What lies beneath the fig tree: Solomon Ibn Gabirol and the search for wisdom

Web banner with the words: Premiere: New acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada showing a small picture of an otter fishing on the rightBy Dr. Guy Berthiaume

There is a legend that a jealous poet murdered Solomon Ibn Gabirol, the 11th- century Jewish poet and philosopher, and buried him under a fig tree. The fruit of that tree was so sweet and so plentiful, the people of the town where the tree was located decided to dig it up and uncover the source of its richness. The legend finishes with the discovery of Gabirol’s remains beneath the tree, lending a truly poetic explanation of the tree’s abundant nature, one Gabirol himself might well have appreciated.

Legend aside, Gabirol was an important philosopher and the author of over 100 poetical works. His writings contain a fascinating blend of Jewish, Islamic, Neoplatonic, Pythagorean, Biblical, mystical and philosophical sources, bearing out Gabirol’s advice that we should “seek wisdom with the avidity with which thou wouldst search for hidden treasures, for it is more precious than gold and silver.” This sage instruction is taken from Mivachar Ha-Peninim, or Choice of Pearls, the most recent addition to Library and Archives Canada’s collection of incunabula, acquired with the generous donation of Ruth and Arnon Miller.

While incunabulum is actually a five-star Latin word for “cradle,” it has come to mean any book, pamphlet or broadside printed before the year 1501. In fact, before this term came into popular use, such books were known as “fifteeners,” which, while descriptive, lacks a certain syntactical mystique! But whichever way you choose to describe them, incunabula are compelling artifacts, both for their contents, and for their beauty as objects in and of themselves. Choice of Pearls is no exception.

Gabirol had a wide following in both Islamic and Christian circles, and this collection of proverbs, moral reflections and maxims was probably the equivalent of a New York Times bestseller in its day. Choice of Pearls feels surprisingly modern, with a relevance that applies as much today as it did in the 11th century. The book is studded with insights and observations such as these:  “Wisdom lying dormant is like an unproductive treasure”; “Man without wisdom is like a house without a foundation”; and the surprisingly prescient “Truth establishes all things; falsehood overthrows them,” which takes on a special meaning in this age of “post-truth”.

Although the text was originally written in Arabic by a Jewish philosopher who has been compared to Plato, its wisdom and wit was popular with both Jewish and Arab readers of the time. This demonstrates something I have long believed, that poetry and philosophy have a unique ability to transcend boundaries, and that libraries, by sharing works across cultures, can do the same.

The book is also significant because its publisher, Soncino Press, is one of the oldest and most influential printers in the history of Jewish books. Based in Northern Italy, Joshua Soncino set up one of the world’s first Hebrew printing presses in 1484.

A colour photograph of an open book with Hebrew writing.

Mivachar Ha-Peninim by Solomon Ibn Gabirol, 1484 (AMICUS 45283149)

Choice of Pearls was purchased at auction from the Valmadonna Trust Library, which was the world’s largest private collection of rare Judaica. It now joins its fellow incunabula in Library and Archives Canada’s Jacob M. Lowy Collection. The Collection, amassed over a lifetime, contains over 3,000 old and rare books printed between the 15th and 20th centuries in Hebrew, Latin, Yiddish and other languages. Highlights include first and early editions of the Talmud, 34 incunabula, and over 120 Bibles in many languages, including Inuktitut.


Dr. Guy Berthiaume is the Librarian and Archivist of Canada.

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