Fascinating Biographies behind the Zemirot:
The Greatest Poets of the Golden Age of Medieval Jewry and
their Personal Journeys
Table of Contents
Chart of Medieval Jewish Poets and Maps
The Ideal Poet of Spain
Dunash Ben Labrat, his Wife and his Teacher- Dror Yikra
Rabbi Yehuda Halevi – Yom Shabbaton
Leaving the Land of the Golden Age for the Dream of Jerusalem
Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra – Tzamah Nafshi; Ki Eshm’ra Shabbat
The Wandering Poet, Philosopher, Translator, Biblical Commentator,
Grammarian, Mathematician and Astrologer Par Excellence
The Jewish Astrologer: Saturn and Saturday
Rabbi Yitzchak HaARI
Rabbi Yisrael Najara - Ya Ribon
Elazar Azikri – The Mystical Diarist of Yedid Nefesh and his Holy Convenant
Medieval Hebrew Poets Chart
th –thEarly Poets (57 century, Eretz Yisrael)
Yosi ben Yosi
th- thMoslem Golden Age (10-12 Century, Spain)
thSaadia Gaon (10, Baghdad) thDunash ben Labrat (10 , Baghdad then Cordoba) – Dror Yikra th Menachem ben Saruq (10 Cordoba) thShmuel HaNagid (10, Granada) thShlomo ibn Gabirol (11 , 1020-1057) thMoshe ibn Ezra (12, Granada) thYehuda Halevi (12 Toledo, then Eretz Yisrael) - Yom Shabbaton thAvraham ibn Ezra (12 , Granada, Italy, France, and England)
- Ki Eshm’ra Shabbat; Ki Eshm’ra Shabbat
Ashkenazi Piyyut in France and Germany
th Rabbi Menachem ben Makhir of Ratisbonne (11 C.)- Ma Yedidut thBaruch of Mainz (12 C.) – Baruch Eil Elyon th Moshe (unknown dates before 16 century) – Menucha v’Simcha
thKabbalist Poets (16 Century, Safed, Eretz Yisrael)
Yitzchak Chandali - Yom Zeh L’Yisrael
Yitzchak Luria HaARI
Shlomo Alkabetz – L’kha Dodi
Yisrael Najara - Ya Ribon
Elazar Azikri - Yedid Nefesh
thShalom Shabazi (Yemen, 17 C.)
Maps of world powers and languages and religions and migrations
To sing through the traditional medieval Zemirot is to embark on a journey through out
Europe meeting some of the most personally colorful as well as most creative artistic minds of Jewry. The time span is from the tenth to the sixteen century. The geographical spread is from Bagdad to Cordoba and north to Germany. But the cultural variety is even greater as we encompass Moslem Spain with supremely cultured aristocrats and courtiers and then to Ashkenazi Western Christian Europe with little entrée to general culture and then to the Turkish Ottoman Empire with strong Kabbalist influences as well as popular vernacular love songs. With the help of the more exceptional biographies and photographs of the more beautiful cities that have preserved some of the medieval ambience we invite you to our thumbnail tour of the people and the places behind of the Zemirot.
(By contrast, the tunes we sing however do not preserve the medieval European legacy but rather reveal the vagaries of European, Hassidic and now American and Israeli popular music).
The Ideal Poet of Spain
In the 19th-20th century the image of the artist is typically a bohemian rebel against the establishment, a nonconformist driven by inner passions released from the rational demands of society. A contemporary poet would never want to be commercialized or put in a situation of needing to flatter his consumers. Innovation – not tradition or ritual – inspires the
literary genius‟s creativity. However the social ideal of the Hebrew poet of Moslem Spain, as described by the great poet Moshe ibn Ezra, was quite different. These highly educated, scholarly poets, though usually also rabbis and often physicians were nevertheless dependent on the financial and political support of their aristocratic patrons. Their poems were performed in the court in beautiful salons and manicured gardens and dedicated to their benefactors.
Yet they maintained a sense of their own calling, both ethically and artistically. Ethically they tried to live as aristocrats of the soul – restrained, noble, affable and sociable, well-
dressed and generous, true to their friends and truth tellers even when praising others –
and socially they sought to maintain tradition and show concern for their people as well as for their upper class compatriots. From the Moslem Spanish court, these Hebrew poets absorbed the values of elegance and beauty as well as the importance of expressing private emotions regarding love, friendship and earthly pleasures. They integrated these aspects into their secular and their sacred poetry. In their sacred poetry they achieved more freedom of self-expression in which they could praise God without fearing that their flattery would be false and servile. Their poems became a permanent feature of the synagogue liturgy and turned services into a welcome arena for literary creativity in the service of the highest Spirit.
Dunash ben Labrat (North Africa, Babylonia and Spain, 10th century, 920-
Dunash ben Labrat (whose Hebrew name was Adonim Levi) who inaugurated the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry in Cordoba in Moslem Spain. He was born in North Africa and then studied in Baghdad before reaching Spain at auspicious time. The Golden Age of Moslem Spain gave us Dror
by Dunash ben Labrat in the tenth century and later in the twelfth century Yehuda Halevi‟s Yikra
Yom Shabbaton and his friend and in-law Avraham ibn Ezra‟s Ki Eshmira Shabbat and Tzama
. Even before Dunash arrived, the 10th century in Spain boasted aristocratic court Jews Nafshi
well-versed in Hebrew grammar and patrons of original Hebrew poets reviving Biblical Hebrew in their works. However he brought with him a new model for Hebrew poetry based on outstanding Arabic poetry of the era and he started the greatest and bitterest struggle in Jewish history over Hebrew grammar.
Dunash was a student of Saadia Gaon (whose title “Gaon” means “the pride” of the great
yeshiva). Saadia was the official leader of the rabbinic yeshivot, the head of the high court of Babylonia and thereby the highest legal authority of all the Jewry under Moslem rule. He
resided in the Babylonian capital Baghdad, home of the Caliphate that ruled the vast Arab world from North Africa to India. Dunash‟s teacher was not merely an exceptional Talmudist, an academic rabbi, but a fearless political leader and intellectual innovator. Saadiah Gaon (882-942) was a new style of rabbi never known before and he was the cultural Leonardo da Vinci of his era. Born in Egypt, he studied with the great Hebrew linguists, masters of the Masoretic text of the Bible in Tiberias, where he also learned the tradition of Hebrew poetry (Yosi, Yanai etc). Then he went on to Babylonia, political and cultural capital of the Arab empire where despite his outsider status as one coming from the provinces, he was appointed the “gaon”- head of the Yeshiva of Pumpedita and in effect
the head of the Jewish Supreme Court of all Moslem lands. An outspoken man of principle, Saadiah confronted the moneyed-head of the Jewish community, the Resh Galuta, and
refused to bend the law to serve mere political interests.
In every field Saadiah set the standard taking his orientation from the cosmopolitan intellectual elite of the Moslem empire. He invented Rabbinic Jewish philosophy and based it on his dialogues with the great rationalist Moslem religious philosophers of his era. He actually wrote the first Jewish book in the modern sense – original works, not compilations,
with introductions, titles and subtitles, and a logical progression speaking consciously in the voice of the author. He also wrote the first topical law code, the first Hebrew grammar (inspired by the great new Arabic grammarians), the first complete siddur, the first running commentary on the Torah designed to provide the plain sense of the text, the first Arabic translation of the Tanakh, the first rhyming dictionary for Hebrew poets, the first Hebrew sacred poetry with a personal touch and the first literary polemics -- attacking the Karaites, Jewish heretics and the corrupt Resh Galuta. With the loss of Aramaic as the Jewish language, he created a tradition of Jewish creativity in Arabic (though it was written with Hebrew letters as Yiddish is today). His model of symbiosis between Jewish and general literary culture prefigured the great Jewish cultural creativity in German and later English in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However he also promoted a broad revival of Hebrew as a spoken, as well as a literary language.
“Our heart and the living spirit within us are in pain over this, for the holy speech is
absent from our mouths and the vision of all our prophecies and the speeches of
God‟s mouth are like sealed books to us…It is right for us to study Hebrew, to
contemplate it and to examine it closely, we and our children, even our wives and
slaves, so that the ordinary people of God will speak Hebrew when they go out and
when they come in and in whatever they do, in their bedchambers and with their
Sefer HaEgron, Saadiah Gaon). infants…” (
He promoted a Judaism that could appeal to the well-educated Jews who appreciated the philosophic and aesthetic standards of the surrounding liberal Moslem cultural and religious renaissance around them. He was not afraid of a pluralistic dialogue with his non-Jewish colleagues – Moslems, Christians and philosophers – all of them professing monotheism. For
Saadiah, revelation and reason were not in contradiction, science and religion were allies and self-ghettoization was unnecessary to maintain Jewish observance and a high level of Talmud study.
Saadiah‟s student, Dunash brought that same spirit to the other end of the Moslem empire and discovered in Moslem Spain that the Arab duchies included very highly cultured aristocratic Jews in their courts as economic and political advisors. These Jews were traditional in observance and proudly Jewish culturally and yet liberal minded in patronizing Jewish cultural arts like the academic study of Hebrew language and Bible and the creativity of court poets and literati, just as the Arab dukes did. For example, Shmuel HaNagid (993-1055) was both a Hebrew poet and a decorated general. Hisdai ibn Shaprut (915-970), the most prominent Jew of Cordoba, sponsored Menahem ben Saruq‟s writing of the first-ever Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary because it would help Hebrew poets. The revival of the use of the Hebrew language for writing secular poetry about love, wine and friendship as well as new sacred works for synagogue use, became a model for the modern Zionist revival of Hebrew centuries later, led by the author of the first great modern
th Hebrew –Hebrew dictionary, Eliezer ben Yehuda at the turn of the 20 century.
Dunash made a big “splash” on the social scene by writing a devastating critique of Menahem ben Saruq‟s magnum opus and inventing a new form of Hebrew poetry based exactly on the Arab canons of poetry. An armada of polemical poems were dispatched by each side against the other. The Jewish aristocrats who patronized these scholars and poets were themselves deeply caught up in what no one considered a mere academic issue. In the surrounding Arab world linguistic beauty was the key both to high culture and to religious truth since the Koran‟s verses are thought of as descending from Heaven. Jews felt the need to demonstrate the equal aesthetic and therefore divine quality of Hebrew poetry. Dunash‟s Dror Yikra and his other poetry set a new norm that captivated Spanish Jewry for 500 years and produced the greatest Hebrew poetry since the Bible and until modern Israel.
Dunash wrote not only religious poetry but also court poems of wine, women and song. Yet even here he feels conflicted about the transitory value of these worldly delights when we remember Israel‟s historic fate:
There came a voice: “Awake!
Drink wine at morning‟s break.
„Mid rose and camphor make
A feast of all your hours….
We‟ll drink on garden beds.
With roses round our heads.
To banish woes and dreads
We‟ll frolic and carouse.
Dainty food we‟ll eat.
We‟ll drink our liquor neat,
Like giants at their meat,
With appetites aroused….
Scented with rich perfumes,
Amid thick incense plumes,
Let us await our dooms,
Spending in joy our hours.
I chided him, “Be still!
How can you drink your fill
When lost is Zion hill
To the uncircumcised….
The Torah, God‟s delight
Is little in your sight,
While wrecked is Zion‟s height,
By foxes vandalized.
How can we be carefree
Or raise our cups in glass,
When by all men are we
Rejected and despised?”
(Raymond P. Scheindlin, Wine, Women and Death 1986 JPS p.41 Vaomar al tishan)
A Lone Jewish Poetess
Dunash‟s wife who may have remained in Baghdad when he traveled to Spain, writes her own
plaintive poem of love for her husband. This female poetic creation is one of the most
unique finds from the medieval Jewish world. In this poem she holds her only son in her
arms and recalls the exchange of gifts between her and her now distant husband.
Will her beloved remember his friend (yedida)
On the day of their separation in her arms he left his son, his only one (yekhida). From his right hand he placed his seal (ring) on her left (smola),
And on his arm she placed her bracelet (tz‟mida).
r‟dido), On that day she took as a memento his cloak (
And he as well took as a memento her cloak () – r‟dida
Would he ever remain in Spain,
Even if he were to receive half of the kingdom of its prince (n‟gida)?
Dunash replied with renewed profession of everlasting love and recognition of the
uniquely cultured wife he had found:
How could I betray a woman of culture like you?
And God commanded us to cherish the woman of our youth (Malachi 2:14).
If I had plotted to abandon my sweetheart,
1Then cut me into a thousand pieces.
Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075 in Spain to 1141 in Eretz Yisrael)
2 – Leaving the Land of the Golden Age for the Dream of Jerusalem
Why at age 66 would the greatest and most celebrated poet of the Jewish world abandon his comfortable and esteemed position to set forth on a long and dangerous journey to Crusader –dominated Jerusalem in the midst of the Moslem-Christian hostilities? Yehuda Halevi was no messianic mystic and no ascetic pilgrim looking for a grave in the Holy Land. He loved the creature comforts of the courtly existence in Spain, which he described in lush detail in his court poetry about wine, women and song. He lived a full life in a web of friendships with literati who all resided in Spain. So why did he set sail on a ship to Eretz Yisrael in 1141 C.E. on the first day of Shavuot, knowing as he did, that the meager Jewish community of Israel could provide him with no companionship and little realistic hope of spiritual growth in the violent age of the Crusades?
Yehuda Halevi‟s rapid rise to the top of the Jewish cultural world begins as a child born in Tudela near Sargossa. His home was located on the unstable border running between the warring parts of northern Christian and southern Moslem Spain. In 1085 Toledo was captured by the Christians and in 1090 the North African fanatic Berber tribes conquered southern Spain. The atmosphere of religious war threatened the tolerant, highly educated Arab ruling class who had encouraged Arab-Jewish collaboration, literary creativity and cultural cross-fertilization. Jewish refugees moved desperately in search of security and opportunity to maintain what they could from the Golden Age, which was facing an external catastrophe.
Yehuda Halevi in fact grew up on the Christian side of the border in Castile, where nonetheless he learned the art of Hebrew poetry and the Arabic language of southern Spain, the heartland of Jewish cultural creativity. He utterly surprised and charmed Arabic-speaking Jews in Andalusia when he, as an unknown young man, triumphed easily in a competition of Hebrew poets who were all trying to imitate the aging giant of Hebrew poetry – Moshe ibn Ezra from Granada. Moshe ibn Ezra then adopted Yehuda as a protégé
1 Ezra Fleischer, “Dunash’s Wife” in S.D.Goitein, Mediteranean Society, no.5 pp.468-470. 2 See Yisrael Levine, Masao shel Yehuda Halevy.
and welcomed him as a houseguest. Here Yehuda met Moshe‟s younger relative, Avraham ibn
Ezra, who would become his traveling partner and close friend. (According to some traditions, ultimately Yehuda married off his only daughter to Avraham ibn Ezra „s son). Though he came from poor family with no pedigree, Yehuda‟s physical beauty, charm, poetic
genius, loyalty to friends and affability made him the most popular of poets and almost 800 of his poems survived due to the large number of copies made by his admirers especially those in Cairo, home of the largest Geniza ever found.
In 1096 the Pope promoted a bloody Crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the Moslems. That Crusade met with amazing success in 1099. In the process, which initially raised Jewish hopes, thousands of Jews were massacred and /or forcibly converted in France and Germany and hundreds more killed, along with the Moslem inhabitants of Jerusalem. In
Reconquista was picking up speed in reconquering the Moslem Spain where the Christian
south, the Crusades raised apocalyptic fears and hopes not conducive to the previous Golden Age of high culture and tolerance. In reaction to the Crusades, Yehuda wrote a sensitive elegy for those Ashkenazi martyrs massacred by the Crusaders. Yehuda Halevi, by now a rabbi and physician as well as a poet, moved to Christian Toledo then administered by an enlightened Christian ruler and his activist and educated Jewish cabinet minister. Yehuda Halevi had prepared for the cabinet minister an official welcoming poem for his return from a diplomatic trip. However in 1108 word was received that the minister had been murdered by Christians. Yehuda understood that this was indicative of the impossible situation of the Jews caught between warring religious fanatics.
From 1109 Yehuda Halevi wandered through southern Spain. He became the voice of the people writing elegies for the victims of Christian pogroms in Castile – northern Spain. He
also spoke against the illusions of rapid return to long-term security in Spain – whether
Moslem or Christian. As a politically responsible leader, he used his fame and his vast personal connections to raise money for, among other causes, a young Jew captured and held for ransom. In his philosophic masterpiece, The Kuzari (after 1125???), Halevi expressed
his belief in the exclusive Jewish national and religious rebuilding of Eretz Yisrael and denied the competing claims of the Christians and Moslems who were then battling over military control of the Holy Land. In fact he insisted Eretz Yisrael could really only belong to the people of Israel who by their very nature belong to the land that nurtured them as the spiritual birthplace of the people. The poems about the national suffering and humiliation in exile along with the yearning of the beautiful Songs of Zion represented a uniquely “Zionist” sensibility at a time when a political or military movement for return to Israel was merely a pipe dream.
In 1125 at the age of 50 Yehuda Halevi seems to have decided to make aliyah when he writes: “My manifest hope is to wander eastward as fast as possible, with God‟s help,” yet he worries, “How can I repay my pledge and my vow [to make aliyah], when Zion is entrapped by Edom (the Crusaders) and I am imprisoned in Arab hands?…My heart is in the East, but I am in the farthest point of the West.” The practical difficulties and the constant
opposition – in love and in ridicule – by the still proud Andalusian Jewish community
prevented Yehuda Halevi from actualizing his dream for a long time. But he felt guilty for the hypocritical gap between Jews‟ constant prayers for the return to Zion and their
willingness to stay in Spain without any serious thought of actualizing their words of prayer.
Finally in 1140 at the age of 66 (= 4900 of the medieval Jewish calendar, 7x7x100 years since the Creation) Yehuda Halevi set sail with his family for Cairo where he was given a 8
royal welcome by its wealthy, highly cultivated community. The Jews of Cairo tried to discourage Halevi from continuing on a dangerous sea journey to Eretz Yisrael. In those days bandits were rife and passengers often became hostages for ransom or slaves to be sold, if the unpredictable storms did not sink the ship. For over 800 years it was not clear whether Yehuda Halevi ever fulfilled his vow to settle in Israel. Only in the late twentieth century did scholars, sifting through fragments from the Cairo Geniza, discover the truth. Letters found in the Geniza proved that the dream was fulfilled in Halevi‟s lifetime; he set sail on the first day of Shavuot in May, 1141and arrived in the Crusader-ruled land of Israel. Halevi passed away just a few months later in the month of Jewish mourning, Menahem Av.
As much as his journey seems like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Halevi‟s act symbolized a direction, which, he believed, was the most reasonable and most honorable national option. Sadly his dire predictions about Moslem Spain came true only seven years later with the invasion in 1148 by the most fanatic fundamentalist Moslem warrior tribe –
the Almohades (= believers in the pure unity of Allah) who forcibly converted Jews who became Moslem “Marranos” and subsequently took flight to north Africa or Christian provinces to the north. Maimonides, born in Cordoba in 1138, was probably one of those forcibly converted who with his family escaped to North Africa and ultimately, like Yehuda Halevi before him, to Cairo.
However the meaning of Halevi‟s aliyah is deeper than a national search for political security and honor. Yehuda Halevi was choosing the way of “freedom” that would liberate
him from the constant need to find favor among his patrons and readers. The Rabbi in
The Kuzari explains the motivation for the decision to emigrate Halevi‟s book of philosophy
to Eretz Yisrael:
I am seeking freedom from the enslavement to the many…the incessant desire to
find favor in their eyes. In its place I seek to be a slave to the [Divine] One for
enslavement to the One is freedom and submission to God is the true honor. As he formulated this thought in one of his poems:
The slaves of time are slaves to slaves /
while only the slave to the Master (Adonai) is liberated.
The way of freedom is ultimately the way of love. In finding one‟s Divine Beloved – in one‟s
heart, one discovers a cure to all one‟s ills. All fears disappear in one‟s intimacy with the Lord. That desire for personal redemption to be found within one‟s heart but also in the Holy of Holies in the Holy City was also part of the meaning of the fearless of an old man in setting sail for the land of Israel in the midst of acute political and military turmoil.
The Geniza in Cairo
The greatest Jewish archeological finds of the last century were the Dead Sea Scrolls preserving lost Second Temple Jewish literature hidden in the caves near Qumran from 68 CE until 1947 and the Geniza (meaning to “file away”) fragments of Cairo in 1896. The poem of Dunash ben Labrat‟s wife, the last letters of Yehuda Halevi before setting off on his final voyage to Eretz Yisrael before his death and some of Maimonides‟ writings in his own
hand were all thrown in with the sacred trash in a back room of the synagogue between approximately 800-1200. Thousands of documents which might have a holy reference to God 9
were all treated with respect and “buried” there honorably. The room was sealed up when
filled with thousands of old Hebrew manuscripts whether bills of sale, prayers or
philosophical works. Not until 1896 did some of the documents find their way to a street
vendor who sold them to two Christians from England who then shared them with the
scholar Solomon Schechter then teaching at Cambridge. Schechter recognized the original
Hebrew of Ben Sira‟s second century BCE Book of Wisdom which had been lost for over a
thousand years. Rushing off to Cairo to the Ben Ezra Synagogue, Schechter packed 100,000
pages into his suitcases to bring back to England. Thousands more pages were later
collected and deposited in libraries from Russia to New York and are still being pieced
together and catalogued. That discovery has given us a window into a thousand years of
Jewish culture, much of which had been lost. For Jews who take their memories and even
more so their cultural creations as their holiest heritage this was a gift of recovered past
of inestimable value that has helped in the compilation of this book as well.
Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra – The Wandering Poet, Philosopher, Translator,
Biblical Commentator, Grammarian, Mathematician and Astrologer Par
3(1089 in Tudela, Spain – 1164 in London, England)
O for a clear way to keep your commandments!
For only in Your love do I find rest.
I am your servant; guide me in Your ways
I have no care but to deserve your grace;
I only ask that I may see your face.
(Avraham Ibn Ezra translated from the poem Achalai yikonu
by Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Gazelle 1991 JPS,)
Avraham ibn Ezra, author of Ki Eshmara Shabbat, was the great wanderer of Moslem Spain who went into
exile as result of the political catastrophes that ended the Golden Age of Spain. Though he suffered personally from his many exiles, he managed to bridge numerous cultures and to bring the fruits of Moslem Jewish Spain to many Jewish communities in Christian Europe – Italy, France and England. In
southern Spain he learned poetry with his older relative, the great Moshe ibn Ezra and there became best friends with his slightly older contemporary the great poet Yehuda Halevi. According to some scholars Yehuda Halevi‟s only daughter married his son. Avraham also had a promising son who converted to Islam
causing Avraham great anguish.
After the invasions from the Christian Spain to the north, and the counter invasion by fundamentalist North African Moslems from the south, many Jews began to wander in search of a new home for their once great culture. In 1140 Ibn Ezra began his exile, moving first to North Africa, then to various city states in Italy and from there to Provence and Ashkenaz. In France he met his colleague Rabbenu Tam and perhaps his brother Rashbam, both of whom were Rashi‟s grandchildren and great Talmudic and Biblical commentators. Ibn Ezra finally ended up in London. In each location he earned his keep by writing and rewriting commentaries on many of the books of the Bible, even though he did not have his library with him or the previous commentaries he had already composed. He also translated many Arabic works into
3 Scholars debate the dates setting them around 1088/9 or 1092 to 1164 or 1167