The Ibn Tibbon family: Masters of Hebrew translation

Judah ibn Tibbon and his son, Samuel, made translation a key factor in promoting great philosophical works to readers in Hebrew.

‘IN THE mid-12th century, Judah moved from Granada in Muslim Spain and settled in Lunel in Provence.’  (photo credit: REUTERS)
‘IN THE mid-12th century, Judah moved from Granada in Muslim Spain and settled in Lunel in Provence.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
They are the unsung heroes of medieval Jewish literature, translation, and philosophy: the Ibn Tibbon family of Provence. While zealot rabbis in France in the early thirteenth century requested that the Roman Catholic Church burn Maimonides’s philosophical masterwork The Guide to the Perplexed, composed originally in Arabic, Samuel Ibn Tibbon had long before translated what some considered heresy into Hebrew.
In his Jewish People, Jewish Thought, historian Robert M. Seltzer stresses the importance of Hebrew translation: “Whereas previously, medieval Jewish philosophy was written in Arabic and was the reaction of individual Jews to Muslim philosophical works, in the post-Maimonidean era there was a continual interchange of views in Hebrew, representing a conscious effort to make philosophical rationalism an integral part of Judaism.”
Judah ibn Tibbon and his son, Samuel, made translation a key factor in promoting great philosophical works to readers in Hebrew.
At the same time as the Church was burning the philosophical work of Maimonides, Jews living in Provence possessed classic works of Jewish theology in Hebrew. The Ibn Tibbon family was the leader of the effort to make works in Arabic available in Hebrew.
In the mid-12th century, Judah moved from Granada in Muslim Spain and settled in Lunel in Provence. His great translations include Bachya ibn Pekuda’s Duties of the Heart, Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari and Saadia Gaon’s Book of Beliefs and Opinions.
Samuel translated The Guide to the Perplexed from Arabic into Hebrew in 1204. Only five years earlier, Samuel wrote to Maimonides requesting to meet the great master in Old Cairo, but Maimonides told the translator that he was too busy and would have no time to meet.
This was not a snub. Maimonides kept an exhausting schedule as a court physician and provided free healthcare to the indigent. Added to this was his stature as a great legal and philosophical mind who also was an outstanding community leader.
Maimonides and Samuel ibn Tibbon never met, although the relationship was critical to the future of Jewish philosophy.
THE IBN TIBBONS translated works of Plato and Aristotle into Hebrew. They also translated the work of Ibn Rushd, a contemporary of Maimonides and an important influence on the author of the Guide that eventually led to the Jewish attempt to reconcile Torah with Aristotle even more extreme than that of Maimonides.
As historian Seltzer writes, “Successful translation required a new Hebrew scientific and philosophical terminology, which in turn made it easier to write new works in Hebrew. A growing body of scientific and philosophical writings, including important commentaries to the Guide, were produced by Jews in Spain, Provence and Italy from the thirteenth century on.”
This, in turn, had great influence of Arabic philosophical works translated into Hebrew that were eventually translated into the Latin of Church thinkers. These translations were responsible in the transmission of learning in the Muslim world to Christian Europe.
A related aspect of the Ibn Tibbon legacy was Judah ibn Tibbons’s ethical will to his son, Samuel. Besides expressing the importance of beautiful calligraphy, Judah told Samuel, “Be careful not to err in language, grammatical structures, and conjugations, or in the masculine and feminine forms... for a man bears blame for his errors and he is remembered all his life because of them.”
Judah, a physician, inculcated in his son the ethics of the profession. He wrote, “My son, receive all men graciously, and when you visit the sick, let your tongue be a healing for them. If you receive payment from the wealthy, then heal the poor without charge and the Lord will pay your recompense and give you your wage... and you will be honored by great and small, by Jews and gentile. And you will gain a good name both near and far.”
Status was important to Judah, and he advised Samuel not to be too humble.
The ethical will is a wonderful document that only adds luster to the translating mission of the Ibn Tibbons. Their work not only was critical in making philosophy accessible in Hebrew; their creativity in the translations of Arabic philosophical language into Hebrew is an incredible accomplishment that spurred Jewish intellectual life and reached far beyond the Jewish world into Christendom. They represented the greatness of Provence as a medieval center of Jewish philosophy, Hebrew literature and Kabbalah.

Quotes from the ethical will of Judah ibn Tibbon can be found in
A History of the Jewish People, edited by HH Ben-Sasson. The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.