Chapters On Jewish Literature
By Israel Abrahams
Public Domain Books
Chapter XII. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (II)
Turning once more to the brighter condition of Jewish literature in Spain, we reach a man upon whom the whole vocabulary of praise and affection has been exhausted; a man of magnetic attractiveness, whom contemporaries and successors have agreed to admire and to love. Jehuda Halevi was born in Toledo about 1085, the year in which Alfonso VI recaptured the city from the Moors. It was a fit birth-place for the greatest Jewish poet since Bible times. East and West met in Toledo. The science of the East there found Western Christians to cultivate it. Jew, Moor, and Christian displayed there mutual toleration which existed nowhere else. In the midst of this favorable environment Jehuda Halevi grew to early maturity. As a boy he won more than local fame as a versifier. At all festive occasions his verses were in demand. He wrote wedding odes, elegies on great men, eulogies of the living. His love poems, serenades, epigrams of this period, all display taste, elegance, and passion.
The second period of Jehuda Halevi’s literary career was devoted to serious pursuits, to thoughts about life, and to practical work. He wrote his far-famed philosophical dialogue, the Cuzari, and earned his living as a physician. He was not an enthusiastic devotee to medicine, however. “Toledo is large,” he wrote to a friend, “and my patients are hard masters. I, their slave, spend my days in serving their will, and consume my years in healing their infirmities.” Before making up a prescription, he, like Sir Thomas Browne, used to say a prayer in which he confessed that he had no great faith in the healing powers of his art. Jehuda Halevi was, indeed, dissatisfied with his life altogether. “My heart is in the East, but I am sunk in the West,” he lamented. He was unhappy because his beloved was far from him; his lady-love was beyond the reach of his earnest gaze. In Heine’s oft-quoted words,
She for whom the Rabbi languished Was a woe-begone poor darling, Desolation’s very image, And her name–Jerusalem.
The eager passion for one sight of Jerusalem grew on him, and dominated the third portion of his life. At length nothing could restrain him; go he would, though he die in the effort. And go he did, and die he did in the effort. The news of his determination spread through Spain, and everywhere hands were held out to restrain him. But his heart lightened as the day of departure came. His poems written at this time are hopeful and full of cheery feeling. In Egypt, a determined attempt was made by the Jews to keep him among them. But it was vain. Onward to Jerusalem: this was his one thought. He tarried in Egypt but a short while, then he passed to Tyre and Damascus. At Damascus, in the year 1140 or thereabouts, he wrote the ode to Zion which made his name immortal, an ode in which he gave vent to all the intense passion which filled his soul. The following are some stanzas taken from this address to Jerusalem:
The glory of the Lord has been alway Thy sole and perfect light; Thou needest not the sun to shine by day, Nor moon and stars to illumine thee by night. I would that, where God’s spirit was of yore Poured out unto thy holy ones, I might There too my soul outpour! The house of kings and throne of God wert thou, How comes it then that now Slaves fill the throne where sat thy kings before?
Oh! who will lead me on To seek the spots where, in far distant years, The angels in their glory dawned upon Thy messengers and seers?
Oh! who will give me wings That I may fly away, And there, at rest from all my wanderings, The ruins of my heart among thy ruins lay?
The Lord desires thee for his dwelling-place Eternally, and bless’d Is he whom God has chosen for the grace Within thy courts to rest. Happy is he that watches, drawing near, Until he sees thy glorious lights arise, And over whom thy dawn breaks full and clear Set in the orient skies. But happiest he, who, with exultant eyes, The bliss of thy redeemed ones shall behold, And see thy youth renewed as in the days of old.
Soon after writing this Jehuda arrived near the Holy City. He was by her side at last, by the side of his beloved. Then, legend tells us, through a gate an Arab horseman dashed forth: he raised his spear, and slew the poet, who fell at the threshold of his dear Jerusalem, with a song of Zion on his lips.
The new-Hebrew poetry did not survive him. Persecution froze the current of the Jewish soul. Poets, indeed, arose after Jehuda Halevi in Germany as in Spain. Sometimes, as in the hymns of the “German” Meir of Rothenburg, a high level of passionate piety is reached. But it has well been said that “the hymns of the Spanish writers link man’s soul to his Maker: the hymns of the Germans link Israel to his God.” Only in Spain Hebrew poetry was universal, in the sense in which the Psalms are universal. Even in Spain itself, the death of Jehuda Halevi marked the close of this higher inspiration. The later Spanish poets, Charizi and Zabara (middle and end of the twelfth century), were satirists rather than poets, witty, sparkling, ready with quaint quips, but local and imitative in manner and subject. Zabara must receive some further notice in a later chapter because of his connection with medieval folk-lore. Of Charizi’s chief work, the Tachkemoni, it may be said that it is excellent of its type. The stories which it tells in unmetrical rhyme are told in racy style, and its criticisms on men and things are clever and striking. As a literary critic also Charizi ranks high, and there is much skill in the manner in which he links together, round the person of his hero, the various narratives which compose the Tachkemoni. The experiences he relates are full of humor and surprises. As a phrase-maker, Charizi was peculiarly happy, his command of Hebrew being masterly. But his most conspicuous claim to high rank lies in his origination of that blending of grim irony with bright wit which became characteristic of all Jewish humorists, and reached its climax in Heine. But Charizi himself felt that his art as a Hebrew poet was decadent. Great poets of Jewish race have risen since, but the songs they have sung have not been songs of Zion, and the language of their muse has not been the language of the Hebrew Bible.
J. Jacobs.–Jehuda Halevi, Poet and Pilgrim (Jewish Ideals, New York, 1896, p. 103).
Lady Magnus.–Jewish Portraits (Boston, 1889), p. 1.
TRANSLATIONS OF HIS POETRY by Emma Lazarus and Mrs. Lucas (op. cit.): Editions of the Prayer-Book; also J.Q.R., X, pp. 117, 626; VII, p. 464; Treasurers of Oxford (London, 1850); I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, chs. 7, 9 and 10.
HIS PHILOSOPHY: Specimen of the Cusari, translated by A. Neubauer (Miscellany of the Society of Hebrew Literature, Vol. I). John Owen.–J.Q.R., III, p. 199.
Graetz.–III, p. 559 
Karpeles.–-Jewish Literature and other Essays, p. 210 seq. M. Sachs.–Hebrew Review, Vol. I.