Ibn Kaspi, Joseph
Josef Ibn Kaspi lived in Provence and traveled in Egypt, Majorca, Aragon, and Castile. He probably made his living through moneylending, with the help of his wife. He wrote more than 25 different books, the majority of which deal with Biblical exegesis, Hebrew grammar, and moral philosophy. He also wrote two commentaries on the Guide of the Perplexed and commentaries on Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics. In terms of philosophy, R. Kaspi was a member of the Averroist trend in Jewish thought. As some other members of this school, R. Kaspi wrote in an “esoteric” way. Moreover, he seemingly contradicted himself on a number of subjects, making it difficult to elicit and understand his true philosophical positions.
R. Kaspi was born in Provence in 1280, probably in Arles. His family name is a Hebraization of his family’s ancestral town, Argentière, which was named for its ample silver mines; kaspi means silvery in Hebrew. R. Kaspi was known for his penchant for traveling. For example, he traveled in Egypt for 5 months between 1313 and 1314. The stated aim of this journey was to learn from the descendants of Maimonides some of the secrets of their illustrious ancestor. However, R. Kaspi found that the descendants of Maimonides were not well-versed in philosophy, and he returned to Provence. Kaspi also made two trips to Spain in the years 1330–1332 and took his last trip to Majorca in 1345, where he died shortly before his intended return to Provence.
Commentary on the Bible. Most of the writings of R. Kaspi are on this subject. In the case of two Biblical books (Proverbs and Job), he composed two commentaries. He wrote the Matzref le-Kesef (Crucible for Silver), which is a commentary on the Pentateuch, and the Tirat Kesef (Palace of Silver), which addresses specific questions in the interpretation of the Pentateuch. He wrote also a number of books on a number of important Biblical passages, for example, the Menorat Kesef (Candelabra of Silver), which interprets the vision of the chariot (Rock 2007).
Books that address theoretical questions related to the exegesis of the Bible. For example, the Shulchan Kesef (Table of Silver) and Gevia‘ ha-Kesef (1982) (Mug of Silver) (which also touch on the debate with Christianity).
Books that focus on certain specific topics, such as Tam ha-Kesef (The Silver Is Finished), a collection of eight essays on different issues, and his book on ethics, Sefer Hamusar (Book of Morality).
Philosophical commentaries. Two commentaries on Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed (Amudei Kesef (Pillars of Silver) and Maskiyyot Kesef (Images of Silver)), a commentary on Maimonides’ Milot ha-Higayon (Logical tractate) and a summary as well as commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics and Plato’s Republic according to the commentaries of Averroes on these books (Terumat Kesef 2016) (Oblation of Silver).
Works on Grammar: Retuqot Kesef (Chains of Silver) and Shasherot Kesef (Chains of Silver) (on Biblical lexicography).
Main Philosophical Opinions
In most, R. Kaspi appears as a representative of the Averroist school of thought. For instance, he held a completely naturalistic opinion, though this only becomes apparent after we go beyond the exoterical sentences that he used to conceal his true opinions. The originality of R. Kaspi lies mostly in his various commentaries on the Bible and in particular in his philosophical positions on certain key issues, with his opinion on natural law being a particularly good example. According to R. Kaspi, there exists in principle some perfect natural law, which is to say the best law for all places and all times. However, due to the different practical circumstances faced by all people across the generations, this law cannot be the constitution of any particular historical state. All societies have some practical considerations that affect the conduct of the population and thus interfere with implementing the perfect law in each society’s legislation. For R. Kaspi, even the Law of Moses diverges from the perfect natural law, initially because of the influence of the then surrounding cultures on the Jews when they first came up out of Egypt and later due to the changing situation over the course of Jewish history. The dialectic between the ideal and the reality is the reason that the Law of Moses had to evolve. Nevertheless, these adjustments have to be hidden from the common people, in Kaspi’s opinion, for if the masses were to understand that the Law of Moses constantly adjusts to circumstances, they would opt to change the law according to their corporeal temptations. This is the reason that Moses wrote in the Deteuronome (Chap. 4: 2), “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish from it.”
- Gevia‘ ha-Kesef, Treatise on esoteric topics in the book of Genesis, with English translation, ed. B.E. Herring. New York 1982.Google Scholar
- Rock, A. 2007. R. Yosef Ibn Kaspi’s Biblical Exegesis: Exegetical Methodology and a Critical Annotated Edition of Mazref La-Kesef on Genesis. Ph.D. dissertation, Bar Ilan (Hebrew).Google Scholar
- Terumat Kesef, in A. Sackson, Josef Ibn Kaspi, Portrait of a Hebrew Philosopher in Medieval Provence, 28–71. Ph.D. Dissertation, NYU 2016.Google Scholar
- Ben Shalom, R. 2010. An (unwritten) diary of Joseph Ibn Kaspi’s journey to the East: Images and orientalism. Pe’amim 124: 7–51 (Hebrew).Google Scholar
- Kahan, M. 2016. Joseph Ibn Kaspi – New biographical Data. Pe’amim 145: 143–166 (Hebrew).Google Scholar
- Kasher, H. (ed). 1996. Introduction to edition of R. Kaspi’s Shulhan Kesef. Jerusalem (Hebrew).Google Scholar
- Mesch, B. (ed). 1975. Studies in Joseph Ibn Caspi: Fourteenth-century philosopher and exegete. Leiden.Google Scholar