Chapters On Jewish Literature
By Israel Abrahams
Public Domain Books
Chapter IX. Dawn of the Spanish Era
Chasdai Ibn Shaprut.–Menachem and Dunash, Chayuj and Janach.–Samuel the Nagid.
If but a small part of what Hebrew poets sang concerning Chasdai Ibn Shaprut be literal fact, he was indeed a wonderful figure. His career set the Jewish imagination aflame. Charizi, in the thirteenth century, wrote of Chasdai thus:
In southern Spain, in days gone by, The sun of fame rose up on high: Chasdai it was, the prince, who gave Rich gifts to all who came to crave. Science rolled forth her mighty waves, Laden with gems from hidden caves, Till wisdom like an island stood, The precious outcome of the flood. Here thirsting spirits still might find Knowledge to satisfy the mind. Their prince’s favor made new day For those who slept their life away. They who had lived so long apart Confessed a bond, a common heart, From Christendom and Moorish lands, From East, from West, from distant strands. His favor compassed each and all. Girt by the shelter of his grace, Lit by the glory of his face, Knowledge held their heart in thrall. He showed the source of wisdom and her springs, And God’s anointment made them more than kings. His goodness made the dumb to speak his name, Yea, stubborn hearts were not unyielding long; And bards the starry splendor of his fame Mirrored in lucent current of their song.
This Chasdai, the son of Isaac, of the family of Shaprut (915-970), was a physician and a statesman. He was something of a poet and linguist besides; not much of a poet, for his eulogists say little of his verses; and not much of a linguist, for he employed others (among them Menachem, the son of Zaruk, the grammarian) to write his Hebrew letters for him. But he was enough of a scholar to appreciate learning in others, and as a patron of literature he placed himself in the front of the new Jewish development in Spain. From Babylonia he was hailed as the head of the school in Cordova. At his palatial abode was gathered all that was best in Spanish Judaism. He was the patron of the two great grammarians of the day, Menachem, the son of Zaruk, and his rival and critic, Dunash, the son of Labrat. These grammarians fought out their literary disputes in verses dedicated to Chasdai. Witty satires were written by the friends of both sides. Sparkling epigrams were exchanged in the rose-garden of Chasdai’s house, and were read at the evening assemblies of poets, merchants, and courtiers. It was Chasdai who brought both the rivals to Cordova, Menachem from Tortosa and Dunash from Fez. Menachem was the founder of scientific Hebrew grammar; Dunash, more lively but less scholarly, initiated the art of writing metrical Hebrew verses. The successors of these grammarians, Judah Chayuj and Abulwalid Merwan Ibn Janach (eleventh century), completed what Menachem and Dunash had begun, and placed Hebrew philology on a firm scientific basis.
Thus, with Chasdai a new literary era dawned for Judaism. His person, his glorious position, his liberal encouragement of poetry and learning, opened the sealed-up lips of the Hebrew muse. As a contemporary said of Chasdai:
The grinding yoke from Israel’s neck he tore, Deep in his soul his people’s love he bore. The sword that thirsted for their blood he brake, And cold oppression melted for his sake. For God sent Chasdai Israel’s heart to move Once more to trust, once more his God to love.
Chasdai did not confine his efforts on behalf of his brethren to the Jews of Spain. Ambition and sympathy made him extend his affection to the Jews of all the world. He interviewed the captains of ships, he conversed with foreign envoys concerning the Jews of other lands. He entered into a correspondence with the Chazars, Jews by adoption, not by race. It is not surprising that the influence of Chasdai survived him. Under the next two caliphs, Cordova continued the centre of a cultured life and literature. Thither flocked, not only the Chazars, but also the descendants of the Babylonian Princes of the Captivity and other men of note.
Half a century after Chasdai’s death, Samuel Ibn Nagdela (993-1055) stood at the head of the Jewish community in Granada. Samuel, called the Nagid, or Prince, started life as a druggist in Malaga. His fine handwriting came to the notice of the vizier, and Samuel was appointed private secretary. His talents as a statesman were soon discovered, and he was made first minister to Habus, the ruler of Granada. Once a Moor insulted him, and King Habus advised his favorite to cut out the offender’s tongue. But Samuel treated his reviler with much kindness, and one day King Habus and Samuel passed the same Moor. “He blesses you now,” said the astonished king, “whom he used to curse.”
“Ah!” replied Samuel, “I did as you advised. I cut out his angry tongue, and put a kind one there instead.”
Samuel was not only vizier, he was also Rabbi. His knowledge of the Rabbinical literature was profound, and his “Introduction to the Talmud" (Mebo ha-Talmud) is still a standard work. He expended much labor and money on collecting the works of the Gaonim. The versatility of Samuel was extraordinary. From the palace he would go to the school; after inditing a despatch he would compose a hymn; he would leave a reception of foreign diplomatists to discuss intricate points of Rabbinical law or examine the latest scientific discoveries. As a poet, his muse was that of the town, not of the field. But though he wrote no nature poems, he resembled the ancient Hebrew Psalmists in one striking feature. He sang new songs of thanksgiving over his own triumphs, uttered laments on his own woes, but there is an impersonal note in these songs as there is in the similar lyrics of the Psalter. His individual triumphs and woes were merged in the triumphs and woes of his people. In all, Samuel added some thirty new hymns to the liturgy of the Synagogue. But his muse was as versatile as his mind. Samuel also wrote some stirring wine songs. The marvellous range of his powers helped him to complete what Chasdai had begun. The centre of Judaism became more firmly fixed than ever in Spain. When Samuel the Nagid died in 1055, the golden age of Spanish literature was in sight. Above the horizon were rising in a glorious constellation, Solomon Ibn Gebirol, the Ibn Ezras, and Jehuda Halevi.
Graetz,–III, p. 215 .
DUNASH AND MENACHEM.
Graetz.–III, p. 223 .
Encycl. Brit., Vol. XIII, p. 737.
M. Jastrow, Jr.–The Weak and Geminative Verbs in Hebrew by Hayyûg (Leyden, 1897).
Steinschneider.–Jewish Literature, p. 131.
Letter of Chasdai to Chazars (Engl. transl. by Zedner, Miscellany of the Society of Hebrew Literature, Vol. I).
Graetz.–III, p. 138 .
Samuel Ibn Nagdela.
Graetz,–III, p, 254 .