27 August 2021

‘Preparing for a pleasure
doubles the enjoyment’

Plaza de Juda Levi in Córdoba recalls the Spanish Jewish doctor, poet and philosopher, Judah Halevi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As I listen to the commentators, analysts and newly-proclaimed experts deliberate and pronounce on events in Kabul, I am amazed how many of them see Afghanistan as a ‘place out there,’ remote and distant, rather than a place that is within our cultural orbit – a place that was within the reach of Alexander the Great and his dynastic expansions, a place that was part of Persian classical civilisation, an important link on the Silk Road, and later the birthplace of Rumi, one of the great mystical poets in the Persian language.

The region is often unknown among western commentators.

To the north of Afghanistan, modern Kazakhstan, which has been independent since 1990, represents the Khazar territory that once extended as far as the borders of Afghanistan. In size, it is as large as Western Europe, and it is the world’s largest landlocked country.

At some time in the ninth century, the central Asian Khazar royalty and nobility converted collectively to Judaism, in part, it is argued, perhaps to deflect competing pressures from Arabs and Byzantines to accept either Islam or Christianity.

The extent of this Jewish kingdom is often debated, if not exaggerated. But an interesting work of mediaeval Jewish literature is Sefer HaKuzari, or The Book of the Khazars, written by the Spanish-born Jewish philosopher Judah HaLevi (1075-1141). This Sephardic writer practised in medicine and was well-versed in Arabic, Hebrew and philosophy.

In The Book of the Khazars, Judah HaLevi imagines a lengthy series of dialogues in which the king of the Khazars questions an Aristotelean philosopher and scholars of Christianity and Islam about their belief systems. After listening to the Christian and Muslim scholars deride Judaism despite acknowledging their faiths are its offspring, he decides to speak with a rabbi.

The bulk of the book consists of that dialogue, and for my reflections this Friday evening, I am thinking about some excerpts from The Book of the Khazars and the words attributed to that rabbi:

‘An individual who prays but for himself is like one who retires alone and into his house, refusing to assist his fellow citizens in the repair of their walls. His expenditure is as great as his risk. But he who joins the majority spends little, yet remains in safety, because one replaces the defects of the other. The city is in the best possible condition, all its inhabitants enjoying its prosperity with but little expenditure, which all share alike.’

‘The blessing of one prayer lasts until the time of the next, just as the strength derived from the morning meal lasts until supper.’

‘When we have nothing of our own, God blesses us for the sake of his love, for he is good.’

‘Preparing for a pleasure doubles the enjoyment. This advantage has he who recites a benediction with devotion.’

Shabbat Shalom

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