Samuel ibn Tibbon

From New World Encyclopedia

Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon (1150 – 1230), more commonly known as Samuel ibn Tibbon, was a Jewish philosopher and doctor and the most influential of the Tibbon family who translated many important works of Greek and Arabic scholarship into Hebrew, making them accessible to European Jewish scholars. He is best known for his translations of Jewish rabbinic literature from Arabic to Hebrew, especially his translation of MaimonidesGuide for the Perplexed. He also wrote original philosophical works which used Biblical exegesis and commentaries on Maimonides to introduce Aristotelian concepts and to put forward his own interpretations. He is considered the founder of Maimonideanism. He differed from Maimonides in emphasizing contemplation of goodness as a moral end in itself, while Maimonides believed that contemplation of goodness should be substantiated by positive moral action.

Samuel ibn Tibbon was the first to translate Aristotle and Averroes into Hebrew. He also produced the first Hebrew glossary of philosophical and biblical terminology, to be used as a companion in studying Guide for the Perplexed.


Samuel ibn Tibbon was born about 1150 in Lunel, a small but active Jewish center in southern France. His father, Judah ibn Tibbon (c. 1120-1190), originally from Granada, resettled in Lunel around 1148, when the Almohad persecutions of the Jews in Islamic Spain began, and devoted himself to the translation of Judeo-Arabic works into Hebrew. From his father and other teachers in Lunel, Samuel received an education in Hebrew, Jewish rabbinic literature, medicine, Arabic and the secular knowledge of his age. As a youth he visited Marseilles with his father. Later he lived in several cities of southern France (1199 in Béziers, 1204 in Arles) and traveled to Barcelona, Toledo, and even twice to Alexandria (1210-1213). He completed his translation of Guide for the Perplexed in Arles in 1204. In 1211 he apparently settled in Marseilles, where he taught his disciple and son-in-law, Jacob Anatoli. Jewish sages on their way to the Holy Land visited ibn Tibbon in Marseilles in order to consult his translation of the Guide. He died around 1230 in Marseilles. Tradition holds that after his death, his body was transported to the Land of Israel, and he is buried in Tiberias.

Between 1148 and 1306, the family of Judah ibn Tibbon were the main translators of Arabic texts into the Hebrew. Judah translated the works of Saadia Gaon, Jonah Ibn Janah, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Bahya Ibn Paquda, and Judah Ha-Levi. Samuel translated Maimonides, and produced the first Hebrew versions of Aristotle (the Meteorology) and Averroes (“Three Treatises on Conjunction,” two by Averroes and one by Averroes' son ‘Abd Allah). Samuel’s son Moses translated dozens of works, and Jacob Anatoli (c. 1194-1256), his son-in-law and chief disciple, translated the works of Ptolemy, Averroes, and al-Farghani. The last major figure of the family was Jacob b. Makhir (c. 1236-1306). Of all the family, the influence of Samuel ibn Tibbon spread the farthest and, during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, he was renowned as the Maimonidean authority in philosophy and philosophical exegesis.

Works and Thought


Samuel ibn Tibbon influenced medieval Jewish thought both through his translations, especially that of Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed (1190) (Hebrew Moreh Nevukhim) and through his original writings. He is considered the father of Maimonideanism; his work, together with that of his son Moses and disciple Jacob Anatoli, laid the foundations for a movement of Jewish philosophy and exegesis based on the teachings of Maimonides. This movement, while most active in Provence, attracted followers in Italy and Byzantium, and to some degree in Spain, and remained an influence through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and even into the fifteenth.

Samuel ibn Tibbon was quoted and eulogized by his contemporary, David Kimhi, and influenced significantly the work of his son Moses and son-in-law Jacob Anatoli. In thirteenth-century Provence, he was plagiarized by Gershom b. Solomon, cited and discussed by Levi b. Abraham, and defended by Menahem ha-Meiri. In Italy, his writings were consulted and commented upon by Moses of Salerno, Zerahyah b. Isaac b. Shealtiel Hen, Judah Romano, and especially Immanuel of Rome, who excerpted large sections from ibn Tibbon's writings and incorporated them into his commentaries on the Bible. Samuel ibn Tibbon also became the target of those who opposed philosophy; Jacob b. Sheshet wrote a full-length critique of Ma’amar Yiqqawu ha-Mayim, and Joseph b. Todros accused him of revealing the secrets of the Guide to the uninitiated.

Samuel ibn Tibbon couched his philosophical ideas in commentaries on Maimonides and references to Biblical texts. This lent authority to his statements and allowed him to promulgate philosophical concepts to the orthodox by linking them to Biblical exegesis. Throughout his works Ibn Tibbon repeatedly examined the key problems of divine providence, the possibility of immortality, and the final aim of human existence. Samuel ibn Tibbon can also be credited with initiating the creation of a new Hebrew literary genre, philosophical reference works and study aids. His Biur meha-Millot ha-Zarot, was the first major lexicon of philosophical Hebrew; and his inclusion of explanatory glosses in the margins of his translation of the Guide established the foundation for a tradition of commentary.

Original works

Samuel ibn Tibbon wrote two major original works, an Aristotelian commentary on Ecclesiastes and a philosophical-exegetical monograph entitled Ma'amar Yiqqawu ha-Mayim. He also wrote introductions to his translations, letters to Maimonides, and a short treatise on the Reason for the Table and Shewbread. He planned two additional commentaries which were never completed, a commentary on the internal meanings of Proverbs and an esoteric commentary on Genesis, entitled Ner ha-Hofes (see Prov 20:27). The commentary on Ecclesiastes appears to have been Ibn Tibbon’s first major work of exegesis, completed between 1213 and 1221. It includes a preface, a verse-by-verse commentary and several digressions explaining related verses of scripture or introducing philosophical concepts. Ibn Tibbon explains that Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes in his youth, to refute ancient skeptics who denied the possibility of immortality (“conjunction with the active intellect”).

Solomon carefully examined and refuted three arguments against immortality: that the human intellect is intellect in matter, and therefore cannot become separate from matter or contemplate separate substances; that the intellect, even though it derives from an incorporeal giver of forms, still requires a corporeal counterpart; and that ethics is a first rather than final perfection, and cannot save the human being from death and destruction. Ibn Tibbon attached a translation of the Three Treatises on Conjunction of Averroes and ‘Abd Allah, because he maintained that they also defended the doctrine of conjunction against skeptics.

Ma'amar Yikkawu ha-Mayim, a philosophical treatise in 22 chapters on Genesis 1: 9, was completed after the commentary on Ecclesiastes, possibly in 1221 or 1231. It deals with physical and metaphysical subjects, interpreting in an allegoric-philosophical manner the Bible verses cited by the author. At the end of the treatise the author says that he was led to write it because of the propagation of philosophy among Gentiles and the ignorance of his coreligionists in philosophical matters.

Ibn Tibbon often examined the same biblical texts singled out by Maimonides, but arrived at a different philosophical position, emphasizing the contemplative as a desirable end in itself, while Maimonides stressed that contemplation should lead to positive moral action.

In 1213, on board a ship returning from Alexandria, Samuel ibn Tibbon composed Biur meha-Millot ha-Zarot, an explanation of the philosophical terms of Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides. He included an alphabetical glossary of the foreign words that he had used in his Hebrew translation of the Guide (which was originally in Arabic). In the introduction to the glossary he divided these words into five classes:

  • Words taken mainly from the Arabic
  • Rare words occurring in the Mishnah and in the Gemara
  • Hebrew verbs and adjectives derived from substantives by analogy with the Arabic
  • Homonyms, used with special meanings
  • Words to which new meanings were given by analogy with the Arabic

He gave a list of corrections which he desired to be made in the copies of his translation of the Guide. The glossary gave not only a short explanation of each word and its origin, but also in many cases a precise definition with examples. It included extended discussions of key terms, and works as both glossary and lexicon, introduction and primer. Many philosophical ideas appeared in Hebrew for the first time in the glossary; it introduced readers of Hebrew to the entire Aristotelian curriculum as it had developed in the Arabic world (including pseudo-Aristotelian works). Though it was intended as a companion to Guide for the Perplexed, there is evidence that the text itself was studied independently, as a general reference work or study aid.

Samuel ibn Tibbon apparently wrote a commentary on the entire Bible, but only the following portions are known:

  • A philosophical commentary on Ecclesiastes, quoted by Samuel in Ma'amar Yikkawu ha-Mayim; several manuscripts are extant
  • A commentary on the Song of Solomon. Quotations from this work, found in his commentary on Ecclesiastes; in Neubauer, "Cat. Bodl. Hebr. MSS." No. 1649, 2, fol. 21; and in his son's commentary on the Song of Solomon are evidence that he wrote this work; but its contents are unknown.

Samuel ibn Tibbon was an enthusiastic adherent of Maimonides and his allegorical interpretation of the Bible; he held that many Bible narratives are to be considered simply as parables (meshalim) and the religious laws merely as guides (hanhagot) to a higher, spiritual life. Such statements, not peculiar in his time, aroused the wrath of the adherents of the literal interpretation of the Bible, the anti-Maimonidean party (see Maimonides for more details).


Samuel Ibn Tibbon is best known for his translations from Arabic into Hebrew, especially his translation of Maimonides' The Guide to the Perplexed|Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevukhim) in 1190. His opponents satirically changed the title into "Nevukhat ha-Morim," or "Perplexity of the Rebellious."

Before finishing this difficult work, Samuel Ibn Tibbon consulted Maimonides several times by letter regarding some difficult passages. Maimonides' answers, some of which were written in Arabic and later translated into Hebrew, perhaps by Samuel himself, praise the translator's ability and acknowledge his command of Arabic. After having given some general rules for translation from the Arabic, Maimonides explains the doubtful passages, and renders them into Hebrew.

Samuel ibn Tibbon's translation was preceded by an introduction. As the motive for his undertaking he mentioned that the scholars of Lunel had asked him for a translation of the Moreh. As references he names the Hebrew translation by his father (whom he calls "the Father of the Translators"), works on the Arabic language, and the Arabic writings in his own library. Samuel also wrote an index to the Biblical verses quoted in the Moreh. The first major translation of Maimonides by ibn Tibbon was the commentary on Avot, completed, according to the manuscript, in 1202. Ibn Tibbon translated the commentary and Maimonides' introduction, entitled Eight Chapters. The preface, which introduced an adaptation of Aristotelian ethics, became the standard introduction to philosophical ethics in Hebrew throughout the later Middle Ages.

Ibn Tibbon's translations were distinguished by their accuracy and faithfulness to the original, rather than by fluidity or literary style. He used rabbinic as well as biblical expressions, followed the syntax of the Arabic, introduced a number of Arabic words into Hebrew and in some cases, defined new meanings for Hebrew words; and coined new terms, based on the model of the Arabic. Although his methods received criticism from Judah al-Harizi and others, they became accepted as authoritative throughout the later middle ages.

Samuel Ibn Tibbon translated the following works of Maimonides:

  • Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevukhim)
  • A treatise on Resurrection under the Hebrew title "Iggeret" or "Ma'amar Tehhiyath ha-Metim";
  • Mishnah commentary on Pirkei Avoth, including the psychological introduction, entitled "Shemonah Perakim" (the Eight Chapters);
  • Maimonides' "Thirteen articles of faith" (originally part of his Mishnah commentary on tractate Sanhedrin, 10th chapter)
  • A letter to his pupil Joseph ibn 'Aknin,

Samuel Ibn Tibbon also translated the following writings of other Arabic authors:

  • 'Ali ibn Ridwan's commentary on the "Ars Parva" of Galen (according to Paris MS. 1114), finished in 1199 in Béziers (Steinschneider, "Hebraeische Uebersetzung" p. 734).
  • Three smaller treatises of Averroes, under the title "Sheloshah Ma'amarim" (edited by J. Herez, with German translation: "Drei Abhandlungen über die Conjunction des Separaten Intellects mit den Menschen von Averroes, aus dem Arabischen Uebersetzt von Samuel ibn Tibbon," Berlin, 1869). Samuel translated these three treatises both as an appendix to his commentary on Ecclesiastes (see above) and separately (Steinschneider, ibid p. 199).
  • Yachya ibn Batrik's Arabic translation of Aristotle's "Meteora," under the title "Otot ha-Shamayim" (also quoted under the title "Otot 'Elyonot"), translated on a voyage from Alexandria, between the two islands Lampedosa and Pantellaria. It is extant in several manuscripts. The preface and the beginning of the text have been printed by Filipowski (c. 1860) as a specimen. Samuel made this translation, at the request of Joseph ben Israel of Toledo, from a single and bad Arabic translation of Batrik (Steinschneider, ibid p. 132.).

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Primary Sources

Original works by Tibbon

  • Letter on Providence,” ed. Zvi Diesendruck, “Samuel and Moses Ibn Tibbon on Maimonides' Theory of Providence,” Hebrew Union College Annual 11 (1936), 341-66
  • Perush ha-Millot ha-Zarot, appendix to Maimonides, Moreh ha-Nevukhim, ed. Y. Even-Shemuel. Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1987.
  • Annotations” on the Guide, ed. Carlos Fraenkel, From Maimonides to Samuel Ibn Tibbon: From the Dalâlat al-Hâ’irîn to the Moreh ha-Nevukhim. (Ph.D. Dissertation, Freie University,) Berlin, 2000.
  • Preface to the commentary on Ecclesiastes, ed. Ruth Ben-Meir. “Samuel Ibn Tibbon's Preface to the Commentary on Ecclesiastes,” Maimonidean Studies 4 (2000), 13-44 [Hebrew section]
  • Commentary on Eccl 1:1, ed. and trans. James T. Robinson, “Samuel Ibn Tibbon's Commentary on Ecclesiastes and the Philosopher's Prooemium,” in Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, vol. 3, eds. I. Twersky and J. M. Harris. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. 83-146
  • Complete commentary on Ecclesiastes, ed. and trans. James Robinson, Samuel Ibn Tibbon's Commentary on Ecclesiastes. (Ph.D. Dissertation, Harvard University, 2002)
  • Preface to the translation of Maimonides, Commentary on Avot, ed. Menahem Kellner, “Maimonides and Samuel Ibn Tibbon on Jeremiah 9:22-23 and Human Perfection,” in Studies in Halakhah and Jewish Thought Presented to Rabbi Professor Menahem Emanuel Rackman on His Eightieth Birthday, ed. M. Beer. Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1994. 49-57
  • Ma’amar Yiqqawu ha-Mayim, ed. M. Bisliches. Pressburg: Anton Edler von Schmid, 1837.

Translations by Samuel Ibn Tibbon

  • Sonne, Isaiah. “Maimonides’ Letter to Samuel b. Tibbon according to an Unknown Text in the Archives of the Jewish Community of Verona” [Hebrew], Tarbiz 10 (1939), 135-154, 309-332
  • Maimonides. Treatise on Resurrection (Maqâla fî Tehiyyat ha-Metim): The Original Arabic and Samuel ibn Tibbon's Hebrew Translation and Glossary, ed. Joshua Finkel. New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1939.
  • Maimonides. Eight Chapters, ed. with English trans. by J. Gorfinkle. New York: Columbia University Press, 1912.
  • Maimonides. Commentary on the Mishnah, Abot, ed. M. Rabinowitz. Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1961.
  • Maimonides. Moreh ha-Nevukhim, ed. Y. Even-Shemuel. Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1987.
  • Maimonides, Moses Maimonides.' Epistle to Yemen: The Arabic Original and the Three Hebrew Versions, ed. A. Halkin, English trans. by B. Cohen. New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1952.
  • Otot ha-Shamayim. Samuel Ibn Tibbon's Hebrew Version of Aristotle's Meteorology, ed. and trans. Resianne Fontaine. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995.
  • Averroes and ‘Abd Allah. “Three Treatises on Conjunction,” ed. and trans. J. Hercz, Drei Abhandlungen über die Conjunction des seperaten Intellects mit dem Menschen von Averroes (Vater und Sohn), aus dem Arabischen übersetzt von Samuel Ibn Tibbon. Berlin: H. G. Hermann, 1869.
  • Burnett, Charles, and Mauro Zonta, Abu Muhammad ‘Abdallah Ibn Rushd (Averroes Junior), On Whether the Active Intellect Unites with the Material Intellect whilst it is Clothed with the Body: A Critical Edition of the Three Extant Medieval Versions together with an English Translation. Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge 67. 2000, 295-335.

Secondary Sources

  • Altmann, Alexander. “The Ladder of Ascension,” in Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gershon G. Scholem on his Seventieth Birthday by Pupils, Colleagues and Friends. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1967, 1-32
  • Eisen, Robert. The Book of Job in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 978-0195171532. 79-110
  • Fontaine, Resianne. “Samuel Ibn Tibbon's Translation of the Arabic Version of Aristotle's Meteorology,” in The Ancient Tradition in Christian and Islamic Hellenism, eds. G. Endress and R. Kruk. Leiden: Research School CNWS, 1997, 85-100
  • Halbertal, Moshe. Between Torah and Wisdom: Menahem ha-Me'iri and the Maimonidean Halakhists in Provence Jerusalem. Magnes Press, 2000 [Hebrew]
  • Robinson, James T. “Samuel Ibn Tibbon's Commentary on Ecclesiastes and the Philosopher's Prooemium,” in Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, vol. 3, eds. I. Twersky and J. Harris. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000, 83-146
  • Robinson, James T. “The Ibn Tibbon Family: A Dynasty of Translators in Medieval Provence,” in Be'erot Yitzhak: Studies in Memory of Isadore Twersky, ed. J. Harris. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005, 193-224
  • Schwartz, Dov. “Kuzari Commentators in Fifteenth-Century Provence,” in Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, vol. 3, eds. I. Twersky and J. M. Harris. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000 (in Hebrew)
  • Sermoneta, Joseph, “Samuel Ibn Tibbon's Critical Remarks on Maimonides' Theory of Intellects,” in Proceedings of the Sixth World Congress of Jewish Studies. Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 1977, III, 315-319 (in Hebrew)
  • Shatzmiller, Joseph. Jews, Medicine, and Medieval Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0520080591
  • Stern, Gregg, “The Crisis of Philosophic Allegory in Languedocian-Jewish Culture (1304-6),” in Interpretation and Allegory: Antiquity to the Modern Period, ed. Jon Whitman .Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2000, pp. 187-207

External links

All links retrieved December 22, 2022.

General Philosophy Sources


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