Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain

Dana International, Israel's award winning trans-sexual pop-singer, announced that her entry at this year's Eurovision Song Contest on May 29, to be held in Jerusalem, will be "Dror Yikra." Wearing a strapless dress in the style of traditional Yemenite Jewish costume and heavily guarded by security agents, she noted that "This is a Yemenite song and I am Yemenite. I remember singing it in synagogue when I was young. . . . It's part of me." According to the Jerusalem Post (5/12/99, p. 2), the organizers of the contest noted that "Dror Yikra" was written by Rabbi Shlomo Shabazi in the sixteenth century and is a poem with no overt religious overtones. The director of the show noted, "People are attributing all kinds of meanings to the words that they wouldn't if Dana wasn't singing it."

One of my now very famous professors of medieval Hebrew poetry once noted that there are three words that don't attract students to courses or lectures: medieval, Hebrew, and poetry, and noted that his field involves all three. Yet this news story, which no doubt will grow in Israel over the next few weeks, especially after the election when new battles will be necessary to sustain life here at it its usual combative, bilious level, moves a discussion of medieval Hebrew poetry from the academy to the forefront of Jewish cultural wars.

While Dana International may be able to get an operation to change his sex, he and his promoters cannot so easily change the historical provenance of a major cultural artifact. Deror Yikra was one of the first Hebrew poems written in the rhyme and meter of Arabic verse. It was written in Cordova, Spain in the mid tenth century by Dunash ibn Labrat (d. 990), born in Baghdad where he was a student of Saadia Gaon and later lived in Fez. His poetic innovations gained him the position of court poet or Hebrew secretary to Hasdai ibn Shaprut (910-970 or 905-975) who served as the court physician and vizier for Abdurahman III (912-961), who established the Caliphate of Cordova in 929. Shalem Shabazi was a great seventeenth century Yemenite Hebrew poet, however the time difference between the two is at least seven hundred years, a margin of error greater than most of recorded US history, a fact that highlights the long history of Hebrew poetry, a history that extends beyond both points of reverence in this controversy by many centuries.

Under the influence of Arab culture, Hebrew poets radically changed Hebrew poetry from the often obscure and usually very religious style of piyyut, associated with cultural developments in Palestine, Babylonia, Ashkenazic lands, and Spain up to the tenure of Menahem ibn Saruq whom Dunash ibn Labrat replaced as court poet. Influenced by the Muslims' devotion to the Koran, Dunash marked a return to the purity of the language of the Bible in Hebrew poetry and an end to the language of the midrash in his poetry. Influenced by the secular poetry of the Arabs about love, wine, and war, the Hebrew poets began to write on secular themes as well. Finally, influenced by the quantitative syllabification of the Arabs, Hebrew poets began to include precise rhythms in their poetry

Although the Hebrew poetry of Spain can be understood in translation without commentaries, it is nevertheless stylized in its own way. Since much of it reflects a conscious borrowing of themes, images, and forms from the Muslim poets, it is, therefore, important not to fall into the trap of viewing the motifs of these poems as accurate reflections of the lives of the Jews of Spain. Rather, they are accurate reflections of the kinds of images that Jews borrowed from the poetry of the Arabs. Thus when the Hebrew poets wrote about carousing all night in gardens around bonfires and drinking wine, we cannot assume that this is what Jews did, only that this is what they read. The Jews borrowed these themes in their poems because they wanted to match what the Arabs did in Arabic to show the strength and flexibility of Hebrew. This process reaches its fullest development in the Hebrew poems about physical intimacy-usually just kissing-- between young boys and old men written in biblical Hebrew by rabbis in Medieval Spain (Carmi, pp. 298, 302, 344, 356, 361, 362, 363.)

In this lecture, I will provide a thematic survey of medieval, Renaissance, and early modern Hebrew poetry as a vehicle of Jewish cultural expression. I will pay little attention to the aesthetic and literary qualities and stress the poems as vehicles of ideas. As in the past, I will draw examples from Leviant's Masterpieces (where the poetry is not that well represented and the translations are forced into rhyme) and T. Carmi's Penguin Anthology of Hebrew Poetry (which uses prose translations to convey the ideas-I retranslate the Hebrew to provide different nuances and in order not to run afoul of copyright regulations). In Carmi each poet and poem is introduced between pages 77 and 143; the introductory materials between pages 7 and 75 are excellent. I have also described the major poets in an early Juice course, Medieval Jewish History, Lesson 5).

  1. Wine Poetry

    Among Jews, the Jews of Muslim Spain wrote the first wine poetry. It was a playful, seemingly secular genre with little obvious religious or ethical purpose. This imitation of the Arabic, like most subsequent drinking literature, usually had six basic themes: 1) the place where the wine was drunk; 2) the group of drinkers; 3) the time of the drinking; 4) a description of the wine; 5) an erotic image of the person serving the wine; 6) a description of the musicians playing in the background.

    Dana International's contention that the author of Deror Yikra may not have been as religiously devout as some of the singer's religious detractors finds mixed support in the fact that the first Hebrew wine poem was written by Dunash (Carmi, p. 280). In this poem, the listener is encouraged not to sleep but rather to spend the whole night up amid all sorts of fragrant spices in a garden of pomegranates filled with fountains and musical instruments. However, after a call to drink by the bowl, the poem shifts to a call for offering a sacrifice of choice bulls and rams and calves along with the anointing of oil and the lighting of incense. Now this could be a BBQ, sixties style, or it could be a reference to the Temple sacrificial cult, leading us to reconsider the beginning of the poem and to ask whether it referred to natural bounty or a specific religious setting. This impression is sustained in the next stanza as well. There, as part of a poetic dialogue, the listener reproaches his interlocutor to ask how he could issue such an invitation when the Holy House, the footstool of God, is in the hands of the uncircumcised ones. He further chastises him for neglecting the Torah while Zion lies in desolation, adding nationalistic to religious themes.

    Samuel Ha-Nagid, the Jewish vizier of Cordoba also wrote some zesty wine poems. At first one might be tempted to say that they are purely secular, focussing on the hedonistic aspects of life with calls for drinking, often to excess, and good company. A careful examination, however, of each of the poems usually reveals some connection with religious themes. In one, The Reward (Carmi, p. 296), the poet suggests dividing one's time evenly between serving God and carousing with wine. In another, Winter Wine Song (Met Av, Carmi, p. 296), the development of the vintage process traces the Jewish calendar from Av and Elul to Tishri, reaching its height at the time of the high holidays. In another, however (Carmi, p. 298) he connects wine with the theme of the love of men for young boys, "I would be a ransom for the fawn who gets up at night with the sound of the harp and flute." Moses ibn Ezra connects wine with sexual lust (Carmi, p. 324), "Hug the breasts of the beautiful woman all night; kiss her image all day." But even here religious imagery from Temple sacrifice is added for almost hilarious consequences: "This is earthly delight-take your portion from it as did the priests from the ram of installation . . . don't stop sucking your moist lips until you have taken your portion-a breast and a thigh (cf. Leviticus 10:15). (See also Leviant, pp. 175, 190-191.)

  2. Love Poetry

    Hebrew love poetry had a secular, hedonistic side to it, often as part of a wine song. These poems were a continuation of Arabic themes, not biblical motifs, despite the use of biblical terminology. The basic themes of secular love poetry include: 1) the lover is usually described as tall, with white skin and dark eyes and hair; 2) the lover is called by the names of biblical animals, such as deer, gazelle, or biblical personalities; 3) the love is kept a secret, especially from the family; 4) the love is described in terms of a stylized frustration--the poet is awake, cannot sleep, and has no appetite; 5) the lover can be a young man or a woman; 6) a friend tries to convince the poet to give up the frustrating relationship; 7) the poet seems himself as a sacrifice and the object of his affection as an animal of prey; often parts of the woman's body, especially her eyes, are described as weapons. In short, people who are happily in love rarely write love poetry. These love poems are usually about frustrated love and can lead to misogyny.

    Judah Ha-levi (Carmi, p. 343) captures the spirit of the victimization of the man by his unavailable but radiant object of affection, "Ophra washes her clothing in the water of my tears and spreads them out to dry in her radiance. With my two eyes, she doesn't bother with water from the well; nor, with the beauty of her body, with the sun." He cries his eyes out over his lover but all she can do is use his tears to do her laundry an image that both elevates her and condemns her in the harshest terms.(See also Carmi, pp. 342-346, Leviant, p. 200)

  3. Religious Poetry

    The Hebrew religious poetry of Muslim Spain borrowed many themes from secular love poetry and often the only difference was the choice of the object of desire.

    Solomon ibn Gabirol (Carmi, p. 314) wrote two religious poems that follow all the contours of erotic poetry. The cause for confusion between the two genres is, as in Dunash's wine poem above, his description of the Temple cult with the double entendre as a house of earthly assignation as well. "The gate which was shut, arise and open it, and the gazelle that fled, send him to me! On the day that you (m) come to me to lie between my breasts, there you will cause you pleasant odor to linger. . . Carmi's translation includes explanations not found in the Hebrew that show the reader that the poem is a conversation between God and Israel. The Hebrew certainly allows for this but not in uncertain terms.

    Similarly Gabirol's "He who lies on beds of gold," which Carmi translates as "Zion longing for the messiah," begins with a woman speaking to a man, not addressing him as "Lord," as the Carmi translation indicates: "He who dwells on beds of gold in my castle, when, O God, will you ready my bed for the redhead?" The text then finds the loved one sleeping in the morning and an affirmation of their suitability for each other. The poem ends with "He who comes in my castle will find my hidden delights, the juice of my pomegranate, my myrrh and my cinnamon." These expressions point to either a amorous tryst or Temple sacrifice.

  4. Zion

    Religious poetry like love poetry included the element of pining for a lost object, sometimes Zion, particularly the Temple and its cult, connected with both memories of the past and messianic hopes for the future. Judah Halevi's odes to Zion represent some of the most important examples of this genre. These hopes for a return to Zion, where ever they appear are often accompanied by polemical utterances, in coded language, against Muslims and Christians (Carmi, p 347; Leviant, pp. 204-207). "My heart is in the east and I am in the distant west-how can I taste what I eat and how can it be sweet? How can I fulfill by vows and oaths as long as Zion is in the chains of Edom and I am in the binds of the Arabs?" Contrary to Carmi's note about the author having vowed to leave Spain for the Land of Israel, the point of this verse is the poet's emphatic sense that he cannot function fully as long as the Temple is destroyed. Like a frustrated lover he can't eat and sleep. Edom is a medieval Hebrew reference to Christianity, referring in particular to the Crusader Kingdom in Jerusalem. "It would be easy in my eyes to leave all the good of Spain, how dear it would be in my eyes to see the dust of the destroyed Temple." The poet prefers the salvific power of the ruined Temple to the good life in Spain. In his Ode to Zion he gives a graphic description of the Holy Land, almost a traveler's account, based on the biblical text, and the immediacy of God's presence there, especially where the Temple once stood.

  5. The Dirge

    The Hebrew dirge in Muslim Spain, despite antecedents in the Bible, was based on the Muslim genre. There are four aspects of the dirge: 1) the crying: the personalized pain of the poet over his loss, the negative image of the messenger who brought the news of the death, the projection of personal feelings on the whole world and all of nature; 2) the eulogy: praise of the dead, especially his generosity towards the poet; 3) the expression of wisdom about fate, the world, life, and death; 4) the consolation: usually the superficial notion that all life must endure death.

    One of the most beautiful poems of this type from the period is Solomon ibn Gabirol's tribute to Yekutiel, his late patron (Carmi, p. 306; Leviant, p. 180). In it, all of nature shares his grief: "See how red the sun is at evening time, like it is dressed in a scarlet robe. It uncovers the corners of the north and the west and it covers the south and the east with purple. It has left the earth naked, . . . and the world becomes dark, as if it is covered in sackcloth because of the death of Yekutiel."

Hebrew Poetry in Christian Spain

Whatever of a golden age happened in Islamic Spain was over by the eleventh century. At that time, with Christian successes in reconquering Spain, Jews began to enjoy a golden age of cultural creativity in the Christian north. One of the outstanding cultural creations of this period was the Tahkemoni by Judah Al-Harizi (1170-1235), an epic containing both poetry and rhymed prose, makama, which with its picaresque adventures resembles a traveler's account, including accounts of Jerusalem, a history of Hebrew poetry, and much on the subject of women, usually hostile if not violent. The sixth gate of the Tahkemoni formulates quite clearly the juxtaposition commonly found in medieval discussions between the good woman and the bad woman, the goddess and the whore. At the beginning of the chapter the protagonist is promised the ideal woman. Instead he gets a very unattractive woman whose disparagement is found in Carmi (p. 391). Here he draws together all sorts of biblical quotations to present what is a literary tour de force, but less than satisfying towards the end where he beats her, but then she turns out to be his best friend and long time fellow joker. His abuse of men is equally cutting: "He is afraid to urinate less he be thirsty and he is reluctant to move his bowels less he be hungry." (See also Leviant, pp. 389-414). Al-Harizi is drawing on the medieval popular culture of the grotesque, exaggerated, mocking, and satirical uses of bodily processes, especially sexual and digestive.

Similar developments are seen in the work of Todros Abulafia (1247-1295). He writes with even less restraint, fantasizing that he were a women so he could kiss an Arab women with whom he is infatuated. " . . because I am a male, I lost out (Carmi, p. 410). I think that Carmi, though certainly not providing a Bawlderized version of one of Abulafia's poems, missed the point. The poem is about his request for figs from a friend: ". . . send a ripening fig, give a portion for seven of them, even for eight." Carmi then translates the next line as "And in return, here is my flatus," noting that the Hebrew word used, zemorah, also means vine-twig. In addition, zemorah also means penis and fig, vagina. I think that this is a sexual and not a scatological reference; both, however, fit the category of the grotesque. The next line translates: "Henceforth I won't give it to strangers" could fit either way.

Hebrew Poetry in Italy

Hebrew poetry reached both new creative heights in the work of Immanuel of Rome (1261-1328) as well as what some Jews saw as new depths in terms of taste and suitability, culminating in his work being explicitly banned in the Shulhan Arukh (Orakh Hayyim 307:16). A friend of Dante and familiar with the Divine Comedy, which he imitated, Immanuel was for a while a correspondent for the Roman Jewish community until he went into exile. His Makhberot, collections of poetry and rhymed prose on many subjects, usually combining biblical and rabbinic idioms with intensive mockery, have not been fully translated. I first encountered Immanuel when my Hebrew was better than my taste and found his use of religious terminology to describe a patient taking a laxative to be utterly hilarious: "Isolate yourself after you drink this mixture and set aside all your work until your body is purged and do not trouble your thoughts with anything. Shut the doors of your house from all sides because the wind will cause tekiah, teruah, and three shevarim. . ." Hence flatus is described in beautiful Hebrew prose as the sounds of the shofar blowing on the High Holidays.

Immanuel's work is filled with misogynistic passages as well as a few barbs at men. In mocking the miser he says (Carmi, p. 425): "Though he has a penis, for fear of wearing it out, when he has sex he uses somebody else's." Again showing Jewish poets writing in Hebrew drawing heavily upon popular usage of the grotesque, a usage that seems different than that of Arab countries. There the non-Jewish forbidden realms popularized in the literature included the love of young boys and the drinking of wine, whereas in the Christian countries misogyny, sexuality, and scatological writings appear regularly. In neither case do these trends represent positivistic reporting about actual behavior but almost mirror images of popular conceptions of the grotesque..

One of the paradoxes of Italian Hebrew poetry is the fate of Leon Modena's Yom Zeh Mishkal (Carmi, p. 491), Song for the Minor Day of Atonement. This is the fast day at the end of every Hebrew month initiated by the kabbalists. Modena (Yehudah Aryeh mi-Modena, 1571-1648) was a bitter opponent of Kabbalah, yet it was his poem that became the anthem for that day, leaving not only his words, but his name spelled out in the acrostic that begins every other line. Heightening the paradox is the fact that many years after his death various rabbis tried to ban the poem because of its alleged reference to Shabbetai Tzi, the messianic pretender whose movement formed in the year 1666, many years after Modena's death. In the last stanza, notice how strongly it too expresses the hope to return to burnt sacrifices, the expression hod roshenu, translated simply as Messiah, replaces the original nezer roshenu which adds up to the numerical value of Shabbetai Tzvi (814), a fact invoked by opponents of Sabbatai Tzvi after his death..

Many of the rollicking, frivolous, witty and abusive qualities of Immanuel are also found in the poetry of the Frances brothers, Jacob (1615-1667) and Immanuel (1618-1710). They, often re-writing each other's work, cover many of the conventional themes of wine, women (oversexed or undersexed), and misogyny. Carmi's translation of one such poem alters the meaning ( p. 502). The Hebrew is called, Levad Shalosh Yetziot, There are only Three Exits, a poem in which he lords three moments of transition and subordination in the life of women over them: when she is born, in filth, when she gets married, and when she dies, which he viciously calls the most exalted of all. This poem is about all women, "great and small," and not just about the Gadabout, as the English title says.

Reaching the eighteenth century, Ephraim Luzzatto, expresses a new sense of self in his poetry in which he writes about his land, his street, his house, and even his own name (Carmi, p. 504). Still in the tradition of Italian Hebrew literature, Luzzatto, moving from the politically incorrect to sexual harassment, describes a doctor who becomes passionately in love with his female patient and propositions her.

Hebrew Poetry in the East

Several poems from Hebrew poets from eastern Mediterranean countries have made an enduring impact on Jewish culture. With roots in both Spain and Italy as well as in indigenous Jewish culture, these poems often reflect mystical traditions. Simon Labi (1492-1585), a Spanish, North African writer, wrote a poem, now a popular song on Lag Baomer, which has been recorded, called Bar Yohai. Simon Bar Yohai was a first century rabbi who, with his young son, hid from the Romans in a cave for many years during the first century. When the Zohar, the classic of Jewish mysticism emerged in Christian Spain in the thirteenth century it was attributed to him. Carmi connected each stanza of this poem to a different one of the ten Sephirot, the mediating stages between God and humans. I don't think that this is the case. It seems that each stanza rather refers to a different moment in the mystical experience of Simon Bar Yohai or the Jewish people: acacia wood refers to the Temple and not to the seraphim; the Apple Trees, if referring to the Garden of Eden, is a reference borrowed from Christianity since rabbinic literature never identifies the tree of the Garden as an apple tree; the sword is the flaming sword protecting the entrance to the Garden; the marble stones is from the talmudic story of the four men who entered Paradise, etc.

Yedid Nefesh, which now adorns most prayerbooks as well as many tape and record collections, was composed in Safed by the kabbalists Eliezer Azikri. One of the most famous verses in this poem, ". . . eli, mahmad libi, husha na, ve-al titalem," "my God, my heart's delight, have compassion, and do not disappear." From this emerged a popular Hebrew song which garbles the words, "Ele hamda libi . . ." which makes no sense whatsoever with its masculine subject and feminine predicate.

Concluding the presentation, and returning to the theme we discussed earlier in the course, Israel Najara (c. 1555-1625), author of the Sabbath hymn Yah Ribbon, rabbi in various cities in the land of Israel, and noted for acquiring his melodies in Arab taverns, composed a dirge for the fast of the Ninth of Av on the theme of child sacrifice based on a midrashic story (Carmi, p. 472). In his poem, a mother builds an alter to sacrifice her son, slaughters him, and removes his flesh like a sacrificial offering and dismembering him into twelve parts. When the other Jews found her they confronted her with a verse from the Akedah, "Here are the fire and the wood!" Significantly, it is in the land of Israel that the imperative to sacrifice emerges.

The fact remains that a central theme in all periods of Hebrew poetry was the desire to offer sacrifices. Whether writing about drinking wine, or love, or prayer, the poets gave expression to the continued desire of Jews to offer sacrifices in Jerusalem. A desire not eliminated by the destruction of the Temple and one that continues to loom large in our own day.

In the meantime, during the long and often culturally very productive diaspora from the land of Israel and from the Temple, Jews in all parts of the world continued literary, cultural, and religious traditions from Palestine while at the same time, continually influenced by their neighbors, produced new works which reflected the environment they lived in, Christian or Islamic.

So when Dana International steps up to the microphone at the end of the month, here are a couple of the cultural features of the first stanza of Deror Yikra. The first letter of each line of the stanza, and several others as well, spells out Dunash (not Shalem). The last word of each line of the first stanza rhyme, vat, vat, bat, bat. The Spanish Hebrew poetry scanned with the sheva [:] or vowels that combine with a sheva [-:] being short and every other vowel long so that this poem's basic meter would be short-long-long-long short-long-long-long. If, however, you look at various songbooks or even prayerbooks, you'll see that this pattern has been broken by some of them. For example while the last line of the first stanza in Dunash's text reads she-vu-nu-hu be-yom-sha-bat, in some places it reads she-vu ve-nu-hu be-yom-sha-bat. What does it mean? Following the biblical idea of proclaiming liberty, as found on the Liberty Bell, the shabbat is a day of freedom for both men and women. By the way, there is some evidence that Dunash's wife was also a Hebrew poet. The poem then moves to connect the Sabbath observers with God and promises that their name will be preserved. And encourages them to observe the Sabbath. I hope this helps and permits those who see the show to pay more attention to the costumes.





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30 Aug 2005 / 25 Av 5765 0