Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra: The Essential Heart (Nitzavim)

The Torah Text

One of the most beautiful sections of Torah describes Torah itself as essentially doable. It may not always be perfectly understandable, but it is not beyond us to engage with Torah, to practice it, and to bring it to life through our own lives.

“Surely, this Torah which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).

Ibn Ezra’s Teaching

בפיך ובלבבך. שכל המצות עיקרם הלב ויש מהם זכר בפה לחזוק הלב ויש מעשה כדי שיזכור בפה

Deuteronomy 30:14 IN YOUR MOUTH AND IN YOUR HEART. For the heart is the core of the commandments. Some commandments require the uttering of statements which serve to reinforce the heart. Others consist of deeds so that a person will utter the required statements. (Translation Strickman and Silver).

Reflections for the Path

For Ibn Ezra, the most essential mitzvot are those that involve the heart, such as loving God, loving the neighbor, loving the stranger, and so forth. He notes that in our verse, it mentions mouth, heart, and observing (la’asot, meaning to do them). Earlier in Exodus, Ibn Ezra had already laid out his distinction among the mitzvot, the sacred practices of Judaism.

כי יחשבו כי המעשה העיקר. ואיננו רק הלבב והמעשה והלבב והלשון להרגיל. וכן כתוב בפיך ובלבבך לעשותו וקדמונינו אמרו רחמנא לבא בעי

Exodus 31:18 [Some] think that action is the essence. But this is not so, only the heart and action [together]. And the heart and the tongue train a person [to observe the commandments]. We thus read, “in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it” (Deuteronomy 30:14). Our ancients (in B. Sanhedrin 6b) said, “God desires the heart.”

Not all actions serve the practice of the heart. When they do, Ibn Ezra lays out the relationship among mitzvot across the three categories in a way resembling a nesting doll. The innermost mitzvah doll is related to the heart, which in essence is love, belief, trust, and other qualities essential for the foundation of relationship. In order to make sure we connect with our heart-practice, the next mitzvah doll is that of speaking-practice. When we say the shema, for instance, we are reminding ourselves to relate to God with love. The next mitzvah doll is that of action-practice, where one might wear tefillin, which contain within them the words of the shema (yet another nesting doll example!). So wearing tefillin is an action that reminds us to speak the words of shema which in turn reminds us to practice that deep foundational love of the divine at the core of Jewish practice.

For more on Abraham ibn Ezra:
1. Read my introduction.
2. Listen to ibn Ezra’s opening prayer poem for his Torah commentary.
3. Explore the five paths, ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah commentary.