14 June 2019
Praying with poems by
a Jewish poet recalled
in a square in Córdoba
Plaza de Juda Levi in Judería, a tiny square that I noticed in the old Jewish Quarter of Córdoba last week, is named in honour of the Spanish Jewish doctor, poet and philosopher, Judah Halevi (1075/1086-1141), also known as Yehuda Halevi or ha-Levi, or Judah ben Shmuel Halevi.
The 10th to 12th century in Muslim Spain is regarded as the ‘Hebrew Golden Age.’ Like many Jewish intellectuals in Muslim Spain at the time, Halevi wrote prose in Arabic and poetry in Hebrew. Many regard him as the greatest of all the mediaeval Hebrew poets and he has been described as the ‘most important poet in Judaism of all times.’
He is celebrated both for his religious and secular poems, many of which appear in present-day Jewish liturgy. His greatest philosophical work was The Kuzari. His work includes panegyric odes, funeral odes, poems on the pleasures of life, gnomic epigrams, and riddles. He was also a prolific author of religious verse.
Judah Halevi was born in Spain, probably in Toledo, in 1075 or 1086. In his youth, it appears, he moved to Granada, then the main centre of Jewish literary and intellectual life at the time, where he found a mentor in Moses Ibn Ezra. He was educated in traditional Jewish scholarship, in Arabic literature, and in the Greek sciences and philosophy, and as an adult he was a medical doctor and was active in Jewish communal affairs in Toledo.
He seems to have lived at times in Christian Toledo, at other times in Islamic Spain. Eventually, his religious convictions compelled him to leave Spain and to move to the Holy Land. His personal piety intensified as he aged, leading him to want to devote himself entirely to religious life.
When Halevi arrived in Alexandria on 8 September 1140, he was greeted enthusiastically by friends and admirers. From there, he went to Cairo, where he visited several dignitaries, including the Nagid of Egypt, Samuel ben Hanania, and his friend Halfon ben Nathaniel Halevi.
He left Alexandria again on 14 May 1141. Legend says that as he arrived in Jerusalem Halevi was killed when he was run over by an Arab horseman.
In Egypt, he wrote his ‘swan-song’:
Wondrous is this land to see,
With perfume its meadows laden,
But more fair than all to me
Is yon slender, gentle maiden.
Ah, Time’s swift flight I fain would stay,
Forgetting that my locks are gray.
Judah Halevi is also noted for composing riddles that often have religious themes. One example is:
What is it that’s blind with an eye in its head,
But the race of mankind its use can not spare;
Spends all its life in clothing the dead,
But always itself is naked and bare?
After living a life devoted to worldly pleasures, Judah Halevi experienced a kind of awakening or conversion that changed his outlook on the world. Like the authors of the Psalms, he gladly sinks his own identity in the wider one of his people, so that it is not always easy to distinguish the personality of the speaker.
Often his poetic fancy finds joy in the thought of the return of his people to the Promised Land, and he believed that perfect Jewish life was possible only in the Holy Land.
This vision of the night, however, remained but a dream. Yet he never lost faith in the eventual deliverance of Israel, and in the eternity of his people. On this subject, he has expressed himself in poetry:
Lo! Sun and moon, these minister for aye;
The laws of day and night cease nevermore:
Given for signs to Jacob’s seed that they
Shall ever be a nation – till these be o’er.
If with His left hand He should thrust away,
Lo! with His right hand He shall draw them nigh.
His longest, and most comprehensive liturgical poem is a Kedushah, calling all the universe to praise God with rejoicing, and its ends in Psalm 103. It is said there is scarcely a synagogue in which his songs are not sung in the course of the service.
Judah Halevi also wrote several Sabbath hymns. One of the most beautiful of them ends with the words:
On Friday doth my cup o’erflow
What blissful rest the night shall know
When, in thine arms, my toil and woe
Are all forgot, Sabbath my love!
’Tis dusk, with sudden light, distilled
From one sweet face, the world is filled;
The tumult of my heart is stilled
For thou art come, Sabbath my love!
Bring fruits and wine and sing a gladsome lay,
Cry, ‘Come in peace, O restful Seventh day!’
The songs that accompany his pilgrimage are known as Zionides. The most celebrated of these is commonly heard in synagogues on Tisha B’Av:
Zion, wilt thou not ask if peace’s wing
Shadows the captives that ensue thy peace
Left lonely from thine ancient shepherding?
Lo! west and east and north and south – worldwide
All those from far and near, without surcease
Salute thee: Peace and Peace from every side.
Judah Halevi’s vision of a God that is accessed through tradition and devotion, and not philosophical speculation, dominates his later work. He tried to liberate religion from various philosophical systems and he defended Judaism against attacks by non-Jewish philosophers, Aristotelean Greek philosophers and against those he viewed as heretics.
Judah was recognised by his contemporaries as ‘the great Jewish national poet.’ The union of religion, nationalism, and patriotism that was characteristic of post-exilic Judaism, reached its acme in Judah Halevi and his poetry.
Three of his poems are included in Service of the Heart, the prayer book edited by Rabbi John D Rayner and Rabbi Chaim Stern. I have been using this prayer book in my night prayers for some weeks now.
‘To You the stars of morning upward sing’ was translated by Olga Marx and was included in The Language of Living Faith, edited by Nahum H Glatzer:
To You the stars of morning upward sing,
From You the sources of their radiance spring.
And steadfast in their vigils, day and night,
The sons of God, flooded with fervour, ring
Your praise; they teach the holy ones to bring
Into Your house the breath of early light.
‘Lord, where shall I find you’ was translated by Chaim Stern:
Lord, where shall I find You? Your place is hidden and high;
Yet where shall I not find You? Your glory fills all space.
For space is Your dominion, yet You dwell in the soul of man;
You are the Refuge of the near, the Haven of those far-off.
You are enthroned in Your house, though unconfined by the heights;
Your hosts will praise You, but You are beyond their ken;
No space contains You, still less an earthly house!
Yet though exalted above us in high and lonely majesty,
You are closer than the flesh of our frames and the spirit within us.
‘Let me run to meet the spring’ was also translated by Chaim Stern:
Let me run to meet the spring of true life,
For I loathe a life that is vain and empty.
I long only to see the face of my King;
Him alone will I fear, none other will I worship.
If I could but see him in a dream –
I would sleep for ever, never stirring!
If I could but see his face within my heart –
My eyes would never ask to gaze beyond!