Yehuda Halevi

Yehuda Halevi

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Judah Halevi was a Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher. He was born in Spain, either in Toledo
Toledo, Spain
Toledo's Alcázar became renowned in the 19th and 20th centuries as a military academy. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 its garrison was famously besieged by Republican forces.-Economy:...

 or Tudela
Tudela, Navarre
Tudela is a municipality in Spain, the second city of the autonomous community of Navarre. Its population is around 35,000. Tudela is sited in the Ebro valley. Fast trains running on two-track electrified railways serve the city and two freeways join close to it...

, in 1075 or 1086, and died shortly after arriving in Palestine
Palestine
Palestine is a conventional name, among others, used to describe the geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and various adjoining lands....

 in 1141. Halevi is considered one of the greatest Hebrew poets, celebrated both for his religious and secular poems, many of which appear in present-day liturgy. His greatest philosophical work was The Kuzari
Kuzari
The Kitab al Khazari, commonly called the Kuzari, is one of most famous works of the medieval Spanish Jewish philosopher and poet Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, completed around 1140. Its title is an Arabic phrase meaning Book of the Khazars...

.

Biography


Convention suggests that Judah ben Shmuel HaLevi was born in Toledo, Spain in 1075. He often referred to himself as coming from Christian territory, which would point to Toledo, which was conquered by Alfonso VI
Alfonso VI of Castile
Alfonso VI , nicknamed the Brave or the Valiant, was King of León from 1065, King of Castile and de facto King of Galicia from 1072, and self-proclaimed "Emperor of all Spain". After the conquest of Toledo he was also self-proclaimed victoriosissimo rege in Toleto, et in Hispania et Gallecia...

 from the Muslims in Halevi's childhood (1086). As a youth, he seems to have gone to Granada
Granada
Granada is a city and the capital of the province of Granada, in the autonomous community of Andalusia, Spain. Granada is located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, at the confluence of three rivers, the Beiro, the Darro and the Genil. It sits at an elevation of 738 metres above sea...

, the main center of Jewish literary and intellectual life at the time, where he found a mentor in Moses Ibn Ezra
Moses ibn Ezra
Rabbi Moses ben Jacob ibn Ezra, known as ha-Sallah was a Jewish, Spanish philosopher, linguist, and poet. He was born at Granada about 1055 – 1060, and died after 1138. Ezra is Jewish by religion but is also considered a great influence in the Arabic world in regards to his works...

. Although it is often said that he studied in the academy at Lucena, there is no evidence to this effect. He did compose a short elegy on the death of Isaac Alfasi
Isaac Alfasi
for other Al-Fasi's see Al-Fasi disambiguationIsaac ben Jacob Alfasi ha-Cohen - also known as the Alfasi or by his Hebrew acronym Rif , was a Talmudist and posek...

, the head of the academy. His aptitude as a poet was recognized early. He was educated in traditional Jewish scholarship, in Arabic literature, and in the Greek
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

 sciences and philosophy that were available in Arabic. As an adult he was a physician, apparently of renown, and an active participant in Jewish communal affairs. For at least part of his life he lived in Toledo and may have been connected with the court there as a physician. In Toledo he complains of being too busy with medicine to devote himself to scholarship. At other times he lived in various Muslim cities in the south.

Like all Jewish intellectuals of Muslim Spain, Halevi wrote prose in Arabic and poetry in Hebrew. During the "Hebrew Golden Age" of the 10th to 12th century, he was the most prolific of the Hebrew poets and was regarded by some of his contemporaries, as well as by modern critics, as the greatest of all the medieval Hebrew poets. Like all the Hebrew poets of the Hebrew Golden Age, he employed the formal patterns of Arabic poetry, both the classical monorhymed patterns and the recently-invented strophic patterns. His themes embrace all those that were current among Hebrew poets: panegyric odes, funeral odes, poems on the pleasures of life, gnomic epigrams, and riddles. He was also a prolific author of religious verse. As with all the Hebrew poets of his age, he strives for a strictly biblical diction, though he unavoidably falls into occasional calques from Arabic. His verse is distinguished by special attention to acoustic effect and wit.

Nothing is known of Halevi's personal life except the report in his poems that he had a daughter and that she had a son, also named Judah. He could well have had other children. The tradition that this daughter was married to Abraham Ibn Ezra does not rest on any evidence, though Halevi and Abraham Ibn Ezra were well acquainted, as we know from the writings of the latter.

Journey to Palestine


We cannot reconstruct the Halevi's various residences in Spain; he seems to have lived at times in Christian Toledo, at others in Islamic Spain. He occupied an honored position as a physician, intellectual, and communal leader. Nevertheless, as a consequence of the development of his religious thought, he decided to abandon his home in order to end his days in the Land of Israel
Land of Israel
The Land of Israel is the Biblical name for the territory roughly corresponding to the area encompassed by the Southern Levant, also known as Canaan and Palestine, Promised Land and Holy Land. The belief that the area is a God-given homeland of the Jewish people is based on the narrative of the...

. His motivations were complex. His personal piety intensified as he aged, leading him to desire to devote himself entirely to religious life. The uncertainties of Jewish communal status in the period of the Reconquista led him to doubt the future security of the Jewish position in the diaspora. The failure of messianic movements weighed on him. His earlier commitment to philosophy as a guide to truth gave way to a renewed commitment to faith in revelation. He came to the conviction, elaborated in his treatise known as the Kuzari
Kuzari
The Kitab al Khazari, commonly called the Kuzari, is one of most famous works of the medieval Spanish Jewish philosopher and poet Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, completed around 1140. Its title is an Arabic phrase meaning Book of the Khazars...

, that true religious fulfillment is possible only in the presence of the God of Israel, which, he believed, was most palpable in the Land of Israel. Contrary to a prevalent theory, his poetry shows beyond doubt that his pilgrimage was a completely individual act and that he had no intention of setting off a mass pilgrimage.

Halevi sailed for Alexandria. Arriving on September 8, 1140, he was enthusiastically greeted by friends and admirers. He then went to Cairo, where he visited several dignitaries, including the Nagid of Egypt, Samuel ben Hanania, and his friend Halfon ben Nethaniel Halevi. He did not permit himself to be persuaded to remain in Egypt, but returned to Alexandria and sailed for Palestine on May 14, 1141. Little is known of his travels after. He died during the summer, presumably after having reached Palestine. Legend, however has it that Halevi was killed after being run over by an Arab horseman as he arrived in Jerusalem.

Halevi dealt with his pilgrimage extensively in the poetry written during his last year, which includes
panegyric
Panegyric
A panegyric is a formal public speech, or written verse, delivered in high praise of a person or thing, a generally highly studied and discriminating eulogy, not expected to be critical. It is derived from the Greek πανηγυρικός meaning "a speech fit for a general assembly"...

 to his various hosts in Egypt, explorations of his religious motivations, description of storms at sea, and expressions of his anxieties and doubts. We are well informed about the details of his pilgrimage thanks to letters that were preserved in the Cairo geniza
Cairo Geniza
The Cairo Geniza is a collection of almost 280,000 Jewish manuscript fragments found in the Genizah or storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, presently Old Cairo, Egypt. Some additional fragments were found in the Basatin cemetery east of Old Cairo, and the collection includes a number of...

. Poems and letters bearing on Halevi's pilgrimage are translated and explicated in Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Song of the Distant Dove (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Secular poetry


Judah's secular or non-liturgical poetry is occupied by poems of friendship and eulogy. Judah must have possessed an attractive personality; for there gathered about him as friends, even in his earliest youth, a large number of illustrious men, like Levi al-Tabban of Zaragoza
Zaragoza
Zaragoza , also called Saragossa in English, is the capital city of the Zaragoza Province and of the autonomous community of Aragon, Spain...

, the aged poet Judah ben Abun, Judah ibn Ghayyat of Granada, Moses ibn Ezra
Moses ibn Ezra
Rabbi Moses ben Jacob ibn Ezra, known as ha-Sallah was a Jewish, Spanish philosopher, linguist, and poet. He was born at Granada about 1055 – 1060, and died after 1138. Ezra is Jewish by religion but is also considered a great influence in the Arabic world in regards to his works...

 and his brothers Judah, Joseph, and Isaac, the vizier Abu al-Hasan, Meïr ibn Kamnial, the physician and poet Solomon ben Mu'allam of Seville, besides his schoolmates Joseph ibn Migas and Baruch Albalia.

Also with the grammarian Abraham ibn Ezra
Abraham ibn Ezra
Rabbi Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra was born at Tudela, Navarre in 1089, and died c. 1167, apparently in Calahorra....

. In Córdoba
Córdoba, Spain
-History:The first trace of human presence in the area are remains of a Neanderthal Man, dating to c. 32,000 BC. In the 8th century BC, during the ancient Tartessos period, a pre-urban settlement existed. The population gradually learned copper and silver metallurgy...

, Judah addressed a touching farewell poem to Joseph ibn Ẓaddiḳ, the philosopher and poet. In Egypt, where the most celebrated men vied with one another in entertaining him, his reception was a veritable triumph. Here his particular friends were Aaron ben Jeshua Alamani in Alexandria, the nagid Samuel ben Hananiah in Cairo
Cairo
Cairo , is the capital of Egypt and the largest city in the Arab world and Africa, and the 16th largest metropolitan area in the world. Nicknamed "The City of a Thousand Minarets" for its preponderance of Islamic architecture, Cairo has long been a centre of the region's political and cultural life...

, Halfon ha-Levi in Damietta, and an unknown man in Tyre, probably his last friend. In their sorrow and joy, in the creative spirit and all that moved the souls of these men, Judah sympathetically shared; as he says in the beginning of a short poem: "My heart belongs to you, ye noble souls, who draw me to you with bonds of love".

Especially tender and plaintive is Judah's tone in his elegies Many of them are dedicated to friends such as the brothers Judah (Nos. 19, 20), Isaac (No. 21), and Moses ibn Ezra (No. 16), R. Baruch (Nos. 23, 28), Meïr ibn Migas (No. 27), his teacher Isaac Alfasi (No. 14), and others. In the case of Solomon ibn Farissol, who was murdered on May 3, 1108, Judah suddenly changed his poem of eulogy (Nos. 11, 22) into one of lamentation (Nos. 12, 13, 93 et seq.). Child mortality due to plague was high in Judah's time and the historical record contains five elegies written for the occasion of the death of a child. Biographer Hillel Halkin hypothesizes that at least one of these poems may have been written in honor of one of Judah's own children that did not reach adulthood and who is lost to history.

Love songs


Joyous, careless youth, and merry, happy delight in life find their expression in his love-songs. Many of these are epithalamia
Epithalamium
Epithalamium refers to a form of poem that is written specifically for the bride on the way to her marital chamber...

 and are characterized by a brilliant near-eastern coloring, as well as by a chaste reserve. In Egypt, where the muse of his youth found a glorious "Indian summer" in the circle of his friends, 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."

Drinking song
Drinking song
A drinking song is a song sung while drinking alcohol. Most drinking songs are folk songs, and may be varied from person to person and region to region, in both the lyrics and in the music...

s by Judah have also been preserved.

Religious poetry


After living a life devoted to worldly pleasures, ha-Levi was to experience a kind of "awakening"; a shock, that changed his outlook on the world. Like a type of "conversion" experience, he turned from the frivolous life of pleasure, and his poetry turned to religious themes.

It seems that his profound experience was the consequence of his sensitivity to the events of history that were unfolding around him. He lived during the First Crusade
First Crusade
The First Crusade was a military expedition by Western Christianity to regain the Holy Lands taken in the Muslim conquest of the Levant, ultimately resulting in the recapture of Jerusalem...

 and other wars. There was a new kind of religio-political fanaticism emerging in the Christian
Christian
A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Canonical gospels and the letters of the New Testament...

 and Muslim worlds. Holy war
Religious war
A religious war; Latin: bellum sacrum; is a war caused by, or justified by, religious differences. It can involve one state with an established religion against another state with a different religion or a different sect within the same religion, or a religiously motivated group attempting to...

s were brewing, and ha-Levi may have recognized that such trends had never been good for the Jews. At the time, life was relatively "good" in Spain for the Jewish community. He may have suspected things were about to change for the worse, however.

If one may speak of religious genius
Genius
Genius is something or someone embodying exceptional intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of unprecedented insight....

es, then Judah ha-Levi must certainly be regarded among the greatest produced by medieval Judaism. No other writer, it would seem, drew so near to God as Judah; none else knew how to cling to Him so closely, or felt so safe in His shadow. At times the body is too narrow for him: the soul yearns for its Father in Heaven, and would break through the earthly shell. Without God, his soul would wither away; nor is it well with him except he prays. The thought of God allows him no rest; early and late He is his best beloved, and is his dearest concern. He occupies the mind of the poet waking and sleeping; and the thought of Him, the impulse to praise Him, rouse Judah from his couch by night.

Next to God, the Jewish people stands nearest to his heart: their sufferings and hopes are his. Like the authors of the Psalms, he gladly sinks his own identity in the wider one of the people of Israel; so that it is not always easy to distinguish the personality of the speaker.

Often Judah's poetic fancy finds joy in the thought of the "return" of his people to the Promised Land. He believed that perfect Jewish life was possible only in the Land of Israel
Land of Israel
The Land of Israel is the Biblical name for the territory roughly corresponding to the area encompassed by the Southern Levant, also known as Canaan and Palestine, Promised Land and Holy Land. The belief that the area is a God-given homeland of the Jewish people is based on the narrative of the...

. The period of political agitation about 1130, when Islam
Islam
Islam . The most common are and .   : Arabic pronunciation varies regionally. The first vowel ranges from ~~. The second vowel ranges from ~~~...

, so intensely hated by the poet, was gradually losing ground before the victorious arms of the Christians, gave Judah reason to hope for such a return in the near future. The vision of the night, in which this was revealed to him, remained indeed but a dream; yet Judah 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.

Liturgical poetry


The poems of Judah ha-Levi, which have been adopted into the liturgy, number (in all) more than 300. The longest, and most comprehensive poem is a "Kedushah," which summons all the universe to praise God with rejoicing, and which terminates, curiously enough, in Ps. ciii. These poems were carried to all lands, even as far as India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

 (Zunz, "Ritus," p. 57); and they influenced the rituals of the most distant countries. Even the Karaites incorporated some of them into their prayer-book; so that there is scarcely a synagogue in which Judah's songs are not sung in the course of the service. The following observation on Judah's synagogal poems is made by Zunz:
As the perfume and beauty of a rose are within it, and do not come from without, so with Judah word and Bible passage, meter and rime, are one with the soul of the poem; as in true works of art
Art
Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect....

, and always in nature, one is never disturbed by anything external, arbitrary, or extraneous.


Judah by his verses has also beautified the religious life of the home. His Sabbath
Shabbat
Shabbat is the seventh day of the Jewish week and a day of rest in Judaism. Shabbat is observed from a few minutes before sunset on Friday evening until a few minutes after when one would expect to be able to see three stars in the sky on Saturday night. The exact times, therefore, differ from...

 hymns should be mentioned here; one of the most beautiful of which 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!'


Judah used complicated Arabic
Arabic language
Arabic is a name applied to the descendants of the Classical Arabic language of the 6th century AD, used most prominently in the Quran, the Islamic Holy Book...

 meters in his poems, with much good taste. A later critic, applying a Talmud
Talmud
The Talmud is a central text of mainstream Judaism. It takes the form of a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history....

ic witticism to Judah, has said: "It is hard for the dough when the baker himself calls it bad." Although these forms came to him naturally and without effort, unlike the mechanical versifiers of his time, he would not except himself from the number of those he had blamed. His pupil Solomon Parḥon, who wrote at Salerno
Salerno
Salerno is a city and comune in Campania and is the capital of the province of the same name. It is located on the Gulf of Salerno on the Tyrrhenian Sea....

 in 1160, relates that Judah repented having used the new metrical methods, and had declared he would not again employ them. That Judah felt them to be out of place, and that he opposed their use at the very time when they were in vogue, plainly shows his desire for a national Jewish art; independent in form, as well as in matter.

Judah was recognized by his contemporaries as "the great Jewish national poet", and in succeeding generations, by all the great scholars and writers in Israel.

Analysis of his poetry


The remarkable, and apparently indissoluble, union of religion
Religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

, nationalism
Nationalism
Nationalism is a political ideology that involves a strong identification of a group of individuals with a political entity defined in national terms, i.e. a nation. In the 'modernist' image of the nation, it is nationalism that creates national identity. There are various definitions for what...

, and patriotism
Patriotism
Patriotism is a devotion to one's country, excluding differences caused by the dependencies of the term's meaning upon context, geography and philosophy...

, which were so characteristic of post-exilic Judaism, reached its acme in Judah ha-Levi and his poetry. Yet this very union, in one so consistent as Judah, demanded the fulfillment of the supreme politico-religious ideal of medieval Judaism—the "return to Jerusalem". Though his impassioned call to his contemporaries to return to "Zion
Zion
Zion is a place name often used as a synonym for Jerusalem. The word is first found in Samuel II, 5:7 dating to c.630-540 BCE...

" might be received with indifference, or even with mockery; his own decision to go to Jerusalem never wavered. "Can we hope for any other refuge either in the East or in the West where we may dwell in safety?" he exclaims to one of his opponents (ib.). The songs that accompany his pilgrimage sound like one great symphony, wherein the "Zionides" — the single motive ever varied — voice the deepest "soul-life" alike; of the Jewish people and of each individual Jew.

The most celebrated of these "Zionides" is found in every Jewish prayerbook, and is usually repeated in the synagogue on the Ninth of Ab.
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 — world-wide — All those from far and near, without surcease, Salute thee: Peace and Peace from every side."

As a philosopher


The position of Judah ha-Levi in the domain of Jewish philosophy is parallel to that occupied in Islam by Ghazali, by whom he was influenced. Like Ghazali, Judah endeavored to liberate religion from the bondage of the various philosophical systems in which it had been held by his predecessors, Saadia
Saadia Gaon
Saʻadiah ben Yosef Gaon was a prominent rabbi, Jewish philosopher, and exegete of the Geonic period.The first important rabbinic figure to write extensively in Arabic, he is considered the founder of Judeo-Arabic literature...

, David ben Marwan al-Mekamez, Gabirol, and Bahya. In a work written in Arabic, and entitled Kitab al-Ḥujjah wal-Dalil fi Nuṣr al-Din al-Dhalil, كتاب الحجة و الدليل في نصرة الدين الذليل, (known in the Hebrew
Hebrew language
Hebrew is a Semitic language of the Afroasiatic language family. Culturally, is it considered by Jews and other religious groups as the language of the Jewish people, though other Jewish languages had originated among diaspora Jews, and the Hebrew language is also used by non-Jewish groups, such...

 translation of Judah ibn Tibbon by the title Sefer ha-Kuzari
Kuzari
The Kitab al Khazari, commonly called the Kuzari, is one of most famous works of the medieval Spanish Jewish philosopher and poet Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, completed around 1140. Its title is an Arabic phrase meaning Book of the Khazars...

), Judah ha-Levi expounded his views upon the teachings of Judaism, which he defended against the attacks of non-Jewish philosophers, against the Karaites, and against those he viewed as "heretics
Heresy
Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. It is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one's religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion...

".

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