Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Who was the mysterious Avicebron, author of Fons Vitae, that shook Christian philosophy in the Middle Ages?

Who was the mysterious Avicebron, author of Fons Vitae, that shook Christian philosophy in the Middle Ages?

 Follow the link for the video recording of my discussion:



  The Rambam took reason and philosophy to its fullest limit, thereby raising the hackles of many other great Jewish philosophers. In this segment, I examine three figures (preceding and following the period of the Rambam) and their unique approaches to the challenges facing Judaism in their day.


        Who is the mysterious Avicebron? In the Middle Ages, the great European philosophers were heavily influenced by him

Many years ago, I went to Yom Kippur services in a Yemenite synagogue. Just as Musaf ended, the worshippers began a section of prayers that I had never heard of before. As I looked into the Mahzor, I was surprised to realize that they were all chanting from an astronomy textbook- written as poetry, but as discussion of astronomy, nevertheless. What on earth was this and what did astronomy have to do with Yom Kippur. So here is the story behind it:


The Mystery Philosopher: author of Fons Vitae, known as Avicebron

There is a masterpiece of philosophy in the middle ages known as Fons Vitae- The Source ( of Fountain) of Life. The medieval philosophers identified the author as “ Avicebron.” This was a mystery akin to determining “Who really wrote Shakespeare”.

( Source :based on Jewish Encyclopedia article. in italics)

What Was This Book?

Medieval etching showing Fons Vitae


“Fons Vitæ” is a philosophical dialogue between master and disciple. The book derives its name from the fact that it considers matter and form as the basis of existence and the source of life in every created. It was translated from the Arabic—the original title having probably been “Yanbu’ al-Ḥayat “—into Latin in the year 1150 under the patronage of Archbishop Raymond of Toledo,.Jourdain called attention in 1843 to the important place of Avicebron in the history of philosophy. Haureau, in his “History of Scholastic Philosophy” (1850), dwelt on the philosophy of Avicebron as known through the citations in the “De Substantiis Separatis” of Aquinas.


The chief doctrines of the “Fons Vitæ” may be summarized as follows: (1) All created beings are constituted of form( extension)  and matter. (2) This holds true of the physical world, of the “substantiis corporeis sive compositis,( “Corporeal substances or compound )” and is not less true of the spiritual world, of the “substantiis spiritualibus sive simplicibus( Spiritual substances or simple),” which latter are the connecting-link between the first substance, “Essential prima(first essence),” that is, the Godhead, and the “substantia, quæ sustinet novem prædicamenta (A substance, which supports nine categories),” that is, the substance divided into nine categories—in other words, the physical world. (3) Matter and form are always and everywhere in the relation of “sustinens(forebearing)” and “sustentatum,(aiding)” “propriatum( propriate)” and “proprietas,” substratum and property or attribute.

[The English to the Latin is my attempt at translating philosophical terms]



What was his impact? Influence on Scholasticism.[ Scholasticism was a medieval school of philosophy that employed a critical method of philosophical analysis predicated upon a Latin Catholic theistic curriculum which dominated teaching in the medieval universities in Europe from about 1100 to 1700. ]

The treatment accorded him by the Christian world. Jourdain held, without exaggeration, that a knowledge of the philosophy of the thirteenth century was impossible without an understanding of the "Fons Vitæ" and its influence. Regarded as the work of a Christian philosopher, it became a bone of contention between the Platonist Franciscans led by Duns Scotus, who supported … and the Aristotelian Dominicans led by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, the latter holding in special horror the possible influence of Arabic-Jewish philosophy on Christian doctrine.

. . . Dominicus Gundisallimus, who not merely translated the "Fons vitæ" into Latin, but incorporated the ideas of Gabirol into his own teaching. William of Auvergne refers to the work … as a Christian, and praises him as "unicus omnium philosophantium nobilissimus .[the noblest of all philosophers]" .

The most zealous of the champions … theory of the universality of matter is Duns Scotus, through whose influence the basal thought of the "Fons Vitæ," the materiality of spiritual substances, was perpetuated in Christian philosophy, influencing later philosophers even down to Giordano Bruno. who refers to "the Moor, Avicebron.”

[Bruno- a Catholic priest who preached Copernicus Sun-centered universe]



Who was that Masked  Philosopher?

In 1846 Solomon Munk discovered among the Hebrew manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, a work by Shem-Ṭob Palquera, which, upon comparison with a Latin manuscript of the "Fons Vitæ" of Avicebron, proved to be a collection of excerpts from an Arabic original of which the "Fons Vitæ" was evidently a translation. Munk concluded that Avicebron or Avencebrol, who had for centuries been believed to be a Christian scholastic philosopher, was identical with the Jew Ibn Gabirol

(sample manuscript of Shem Tov Falquera, whose quotes gave away the secret of Fons Vitae)


Here is now more about ibn Gabirol from the Jewish Encyclopedia-now I can use his name for us.

Spanish poet, philosopher, and moralist; born in Malaga about 1021; died about 1058 in Valencia. He is called by Grätz "the Jewish Plato," and by Steinschneider "the most original philosophical writer among the Jews and Arabs." The name "Avicebron" is a corruption of "Ibn Gabirol" ("Ibngebirol," "Avengebirol," "Avengebrol," "Avencebrol," "Avicebrol," "Avicebron"). Little is known of Gabirol's life. His parents died while he was a child.

. When barely twenty Gabirol wrote "'Anaḳ," a versified Hebrew grammar, alphabetical and acrostic, consisting of 400 verses divided into ten parts

…. All testimonies agree that Gabirol was comparatively young at the time of his death, which followed years of wandering. The year of his death was probably 1058 or 1059,

His statue in his native Malaga, Spain. “The most excellent city hall erected this plaque for the 900th anniversary of Aben Gabirol, poet and philosopher from Málaga”

And in Ceasarea, Israel today



Restorer of Neoplatonism.

Gabirol was the first teacher of Neoplatonism in Europe. …Philo .. . Orientalized European philosophy and prepared the way for its Christianization. A thousand years later Gabirol Occidentalized Greco-Arabic philosophy and restored it to Europe. Strangely enough, the philosophical teachings of Philo and Gabirol were alike ignored by their fellow Jews; and the parallel may be extended by adding that Philo and Gabirol alike exercised a very considerable influence in extra-Jewish circles: Philo upon primitive Christianity, and Gabirol upon the scholasticism of medieval Christianity.

Gabirol, unlike other medieval Jewish philosophers who regarded philosophy as the "hand-maid of theology," pursued his philosophical studies regardless of the claims of religion, keeping "his philosophical speculation free from every theological admixture."

In this respect Gabirol is unique. The "Fons Vitæ" shows a total and absolute independence of Jewish religious dogma; not a verse of the Bible nor a line from the Rabbis is cited. For this reason Gabirol exercised comparatively little influence upon his Jewish successors—though this may be accounted for on the ground of the predominance of Aristotelianism from the twelfth century—and was accepted by the scholastics as a non-Jew, as an Arab or a Christian.


 Ethical Treatise.

"The Improvement of the Moral Qualities" is an ethical treatise which has been called by Munk "a popular manual of morals. 1045  

 As a Poet

Gabirol's poetical productions are characterized by Al-Ḥarizi in the following terms: "Rabbi Solomon the Little ["ha-Ḳaton"] spread such a fragrance of song as was never produced by any poet either before or after him. The poets who succeeded him strove to learn from his poems, but, were unable to reach even the dust of his feet as regards the power of his figures and the force of his words. If he had lived longer he would surely have accomplished wondrous things in poetry; but he was snatched away when still young, . . . and his light was extinguished before he had completed his thirtieth year" ("Taḥkemoni," xviii.).



 Text of " Shachar Avakeshkha" as printed in the Sim Shalom Siddur


Keter Malkhut


Though Gabirol the philosopher was forgotten in Israel, Gabirol the poet kept alive the remembrance of the ideas of the philosopher; for his best-known poem, "Keter Malkut," is a religio-philosophical treatise in poetical form, the "double" of the "Fons Vitæ."

In his "Keter Malkut" or "Royal Crown," a philosophical and ethical hymn in rimed prose, he describes the universe as composed of spheres one within the other. It is a detailed panegyric of the glory of God both in the material and in the spiritual world, permeated with the loftiest ethical and religious thoughts In many liturgies it occurs as part of the Day of Atonement service.


Fragment of old manuscript

Illuminated Manuscript of Keter opening verses

Title page of Ladino  Mahzor for High Holy Days, with ddition of Keter Malkhut]


Here is an excerpt of some Hebrew and English.

 I have highlighted the rhymes.

Chapter 2ב׳

אַתָּה אֶחָד. רֹאשׁ כָּל מִנְיָן. וִיסוֹד כָּל בִּנְיָן:

Thou art One, the first of every number, and the foundation of every structure,

אַתָּה אֶחָד. וּבְסוֹד אַחְדוּתְךָ חַכְמֵי לֵב יִתְמָהוּ. כִּי לֹא יָדְעוּ מַה הוּא:

Thou art One, and at the mystery of Thy Oneness the wise of heart are struck dumb, For they know not what it is.

אַתָּה אֶחָד. וְאַחְדוּתְךָ לֹא יִגְרַע וְלֹא יוֹסִיף. לֹא יֶחְסַר וְלֹא יַעְדִּיף:

Thou art One, and Thy Oneness can neither be increased nor lessened, It lacketh naught, nor doth aught remain over.

אַתָּה אֶחָד. וְלֹא כְּאֶחָד הַקָּנוּי וְהַמָּנוּי. כִּי לֹא יַשִּׂיגְךָ רִבּוּי וְשִׁנּוּי. לֹא תֹאַר וְלֹא כִנּוּי:

Thou art One, but not like a unit to be grasped or counted, For number and change cannot reach Thee. Thou art not to be visioned, nor to be figured thus or thus.

 אַתָּה אֶחָד. וְלָשׂוּם לְךָ חֹק וּגְבוּל נִלְאָה הֶגְיוֹנִי. עַל כֵּן אָמַרְתִּי אֶשְׁמְרָה דְרָכַי מֵחֲטוֹא בִלְשׁוֹנִי:

Thou art One, but to put to Thee bound or circumference my imagination would fail me. Therefore I have said I will guard my ways lest I sin with the tongue.

אַתָּה אֶחָד. גָבַהְתָּ וְנַעֲלֵיתָ מִשְּׁפוֹל וּמִנְּפוֹל. וְאִילוֹ הָאֶחָד שֶׁיִּפּוֹל:

Thou art One, Thou art high and exalted beyond abasement or falling, "For how should the One fall?"


 Text source

Selected Religious Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol, trans. Israel Zangwill. JPS, Philadelphia, 1923


Ibn Gabirol is following the science of his day:

Medieval Arabic copy of Ptolemy’s Almagest. Here is a mathematical solution to the problem of irregular planetary motion around the earth. It is based on the assumption of both circular and elliptical motions and made possible accurate predictions of planetary positions. 


Chapter 10 Earth

Who shall utter Thy mighty deeds, For Thou madest a division of the ball of the earth into twain, half dry land, half water,

And didst surround the water with the sphere of air, In which the wind turneth and turneth in its going, And resteth in its circuits,

And didst encompass the air with the sphere of fire,

And the foundations of these four elements are but one foundation, And their sources one,

And from it they issue and are renewed, "And from thence was it separated and became four heads."

[Note- the Ball of the earth”= Hebrew- Kadoor. NOBODY THOUGHT THE EARTH WAS FLAT-forget what they told you in school about Columbus and people being afraid to fall off the edge of the earth]

Chapter 12 Moon

Who shall tell Thy praises? For Thou madest the Moon the chief source whereby to calculate Appointed times and seasons, And cycles and signs for the days and the years.

Her rule is in the night, Until the coming of the fixed hour

When her brightness shall be darkened And she shall clothe herself with the mantle of gloom.

For from the light of the Sun is her light, And should it hap on the night of the fourteenth that both of them stand On the line of the Dragon, So that it cometh between them,

Then the Moon shall not convey her light, And her illumination shall be extinguished,

To the end that all the peoples of the earth shall know That they are the creatures of the Most High, And however splendid they be There is a Judge above them to humble and exalt.

[The lunar eclipse happens when the Sun is in the line of the Dragon-Draco Constellation-( Teli), between Big and Little Bear. Refers to ancient myth that a dragon swallows the moon.]


Nathless she shall live again after her fall And shall be resplendent again after her darkness,

And when she is in conjunction with the Sun at the end of the month,

If the Dragon shall be between them, And both shall stand upon one line,

Then the Moon shall stand before the Sun like a projecting blackness And shall hide the light thereof from the sight of all beholders,

In order that all who behold may know That the sovereignty is not with the hosts and legions of heaven

But that there is a Master over them, Obscuring and irradiating,

For height behind height He keepeth, yea, and the heights beyond them, And they that imagine the Sun is their god

At such time shall be ashamed of their imaginings, For their words are then tested,

And they shall know 'tis the hand of the Lord hath done this And that the Sun hath no power And His alone is the rule who can darken its light,

Sending to it a slave of its slaves, A beneficiary of its own kindly glow, To becloud its radiance, To cut off the abominable idolizing thereof, ''And let the Sun be removed from sovereignty.''

 [The solar eclipse is then, just the obverse of the lunar eclipse- again, no dragon swallows the Sun, but it serves to prove that neither the Sun nor Moon  is a deity in and of itself.]


Chapter 15

Who shall understand Thy secret? For Thou hast encompassed the sphere of this shining one With a fourth sphere, wherein is the Sun

That completeth his circuit in a perfect year.

And his body is one hundred and seventy times greater than that of the earth, According to indications and devisings of intellect.

And he is the apportioner of light to all the stars of the heavens, And giveth to kings salvation And majesty, dominion and awe,

And reneweth marvels on the earth, Whether for war or for peace,

And rooteth up kingdoms, And establisheth and exalteth others in their stead

And hath power to abase and uplift with a high hand,

But all according to the will of the Creator who created him in wisdom.

Every day he prostrateth himself before the King, And taketh his stand in the house of his course,

And at dawn he raiseth his head And boweth towards the west in the evening.

"In the evening he goeth down and in the morning he returneth."

 [Not a far off estimate of the size of the sun- It is only 109 times wider.Note-this is a Ptolemaic, earth based, model. Not Copernican]

Chapter 16

Who can grasp Thy greatness? For Thou hast appointed the Sun for the computing Of days and of years, and appointed periods,

And to make the fruit-tree to burgeon, And, under the sweet influence of the Pleiades and the bands of Orion, The green shoots luxuriant.

Six months he journeyeth towards the north to warm the air, And the waters, the woods, and the rocks,

And as he draweth nigh to the north, The days grow longer and the seasons wax,

Till there is found a place where the day is so lengthened That it lasteth six months, According to confirmed indications,

And six months he journeyeth towards the south In his appointed courses

Till there is found a place where the night is so lengthened That it lasteth six months, According to the proof of searchers.

 [Nobody could get to the North Pole, or even know of it, in those days, let alone assume a six month night and day.]


Chapter 26 God beyond Intelligence

Who can approach Thy seat? For beyond the sphere of Intelligence hast Thou established the throne of Thy glory; There standeth the splendour of Thy veiled habitation,

And the mystery and the foundation. Thus far reacheth Intelligence, but cometh here to a standstill,

For higher still hast Thou mounted, and ascended Thy mighty throne, "And no man may go up with Thee."


Chapter 33 This connects it to Yom Kippur

O God, I am ashamed and confounded To stand before Thee with this my knowledge

That even as the might of Thy greatness, So is the completeness of my poverty and humbleness,

That even as the might of Thy potency So is the weakness of my ability,

And that even as Thou art perfect, so am I wanting.

For Thou art a Unity, and Thou art living, Thou art mighty, and Thou art permanent, And Thou art great, and Thou art wise, and Thou art God!

And I am but a clod, and a worm, Dust from the ground,

A vessel full of shame, A mute stone, A passing shadow,

"A wind that fleeth away and returneth not again." To an asp akin,

Deceitful underneath, Uncircumcised of heart,

Great in wrath, Craftsman in sin and deception,

Haughty of eye, Short in forbearance, Impure of lips,

Crooked of ways, And hot-footed.

What am I? What is my life? What my might and what my righteousness?

Naught is the sum of me all the days of my being, And how much the more so after my death!


Chapter 40

O my God, I know that those who implore favour from Thee

Have for ambassadors their antecedent virtues, And the righteousness which they have heaped up,

But in me are no good deeds, For I am shaken and emptied like a stripped vine,

And I have no righteousness, no rectitude, No piety, no uprightness,

No prayer, no plea, No innocence, no faith,

No justice, no quality of goodness, Neither service of God nor turning from sin.

May it be Thy will, O Lord our God and God of our Fathers, Master of the Worlds, To have mercy upon me, And be Thou near me,

To favour me with the visitation of Thy goodwill, And to lift up to me the light of Thy face,

And to show me Thy graciousness!


Then will I say: I thank Thee, O Lord, that though wroth with me, Thine anger is turned away and Thou hast comforted me. Thine, O Lord, is loving-kindness In all the goodness Thou hast bestowed on me,

And which Thou wilt bestow till the day of my death.

And for all this it behooves me to give thanks, To laud, to glorify, to extol Thee.

By the mouth of Thy creatures O yield Thyself praise, By those hallowing Thee be Thou self-sanctified,

Through those owning Thy Unity cry Thou Thy oneness, With the lips of Thy glorifiers chant Thee Thy glory,

And exalt Thee in rhapsody through Thine exalters, Supremely upborne on Thy worshippers' breath,

For 'mid the gods and their works, O Lord, there is none like to Thee and Thine.

May this word of my mouth and my heart's true thought Find, O Rock and Redeemer, the favour sought.









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