Solomon Ibn Gabirol

Solomon Ibn Gabirol, also Solomon ben Judah (Hebrew: שלמה אבן גבירול, Š'lomoh 'ibn Gabiyrol)(c. 1021 – c. 1058), a Moorish Jewish poet and philosopher, became an important influence on medieval Christian Scholasticism through his philosophical work, Fons Vitae, a Neoplatonic dialogue on metaphysics which was translated into Latin in 1150. His concept of the universality of matter and form was adopted and developed by Franciscan Scholastic philosophers, including Duns Scotus and Bonaventura. His philosophy was not widely studied among the Jews, probably because he did not include scriptural texts or references in his works. He was a renowned poet, and his poem, The Kingly Crown, is included in the Sephardic liturgy of the Day of Atonement. He is sometimes referred to as "Avicebron" in the West, a corruption of "Ibn Gabirol."



Shelomoh Ben Yehudah Ibn Gabirol was born in Málaga, Spain around 1021. His father had left Cordova ten years earlier when war broke out in the Spanish peninsula, and had moved the family to Saragossa, then to Málaga. Gabirol’s father died while he was very young. He studied the Talmud, Hebrew and Arabic, and astronomy, geometry and philosophy, and began writing poetry in his teens. At the age of 16 he wrote a poem later included in the services of many congregations, Azharoth, which began, "I am the master, and Song is my slave." The same year he wrote four dirges on the passing of the scholar Rav Hai Gaon in Babylon. At 17 years-of-age he became the friend and protégé of Jekuthiel Ibn Hassan. Upon the assassination of Hassan as the result of a political conspiracy, Gabirol composed an elegy of more than two hundred verses. By 19, Gabirol was afflicted by a chronic illness which caused him to suffer from boils and left him in constant pain. When barely 20, Gabirol wrote Anak, a versified Hebrew grammar, alphabetical and acrostic, consisting of 400 verses divided into ten parts. Ninety-five lines of this grammar have been preserved by Solomon Parḥon; in these Gabirol reproaches his townsmen with their neglect of the Hebrew language. Sometime after his mother’s death in 1045, Gabirol left Saragossa, possibly banished because of his criticism of prominent members of the Jewish community.

He spent several years as a wanderer in Spain, suffering many hardships which are reflected in his poetry. It is thought that he traveled to Granada and found another friend and patron, Samuel Ibn Nagdela. Later an estrangement arose between them, and Nagdela became for a time the butt of Gabirol's irony. Moshe Ibn Ezra (1055–1139), a Hebrew poet and literary critic and author of The Book of Discussion and Remembrance, reported that Gabirol was known for his philosophical temperament and for his "angry spirit which held sway over reason, and his demon within which he could not control." All testimonies agree that Gabirol was comparatively young at the time of his death, probably in 1058 or 1059, in Valencia.

A fabricated legend concerning the manner of Gabirol's death is related by Ibn Yaḥya in Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah. In this legend, a Muslim poet, jealous of Gabirol's poetic gifts, killed him, and buried him beneath the roots of a fig tree. The tree bore fruit abundantly; and the fruit was of extraordinary sweetness. This strange circumstance excited attention; a search was instituted, the remains of the murdered Gabirol were brought to light, and the murderer expiated his crime with his life. Another legend relates that he was trampled to death by a horseman.

Thought and Works


Gabirol mentioned in one of his poems that he was the author of 20 books, now lost, on philosophical, linguistic, scientific, and religious topics. His most famous book is Mekor Chayim, (Origin of Life), a Neoplatonic Decalogue between master and disciple, written in Arabic around 1049. Translated into Latin as Fons Vitae, it was widely read by the Scholastics and is credited with introducing Neoplatonism to medieval Christian Europe. The Arabic original was lost but the Latin version is fully preserved, and a Hebrew translation of it was published in 1926. Ibn Gabirol also produced two works, in Arabic, on morals, Tikkun Middoth Hanefesh, (Improvement of the Qualities of the Soul), and Mivchar Hapeninim, (Choice of Pearls). Choice of Pearls is a collection of proverbs attributed to Gabriol but possibly not authored by him.

Citations in the works of later writers refer to a Biblical commentary by Gabirol, of which there are no surviving traces. One citation by Ibn Ezra, an interpretation of the story of paradise, introduces philosophical ideas into the Biblical text. Two other citations show Gabirol to have been a supporter of the rational Biblical interpretation of Saadia.

Jewish scholars largely ignored Gabirol’s philosophical works, possibly because they contained no reference to the laws and scriptures. In the Jewish community he was known as a gifted poet who wrote both secular and religious verse. More than four hundred of his poems have been published, including at least one hundred piyuttim and selihot written for fast days and holy days. A number of Ibn Gabirol's religious hymns, including Azharoth, Kether Malchuth (Royal Crown), Shir Hakovod (Song of Glory), and Shir Hayichud (Song of Unity) were included in the Jewish prayer book, and are now part of the prayer service in Jewish communities around the world.


Fons Vitæ

Fons Vitæ (Arabic,Yanbu’ al-Hayat;Hebrew: מקור חיים, Maqor Hayyim) was written in Arabic, in the form of a dialogue between master and disciple. The name of the book was derived from Psalms 36:10, "For with Thee is the fountain [source] of life (meqor hayyim); In Thy light do we see light," and the fact that it considers matter and form as the basis of existence and the source of life in every created thing. It was translated into Latin in 1150, under the patronage of Archbishop Raymond of Toledo, by Ibn Daud (Johannes Hispanus) who translated the Arabic orally into Spanish, and Dominicus Gundissalinus, the Archdeacon of Segovia, who translated the spoken Spanish into written Latin. The "Fons Vitæ" also bore the title De Materia et Forma (Of Matter and Form); the manuscript in the Mazarine Library is entitled De Materia Universali.

The Fons Vitæ consists of five tractates, treating respectively of (1) matter and form in general and their relation in physical substances ("substantiæ corporeæ sive compositæ"); (2) the substance which underlies the corporeality of the world ("de substantia quæ sustinet corporeitatem mundi"); (3) proofs of the existence of "substantiæ simplices," or intermediaries between God and the physical world; (4) proofs that these "substantiæ simplices," or "intelligibiles," are likewise constituted of matter and form; and (5) universal matter and universal form.

The chief doctrines of the Fons Vitæ may be summarized as follows:

  • (1) All created beings are constituted of form and matter.
  • (2) This holds true both for the physical world ("substantiis corporeis sive compositis"); and for the spiritual world ("substantiis spiritualibus sive simplicibus"), which is the connecting link between the first substance ("essentia prima"), or Godhead, and the physical world ("substantia, quæ sustinet novem prædicamenta," the substance divided into nine categories).
  • (3) Matter and form are always and everywhere in the relation of "sustinens" and "sustentatum," "propriatum" and "proprietas," substratum and property or attribute.

The main thesis of the Fons Vitæ is that all that exists is constituted of matter and form; one and the same matter runs through the whole universe from the highest realms of the spiritual down to the lowest realms of the physical, excepting that matter becomes less and less spiritual the farther it is removed from its first source. Gabirol insists over and over again that the "materia universalis" is the substratum of all that exists.

Ibn Gabirol holds that everything that exists may be reduced to three categories: the first substance, God; matter and form, the world; and the will as intermediary. Gabirol derives matter and form from absolute being. In the Godhead he appears to differentiate being ("essentia"), from attribute ("proprietas"), using "proprietas" to designate the will, wisdom, and creative word ("voluntas, sapientia, verbum agens"); in reality, he thinks of the Godhead as being and as will or wisdom, identifying the will with the divine nature. This position is implicit in the doctrine of Gabirol, who teaches that while God's existence is knowable, His being and constitution are not; no attribute except that of existence being predicable of God. Matter, or substance, proceeds from the being of God, and form proceeds from God as will, but substance and will are not considered separate entities. Will is neither substance nor an attribute. From God, by way of will, proceeds the form and matter which constitutes all created beings. In this way Gabirol preserves the monotheism of Jewish tradition.

"The creation of all things by the Creator, that is, the emanation of form from the first source, which is to say, the will, and its overflowing across matter resembles the upwelling of water flowing from a fountain and descending . . . except that this flow is unceasing and entirely outside of motion and time . . . And the imprinting of form in matter, when it reaches it from the will, is like the return of the form of one who is gazing into a mirror." (V:41);

"The microcosm is the model of the macrocosm." The Fountain of Life (III:2).

"If you would picture the composition of the All . . . look at the form of the human body." (III:58).

"One can compare creation to a word, which man utters with his mouth. In man's expression of the word, its form and meaning are registered upon the hearing of the listener and in his mind. Along the same lines it is said that the exalted and holy creator expresses his word, and its meaning is registered in the substantiality of matter, and matter preserves that meaning, in other words, that created form is imprinted in matter and registered upon it."

Scholars have found evidence in Fons Vitae that Gabirol was influenced by The Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Sincerity and by the Jewish writer Saadia. The Arabic writer Sa’id is cited in Fons Vitae. It is possible that he may also have been indirectly influenced by pseudo-Empedocles in his explanation of the relationship between the various levels of creation. Plato is the ony philosopher directly mentioned. Gabirol appears to have drawn many points from the teachings of Plotinus, through secondary sources, but he differs in that his system is based on the concept of a single, universal matter while Plotinus speaks of a twofold matter.

Influence on Scholasticism

For centuries Gabirol was thought to have been a Christian, or possibly an Arab, philosopher. Gabirol’s theory of the universality of matter became a major element of the tradition of Christian Scholasticism endorsed by the Franciscan order. Dominicus Gundisallimus, not only translated the Fons vitæ into Latin, but incorporated the ideas of Gabirol into his own teaching. William of Auvergne (1180-1249) referred to the work of Gabirol under the title "Fons Sapientiæ," spoke of Gabirol as a Christian, and praised him as "unicus omnium philosophantium nobilissimus" ("most exalted of all the philosophers"). Alexander of Hales (d. 1245) and his disciple Bonaventura (1221-1274) accepted the teaching of Gabirol that spiritual substances consist of matter and form. William of Lamarre also defended Gabirolean doctrine.

Through the influence of Duns Scotus (1266-1308), the basal thought of the "Fons Vitæ," the materiality of spiritual substances, was perpetuated in Christian philosophy, influencing later philosophers such as Giordano Bruno, who refers to "the Moor, Avicebron."

Opposition to the ideas of Gabirol came from the Aristotelian Dominicans led by Albertus Magnus (1206-1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), who disdained the possible influence of Arabic-Jewish philosophy on Christian doctrine. Aquinas disagreed on three main points; he did not believe that spiritual substances consisted of matter, denied that a single physical entity could embody a plurality of forms, and did not accept the the power of activity of physical beings, which Gabirol affirmed. Aquinas held that Gabirol made the mistake of transferring to real existence the theoretical combination of genus and species, and that he thus came to the erroneous conclusion that in reality all things are constituted of matter and form as genus and species respectively.

Identity with Avicebron

In 1846, the French scholar Solomon Munk discovered among the Hebrew manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, a work by Shem-Ṭob Palquera, which bore a resemblance to parts of Fons Vitae, a Latin text by the philosopher known variously as Avicebrol, Avincebrol, Avicebron, and Albenzubron (believed to have been a Muslim or a Christian) which Munk knew from quotations in Albertus Magnus's De causis et processu universitatis. When compared with a Latin manuscript of the "Fons Vitæ" of Avicebron (likewise found by Munk in the Bibliothèque Nationale), the work proved to be a collection of excerpts from an Arabic original, of which the "Fons Vitæ" was evidently a translation. On November 12, 1846, Munk announced that Avicebron was the Jewish poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol ("Orient, Lit." 1846, No. 46), and that his name had undergone the Latinizing transformation "Ibngebirol," "Avengebirol," "Avengebrol," "Avencebrol," "Avicebrol," "Avicebron."

Influence on Jewish Philosophy

Some scholars speculate that Gabirol set out to reconcile Neoplatonism with Jewish theology. His conception of the Deity coincides with the Jewish conception of God, and his explanation of will as being part of the essence of God and a vehicle for the existence of matter is a departure from the pantheistic emanation doctrine of Neoplatonism. A suggestion of Judaic monotheism is found in Gabirol's doctrine of the oneness of the "materia universalis." The Neoplatonic doctrine that the Godhead is unknowable naturally appealed to Jewish rationalists, who, while positing the existence of God, refrained from ascribing definite qualities or positive attributes to God.

Except for the name of his work, Maqor Hayyim, Gabirol did not cite any Biblical or rabbinical texts. For this reason Gabirol exercised comparatively little influence upon his Jewish successors, and was accepted by the Scholastics as a non-Jew, an Arab or a Christian. The suspicion of heresy which once clung to him prevented Ibn Gabirol from exercising a great influence upon Jewish thought. His theory of emanation was held by many to be irreconcilable with the Jewish doctrine of creation; and the tide of Aristotelianism turned back the slight current of Gabirol's Neoplatonism.

Moses Ibn Ezra is the first to mention Gabirol as a philosopher. He speaks of Gabirol's character and attainments in terms of highest praise, and in his "Aruggat ha-Bosem" quotes several passages from the "Fons Vitæ." Abraham Ibn Ezra, who gives several specimens of Gabirol's philosophico-allegorical Bible interpretation, borrows from the "Fons Vitæ" both in his prose and in his poetry without giving due credit.

Abraham ibn Daud of Toledo (1110-1180) complimented Gabirol’s poetry in the "Sefer ha-Kabbalah" but wrote a book in Arabic (translated into Hebrew under the title "Emunah Ramah,") reproaching Gabirol with having disregarded the requirements of the Jewish religious position, and bitterly accusing him of mistaking a number of poor reasons for one good one. Occasional traces of Ibn Gabriol's thought are found in some of the Kabbalistic literature of the thirteenth century. Later references to Ibn Gabirol, such as those of Eli Ḥabillo, Isaac Abarbanel, Judah Abarbanel, Moses Almosnino, and Joseph Solomon Delmedigo, are based upon an acquaintance with the scholastic philosophy, especially the works of Aquinas.

Though Gabirol as a philosopher was not studied by the Jewish community, Gabirol as a poet kept alive his philosophical ideas through his best-known poem, "Keter Malkut" ("Royal Crown"), which became part of the prayer service for the Day of Atonement. It is a philosophical treatise in verse, describing the glory of God in both the material and spiritual worlds, and mapping the universe from the four elements of the earth up through the spheres and planets to the Throne of Glory. The eighty-third line of the poem points to one of the teachings of the Fons Vitæ, that all the attributes predicated of God exist apart in thought alone and not in reality.

Thou art the supreme light, and the eyes of the pure of soul shall see Thee, and clouds of sin shall hide Thee from the eyes of sinners. Thou art the light hidden in this world and revealed in the world of beauty, 'In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.' Thou art the eternal light, and the inward eye yearns for Thee and is astonished - she shall see but the utmost part of them, and shall not se them all. (excerpted from The Kingly Crown, Section One, The Praises of God)

The Improvement of the Moral Qualities

"The Improvement of the Moral Qualities" is an ethical treatise composed by Gabirol at Saragossa in 1045, at the request of some friends who wished to possess a book treating of the qualities of man and the methods of effecting their improvement. The work is highly original in two respects. He attempted to systematize the principles of ethics independently of religious dogma, emphasizing the correlation and interdependence of the physical and the psychical in ethical conduct. He also arranged the virtues and vices in relation to the physical senses; each sense becoming the instrument, not the agent, of two virtues and two corresponding vices.

Gabirol's ethical theses were based on the four humors. The qualities of the soul were made manifest through the senses; and these senses in turn were constituted of the four humors. Just as the humors could be modified one by the other, the senses could be controlled and the qualities of the soul be trained towards good or evil. In attributing the virtues to the senses, Gabriol made it clear that he was referring only to the five physical senses, not the "concealed" senses, such as perception and understanding, which are part of the nature of the soul. In order to cultivate his soul, man must know its peculiarities, study himself as he is, closely examine his character and inclination, habituate himself to the abandonment of whatever draws him into close contact with the physical and temporal, and aim at the spiritual and the abiding. This effort in itself is blessedness. A man's ability to make such an effort is proof of divine benevolence.

Grief: "This quality usually succeeds in establishing itself in the soul when wishes fail of realization, and then the soul is brought to such a point as almost to be killed when it loses the objects of its love . . . Thus it was said, "Apprehensiveness is living death." . . . The constitution of apprehensiveness is cold and dry, like the black gall (humor). No man can absolutely escape it. In some it attains immense proportions, so that they thereby become afflicted with psychical ailments. Thus it is said (Proverbs xii:25), "Gloom in the heart of man maketh it stoop, but a good word maketh it glad.""


Gabirol was the first of the Hebrew poets to develop the use of the strict Arabic meter which had been introduced by Dunash ben Labrat, the disciple of Saadia. Ibn Ezra calls him “the writer of metric songs” and uses quotes from Gabirol’s poems to illustrate various meters in his grammar, “Sefer Zahot.” The poems of Gabirol are rimed; all the lines of a poem, even the four hundred lines of “Anak,” end with the same syllable. He wrote both secular and liturgical poems; all of his work expresses lofty and religious feeling. He may have supported himself by writing for the synagogues. Many of his liturgical poems became part of the Jewish prayer books and are still in use today. “Keter Malkhut,” his best-known poem, has been translated into English at least seven times during the last two hundred years, and versions exist in German, French, Italian, Dutch, Yiddish, Latin, Persian, and Arabic. He wrote two lengthy didactic poems, “Azharot,” and enumeration of the 613 precepts of the Torah, and “Anak,” a Hebrew grammar. The secular poems were almost lost during the turmoil which followed the reconquest of Spain and the expulsion of the Jews, but were rediscovered among scraps of old manuscripts found in Cairo and in Iraq.

But I'll tell you something I've heard and let you dwell on its strangeness: sages have said that the secret of being owes all to the all who has all in his hand: He longs to give form to the formless, as a lover longs for his friend . . .

. . quarrel with all my teachings and talk, as though I were speaking Greek. "Speak," they carp, "as the people speak, and we'll know what you have to say"— and now I'll break them like dirt or like straw, my tongue's pitchfork thrust into their hay.


Primary Sources

  • Ibn Gabirol, Solomon; Slavitt, David. A Crown for the King. USA, Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780195119626
  • Ibn Gabirol, Solomon, Peter Cole (trans.). Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Princeton University Press, 2000. ISBN 9780691070322
  • Ibn Gabirol. Selected religious poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol (The Jewish Classics). The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1944. ISBN 9780827600607
  • Ibn Gabirol. The Improvement of the Moral Qualities; An ethical treatise of the eleventh century by Solomon ibn Gabirol . (Columbia University oriental studies) Columbia University Press, Macmillan Co., Agents, 1901. ISBN 9780548196236

Secondary Sources

  • Copleston, Frederick, S.J. A History of Philosophy, Volume II: Medieval Philosophy From Augustine to Duns Scotus. Image Books, Doubleday, 1993. ISBN 9780385468442
  • Etheridge, John Wesley. Jerusalem and Tiberias; Sora and Cordova: A Survey of the Religious and Scholastic Learning of the Jews; Designed as an Introduction to the Study of Hebrew Literature. Adamant Media Corporation, 2005. ISBN 9781402133855
  • Graetz, Heinrich. History of the Jews: Volume 3. From the Revolt Against the Zendik (511 C.E.) to the Capture of St. Jean d\'Acre by the Mahometans (1291 C.E.). Adamant Media Corporation, 2006. ISBN 9781402111488
  • Loewe, Rachel. Ibn Gabirol. Grove Press; Reprint edition, 1991.
  • Myer, Isaac. Qabbalah The philosophical writings of Solomon ben Yehudah Ibn Gebirol, or Avicebron. S. Weiser; [2d ed.] edition, 1970. ISBN 9780870680861

External links

All links retrieved October 10, 2015.

General Philosophy Sources


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