who said that the Moon is cold and moist because of the vapour that ascends from the Earth to it and because it is below the Sun. He said similar things about Venus and Mercury… But I, Abraham, the author, say that this book was not written by Ptolemy, because there are many things in it that have in them nothing of rational thought or experience, as I shall explain in the Book of Nativities.

This is not the only place that he lays some very interesting criticism at the door of Ptolemy. When giving his “reasons” concerning the triplicities he says;

Ptolemy disagrees (with them) (the ancients) regarding the houses of the triplicities. We have tested his statements empirically but were unable to confirm them. Hence we ought to rely on the Ancients.

Then again in Chapter Two he says;

The terms mentioned by Ptolemy cannot be trusted, because he said that he found them in this guise in an ancient text. The correct ones are the terms of Egypt, because they were verified by experience.

To put it like this, Ibn Ezra finds little to agree with in Tetrabiblos yet he has some ‘other’ source claiming to be Ptolemy that he refers to and often agrees with.

For example in Chapter Three, Ibn Ezra writes;

The ancients said that the fourth house indicates the father and the tenth the mother. Ptolemy maintains the opposite position, but the ancients are correct.

The problem with this statement is that to the best of my knowledge Ptolemy in Tetrabiblos did not maintain that the sign on the fourth was the house indicating the mother. In his discussion of the “place of brothers and sisters”, Ptolemy refers to the house or place of the mother: is more naturally to be taken… according to the sign which culminates with respect to the place of the mother, that is, that place which contains by day Venus and by night the Moon.

In other words, the place or house of the mother was the sign Venus was in, in a diurnal chart, and the sign the Moon was in, in a nocturnal chart. Nowhere in Tetrabiblos does Ptolemy attribute the house of the mother to the fourth. I probably should mention that I am basing this on Robert Schmidt’s translation of Tetrabiblos and his discussion of preceding translation inconsistencies (in Ashmand and Robbins translations) surrounding this particular statement of Ptolemy as well as Rob Hand's discussion in his book Whole Sign Houses.

There seems to be several references in Ibn Ezra’s work to judgments, much along the same lines as those found in the Centiloquy which has speculative authorship attributed to Ptolemy himself, and even now being attributed to perhaps a 10th century Arabic author claiming authenticity in using Ptolemy's name. What is certain is that Ibn Ezra refers often to some writer which he believes is Ptolemy. Yet it is clear also that the material which we know today belonged to Ptolemy, the Tetrabiblos, was a sore point of disagreement to Ibn Ezra.

Much of Ibn Ezra’s philosophical “reasons” come from Abu Ma’shar whom he liberally refers to and quotes. He also cites Masha’allah, Al Kindi and several other Arabic sources directly preceding him such as Al Qabisi, Al Biruni and others. It is very interesting to see how Ibn Ezra presents an ‘un-Latinised” version of the philosophy underpinning the elements of astrology as presented by the Arabic era. In this respect it is priceless.

But there are some ‘other’ sources Ibn Ezra heavily leans on. One such source is “Enoch” which Dr. Sela tells us is the legendary figure otherwise known as Hermes Trismesgestus. Quite interestingly, Dr. Sela would like to lay the responsibility of the creation of this legendary figure on Abu Ma’shar.

Both versions of this book are published in this volume, and both are divided into 10 chapters corresponding to the 10 chapters of Ibn Ezra’s Introduction: Beginning of Wisdom. The differences between the two versions also make it clear that at some point, a second version of Beginning of Wisdom has been lost.

In general the text is very fluid and easily understood. Dr. Sela has done a tremendous job in translating this work into a fluid English style from an often difficult and convoluted ancient Hebrew text. There are some sections which might prove to be testing to follow, especially Ibn Ezra's chapter on directions. But otherwise this is a well translated work that is "easy on the eyes" so to speak. Dr. Sela also uses his appendixes to demonstrate how well all of Ibn Ezra's works are cross-referenced by examining various fragments and he takes the time to show how quotations from the Beginning of Wisdom are embedded into the Book of Reasons. Ibn Ezra was a very talented writer! There is also a very useful glossary of technical terms and where they are found in both versions. This is a very well presented work by Dr. Sela.

Following this volume, Dr. Sela will publish the other 10 remaining texts in the same way as he presents them here – they will include the critical Hebrew text of all the extant versions as well as an English translation and annotations (not to mention his extremely interesting appendixes and further discussions).

There are four Introductions to be published:

1 – The remaining version of Beginning of Wisdom (Reshit Hokhmah)
2 & 3 – Two versions of The Book of Reasons (Sefer ha-Te’amim) which is the volume now published.
4 – A single version of Judgments of the Zodiacal Signs, (Mishpetei ha-Mazzalot)

Besides these ‘Introductions’ there will also be published:

5 – A single version of Book of Nativities, (Sefer ha-Moladot)
6 & 7 – Two versions on general astrology, Book of the World, (Sefer ha-‘Olam)
8 & 9 – Two versions on the doctrine of Interrogations, Book of Interrogations, (Sefer ha-She’elot)
10 & 11 – Two versions of his doctrine of elections, Book of Elections, (Sefer ha-Mivharim)
12 – And lastly, one work on medical astrology, Book of the Luminaries, (Sefer ha-Me’orot)

There will be all told 8 books in this set since 4 of them will contain two versions of the same text.

I believe these volumes will provide a valuable secondary link to astrology’s traditional heritage, a link into Europe lacking perhaps the religious censorship that has become more and more obvious through the more detailed investigation of modern scholars into the Arabic works entrance into Europe via early Spain. In these volumes it is not the Latin translators who are the vehicle of the astrological doctrines into Europe, but it is Ibn Ezra himself.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the Traditional foundations of Astrology! The Book of Reasons is available through Brill Publications (their website is It is going for €115 (US $169).


Steven Birchfield
October, 2007

Please note: This book is also currently available in a translation by Meira Epstein. This translation is higly commendable and more reasonably priced at $25 plus p&p. For details go to

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