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Sephardic Poets of the Jewish
Golden Age of Spain

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Figure 1. Iberia at the end of the Visigothic period.
(click figures to enlarge; to really enlarge some images, right-click, select "View Image," and then, if you see a magnifying-glass cursor on the resulting image, left-click it )

Figure 2. Storytelling.

Soon after the eighth century had begun in Iberia, the state of Jewish life under Visigothic rule turned from miserable to grievous. During the last decade of the seventh century, living conditions for the Jews had already become unbearable; under King Egica and his successor, Wittiza, Jews became subject to the assessment of special taxes, onerous restrictions were placed on their commerce, any land they owned was confiscated, and in many districts their children over the age of seven (or under seven, sources differ) were taken away to be raised as Christians. Then, adding to those miseries, during the first decade of the eighth century, laws turning the Jewish population into slaves to Christian masters were enacted and most of the entire Iberian Jewish population lost the last vestiges of their freedom. Figure 1 shows Iberia at the end of the period of Visigothic rule.

Yet, within seventy-five years, conditions in Iberia had so changed that the Jews were no longer subject to much oppression at all; their lives had become significantly better and their society was now poised on the threshold of one of the greatest outpourings of cultural achievement in history—a sustained period of over two hundred fifty years of remarkable theological, literary, and social accomplishment. Among these achievements, the most outstanding was in the realm of literature, which witnessed the appearance of a number of marvelous poets writing a new form of Hebrew and using poetic verse to tell their stories. We will explore the backstory of this amazing period of Jewish life and discuss its history and the lives and works of its greatest poets.

Let’s begin this instalment of our year’s theme, “Telling Jewish Stories” by using a memorable opening line from literature. (It's paraphrased from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s purple-prose novel Paul Clifford.) (Figure 2)

The Backstory

Figure 3. Strait of Gibraltar.

It was a dark and stormy night; the sea lashed the shore, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the beach (for it is in Spain that our scene lies); this happened near the southern tip of Spain in the early spring of 711 (Figure 3). Out of the darkness, several small craft came to land not far from the tall mountain known to the ancients as Mons Calpe, one of the “Pillars of Hercules.” The boats carried an advance party of scouts sent by Musa bin Nusayr, the Muslim governor general of Ifrikqiya, as North Africa was known, in response to an appeal for help by Julian, the Christian count of Ceuta, a Visigothic province in Morocco (the city is still a Spanish-governed enclave).

Julian was sheltering Wittiza’s oldest son Vietza, who in 710 had been deposed as the Visigothic king by a usurper named Roderick, and Julian hoped the Berbers would provide military support to overthrow Roderick to restore Vietza’s rule. Of course, this being Spain, one of Julian’s motives might have been revenge. Julian had sent his daughter Florinda to the capital at Toledo to receive her education at the royal court, following the custom of Visigothic nobility for their children. According to the contemporaneous story, Roderick raped and impregnated her and she wrote to her father demanding vengeance. Whatever his reason for cooperating with the Muslim invasion, it was Julian who provided the boats to ferry the invading Muslim troops to Hispania.

It may even be true that the Berbers were aware of appeals for relief from the Iberian Jews as early as 694; Visigothic church records record that the onerous edicts against the Jews that had begun in that year had been prompted in part by accusations that some Jews had sent messages to the Jews of North Africa seeking help against Visigothic oppression.

Figure 4. Tariq Ibn Ziyad

Figure 5. Gibraltar, 1300th Anniversary

Figure 6. Gibraltar, 1300th Anniversary

After the craft carrying the Berber scouts landed on Hispanic soil, the men identified the best landing sites, met with some locals who showed them the safe paths away from the beach, and then, satisfied with their intelligence, returned to Morocco, only about fifteen miles across the strait.

On April 29, 711 (according to the traditional dating), a major force led by the Berber commander Tariq ibn Ziyad invaded Hispania (Figure 4). His army was mostly composed of recent converts to Islam (they were almost all Berbers from Morocco and Algeria) (Figures 5, 6). They landed at the scouts’ chosen site, which was most likely not on the beach under Mons Calpe, but despite this the mountain came to be called Djabal Tariq (the source of the name “Gibraltar,” derived from the Arabic meaning “mountain of Tariq”) (Figure 7). The Berbers quickly defeated the Visigothic forces and Roderick was killed either during or soon after the Battle of Guadalete.

Figure 7. Djabal Tariq (جبل طارق)

Figure 8. Page: De rebus Hispaniae

Figure 9. Topographic Spain

Figure 10. Al Andalus, 780 CE

The Jews must have welcomed the invasion; after all, many had become slaves—how much worse could their situation get? But did the Jews actively assist the Muslims? Historians have argued over the question of how much assistance the Jews gave to the Berbers in their drive to conquer Iberia. No records exist that support the idea that the Muslims received significant Jewish assistance, but in the thirteenth-century Chronicle by Lucas de Tuy (?–1249), the author claimed that the Jews delivered the cities into Muslim hands. The reality may be more accurately reflected in the De rebus Hispaniae by Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada (c. 1170–1247), the archbishop of Toledo (Figure 8). In this work Jiménez wrote that Toledo was “almost of completely empty from its inhabitants,” not because of Jewish treachery, but because “many had fled to Amiara, others to Asturias and some to the mountains.” Islamic historians also speak of the fleeing of Christians in the face of Muslim approach, leaving city gates unguarded, and few but the Jews remained in the abandoned cities and towns. And although it seems that while the Jews did not actively engage in overthrowing the cities from within, Islamic forces did use the remaining Jews to help garrison the towns that they captured. By the late eighth century, most of Iberia was in the hands of the Muslims; only the mountainous areas of northern Spain remained under tenuous Christian control (Figure 9).

During the remainder of the eighth century and under the more accommodating Muslims, the Iberian Jews began to re-establish contacts with Jewish communities in North Africa and communities as far away as Baghdad, renewing their contacts with the Babylonian talmudic academies at Sura and Pumbedita. The aid given by the Jews to the Berber army and later, to the Islamic military governors of the country which the Muslims had named al-Andelus, was rewarded with grants of land and the rights to govern their own affairs.

In 750, a bloody coup in Damascus saw the ouster of the Umayyad rulers by the Abbasids and almost every member of the Umayyad family was killed. However, one noble wasn’t in Damascus at the time and managed to escape the slaughter; he was able to evade the assassins sent for him and eventually made his way to Spain. This was the 25-year-old Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu’awiya who, when he arrived in Spain in 755, was able to gain control over and consolidate all of the disparate Muslim provinces into the emirate of Córdoba. In doing this he founded a ruling dynasty in al-Andelus which flourished for over 250 years and during its existence it controlled more wealth and political power than any other European country of that period.

During the late eighth century and into the ninth, the emirate of Córdoba had begun to build up the country economically and culturally into a center of commerce, learning, and arts (Figure 10). The rulers, with very few exceptions, generally left the Christians and Jews to their own practices with the result that many of the families of the Jews who had fled earlier persecution in Iberia began to return. The cultural cross-fertilization of the Jews of Iberia becoming exposed to those arriving from across the Mediterranean provided an unprecedented stimulus through the course of the ninth century. Contacts were made with the Babylonian academies and responsa were sought and received from the gaonim of the academies. Meanwhile, the Muslims were building their own cultural and economic empire and the Jews’ knowledge and skills were becoming essential components of this empire-building.

The Jews were not idle while the Muslims were consolidating their new empire. The Jews were now forming the nucleus of a small Iberian middle class, a literate class that was engaged in mercantile, craft, and professional occupations as well as agricultural management, skills that were becoming increasingly important to the Muslim rulers. The small number of ruling nobility needed people who could serve as administrators for governmental activities and the Jews increasingly began to fill these positions, in some cases rising to positions of great responsibility. Probably the primary reason for the Jews being able to rise so high in government was the fact that the rulers were certain that a Jewish minister would pose no threat for a coup because a Jew would not be able muster the support necessary to overthrow the ruler.

Jewish “Golden Age” in Iberia

Figure 11. Jewish Settlement, ca. 900 CE

The growth of al-Andelus into one of the most powerful countries in the western world and the religious tolerance of its ruling Muslims attracted many Jews who came from Provence, Italy, Sicily, from the Islamic lands of northern Africa and Asia Minor, and even from Babylonia; the influence of the Jewish Babylonian academies was at its height and some academy-trained scholars were among the new arrivals (Figure 11). This influx of Jews having such diverse cultural backgrounds provided a unique intellectual and religious commingling of Jewish traditions of many cultures with those of Iberian Jewry.

Scholars identify the beginning of the Iberian Jewish “Golden Age” with the advent of the rule of Abd al-Rahman III in October 912. The term “Golden Age” used to describe this period of Jewish life in Spain is, of course, a relative one. This entire medieval period was in no way a “golden age” for any group—Jews, Christians, or Muslims—in political terms, since the entire region was periodically embroiled in one war or another. Nor was it “golden” socially or arguably even religiously. The term “golden” can only describe the period as it appears to those looking back on it from hundreds of years later, and then in comparison with other periods of Jewish life later in Spain and in the rest of medieval Europe. Truly the only way the period can be seen to be a “golden age” is in the cultural achievements of the Jews during this period.

By the time that al-Rahman began his reign as emir of Córdoba, Jews had become firmly invested in all areas of the society. As he began to shape the cultural and economic features of his kingdom, the Jews watched his progress carefully. They noticed how he was gathering leading Islamic scholars from around the world and building great libraries, and the Jews, having risen to important positions of power in the emirate and within the context of the cultural patronage that they enjoyed, were able to emulate al-Rahman’s model by attracting the best Jewish scholars of the Bible, Talmud, Hebrew, literature, and linguistics, in addition to poets, philosophers, translators, and scientists to come to al-Andelus to build a world center of Jewish learning. The most important contribution to the development of these cultural changes was made by al-Rahman’s Jewish councilor, Hasdai ibn Shaprut (915–c. 975).

In 929 al-Rahman declared independence from Baghdad and proclaimed el-Andelus a caliphate, and Hasdai was eventually appointed as the head of the caliphate’s commercial enterprises, in effect, its economic and foreign minister. As the caliphate’s leading diplomat, he negotiated with envoys from rulers from Europe, Africa, and Asia Minor. Hasdai was the model of the Jewish courtier class, one of a number of wealthy, highly educated Sephardic Jews who moved freely among the Islamic nobility and who were able to ensure that their people would be mostly free from persecution. According to scholar Nahum Sarna, under the patronage of Hasdai, Córdoba became the “...Mecca of Jewish scholars who could be assured of a hospitable welcome from Jewish courtiers and men of means.”

While Hasdai was reputed to aspire to be a poet to add to his other achievements, no poems of his survive (since his eulogists say nothing of his poetry, we can surmise that their quality was not very remarkable); however, he was instrumental in attracting other poets and literary scholars to come to Córdoba. These included Menahem ben Saruq of León and Dunash ben Labrat from Baghdad and Fez. The two became passionate opponents; Dunash was a lively personality but was less scholarly than Menahem, who compiled a Hebrew dictionary that was to become widely used by the Jews of western Europe. Menahem is considered to be the founder of scientific Hebrew grammar (he was the first to describe the tri-literal basis of Semitic-language roots). Dunash was a poetic innovator and the originator of Hebrew secular metrical poetry and a number of his poems survive.

With Hasdai serving as their patron, these two rivals fought their literary battles in verses dedicated to Hasdai and insults directed against each other that were read at evening assemblies of poets, merchants, and courtiers in the rose garden of Hasdai’s home. In addition to the poetic skirmishes fought by Menahem and Dunash, these soirées were studded with witty satires and cutting epigrams written by both poets and their friends. The schools that arose under the influence of these grammarians eventually produced the scholars Judah Chayuj and Abulwalid Merwan ibn Janach (eleventh century), who completed what Menachem and Dunash had begun and placed Hebrew philology on a firm scientific basis.

Under the influence of Islamic culture in Spain, Jewish culture was transformed. Arabic was the language of commerce, diplomacy, and the arts. Jews studied Arabic philology and applied this knowledge to Hebrew, which is closely related, and extensively enriched Hebrew vocabulary and the understanding of grammar thereby. Poetry was extremely important in cultured circles and an explosion of Hebrew poetry occurred during the Islamic period, composed by the greatest Jewish literary geniuses of all times. Since Arabic was the language of all cultured people, the Jews of this period—until the late thirteenth century, in fact—wrote their prose works in this language, but all Jewish poetry was invariably written in Hebrew.

The reason for this becomes apparent when you realize that the Muslims of this period regarded the Qur’an as the inspiration for all Islamic poetry. Muslims maintained that its beauty of expression was divinely inspired and its vocabulary, imagery, and idioms served as the basis on which Arabic poetry was modeled. This idea was expressed explicitly in a passage from an eleventh century work written by Abu Ishaq Ahmad ibn Muhammed ibn Ibrahim al-Tha’labi (?–1038):

One who loves the Prophet loves also the Arabs, and one who loves the Arabs loves the Arabic language in which the most superior of books was revealed.... Whoever Allah has led to Islam ... believes that Muhammed is the best of prophets ... that the Arabs are the best of peoples ... and that the language of the Arabs is the best of languages. — Elucidation of the Commentary on the Qur’an

At the Islamic courts, where Muslim and Jewish courtiers strived to entertain the court with witty and moving verses, the Muslims maintained that Arabic was a language superior to Hebrew because it could be used to construct superior poetry. Since the Muslims were intent on extolling the virtues of the Qur’an, calling it the “perfect” expression of Allah’s will, Jews were loath to write their poetry using Arabic. They refused to use Arabic in poetry because in doing this, they felt that they would be seen as conceding that the Qur’an was theologically superior to the Tanakh. So the Jews instead chose to delve deeply into the Tanakh to extract as much knowledge and wisdom as they could to be able to debate theological points with the Muslims and sought in the Tanakh sources for Hebrew expressions, idioms, metaphors, and imagery to be used for verse just as the Muslims used the Qur’an.

The emphasis on Jewish literary arts that began during Hasdai’s patronage culminated within the next several generations with the greatest outpouring of Jewish secular and liturgic poetry in history. The most highly celebrated poets living in Iberia during this period included Samuel ha-Nagid ibn Nagrela (993–c.1056), Solomon ibn Gabirol (c.1021–c.1058), Moses ibn Ezra (c.1055–c.1138), Yehuda Halevi (c.1075–1141), and Abraham ibn Ezra (c.1089–c.1167). This is by no means an inclusive list of all the poets of Islamic Iberia; however, these men are by far the most well known and are universally regarded as the most talented. Other noted poets living during the medieval period include Isaac ibn Khalfon (c. 970?–c.1020), Isaac ibn Ghiyath (1038–1089), and later, Shem Tov Falaqera (c.1225–1295) and Todros ben Judah Halevi Abulafia (1247–after 1300), and about a dozen more whose poems have survived.

The writings of ibn Gabirol in particular are used in modern liturgy; for example, the last meditation in the Amidah is by ibn Gabirol as is his poem Shachar Avakeshcha (“Early Will I Seek You”), found in many siddurim; also Adon Olam is attributed to him and some scholars claim that the acrostic poem Shir haKavod, found in most siddurim, was originally his work. In addition many readings from Halevi and Moses ibn Ezra can be found in siddurim of all denominations. And Abraham ibn Ezra was, of course, one of the greatest of the biblical exegetes, a noted philosopher and grammarian, as well as being an acclaimed poet. The Abraham ibn Ezra family produced many prominent scholars and diplomats between the eleventh to fifteenth centuries.

There exists a contemporaneous mention of these acclaimed poets, published in a work called Tahkemoni (from the root for “wisdom”) written by Yehuda Alharizi (Yehuda ben Solomon Harizi, 1165–1225) that attests to the renown of the poets we will cover in this class. This poem was written between 1218 and 1220 and was composed in Hebrew in the Arabic maqamat (meaning “settings” or “sessions”) genre, which consists of rhymed prose with intervals of poetry in which rhetorical extravagance and humor is extensively employed. Here is an extract of this poem which refers longingly to the great poets of the Golden Age (from "gate" 18 of the work; chapters are called "gates"):

The Book of Tahkemoni (excerpts)

After that generation, the fount of Hebrew poetry was stopped, and into the opulent rhetoric of song was desiccation cast.
Its prophets found no vision, and all who followed after wearied to dig the fount of poetry;

but broken cisterns all they hewed,
their waters bitter were imbued.
When Solomon [ibn Gabirol] was dead and gone—
he who sat on poetry’s throne—
and Abraham [ibn Ezra], poetry’s vizier,
had breathed his last and was borne on bier;
and Judah [Halevi], captain of its corps,
and Moses [ibn Ezra], prophet of yore,
then the source and vision of poetry were clogged....

Those of us around today snatch the leftovers of their grain,

we are hangers-on to their stragglers,
day and night re-running their circuits,
we toil but still do not attain.

Every one of us mumbles naught a word and bares a dull sword.
They ate fine grain (and got the cash) and left for us the trash!

Ross Brann, The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain

As an example of how biblical quotations came to be employed as allusions or direct quotations in medieval poetry, we can examine an extract, also taken from Tahkemoni, which provides an amusing example of biblical quotation and double entendre. No translation can convey the brilliance of the allusions, structure, and rhyming employed in the original Hebrew of the book, but a recent translation by David S. Segal comes amazingly close in preserving the rhythm, structure, tone, and humor of the original. In his work, Alharizi employs an itinerant wanderer as his protagonist whom, in this "gate," is asked to judge a debate between a youth and an old man on the merits of an ant compared to a flea. Both debators mobilize a plethora of miscellaneous biblical citations that support their respective positions; the portion about the flea employs at least twenty-eight biblical references packed into about the same number of sentences—all in rhymed prose—cleverly combining double entendre with tongue-in-cheek humor.

Extract from Tahkemoni

This is the “backstory” that lies behind the development of the culture that led to the appearance of the great Jewish poets of medieval Iberia. During the rest of this class we’ll look at how Hebrew and its poetry were changed under the influence of Arabic, and in the next two sessions cover the biography of the innovator of this new form of Hebrew poetry and discuss the great poets of the tenth to eleventh centuries and their poetry.

The Languages of Iberian Medieval Poetry

Figure 12. Arabic script

Figure 13. Evolution of Arabic script

Figure 14. Arabic letter forms

Figure 15. Arabic alphabet

Like Hebrew and Aramaic, Arabic is a Semitic language. Most Americans are totally unfamiliar with it; the writing appears to many as artistic but inscrutable loops and squiggles (Figure 12). It’s only written in a “cursive” form, so the individual letters can be difficult to distinguish. The letters look nothing like Hebrew’s Aramaic square letter forms. Actually, some of the Arabic letters are closer to the Old Hebrew or Phoenician alphabet than Aramaic; in fact, Arabic’s classical letter ordering (its collating sequence) actually comes from the Phoenician alphabet (Figure 13). But to add confusion and mystery to the alphabet, there’s a second collating sequence that’s used in sorting lists such as dictionaries, where letters are ordered according to the similarity of their shape.

There are twenty-two letters in Hebrew and five have alternate forms (kaf, mem, nun, pe, tsadi). By contrast, Arabic has 28 basic letters and most have four letter forms: initial, medial, final, and “isolated,” depending on the letter’s position within a word, totaling about 100 discrete letter-forms (Figure 14). Unlike Hebrew, which has no letters that serve as true vowels (the aleph, heh, vav, and yod, especially in late Hebrew, sometimes can indicate a vowel sound; the technical term is mater lectionis), in Arabic there are three vowel letters, alif, waw, and ya, of which the latter two can also act as consonants. Like Hebrew, other vowel sounds are indicated by diacriticals; also like Hebrew, words are written from right to left. Figure 15 shows the alphabet letters in their isolated form with their names.

Although most Arabic letters directly correspond to an analogous Hebrew letter, many of the letter names differ; for example the Hebrew letter “bet” is named “ba” in Arabic and the Hebrew letter “lamed,” is named “lam” (Figure 15). Many Hebrew and Arabic words are spelled using their alphabets’ analogous letters but the pronunciations will almost always vary. For example, the word “shalom,” meaning “peace” in Hebrew, is spelled the same in Arabic as in Hebrew but is pronounced “salem.” The word “shemesh,” meaning “sun,” is pronounced “shams.”

Elohim,” God, in Arabic is pronounced “Al-Raheem”; it’s one of God’s names in Islam and means “most merciful.” Extending this naming to the town of Bethlehem, Hebrew “Beit Lechem,” “house of sustenance,” in Arabic the name is pronounced “Baitul-Raheem” and means “house of mercy.”

Everyone knows that “Allah” is the Muslim name for God. How is it related to Hebrew? It’s a version of the Old Hebrew word “Eloah” for God and derives from the much older Semitic word for God which is “El” in Hebrew or “Il” in Arabic.

To the ancient Semites and Canaanites, “El” was the chief god, the creator god, who was the father of “Baal.” But the word “El” in Aramaic is also a generic term for god. This word is present in many names in the Bible as a “theophoric inclusion,” embedded in the names of persons or places. So we see, for example, Ishmael (God hears) and Bavel (Babylon, “gate of God”). So you can see just how close Arabic is to Hebrew.

Now we’ll turn to the poetry. Hebrew verse, as we see from the Bible, did not rhyme. Biblical poetry is based on parallel half-verses where the second half-verse can restate the same idea using different wording, or may elaborate or intensify that idea, or may negate or otherwise challenge the idea stated in the first half-verse. Sometimes a rudimentary form of alliteration is employed. While about one-third of the Bible is written in verse, the use of rhyme and meter is almost nonexistent; if you want to look, you’ll find the best examples of biblical poetry in the book of Isaiah.

How Hebrew poetry was written began to change over a long period that followed the canonization of the books of the Bible. Until about the seventh century CE, there were few changes in the forms of Hebrew poetry and all compositions written in verse were for liturgical purposes. Between the seventh to ninth centuries, as we will see, there were some innovations in the writing of Hebrew verse but the real revolution was yet to come. Then, in the tenth century in Iberia, Jewish scholars came into close contact with Arabic court culture and the writing of poetry rose to the level of a kind of performance art.

For several hundred years beginning in the mid-seventh century, Muslims had been devising many different ways to use the sounds of their language to form aural patterns by combining the sounds of words into repeating groups—this is verse and meter, and by using similar-sounding words in regular patterns for pleasing effect—this is rhyme. Meter and rhyme are based on syllable counts and vowel or even consonant sounds. Arabic syllables can be open or closed, just as are Hebrew syllables. An open syllable ends with a vowel while a closed one ends with a consonant.

Figure 16. Arabic vowels

Figure 17. Hebrew vowel system

Greatly simplifying matters, Arabic has three short vowels and three long vowels, a total of six primary vowels. The “A” vowels, short and long, are “a” as in “bar” and “a” as in “cat”; the “E” vowels are “i” as in “bit” and “ee” as in “street”; and the “O” vowels are “u” as in “put” and “oo” as in “boot.” In Arabic, the “long” vowels actually take twice as long to pronounce as the “short” vowels. Both Arabic and Hebrew have a diacritical that denotes the absence of a vowel, called shewa in Hebrew and sukuum in Arabic.

Figure 16 shows the Arabic phrase from above with the vowels added. The dots above and below the letters are not vowels; they are part of the letters. The letters in red are sin, mim, ayin and spell the word "hear"—in Hebrew shema, spelled shin, mem, ayin. The short vowel "a" is written with a dash above the letter (a dash below a letter indicates the short "e") and the loop over the ayin is the short "o." There's only one long vowel here; it's the last letter of the word: it's a ya (long "e"). The small circles are sukuum. As in Hebrew, the vowel symbols aren't used in routine printing; they are used in the dictionary, in poetry, and in the Qur’an.

The Hebrew vowels differ from Arabic in that Hebrew distinguishes between the sound of the vowels rather than their length. Hebrew has five vowel types (A-E-I-O-U types), using a total of ten unique symbols, three of which have four different sounds (Figure 17). So unlike Arabic, Hebrew uses about fifteen different vowel sounds (some of the differences are quite tiny and can’t be distinguished in regular speech, however). Some of the vowels are short and some are long, but Hebrew groups its ten vowels by sound, not length.


The metrical system used in English, Romance-language, and related poetry is known as “qualitative” meter, where stressed syllables occur at regular intervals (the most common poetic feet are the disyllables iamb, trochee, and spondee and the trisyllables dactyl and anapest—examples of meters: iambic pentameter, dactylic hexameter). There are some twenty-eight named metrical feet in the qualitative meter system.

Many of the classical languages, however, used a different scheme called “quantitative meter,” where aural patterns are based on syllable weight rather than stress. In the dactylic hexameter of classical Greek, for example, each of the six feet making up the line was either a dactyl (long-short-short) or spondee (long-long), where, as in Arabic, a “long” syllable was actually one that took longer to pronounce than a “short” syllable. Whatever syllable of a word that is stressed plays no part in the meter. A number of classical languages used quantitative meter, including Arabic, but not Hebrew.

The meters that were used in medieval Arabic poetry were codified in the eighth century by al-Khalil bin Ahmad and are still used in modern times with little change. These meters were based on the meters used in classical Greek poetry and were adapted for use with the Arabic language.

Figure 17. Poetic meter systems

The meters commonly found in Arabic poetry that could be used for Hebrew verse are shown in Figure 17 together with the changes that were made to adapt them for use in Hebrew. Of the sixteen Arabic meters, only these ten could be used or adapted for use in Hebrew. Long and short syllables, as well as half and broken syllables are counted in the scansion of the verse. The long syllable is marked —, the short -, the half ⌣, and the broken syllable . In Arabic and other quantitative-meter poetry, a “short” syllable is formed by a consonant followed by a short vowel. A “long” syllable is either closed or ends with a long vowel. A special mark on its final letter can also force a long syllable. A “half” syllable occurs when the syllable consists only of a consonant sound (Hebrew uses the mobile or “vocal” shewa), and a “broken” syllable occurs when the initial or final consonant of the syllable is dropped or elided into the previous or following syllable sometimes leaving its vowel behind. This last syllable type isn’t found in Hebrew verse. Read each pattern (metron or foot) from left to right. In all of these metrical patterns the formations are typically not rigidly followed; for example, two short syllables may be substituted for a long one.

As a reminder, the “mobile shewa” is not silent, it has a partial, fleeting vowel sound. It’s shorter than the reduced (hataf) vowel (more on this later) and can take any vowel sound. Example: “e” in “given”; “u” in “supply.”

In Hebrew, in addition to these complex meters, a simple meter consisting of seven or eight syllables to the line (not considering the shewa) was used. This was an easy meter for Hebrew poets to employ.


In Arabic poetry, a verse’s rhyme was typically, but not always, determined by the last consonant of a word. Sometimes the final vowel was dropped in rhyming words, and where the final vowel is a short “a,” that vowel must be used consistently each time the rhyme occurs. This rule does not apply to the use of the short “i” or short “u”; the use of those vowels in rhyming words is more flexible.

For Hebrew, true rhyming is unknown in the Bible but the assonances that exist in biblical verses behave much like rhymes. Musical form is very apparent in Hebrew biblical poetry, though strict meters do not exist in it. When the medieval Jewish poets began to use the Arabic metrical patterns, they didn’t totally abandon this biblical lyricism; they basically added to it the same rules that were used in Arabic poetry when devising their rhyming schemes. But much adaptation was needed to make Hebrew work with the Arabic schemes.

Hebrew Adaptation of Arabic Verse

When the poets of tenth-century al-Andelus began composing Hebrew poetry, they needed to adapt the Arabic metrical system of poetics to the Hebrew language since the way the vowels were used differed so greatly. The Arabic quantitative meters employed patterns of long and short syllables throughout the poem, while in Hebrew, the metrical variations were produced not by the vowels themselves but by how the vowels were used. The primary adaptation that was made to allow Hebrew to use Arabic metrical structures employed substitutes for the vowels: the shewa, the hataf (“reduced” vowel), and the conjunction “vav” when pronounced as “u” (these were used for the “short” vowels) and the regular vowels, which were used for the “long” vowels. To make understanding the distinctions in syllable length as simple as possible for those people who can’t read Hebrew fluently, think of the various uses of the shewa as a short sound and all of the other vowels as representing equally long sounds.

Post-Biblical Hebrew Poetry

After the Bible was canonized, poetic composition was never completely abandoned by Hebrew writers. After the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, as a sign of mourning, the rabbis prohibited secular verse but permitted the composition of religious verses. The poems that were composed during this period employed both alphabetic acrostics and parallelism, both of which followed biblical poetic forms like those seen in the psalms, where most are in parallel verse and a number are alphabetic acrostics. The Talmud actually provides us some very limited examples of short poems using strict parallelism and biblical word patterns that were most probably written between the fourth and fifth centuries. But Hebrew verse was slowly evolving away from biblical models.

In late antiquity the use of meter began to appear in Hebrew poetry. This meter was based upon the number of accented words in a line and the verse structure was derived from biblical poetry. A poet of this period, Ephraem Syrus (306–73), employed a syllabic meter of four, five, six, seven, or eight syllables to the line. He also used basic rhyming long before it appeared in Arabic use—a form of rhyme was also used by other Hebrew poets of the early fourth century. Between the fourth and tenth centuries Jewish poets continued to compose the liturgical poems that were known as “piyyutim” (singular piyyut), a word derived from the Greek word poeinsis, meaning “poetry,” and is also the origin of the English word. The poets of this period were called paytanim and were usually hazzanim (cantors), and Palestine was the primary radiant for the piyyutim.

In the eighth century two poets named Jannai and Eleazar ben Jacob Kallir arose, probably in Palestine, who revolutionized the piyyut. Kallir seems to have been Jannai’s student and brought immense innovation to Hebrew versification. Two distinct types of piyyutim had developed among Jewish poets: a natural form and a “construct” form. The former was a direct outgrowth of biblical verse, using acrostics, parallelism, and rudimentary rhyming in its liturgical verses. The latter style brought a revolutionary change in Hebrew poetry; this style is complex and strained, almost forced; the compositions were written using rare words and obscure allusions; the verse is stark, lacking any beauty of form, yet it is alive with intense spiritual force. Although it appears that this poetic form was introduced by Jannai, its style is known as Kallirian from the name of its most innovative proponent.

Some of Kallir’s adaptations of this poetic form included the use of biblical phrases, words, and idioms as third and fourth lines in stanzas and biblical phrases as refrains. In addition to alphabetical acrostics, he frequently used words which start with the same letter for each line of stanzas and, displaying even more creativity, in some piyyutim he began every word of the stanzas with the same initial letter. In poetic structure, he employed rhyming and metrical word accenting. His meters are mostly structured with three or four accented words to the line.

Kallir used the Bible, Talmud, and Midrash as the source for his poetic themes, even describing historical events in their legendary form by employing their midrashic aggadic interpolations. The most radical innovation in Kallir’s poetry is how he used the Hebrew language. He used all of the post-biblical linguistic innovations that were introduced in the midrashic and talmudic literatures and he hebraicized many Aramaic, Greek, and Latin words by giving them Hebrew grammatical form. Kallir’s innovations did more for the survival of Hebrew as a liturgical and scholarly language than any other person, including the medieval Iberian poets whom we will cover. The Kallirian piyyut type soon spread from Palestine to Greece, Italy, and north and central France, eventually coming to Germany, Bohemia, and Poland.

The poetic styles developed by Kallir were further elaborated on by Babylonia’s master scholar of the early tenth century, Sa’adia Gaon, who produced the first Hebrew dictionary, the first rhyming dictionary, and wrote an influential treatise on Hebrew poetics. Sa’adia’s influence pointed away from Kallirian’s poetic methods toward the more stylistic purity that became the model for the later Andalusian school.

The second type of Hebrew piyyut, the “natural” type based on biblical roots, developed in Islamic Spain and this form rose to the highest levels of poetic artistry. Even though this Islamic-Hebrew poetry used many Kallirian elements of style and content that were foreign to biblical or even rabbinic Hebrew, in the hands of the Sephardic poets it became true poetry, poetry in structure as well as in subject content. This Islamic-Hebrew style developed in Andalusia during the tenth to twelfth centuries and spread to Castile, Catalonia, Aragon, Majorca, Provence, and north Africa, countries where Arabic influence was strongest.

As this poetic style evolved, a radical change in how the Hebrew language was used began to occur. These changes started in tenth-century Iberia when the “Golden Age” period began and, as previously mentioned, was the result of the Jews’ encounter with Islamic scholars who were as devoted to the study and development of the Arabic language as the Jews were to Hebrew. The result of this exposure would result in the greatest outpouring of Hebrew poetry ever seen before or since.

Poetic Themes and Subjects

In reading the poems of medieval Hebrew poets, many of which include imagery of night-long carousing at wine parties, erotic innuendo, sexual wantonness, and homoeroticism, one must be careful not to assume that their poems reflected the actual social and cultural life of the Jews during this period. The Jewish poets used the very stylized literary conventions of the period and their work reflected a deliberate borrowing of the themes, images, and style from the Islamic poets. The Jewish poets used the same themes in their poems as did the Muslims simply to show that they could match what the Muslims wrote in Arabic to demonstrate that Hebrew had the same flexibility and power as did Arabic.

This means that when the Jewish poets wrote about carousing in flower-perfumed gardens and drinking wine all night long, we must not assume that this reflected what Jewish life was like; their poetry was simply modeled on the Arabic poetic motifs that they were emulating. For this reason we mustn’t assume that, for example, the poems written during this period about sexual intimacy between young boys and men described any actual behavior. But we do know that the same reasoning doesn’t necessarily apply to the wine parties described in these poems. No less an authority as Maimonides wrote of the “elders” and “pious men” who attended parties where wine was drunk and secular poems were recited.

Wine poems

One of the most popular themes among both Iberian Muslim poets and Jewish poets was wine poetry. These were playful, seemingly secular poems that appear to contain little obvious religious or moral message. The Hebrew imitation of the Arabic genre, like most drinking literature composed over subsequent centuries, typically contains as many as six elements:

  1. the place of the gathering;
  2. a description of the wine’s drinkers;
  3. the hour of the drinking;
  4. the wine’s description;
  5. an erotic portrait of its server; and
  6. a description of the background music or the performing musicians.

Love poems

This theme vies with wine poetry for the top place among medieval Hebrew poetic themes. Despite the ever-present use of biblical terminology in this poetry, it typically has a secular, hedonistic flavor, although there are cases where the poem turns into a more theological path. Love poetry often appears as a motif contained in a wine poem. Some of the most common elements found in Hebrew love poetry include these:

  1. a description of the lover, usually as being tall and having white skin and dark eyes and hair;
  2. the lover may be called by the names of biblical animals like the deer or gazelle or by the name of a biblical personality;
  3. the lover can be a young man or a woman;
  4. the lovers’ attachment is kept a secret, particularly from the family;
  5. the lover speaks of a frustrated anguish exemplified by an inability to sleep and the lack of an appetite;
  6. a friend attempts to convince the lover to abandon the frustrating relationship; and in interesting twists where the lover is a young man,
  7. he sees himself as a sacrifice and views his love as an animal of prey; and
  8. he describes parts of the woman’s body, particularly her eyes, as if they are weapons.

If you review this list you immediately notice that these elements clearly show that these love poems were about frustrated love; perhaps that’s because people who are happily in love rarely write love poetry. Some of these poems are homoerotic and a fair number become misogynistic.


Even though there are ample instances of the dirge in the Bible, the Hebrew dirge of Islamic Spain is based entirely on the Arabic genre. There are usually four elements of this poetic type.

  1. mourning the loss: express the pain that the poet feels over his loss, blame the messenger who brought the bad news, and blame the whole world and all of nature for allowing this to occur;
  2. celebrating the loved one’s life: eulogize the person and especially praise his generosity toward the poet;
  3. accepting the loss: express thoughts of gaining wisdom about fate, the world, life, and death; and
  4. attaining consolation: this typically conveys the idea that all life must endure death and is stated in many different ways.

Those familiar with the literature on death and mourning will recognize in those poetic elements the basis of what is known to psychologists as the “stages of grief.”

Religious poetry

This genre is very closely related to Hebrew love poetry, borrowing many of its themes and imagery; typically the only distinction lies in the poet’s object of desire. Many poems may seem to be erotic love poems and can be understood and appreciated as such, but the poem may contain underlying double entendres which will allow the poem to be understood in religious terms. It is such kinds of ambiguities in the meaning of the poem, including alterations of its sense resulting from double entendre, imagery derived from unnoticed biblical allusions, and the use of current social conventions unknown to the modern reader, that makes for markedly differing modern translations of many of these poems. Varied interpretations of the poem’s stylistic conventions added to general difficulties in doing the translating often lead to translations that have major differences in wording and meaning and some may miss the implied religious theme entirely.

In fact, the difficulties of translating the Hebrew poetry of this period are virtually insurmountable; this is not solely because of the differences between Hebrew and English. The Jewish poets of Islamic Spain wrote their verses on many levels of meaning, a trait that the Hebrew language easily permits. The poets used the devices of Arabic poetry but supplemented and enriched them with biblical allusion and midrashic metaphor; their poetry simultaneously evokes many different meanings and this effect is particularly apparent in their religious poetry.

Poems about Zion

This poetic theme is another variant of love poetry because it includes the motif of pining for a lost loved one, in this case Zion or particularly the Temple. This poetry may celebrate the memories of the past in Jerusalem or the messianic hopes for the future and sometimes may refer to both. Most of the poems of this type yearn for a return to Zion and are often accompanied by veiled polemical statements against Muslims and Christians.

In the remaining part of this class we will briefly discuss the life and some of the works of the most noted of the medieval Sephardic poets.

The Poets

The Circle of Hasdai ibn Shaprut

Dunash ben Labrat (920–990)

Figure 19. Al-Andelus, 900 CE

Before we discuss the leading medieval poets, we should cover the originator of the Arabic-derived form of Hebrew metrical poetry. This was the innovator “Dunash” ben Labrat.

Adonim haLevy ben Labrat was born in Baghdad (some sources say Fez; accounts are contradictory). What is certain is that he completed his education in Baghdad where he was a student of Sa’adia Gaon (he possibly was a relative), the greatest Jewish scholar from the medieval period until Rashi. He composed the hymn Doresh Chachmot in honor of Sa’adia. While studying in Babylonia, Dunash adapted Arabic poetry’s quantitative meters to Hebrew and when he showed his work to his teacher, Sa’adia rendered his decidedly dubious opinion: “Nothing like it has ever been seen in Israel.” After his Baghdad studies he apparently moved to Fez where he adopted his Berber name, Dunash.

At about the age of thirty, Dunash moved to Córdova under the patronage of Hasdai ibn Shaprut, bringing his Arabizing poetry methods, and despite Dunash’s arrogant manner, his overt scorn for the Iberian scholars whom he considered inferior to those of Babylonia and in particular his rival Menahem ben Saruq, and especially despite his mediocre verses, his poetic methods caught on.

Dunash is regarded as the originator of Andelusian Hebrew poetry. As mentioned earlier, Dunash introduced metrical rhyming into Hebrew poetry, in a kind of imitation of traditional Arabic poetry which was built on patterns of combinations of the language’s long and short syllables. The metrical innovations he introduced formed the basis for all subsequent medieval Hebrew poetry, but contemporary Hebrew grammatical purists, Menahem and his followers in particular, were extremely critical of Dunash’s style because they believed that by his introduction of Arabic forms into Hebrew, he was corrupting the language, especially when he changed biblical phrasing to conform to Arabic meter and rhyming schemes. Most critics share in their opinion of the mediocrity of Dunash’s work so that may be the reason that only thirteen complete poems and a number of fragments of his works survive. But Dunash is remembered not for his poetic craft but for his major innovations.

The Poetry

Poetry of Dunash ben Labrat

Dunash’s poem “D’ror Yikra,” in a cursory reading, seems to be about a dream of returning to Zion. The imagery of staying awake and spending the night amid fragrant spices in a garden of pomegranates filled with fountains and musical instruments evokes the attendance at a banquet, but the beginning of the poem could also refer to a specific religious setting. Reading it in that context, it appears that the poem then could refer to a memory of the Temple. The poem closes with a call to restore Zion and a reminder to the reader that only through the keeping of the commandments will allow that to come to pass.

D’ror Yikra

Sfarad-Jerusalem. Source:

It seems that Dunash’s wife, whose name is not recorded, was an erudite poet in her own right. The discovery of fragments coming from three different poetry collections found in the Cairo Geniza produced concrete evidence of the work of this woman. In 1984 a pair of poems written by Dunash’s wife to Dunash and his response was published. It’s known that Dunash abandoned Spain, apparently over a disagreement with Hasdai, leaving his wife and young son; this touching poetic fragment appears to have been written about that event. This is the only example of a Hebrew poem written by a woman during the entire medieval period.

Decline of Córdoba and the Taifa Fiefdoms

Samuel ibn Nagrela (993–c.1056)

Figure 20. Al-Andelus during taifa period

After al-Rahman III’s death, the caliphate began a long, slow decline in political and economic power, eventually fracturing into rival fiefdoms known as taifas (“party states”). The final breakup started at the beginning of the eleventh century. After a long period of debilitating dictatorship by a regent, Muhammad al-Mansur ibn Abi’Amir, who in 976 had seized ruling power over the caliphate at the expense of the young son of al-Hakam II, in 1009 Sulayman II ibn al-Hakam of the Umayyad family, with the aid of a Castilian army, was able to recapture Córdoba and expel the Berbers. The Berbers returned three years later, recaptured Córdoba, and ousted the Umayyads. Subsequently, by 1030, with the unifying dynasty of the Umayyads gone, all of al-Andelus had fragmented into more than thirty taifas, independent regional states, some of which weren’t much more than a city-state, that were under the rule of local Arab, Berber, and even Slavic leaders.

Some taifas, in particular Seville, Granada, Valencia, and Zaragoza, became strong emirates, but all faced frequent internal political upheaval and inter-taifa war. Córdoba was reduced to but a shadow of its former grandeur, only occupying a small portion of southern Spain. Surprisingly, it seems that the Jews benefitted more from these circumstances than suffered by them. Instead of having only one government to serve, the explosion of independent principalities greatly multiplied the opportunities for Jews to serve as administrators, merchants, and even military leaders. In addition, the services of Jews as doctors, translators, scientists, and even as scholars and poets were generally valued by the Muslim rulers of these principalities, especially as order needed to be restored in towns damaged by recent warfare.

One of the most prominent and powerful Jewish figures of this period—indeed, of Jewish history—was Samuel ibn Nagrela. Born in Córdoba in 993, he served as vizier to the Berber king Badis al-Muzaffar of Granada. Ibn Nagrela had received a complete Sephardic rabbinic education on the Bible, Talmud, Hebrew, Arabic, and grammar. He was an accomplished poet—over 2,000 of his poems exist—and his commentary on the Talmud is a standard today. Fleeing from Córdoba to Granada as a result of war, he set up a shop as a merchant and scribe and soon came to the attention of Granada’s ruler, Badis, who, according to Islamic chronicles, rewarded him for his tact and wisdom. A story is told about him that illustrates his character. It was said that after Badis learned that a Moor had grievously insulted ibn Nagrela, he advised his vizier to have the offender’s tongue cut out. But ibn Nagrela treated his reviler with much kindness, and one day, as Badis and ibn Nagrela passed the same Moor, the Moor ran out and kissed ibn Nagrela’s hand.

“How does he now bless you,” said the astonished king, “whom he used to curse?”

“Ah!” replied ibn Nagrela, “I did as you advised. I cut out his angry tongue, and put a kind one there instead.”

As Granada’s vizier, ibn Nagrela was the kingdom’s policy director and he also served as the commander-in-chief of its army (he was one of only two Jews ever to command Muslim armies; his son Joseph was the second). Many of ibn Nagrela’s poems were composed while he was on Granada’s frequent military campaigns; he sent his poems home from the battlefield by carrier pigeon. Ibn Nagrela’s son Joseph (1035–1066) succeeded him as vizier. While Samuel’s career was marked by his political adroitness, Joseph committed a major political misstep that resulted in his being murdered by an Islamic mob that went on to kill about 4,000 other Granada Jews in the Granada massacre of 1066. Granada was not unique in having a Jewish vizier: Jews served as viziers in the taifas of Zaragoza, Seville, and Lucena (near Córdoba).

The Poetry

Poetry of Samuel ibn Nagrela

Ibn Nagrela wrote his poems in all of the poetic genres and one additional one unique to all Jewish poets since King David: he wrote some of the most descriptive war poetry of all time. It’s therefore understandable that he frequently referred to himself as a descendant of David. He also wrote some zesty wine poems that at first glance appear to be purely secular, celebrating the hedonistic delights of life, calling for drinking, often to excess, with good company. If one examines these poems carefully, however, they usually reveal a direct or implied religious theme.

Christianity Responds — Reconquista Period

Solomon ibn Gabirol (c.1021–c.1058)

Figure 21. Iberia at beginning of Reconquest

In the middle of the eleventh century, the Christians began their long anticipated campaign to recapture Iberia. In 1035 Castile became a kingdom and a politically separate entity from León under Ferdinand I, who assumed the title of king of León and Castile. But this was a time of major turmoil among the Christian kingdoms, which were fighting among themselves as well as with the Muslim taifa kingdoms. And while the Christians were fighting among themselves, so were the taifas, and the constant warfare between the taifas gave the Christians, who settled their disagreements within eight years, the opportunity to make inroads against Islamic lands.

Ferdinand I attacked several taifa kingdoms during his rule, forcing them to pay tribute and thus keeping them weak financially and militarily; in this way the taifa of Toledo become a Christian tributary province in about 1043. When the Christians assumed control of Toledo, it greatly alarmed the rulers of the other taifa kingdoms; as a result the Berber Almoravides of Morocco were invited to send troops to stop further Christian conquests. The Almoravides were a fundamentalist Islamic sect whose members abhorred the liberality of the Islamic culture of al-Andalus and objected to any non-Muslim holding a position of authority over Muslims. Besides engaging in widespread forcible conversions of both Christians and Jews after they invaded, the Almoravides implemented numerous practices to bring Iberia’s cultural customs closer to orthodox Islam.

Solomon ibn Gabirol was born in Málaga in about 1021 but was destined to wander throughout Iberia during his life, ever searching for the peace that was denied to him and his land. Little is known of ibn Gabirol’s life. His parents died while he was a young teen. At seventeen years of age he became the friend and protégé of Yekutiel ibn Hassan, a Jewish communal leader, statesman, philanthropist, and patron of the arts who served in the Islamic court of the Banu Tujibi family in Saragossa, and they became great friends. However, after about two years of his patronage, Yekutiel became embroiled in court politics and was executed, devastating ibn Gabirol.

Much of his poetry is tinged with melancholy, probably because his early life was so unhappy. But his poems show that this unhappiness seemed to give him a fuller hope in God. Ibn Gabirol wrote in many genres of literature. His poetic works included secular poetry, introspective religious poetry, and liturgical poetry, but he is probably is best known for his liturgical poetry. As we mentioned earlier, he wrote the opening verses of the Nishmat found in some siddurim, the last meditation in the Amidah; and probably Adon Olam. He also wrote kinot (dirges) on the destruction of the Temple and the plight of Israel.

Many of his religious poems have been set to music and sung as piyyutim. Some have also been included in many editions of siddurim. These include “Azharot,” a poem based on the taryag (the 613 commandments of the Torah) which is included in the Shavuot service of many congregations, “Shir haYichud” (Song of Unity), and the famous “Keter Malkhut” (Kingdom’s Crown), a glorious series of poems on God and the world of which selections are included in Sephardic machzorim. The piyyutShir haKavod” (Song of Glory) is attributed to him by some scholars.

Ibn Gabirol was noted for other literary works in addition to his poetry and some works cross over between genres. “Keter Malkhut,” is actually a melding of poetry and neoplatonic philosophy. In this poem ibn Gabirol does not function as a poetic philosopher or a philosophical poet; instead he combines the two roles. Modern scholars believe that to fully understand his philosophy, his poetry must also be studied for its presentation of philosophy.

Ibn Gabirol was also interested in pure philosophy, a subject of intense study among both medieval Arabic as well as Jewish scholars, who occupied themselves translating the works of the great Greek philosophers. One of the most renowned philosophical works of the medieval period was a work written in Arabic around 1049 attributed to an author named Avicebrol. The work, known by its Latin name Fons Vita, is a neoplatonic philosophic dialog that was widely circulated in Latin and is credited with introducing neoplatonism to Christian Europe. Prominent Christian scholars spoke of its author as “the most exalted of all the philosophers”; the work was endorsed by the Catholic Franciscan order and became the basis of medieval Christian doctrine. Until the nineteenth century it was universally assumed that Avicebrol was a Christian or possibly a Muslim writer, but then an accidental discovery in Paris of a very early copy of excerpts of the work proved that the author was none other than Solomon ibn Gabirol and the work was originally titled Mekor Hayya’im (Origin of Life).

Ibn Gabirol lived only 37 years and died in Valencia in 1048 following years of wandering.

The Poetry

Poetry of Solomon ibn Gabirol

Among ibn Gabirol’s works which we will examine are two religious poems that display all the elements of erotic poetry, “You Asleep on Golden Couches” and “The Shut Gate.” In the latter, the Hebrew text describes the Temple cult with the double entendre of a house of earthly assignation as well: “The gate long shut / get up and throw it wide / the stag long fled / send him to my side. // When one day you come / to lie between my breasts / that day your scent / will cling to me like wine.” These verses could have the sense of a conversation between Israel and God, a sense allowed but not required by the Hebrew. The conversation interpretation is indicated in Raymond Scheindlin’s translation by the use of quotation marks.

Ibn Gabirol’s “You Asleep on Golden Couches” begins with a woman speaking to a man: “O You, asleep on golden couches in my palace spread / When, O Lord, will you prepare for the ruddy one my bed?” The poem continues with the loved one asleep in the bed the next morning and affirms the lovers’ mutual suitability. The final verse reads, “He who comes in my castle will find my hidden delights / the juice of my pomegranate, my myrrh, and my cinnamon.” The list of delicacies in the last line is reminiscent of Song of Songs 5:1. The imagery in this poem can refer to an amorous tryst or equally to the Temple sacrifice; the “ruddy one” mentioned is an allusion to King David and thus to the messiah, David’s descendant. Similar imagery is found in the piyyut Shalom Lekha Dodi. If the translator is unaware of the biblical motifs employed in this poem, he may be misled by its ambiguities and miss the erotic-religious duality of this poem.

In this piyyut, ibn Gabirol draws very heavily on the Song of Songs. The allusions in lines 1, 2, 5, and 7 all come from Song. Line 4 is from Ezekiel 21:25 and Jeremiah 49:2 and line 8 is based on Psalm 133:3. Note all the references to David, including the psalm which has the superscription “A song of ascents. Of David.”

Shalom Lekha Dodi

Jo Amar, Moroccan tradition. Source:

Shachar Avakeshcha

Emil Zrihan, Maqam: Nahawand, Moroccan tradition. Source:

From ibn Gabirol we also have one of the most beautiful poems of the dirge genre, his tribute to his patron and protector Yekutiel. In this poem, ibn Gabirol calls on all of nature to share his grief. Here ibn Gabirol combines the beauty of both verbal imagery and sound; the vowel sounds that comprise the first three verses are predominantly soft “a” sounds, allowing the verses to flow smoothly and gently. Then in the final line, the verse explodes jarringly with many repetitions of the harsh “k” consonant; of course the “k” comes from Yekutiel’s name and the dissonance of the final verse upsets the tranquility of the preceding verses, just as Yekutiel’s death so greatly affected ibn Gabirol.


Moses ibn Ezra (c.1055–c.1138)

Figure 22. Iberia during Almovarid period

Under the cross-cultural influences of Muslim Iberia, the orthodoxy of the Almoravides became somewhat relaxed fairly quickly, also did their policies concerning Jews, so even though these highly traditionalist Muslims now were occupying most positions of power in the taifa kingdoms, talented Jews could be found in most of the many Muslim courts.

Close to the year in which ibn Gabirol died, Moses ibn Ezra was born. Of his life we have virtually no information, but we know that he was still alive in 1138. He was born in Granada, but during the 1066 riot in Granada after Joseph Hanagid was assassinated, his family took refuge in Lucena where Moses completed his studies. The family eventually returned to Granada and ibn Ezra was given a position in the Muslim court. His distinguished life in Granada lasted only until 1090 when the kingdom was conquered by the invading Berber Almoravides. His family’s money and property were confiscated; then several years later he fled, leaving his family, and spent the rest of his life wandering throughout Christian northern Spain, never finding another home. It’s been suggested that some sort of scandal involving his family, possibly including a threat to his life, caused him to leave them. He is known as haSallah, the “poet of penitence,” his mournful poems were likely influenced by the fact that he had to flee from Granada. While he was terribly affected by his self-imposed exile, his poetry reflects the idea that in his exile, he is being guided by a greater force, but thoughts of death are ever-present in his writing.

Ibn Ezra’s contribution to the Hebrew poetic genre was the revolutionary idea that poetry could serve as metaphor by fusing the philosophical ideas inspired by Aristotle with biblical examples in the same manner that Arabic poetry used the Qu’ran. Ibn Ezra, in fact, was quite critical of his predecessors who used metaphorical devices for hyperbolic exaggeration or used the devices to substitute for precise literal language. Instead he used metaphor to allow a poorly understood concept to be described by relating it to a concept that people already knew. This is how he related the concept of God and the idea of a supreme deity—by using metaphorical terms based on concrete concepts. His use of metaphor in this manner, relating theological-philosophical subjects to known concepts, was diametrically opposed to the techniques of Maimonides, who, writing some thirty years later as a rationalist rather than a poet, viewed theological topics purely philosophically.

The poetry

Poetry of Moses ibn Ezra

In a typical example illustrating the combining of poetic genres, in the poem “Caress a Lovely Woman’s Breast,” Moses ibn Ezra couples wine with sexual lust, beginning with the verse, “Caress a lovely woman’s breast by night / and kiss some beauty’s lips by morning light.” Eventually, however, the poem moves into religious imagery with the mention of a Temple sacrificial rite, creating an erotic-religious double entendre. “This is the joy of life, so take your due. / You too deserve a portion of the ram / of consecration, like your people’s chiefs / To suck the juice of lips do not be shy / but take what’s rightly yours—the breast and thigh.” This imagery is an allusion to Leviticus 10:15, where the ram’s breast and thigh were the special offerings for the ordination of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood. However, in this poem, the offerings are designated not for the priests but for the “people’s chiefs”; this must have been meant to refer to the privileged elite: the courtier class.


Yehuda Halevi (c.1075–1141)

Yehuda ben Shmuel Halevi was born in Tudela on the border between Navarre and Zaragoza, as were two other famous writers of the eleventh century, Abraham ibn Ezra and Benjamin of Tudela. At that time the taifa kingdom of Zaragoza was still under the nominal rule of the Muslims, but in reality it was subject to the strong Christian influence of Valencia and Castile as a tributary province. Thus Halevi grew to maturity under the influence of both Christian as well as Muslim cultures. While he was still a youth, he appears to have completed much of his study in Granada, which was the main center of Jewish literary and intellectual life at the time. It appears that the teenaged Halevi sent a poem to Moses ibn Ezra at Granada; ibn Ezra invited him to become his student. He stayed in Granada for several years but left in 1090 after the Almoravides assumed control of southern Iberia. After leaving Granada he remained in Almoravid-ruled areas for a few more years but soon traveled north to Castile, the destination of many Jewish refugees from the Almoravid lands. By 1100 he had settled in Toledo but moved south again in 1108 when anti-Jewish rioting broke out in Toledo. Very little is known of Halevi’s personal life; it is only from his poems that we learn that he had a daughter and that she had a son, also named Yehuda. We know nothing of any other children.

While Halevi was famed as a poet, he was also a noted physician and a great statesman whose services as a diplomat, negotiator, and translator were greatly valued by the Muslims and Christians alike and he garnered significant wealth and fame. He appears to have been an active participant in Jewish communal affairs and during the period that he lived in Toledo he was probably employed as a physician at the court. Of his life in Toledo he complains of being too busy with medicine to devote himself to his writing. It is from his writings that we learn about the various Muslim cities in the south where he lived during his wandering years. His interpreting and diplomatic services continued to be in demand by both Muslim and Christian rulers, which resulted in the need for Halevi to travel widely through southern and central Spain.

Of all the poets of the Golden Age, Halevi was the most prolific and is universally regarded as the greatest. Halevi wrote copious amounts of poetry using, like his predecessors, the formal patterns of Arabic poetry like the simple rhymes employed since Dunash’s period and also the modern complex strophic rhyming patterns. His poetry spanned all of the genres: from odes, romances, monologues, and riddles, to religious and liturgical poems. He had a special “ear” for the creative use of Hebrew and his verse is noted for its remarkable use of acoustic effect as well as its wit. Halevi also composed a philosophical work in Arabic, The Book of Argument and Proof in Defense of the Despised Faith (translated into Hebrew by Judah ibn Tibbon and called Sefer ha-Kuzari), in which he expressed his ideas about the teachings of Judaism and defended Judaism against the attacks of non-Jewish philosophers and against those Jews he viewed as “heretics” including the Karaites.

The constant warfare between the Christians and Muslims of the first half of the twelfth century made life for everyone miserable, including the Jews, but persecution of the Jews kept escalating. Jewish refugees were fleeing north from Muslim oppression and then south to escape the Muslim-Christian battles; anti-Jewish riots in northern cities occurred with increasing frequency. Where could the Jews go to reach a place of refuge? Those who could, fled to north Africa, others to Provence. For Yehuda Halevi, his wealth allowed him to go to Palestine in 1140, leaving Spain at the height of his fame and influence. And seven years later, the “Golden Age” came to an end with the invasion of Andalusian Spain by the Almohades.

The Poetry

Poetry of Yehuda Halevi

In his love poem “The Laundress,” Halevi portrays the spirit of a man’s desire for his radiant but unavailable love. “Ofra” is the Hebrew word for a female fawn and is used here as a proper noun. He weeps copious tears over her, but in her rejection she uses them for the lowly task of washing clothes, an image of the strongest possible rejection.

In one of the finest examples of a Zion poem, “My Heart Is in the East,” Halevi gives his reasons for eventually leaving Spain and abandoning his family and fortune to travel to Palestine. Just as in many love poems, here he is the frustrated lover who cannot eat or sleep—the loss of the Temple prevents him from fully functioning. Although other interpretations of this motif exist, the prevailing opinion is one of a feeling of extreme loss.

The referents are significant and reflect both the medieval situation and biblical allusion. Edom was used by the Jewish poets as a coded Hebrew reference to Christianity; it referred in particular to the Crusader Kingdom in Jerusalem. Halevi makes his point perfectly clear that he would prefer being in the presence of the ruined Temple to his life in Spain.


Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra (c.1089–c.1167)

Ibn Ezra was born at Tudela, Navarre (this is disputed; some say Toledo, resulting from a misreading of the Hebrew), when the town was ruled by the Muslim taifa of Zaragoza somewhere between 1089 to 1092. Later he moved to Córdoba and then to Granada where he apparently met Yehuda Halevi. Moses ibn Ezra also became a close friend of his. It appears that he traveled to Egypt in about 1109, probably in the company of Halevi. He likely visited Palestine at this time, possibly even Baghdad. Scholars tend to divide ibn Ezra’s life into two periods; the first extended almost to 1140 during which time he won renown as a scholar and poet. He is acclaimed as a genius and one of the most versatile men of letters and writers of the Middle Ages. He excelled in philosophy, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, poetry, linguistics, and biblical and talmudic exegesis, writing over one hundred books on these topics.

(Some sources claim that the ibn Ezras were related, perhaps as distant cousins through a common ancestral grandfather, but any relationship is actually unknown but unlikely.)

By the mid 1130s the ultrapuritanical Almohads were beginning to drive out the more moderate Almoravides in northern Africa and by the end of the decade they were threatening to invade Spain in force. To escape persecution by this new fanatical regime, Ibn Ezra left Spain before 1140, embarking on the second phase of his life, which was marked by continuous travels that took him to Italy in 1140–1147, visiting Rome, Lucca, Mantua, and Verona, thence to southern France (to Rodez, Narbonne, and Béziers), northern France (Dreux), England (London and Oxford in 1158), and back again to Narbonne in 1161.

Ibn Ezra’s travels to Béziers, Provence, before 1155 are mentioned in writings of scholars of that city from more than a hundred and fifty years later; ibn Ezra’s stay in Provence was highly regarded. Judah ibn Tibbon of Lunel, a contemporary of ibn Ezra, wrote of the enormous influence that the latter’s stay in southern France had on Jewish scholarship. He died in 1167; the location is unknown. Some mention Calahorra in Navarre near Aragon while others claim Rome or even Palestine.

The Poetry

Poetry of Abraham ibn Ezra

Abraham ibn Ezra was a master of many disciplines, including poetry, which ranges from lyrical and whimsical to theological and Zionistic. In his poem “I Have a Garment” he expresses his loving yet resigned ruminations about a well-worn cloak and ends the poem with a little prayer.

In the sacred poem Ayumati Aden Shamam’t, which in content resembles many medieval Jewish love poems, ibn Ezra uses imagery and metaphor drawn from the Song of Songs, a biblical work about which he wrote an entire book of commentary. In this poem, virtually every line contains either an allusion to Song or to some other part of the Tanakh where the theme of the love between a man and woman is a metaphor for God’s love for Israel. But in this poem, the lack of specific imagery related to a return to Zion, to the messiah, or to the Jews’ oppressors, allows the reader to see the woman as a metaphor for one’s soul which has been separated from the body and awaits being summoned home.

In the piyyutAgadelkha” ibn Ezra appears to apologize for presuming to praise God. The poet mentions the gathering of multitudes of people in order to sing and give praise. In the Syrian Aleppo tradition this piyyut was sung every Shabbat using a different melody according to the maqamat (“settings” tradition) of that particular Shabbat. It also appears in the Babylonian tradition as well as in the Moroccan service and is in wide use in the Ashkenazic service.


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Sfarad-Jerusalem. Source:

With these sample poems, we’ll close our survey of the Sephardic poets. For further reading, including extensive historical materials, I recommend the The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse by T. Carmi, and for excellent translations, any of the books by Raymond Scheindlin.


Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (1898), Jewish Publication Society, 1958

Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, Jewish Publication Society, 1961

Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Volume 3: High Middle Ages, 500–1200: Heirs of Rome and Persia, Jewish Publication Society, 1957

Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Volume 4: High Middle Ages, 500–1200: Meeting of East and West, Jewish Publication Society, 1957

Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Volume 7: High Middle Ages, 500–1200: Hebrew Language and Letters, Jewish Publication Society, 1958

Adele Berlin, Poetics & Interpretation of Biblical Narrative, Sheffield Academic Press, 1984

Ross Brann, The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain (Johns Hopkins Jewish Studies), Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991

Heinrich Brody (ed.), The Selected Poems of Jehudah Halevi, Jewish Publication Society, 1924

T. Carmi (ed.), The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, Penguin Classics, 2006

Andre Chouraqui, Between East and West: A History of the Jews of North Africa, Jewish Publication Society, 1968

Peter Cole, Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Princeton University Press, 2001

Peter Cole, The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950–1492, Princeton University Press, 2007

Bassam K. Frangieh, Arabic for Life: A Textbook for Beginning Arabic, Yale University Press, 2011

Jane S. Gerber, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience, The Free Press/Macmillan, 1992

A. Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Liturgy and Its Development, Henry Holt and Company, 1932; reprint: Dover Publications, 1995

Robert Mezey (ed.), Poems from the Hebrew, Crowell, 1973

Chaim Raphael, The Road from Babylon: The Story of the Sephardi and Oriental Jews, Harpercollins, 1985

Charles Reznikoff, The Poems of Charles Reznikoff, 1918-1975, David R. Godine, 2005

Nahum M. Sarna, “Hebrew and Bible Studies in Medieval Spain” in R.D. Barnett (ed.), The Sephardi Heritage: Essays on the History and Cultural Contribution of the Jews of Spain and Portugal. I: The Jews in Spain and Portugal before and after the Expulsion of 1492, Ktav, 1971

Raymond P. Scheindlin, Wine, Women & Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life, Jewish Publication Society, 1986

Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Gazelle: Medieval Hebrew Poems on God, Israel, and the Soul, Jewish Publication Society, 1991

David Simha Segal (tr.), The Book of Tahkemoni, Jewish Tales from Medieval Spain, Littman, 2001

Moses A. Shulvass, The History of the Jewish People, Vol. 2: The Early Middle Ages, Regnery/Gateway, 1983

Contents copyright © 2015 S.R.