The following has been excerpted from Exiles in Sepharad: The Jewish Millennium in Spain by Jeffrey Gorsky (Jewish Publication Society, 2015).
Chapter 6: A Golden Age of Poetry
A New Hebrew Posey
The exposure to Muslim culture fostered the emergence of great Jewish poets. The confluence of a rich Arab poetic tradition with biblical Hebrew and the Sephardic experience produced a poetry that was bothvreflective of Arab tradition and a unique record of the Spanish Jews at their intellectual zenith. The late Muslim period, the eleventh and twelfth centuries, produced five great poets—and extraordinary men: Solomon ibn Gabirol, Samuel ibn Nagrela, Moses ben Ezra, Judah Halevi, and Abraham ben Ezra.
There had been a long Arab tradition of writing and reciting poetry. Even though Muhammad had denounced secular poetry, he was said to have personally enjoyed and encouraged some poets. This tradition was adopted by Islamic society, maintaining the pre-Islamic themes of wine, women, and song. It became accepted that Islamic courtiers would have a sophisticated knowledge of poesy. This poetic tradition, often accompanied by music, passed into Europe through the Provencal troubadours and became one basis for secular European poetry and music.
By the time of the caliphate in Spain, centuries of Arab poetic practice had developed into a highly formalized and sophisticated poetic tradition. It employed stock imagery and generic subjects, emphasizing technical facility over original description or personal expression. The poetry formed an essential part of the court social life. Many of the poems were written as entertainments to be recited, often at long evening wine parties where the men would sit in the patios of formal gardens while a sáki, a boy or young man wine steward, passed watered wine into the guests’ goblets.
The first Jew to adopt and use this Arab art form was the tenth-century scholar Dunash ben Labrat. A Moroccan Jew (with a Berber name), Dunash came to the court in Cordoba after studying in Baghdad under one of the greatest Jewish scholars, S’adia ben Yosef al Fayummi, the gaon, or leader, of the Sura talmudic academy. Under the patronage of Hasdai ibn Shaprut, he applied the metric forms and poetic structures of Arabic poetry for the first time to Hebrew.
Jews had a long tradition of religious poetry, called piyyut, a type of hymn, written to be used as part of the Jewish religious service. Now, for the first time since the biblical period, Jews wrote secular poetry, adopting Arab forms and themes of wine, women, and song. While Jews were fluent in and normally wrote in Arabic—the language of Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed—they composed poetry in Hebrew, using classical Hebrew as the Islamic court used classical Arabic. The result was an unprecedented body of Jewish secular poetry that would be matched only in the twentieth century.
The use of Hebrew in place of Arabic would in itself shape the poetry. Hebrew, of course, was the language of the Bible, and Jews learned the language in the course of religious study, which was the foundation of study, for all religions, in the medieval period. The poetry—sacred and secular—would be replete with biblical references, which the poet could confidently expect his readers to recognize. An analogy would be how English poetry would have developed if the English writers knew the language only through study of the King James Bible.
The secular Hebrew poems used the same traditional subjects and stock imagery as Arab poetry and like the Arab poems, were often written to be recited at wine parties. As with the Arab poets, technical virtuosity was valued over originality of description or themes. The poets often used acrostics and word games. The Sephardic poet Judah Alharizi, for example, wrote a ten-verse poem in which every word contained the Hebrew letter resh, and followed by a poem omitting the same letter. Many of these poems were essentially word games; about 20 percent of the secular poetry of Abraham ben Ezra consisted of riddles or puzzles.
Abraham ben Ezra
Another poet whose life was marked by exile was the last of the great Sephardic poets, Abraham ben Ezra (1093–1167, no relation to Moses). He was a friend to Judah Halevi. Although Abraham was twenty years younger than Halevi, his son married Halevi’s daughter. Like Solomon Gabirol, Abraham was a Neoplatonist, and this view influenced some of his poems, such as this one, which uses Gabirol’s phrase “fountain of life”:
Sent down from a luminous fountain of life, . . .
Why were you ushered into the world
and then in the dark of the body imprisoned?
His poems include a moving memorial to Jewish life in Muslim Spain, lost to the intolerance of Islamic fundamentalism, the “Lament for Andalusian Jewry,” which begins: “Calamity came upon Spain from the skies / and my eyes pour forth their stream of tears.”
Abraham left Spain in 1140 for Rome, noting in one commentary, “Oppressors have driven me out of Spain.” He spent the rest of his life wandering about Europe, living in Italy, France, and England, where he called himself Avraham HaSefaradi, taking his Spanish heritage as his name. His sojourn in Italy started a tradition of Hebrew poetry there that would bloom again during the Renaissance, fertilized in part by a new round of exiles from Spain in 1492. The first sonnets written in a language other than Italian were in Hebrew.
Abraham also became an important conduit to the West of Arab advances in science and math. He wrote three works on mathematics, in which he correctly attributed the concept of “zero” as a placeholder to India. He translated into Hebrew an important commentary on astronomical tables, and he supported himself in Europe in part by adopting standard Arabic-style astronomical tables to the local meridians. Abraham also wrote important religious commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, as well as several works on Hebrew grammar.
The nineteenth-century British poet and playwright Robert Browning may have heard of Abraham’s stay in England when he made Abraham the narrator of the famous dramatic monologue Rabbi ben Ezra, which opens:
Grow old along with me
The best is yet to be
The last of life for which the first was made.