by Howard Tzvi Adelman
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 had all the qualities for
making big headlines in
While Dana International may be able to get an operation to change his sex, it is not so easy to 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 Córdoba, Spain, in the mid-tenth century by Dunash ibn Labrat (d. 990), who was born in Baghdad, studied with Saadia Gaon, the leading rabbinic and cultural figure of the day, and later moved to Fez in North Africa. Dunash’s poetic innovations gained him the position of court poet and Hebrew secretary to Hasdai ibn Shaprut (910-970 or 905-975), who served as the court physician and vizier to Abdurahman III (912-961), the founder, in 929, of the Caliphate of Córdoba. Shalem Shabazi was actually a great seventeenth-century Yemenite Hebrew poet. The time difference between Dunash and Shalem is at least seven hundred years, a significant margin of error, a fact that highlights the long history of Hebrew poetry, a history that extends by many centuries beyond both points of reference in this contemporary discussion of medieval Hebrew poetry.
1. Early Hebrew Poetry
The foundation stone of Jewish poetic creativity is the Bible. At least a third of the Bible is written in poetry, mainly using various forms of parallelism rather than meter and rhyme. With the end of the biblical period, Jews did not stop writing Hebrew poetry.
During the third and fourth centuries of the common era Jewish mystics in Palestine wrote Hekhalot hymns as part of the larger phenomenon known as Hekhalot literature; hekhalot, the Hebrew word for “palace,” in this case refers to the heavenly palace. This literature describes in depth the structure of the seven heavens and the ways to address the heavenly beings in order to attain the spiritual and material blessings over which they presided. Some of the most famous works of this genre include Sefer Harazim, a second- or third-century Hebrew magic book, written in Hebrew that closely approximates that of the Mishnah, and Sefer Enoch, which represents a milestone in the development of Jewish mysticism.
Out of Hekhalot literature developed one
of the richest, although not uncontroversial, forms of Jewish cultural
creativity, piyyut (or piut).
Piyyutim, derived from the Greek word for poetry, are complex creations by
Hebrew poets from
One view of the development of piyyut
understands it as a form of biblical exegesis created when study of the Torah
was banned by the Romans in
Some piyyut was included in the text of the prayerbook. Most piyyut, however, was lost, and only relatively recently large amounts were rediscovered in the Cairo Geniza, a medieval storehouse for worn-out manuscripts. During the medieval period Jews around the world continued to write more restrained piyyut, usually reflecting the poetic styles of the country in which they lived.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, enlightened Jews, maskilim, made fun of the arcane language of piyyut, and modern Jews—Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist—began to eliminate much of this cultural treasure from the prayerbook, although some is still found in the High Holiday prayerbook of every movement.
The anonymous author of the piyyut “Akedah: The Sacrifice of Isaac” stresses the religious quality of the commandment to sacrifice Isaac, the haste with which Abraham followed the commandment, and the salvific quality of the act, even though it ended with the sacrifice of a ram instead of the boy: ". . . your boy as a fragrant offering I desired—how he observed the commandment, not delaying at all! He quickly split the wood . . . offering up a lamb, taking in his hand a sword, he showed no mercy. . . . Accept, God, these ashes, remember us with his covenant, consider us his Akedah, answer the affliction of our soul."
b. Moses in Piyyut
Moses, because of the intimate connections he had with the deity in the biblical text, is singled out in several Hekhalot hymns for similar supernatural skills. In “Into the Desert” by Yannai (the title cites an expression explicitly from Exodus 3), Moses is miraculously transported with his flock to the site of the burning bush, turning the desert green. He becomes an angel and is taught magic secrets of fiery visions by God, moving the events of the divine revelation at the burning bush from the ground to the heavens. At the theological level Moses is presented in many ways similar to those in which Jesus appeared. At the aesthetic level, it is an alphabetical acrostic—the first word of the first line begins with an aleph, the second with a bet, and so on—and the end of each hemistich (half-line) rhyming. Kallir took the theme of fire further in “The Celestial Fire,” his poetic adaptation of Exodus 3:2, in which an angel of the Lord appears before Moses in a burning fire. In this work, in which every line starts with the word fire, the next word begins an alphabetical acrostic covering the entire alphabet in Hebrew.
In Spain, under Islamic influence the Hebrew poets made a major break from the tradition of piyyut to produce rhymed and metered poetry that drew almost exclusively on the vocabulary of the Bible, a trend that continued in other Islamic countries and then in Italy, especially under the influence of Renaissance poetic genres.
Poetry in Muslim
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, the Hebrew poets of
Although the Hebrew
a. Wine Poetry
Among Jews, those in 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 has 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.
The contention by members of Dana International's posse 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 first Hebrew wine poem, written by Dunash. In this poem, the listener is encouraged not to sleep but rather to spend the whole night awake 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 sumptuous banquet or
it could be a reference to the
Samuel HaNagid, the Jewish vizier of Córdoba, also wrote some zesty wine poems. At first one might be tempted to say that they are purely secular, focusing on the hedonistic aspects of life with calls for drinking, often to excess, and good company. However, a careful examination of each of the poems usually reveals some connection with religious themes.
In one, “The Reward,”
the poet suggests dividing one's time evenly between serving God and carousing
with wine. In another, “Winter Wine Song,”
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, 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:
"Hug the breasts of the beautiful woman all night; kiss her image all
day." But even here religious imagery from the
b. Love Poetry
Medieval Hebrew love poetry has a secular, hedonistic side to it, often as part of a wine song. The poems are 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 for example, deer or gazelle—or by the names of 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 sees 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 sometimes turn misogynistic.
In “The Laundress,”
c. Religious Poetry
The Hebrew religious poetry of Muslim Spain borrows many themes from secular love poetry, and often the only difference is the choice of the object of desire.
Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote two religious poems
that follow all the contours of erotic poetry: “The Shut Gate” and “The One Who
Lies on Beds of Gold.”
The cause for confusion between religious and erotic poetry here is that, as in
Dunash's wine poem above, ibn Gabirol’s Hebrew text describes the Temple cult
with the double entendre of a house of earthly assignation as well: "Rise
and open the gate which is closed, send to me my beloved who fled, when you
come to me to spend the night between my breasts, there you will leave your
pleasant fragrance.” Carmi’s translation includes glosses, not found in the
Hebrew, that impose on the poem the sense that it is a conversation between God
Similarly ibn Gabirol's "He Who Lies
on Beds of Gold," which Carmi translates as "Zion Longing for the
Messiah," actually begins in the Hebrew with a woman speaking to a man:
"He who dwells on beds of gold in my castle, when will you ready my bed
for the redhead?" The text finds the loved one sleeping in the morning and
offering an affirmation of their suitability for each other. The poem ends:
"He who comes in my castle will find my hidden delights, the juice of my
pomegranate, my myrrh and my cinnamon." These expressions point either to
an amorous tryst or to the
religious poetry, like love poetry, includes 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
For example, in
his famous poem “My Heart Is in the East,” Halevi writes: "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 my vows and oaths as long as
e. The Dirge
The Hebrew dirge in Muslim Spain, despite antecedents in the Bible, is 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. In it, all of nature shares his grief, as the Hebrew reads: "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."
3. Hebrew Poetry in Christian Spain
Whatever golden age happened in Islamic
Spain was over by the mid-twelfth century. At that time, with Christian
successes in reconquering
The sixth gate of the Tahkemoni formulates 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. Here Al-Harizi draws together snippets from biblical verses to present what is a literary tour de force, but less than satisfying towards the end when he beats her. But, in the spirit of gender transformations, she then turns out to be his best friend (masculine) and long-time fellow joker. His abuse of men is equally cutting. In “The Generous Man,” "he is afraid to urinate less he be thirsty and he reluctant to move his bowels lest he be hungry." Al-Harizi is drawing on the medieval popular culture of the grotesque, exaggerated, mocking, and satirical uses of bodily processes, especially sexual and digestive. He draws on animal fables as well.
Similar characteristics are found in Sefer Hashaashuim (The Book of Delight), a makama by Joseph ibn Zabara (1140-1200), also from Christian Spain. Like the Tahkemoni, by his contemporary Al-Harizi, this book is difficult to characterize. It contains elements of a travel account, satire, poetry, parables from other peoples, and ethics. Indeed, perhaps non-ethics would be a better term since it contains parodies of ethics. It also contains extensive dialogue on the nature of women, much of it hostile in the tradition of querelle des femmes, the medieval debate about the nature of women 
Similar gender transformations are seen in the work of Todros Abulafia (1247-1295). In “Oh, to Be a Woman” he writes with even less restraint, fantasizing that if he were a women he could kiss an Arab woman with whom he is infatuated. "[B]ecause I am a male, I lost out.” Another poem, “Figs,” is about the poet’s request for figs from a friend: "[S]end a ripening fig, give a portion for seven of them, even for eight." Carmi translates the next line as "And in return, here is my flatus," noting that the Hebrew word used, zemorah, also means “vine twig.” Although his translation is certainly not bowdlerized, it seems to miss the point, once again illustrating the challenges involved in translating these poems: Zemorah means “penis” and “fig,” a reference to “vagina.” I think that this is a sexual and not a scatological reference; both, however, fit the category of the grotesque. The next line—"Henceforth I won't give it to strangers"—could fit either way.
Hebrew Poetry in
a. The First Crusade
The First Crusade, called for in 1095 by
the pope as a way for European Christians to liberate the Holy Land from the
Muslims who had conquered it, produced an
immediate, unintended series of violent, unprecedented, popular attacks
on Jewish communities, particularly in the
In an anonymous dirge, “The Martyrs of
David bar Meshullam of
Speyer (twelfth century) wrote an even more graphic dirge on the massacres,
chosen death, and ritual slaughter, mixed with a call for vengeance, with even
more explicit references to the Akedah. The central theme of his poem “The
Sacrifices” is the
ritual quality of the bloody acts of self immolation, regularly drawing on the
same root as the word Akedah, performed by Jews. The poet notes that the
original Akedah had a power to protect Jews, but now the number of sacrifices
multiplies. Writing in
The major poem about subsequent ritual
sacrifices in the
b. The Aleinu
A study of the Aleinu, a prayer with both universalistic and particularistic themes, provides an opportunity to see how Jewish history has influenced a Jewish prayer and how prayer has influenced history.
The Aleinu is usually attributed to Rav,
a third-century Babylonian rabbi. There are references to the Aleinu in the
Talmud of the
In 1171 in
Christians have felt that the Aleinu
prayer was said against them, a sense that the incident at
During the middle ages Christians protested against the prayer and tried to force Jews to abstain from saying the offensive line. In the modern period, governments, such as Prussia in the eighteenth century, investigated the prayer and banned Jews from saying the offending line and spitting.
Jews offered a range of responses to such charges. They often eliminated the controversial line, and hence it is not found in many Ashkenazi prayerbooks. Some Jews changed the line to read, "She-hayu mishtahavim laelilim umitpallelim el ale lo yoshia"—"They used to bow down to idols and pray to a god who does not save." This way they changed the meaning from the present, against Christians, to the past, against pagans. Jews also argued that many of the phrases were from the and that this prayer was written by Joshua or the Men of the Great Assembly, showing that it was written before Christianity and therefore could not be against Christians.
In a similar vein, Moses Mendelssohn, the
foremost Jewish thinker in eighteenth-century Europe, tried to argue that because
the Aleinu contained no references to the restoration of the
In the congregation to which I belonged
while living in
Hebrew Poetry in
Hebrew poetry reached 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, a code of Jewish law. Influenced by 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, a collection of poetry and rhymed prose on many subjects, usually combining biblical and rabbinic idioms with intensive mockery, have not been fully translated into English. In one example he uses religious terminology to describe a patient taking a laxative: "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," the sound made by the shofar on solemn days.
Immanuel's work is filled with misogynistic passages as well as a few barbs at men. In “The Miser” he mocks: "Though he has a penis, for fear of wearing it out, when he has sex he uses somebody else's." Again, this shows Jewish poets writing in Hebrew who draw heavily upon popular use of the grotesque. Writings about misogyny, sexuality, and scatology appear regularly but do not necessarily represent positivistic reporting about actual behavior.
One of the paradoxes of Italian Hebrew
poetry is the fate of Leon Modena's “Song for the Minor Day of Atonement,”
which refers to the fast day at the end of every Hebrew month initiated by the
Many of the rollicking, frivolous, witty,
and abusive qualities of Immanuel are also found in the poetry of the
In Immanuel Frances’s “There Are Only Three Exits,” the poet lords over women the three moments of transition and subordination in their lives: when she is born, in filth; when she gets married; and when she dies, which he viciously calls the most exalted of all.
In the eighteenth century Ephraim Luzzatto expresses a sense of self, not previously found in Hebrew poetry, when he writes about his land, his street, his house, and even his own name. Still in the tradition of Italian Hebrew literature, Luzzatto, moving from the politically incorrect to sexual harassment, describes a doctor who falls passionately in love with his female patient and propositions her.
6. Hebrew Poetry in the East
poems by Hebrew poets from eastern Mediterranean countries have had
an enduring impact on Jewish culture. With roots in both
“Yedid Nefesh,” which now adorns both synagogue services and radio stations, was composed in Safed by the kabbalist Eliezer Azikri. One of the most famous verses in this poem is "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 of the original by singing, "Ele hamdah libi . . .," which makes no sense whatsoever with its masculine subject (libi) and feminine predicate (hamdah).
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
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 (see the story of the concubine in Givah in Judges 19, who is also cut
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
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
In the meantime, during the long and
often culturally productive diaspora from the
Tzvi Adelman, director of the Jewish Studies Program at Queens University at
Kingston, Ontario, Canada, studied medieval Hebrew poetry with Professors David
Patterson (z’l), Raymond Scheindlin, and
I will draw examples from T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (New York, 1981), which uses prose translations, but unless otherwise noted, the translations used in this article are mine. Most notes refer to the location of a poem in Carmi. In Carmi the poets and poem are introduced between pages 77 and 143; the introductory materials between pages 7 and 75 are excellent.
Carmi, 219-220. Carmi calls this poem “Moses the Messenger.”
For further piyyutim on Moses, see Carmi 238-239, 241-244, 246-247, and 266-274.
For examples, see Carmi, 298, 302, 344, 356, and 361-363.
Carmi, 314. Carmi calls these poems, respectively, “That Is My Beloved” and “Zion Longing for the Messiah.”
There is no example of this work in Carmi. A translation is available in Curt Leviant, Masterpieces of Hebrew Literature (New York, 1968); Victor Reichert, tr. (Jerusalem, 1965-1973); David Segal, tr. (Portland, Or., 2001).
Carmi, 379-384. In Carmi the columns of the Hebrew of this poem do not line up accurately with those of the English. On this poem and the genre, see Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial (New York, 1967).
Philip Birnbaum, Hasiddur Hashalem (New York, 1949), 135-138. This prayerbook offers one of the most readable, page-by-page translation of the traditional Jewish services and the notes do an excellent job locating the prayers in the context of traditional Jewish literature.
Joseph Hertz, Siddur (New York, 1963), 208-209.
Immanuel Haromi, Mahberot, ed. Dov Yarden (