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Hebrew Poets in Old Spain

The 10th century of the Common Era was not an outwardly dramatic one in the annals of Judaism. Momentous events did not take place in it; new spiritual movements did not arise; few significant additions were made to the Jewish canon. The long burst of religious and literary creativity that produced the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the main corpus of the Midrash had ended several hundred years earlier with the emergence of rabbinic Judaism (now fighting off a challenge from anti-rabbinic Karaites) as a fully matured form of life. In Christian Europe, Jews had learned to accommodate themselves to a second-class status not yet degraded by severe persecution. In the Islamic realm of Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East, in which the great bulk of world Jewry was concentrated, conditions were even better. It was, by and large, a period of consolidation of past achievements.

And yet this same 10th century, it can be maintained, represents a pivotal point in Jewish history, one in which, as manifested in the first stirrings of medieval Jewish philosophy and medieval Hebrew poetry, the foundation was laid for a crucial strategic choice: to emulate and compete with the Muslim and Christian worlds at the highest intellectual and literary levels.

The first pioneer of this new trend, which enabled Judaism to stay culturally abreast of its two more powerful rivals rather than subside into a religious island in their midst, was the Babylonian scholar, rabbinic leader, and religious philosopher Sa’adia Gaon (892-942). But in the generations after his death, its geographical center moved to Muslim and Christian Spain. And it is in Spain that we encounter its first major poet, the remarkable scholar-politician Shmuel Hanagid (993-1054), with whom, coming after several minor 10th-century trailblazers, Hispano-Hebrew poetry as a serious enterprise begins.

What made the new poetry radically different from older Hebrew religious and liturgical verse was, essentially, three things. First, being metrical and rhymed like the Arabic poetry that served as its model, it was more tightly constructed and aesthetically self-conscious than the freer styles of earlier periods. Second, it opened its gates, once again under Arabic influence, to a wide variety of non-religious themes that had previously been off-limits to the Hebrew poet. And third, its contact with philosophical thought meant that its religious thematics, too, were suffused with intellectual concerns, often expressed in wit and paradox, that had been unknown in Hebrew religious poetry until then.

Eventually, the new Hebrew verse spread beyond Spain to other places, especially to Italy, where it flourished uninterruptedly from the mid-13th century and served as a bridge from medieval and Renaissance to early-modern Hebrew poetry. Yet there is much to be said for regarding the Hispano-Hebrew poem, along with its Catalonian and southern French counterpart, as a distinct genre, in part because, down to the time of the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492, it continued to adhere to an Arabic-style prosody that in Italy was abandoned. This was the approach taken by the Israeli literary scholar Haim Schirmann in his monumental four-volume anthology, The Hebrew Poetry of Spain and Provence (1956), to this day an unrivaled collection of its kind. It is also the approach of the Israeli-American translator Peter Cole in his newly published The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492.1



Cole, who has published two previous selections of Hispano-Hebrew verse in translation, one of Hanagid and one of Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1055), has taken on himself an immense task. Not only has he chosen to translate nearly 400 poems written by over 50 authors whose lives span a half-millennium, he has done so with a body of work that is extremely difficult to translate well and all but impossible to translate in a manner that accurately conveys its formal structure and linguistic properties.

The problem begins with Hispano-Hebrew rhyme, which depends largely or entirely on a single recurrent mono-rhyme that, while perfectly natural in Arabic or Hebrew (in which one can take any one of numerous grammatical suffixes and repeat it ad infinitum), is all but irreproducible in English. (Imagine, for example, writing a twenty-line poem in which the last word of each line has to rhyme with “tall” and “small.”) Next come Hispano-Hebrew metrics, whose regular alterations of “long” and “short” syllables, though their ultimate effect is not that different from the stress patterns of English poetic feet, have no precise English equivalent, either.

And what is a translator to do with Hispano-Hebrew poetry’s love of word-play and intricate punning, when nearly all puns are by their nature specific to a single language? Or with its propensity for inserting, unannounced, fragments of biblical verses into the poet’s own words? Inasmuch as the diction of Hispano-Hebrew verse is basically biblical to begin with, and as any educated Spanish Jew could recognize a biblical quote immediately, this practice of “insetting,” as it has been called, could indeed, if well executed, artfully place such a quote into its surrounding line like a jewel in a ring. Just try, however, to “inset” a 21st-century English translation of a 12th-century Hebrew poem with bits and snatches of 17th-century English taken from the King James Version—or from a modern English Bible whose words few readers would realize were biblical in the first place.

An experienced translator like Cole knows that there are no systematic ways of dealing with such difficulties. One has to accept one’s necessary losses; exploit the opportunities that exist to give the reader some indication of what these are; produce a text that reads and sounds like poetry in its own right; and trust in the force of the poem’s imagery and contents to sweep, like a wave hitting a seawall, past the barriers of language and style.

Take, for instance, Cole’s quite successful rendition of a lovely poem by Moses ibn Ezra (c. 1055- c. 1135), the theme of which—the praise of wine and its consolations—is a common one in Hispano-Hebrew verse. The Hispano-Hebrew poets did not give titles to their poems, but Cole does. This one he calls “A Shadow”:

Winter’s cold has fled like a shadow—
the driving rain with its riders and troops;
and high in its circuit, the sun in the Ram
now sits like a king at his feast.
The hills have put on turbans of blossoms,
The plain its robes of grasses and herbs,
wafting fragrances up to our faces,
all winter they’d hidden within.
So pass the cup, which will raise my joy
And raze the grief that lies in my heart;
My tears will weaken its fire’s flames,
for anger burns in it still.
Fear fortune whose gifts are venom
mixed with a little nectar and sweetness;
deceive yourselves with its goodness by morning,
then wait for reversal by dusk.2
Drink through the day, until it turns
and the sun coats its silver with gold,
and by night until it flees like a Moor
as dawn’s hand grasps its heel.

What has been lost in this translation? A great deal, starting with much of the poem’s music and above all its rhymes. Ibn Ezra repeats, ten times, the rhyming syllable –bo or –vo, thus at first creating and then satisfying a pleasantly growing sense of anticipation as one reaches the end of each line. Cole writes this off in advance. He also makes no attempt to duplicate most of the poem’s word-plays, such as one on migba’ot (“turbans”) and g’va’ot (“hills”) or another on shahor (“Moor”) and shahar (“dawn”); nor does he convey the poem’s biblical allusions, though he calls attention to them in his highly useful accompanying notes. The most striking of these allusions occurs in the last line; its phrasing is taken from the description in Genesis of the birth of Jacob, who emerges from the womb grasping his twin brother Esau by the heel. This is “insetting” at its best, for Esau, represented as riotous and libidinous in rabbinic commentary, embodies the very qualities associated by ibn Ezra’s poem with nighttime and Moorish blood.

And yet, in spite of all this, much of the poem’s elegance comes through. Cole has created a rhythm as driving as his winter rains, one that, while not metrically the same as ibn Ezra’s, carries the poem in much the same way. He has also, in one place (“raise” and “raze”), given us a taste of ibn Ezra’s punning, and he has faultlessly transmitted the mood of the poem, which might be described as a blend of carpe-diem lightness and dark brooding; for the poet’s “grief” and “anger” at his fate are as real as the spring night of revelry awaiting him. (Ibn Ezra’s private life was marked by difficult personal relationships and a long, apparently politically motivated exile from his native city of Granada, where his family and friends lived.)



According to the conventional division of Hispano-Hebrew poetry into shirei kodesh, “sacred” poems, and shirei hol, “secular” poems, “A Shadow” is of course secular. Starting with Hanagid, such poetry transformed Jewish perceptions in a radical way. In talmudic and midrashic anecdotes, or short-short stories, we also find life situations of all kinds, including some involving a fondness for drink—a moderate indulgence in which was not generally frowned upon by the rabbis. (The Babylonian sage Rabbi Huna was even said to have kept a wine cellar with 400 casks in it.) But the point of view of such stories is always that of rabbinic authority. In “secular” Hispano-Hebrew poetry, by contrast, the perspective moves elsewhere—in this case to the poet-drinker, who is indifferent to rabbinic attitudes even though he is rabbinically ordained himself. (Ibn Ezra, like almost any medieval Spanish Jew sufficiently well-educated to write Hebrew poetry, had such an ordination, the rough equivalent of today’s college degree.)

In this sense, the secular Hispano-Hebrew poem was far more than just a poem. Along with the medieval Jewish work of philosophy, it was a wedge introducing into Jewish cultural consciousness the possibility of a non-religious point of view, even if, in its pure form, such a point of view was never adopted prior to modern times. “Secularism,” that is, did not mean to a man like ibn Ezra, who lived the life of an observant Jew, what it means to us today. It implied, not a rejection of religion, but the exploration of a parallel realm of experience—one that, albeit not without intellectual and emotional tension, was considered compatible with religion.

Thus, although the voice speaking in “A Shadow” is seemingly emancipated from religious values, this emancipation is provisional; however elastic, it remains anchored in religion at one end and can never fly free of it—just as religion is now anchored in it. One might compare the relation between the two to that of the body and soul, itself a favorite theme of Hispano-Hebrew poetry: each has its claims, and their quarrel is never-ending, but so is the marriage between them.

This is why, psychologically, another short poem by ibn Ezra, translated by Cole as “The World,” could perfectly well have been written on the morning after the drinking party to which “A Shadow” invites us, and with no sense of inconsistency on the poet’s part. Now, the body suffering from a hangover, it is the soul’s turn to speak:

Men of the world have the world in their heart,
God set it in them when they were born—
it’s a flowing stream that won’t suffice
though the sea becomes its source,

as though its water turned to salt
when a parched heart called out to them—
they pour it from buckets into their mouths
but their thirst is never quenched.

Yet even as it speaks these words, the soul is conscious of appealing to the body in the body’s language—that is, to the independent aesthetic of what is sensually and intellectually pleasing. Odd though it may seem to us, therefore, when ibn Ezra begins another poem in Cole’s anthology with the lines, “I seek the favor of the Lord alone/and trust my heart’s secrets to no one,” he is still writing, by Hispano-Hebrew standards, a “secular” poem, one whose form and mode of appreciation are such even if its statement is not. These qualities are what distinguish it from “sacred” poetry, which was verse written in the old liturgical style for synagogue use alone.

(An analogy to this might be found in 17th-century English metaphysical poetry, with which Hispano-Hebrew verse has often justly been compared. In the work of an author like John Donne, for example, the true dividing line runs not between his sexually frank love poems and his religious poems, which obey the same formal principles and sometimes even intermingle thematically, but between both of these and Donne’s sermons, which were crafted by another set of rules and delivered from the pulpit in church.)



Most of the men considered to comprise the quintet of Hispano-Hebrew’s leading poets—Hanagid, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra, the not-related Abraham ibn Ezra (1092-1167), and Yehuda Halevi (c.1075-1141)—wrote “sacred” poetry, too. Some of this liturgical verse is included in Cole’s anthology, but their output in the “secular” realm is much more generously represented, and it confirms the judgment that they stand head and shoulders above their rivals. Although the shared conventions and themes of their work can sometimes make it difficult to tell them apart—Moses ibn Ezra’s “A Shadow” could easily be mistaken for a poem of Hanagid’s, and his “The World” could have been written by ibn Gabirol—each has his own distinctive voice.

Hanagid (in my opinion, the greatest of the five) can be gruff, bold, at times even swaggering, yet also, in a quite remarkable feat given the state of 11th-century Hebrew, direct and natural to the point of almost speaking conversationally. Ibn Gabirol is acerbic, ascetic; Moses ibn Ezra, refined and urbane even when irascible; Abraham ibn Ezra, wry and with a delicate sense of humor; Halevi (every bit as great an artist as Hanagid but with a lesser range of subject matter and emotional register), sweet-tempered, soulful, and always harmonious.

It is no accident, either, that each of these five men was also a leading Jewish intellectual of his age. Hanagid wrote a book on Jewish religious law, now lost, that was greatly valued by his contemporaries. Ibn Gabirol was the author of a major work of philosophy, written in Arabic and surviving only in Latin translation as Fons Vitae (“The Source of Life”), that was highly honored by Christian scholastics ignorant of its Jewish provenance. Moses ibn Ezra’s The Book of Discussions and Evaluations is our main work of medieval Jewish literary criticism. Abraham ibn Ezra’s rationalistic and philologically oriented commentaries on the Bible are widely consulted by observant Jews to this day. And Halevi’s The Kuzari, though in some ways an attack on philosophy, remains, alongside Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed, one of the two most important medieval Jewish philosophical works. When one speaks of 11th- and 12th-century Spain as the home of a Jewish “golden age” in which faith and rational inquiry, the spiritual and the sensual, loyalty to Jewish tradition and an openness to the world existed in a fine balance rarely seen before or afterward in Jewish history, it is such men one is above all thinking of.

Not all of their poems in Cole’s anthology are equally good. Hispano-Hebrew verse had more than its share of overworked themes and tiresomely stock phrases and images. When Moses ibn Ezra compares a handsome youth raising a glass of wine to his lips with “the sun being kissed by the moon,” or ibn Gabirol writes that “all winter the clouds wept,” one could wish for a more original description of human beauty or nature. This is even truer, needless to say, of the minor poets in The Dream of the Poem, who can begin to sound drearily repetitive.

But in their case, too, there are delightful surprises. There is, for instance, a poem by the 13th-century Isaac Hagorni, a native of southern France whom Cole calls “a poet very much in the mold of the peripatetic troubadour—one who sang for his supper and often went to bed hungry.” Bearing the title “Hagorni’s Lament,” it portrays the poet as an aging lecher whose sexual escapades have come to an end and who imagines his death in a tone of unrepentant bravado that is the closest that medieval Hebrew ever came to the melodious snarls of a François Villon:

Peddlers will come from afar to gather
the earth of my grave for women’s balm;
and from the planks of my coffin they’ll fashion
cures for the barren to bring forth sons.
Worms’ mouths through me will make
the mute speak in seventy tongues,
and across lutes my hair will be strung
and give forth song without being strummed.

And, demonstrating that Hispano-Hebrew poetry did not run dry even as it neared the end of its course, Cole gives us a poem by Shlomo Bonafed, who died less than a half-century before the 1492 expulsion from Spain. It begins:

Horses like lightning streak through the sea,
ships sail through the markets’ streets,
a flaxen cord shatters iron,
and water burns like wood from a tree.
From goats and lambs the leopard flees;
foxes race, pursuing lions;
so wonder not at a world gone wrong
and nature’s course betraying seasons.

Bonafed’s poem, seemingly no more than a clever tirade against the fallen age he is forced to live in, then turns around unexpectedly in mid-course and becomes a tribute to friendship, dedicated to a comrade with whom the poet will brave the vicissitudes of the times. At its end, the poem wittily circles back to its beginning:

Come, lest the envious draw their bows—
And those who hold all lovers in scorn.
Whether you’re near, my cherub, or far,
with your friendship I’m always busy;
And if you find I’ve chosen another,
horses like lightning will streak through the sea.



Since I think Bonafed’s poem is wonderfully rendered by Cole, I hope it will not be perceived as the envious quibble of a fellow translator of Hispano-Hebrew verse if I say that the line “With your friendship I’m always busy” strikes me as rather weak. Had Cole gone with something like “Your friendship always occupies me” (the Hebrew line reads literally, “For the sake of your friendship my days are occupied”), he could have held his rhythm better while picking up a final rhyme with “sea.”

Cole is often uneven in this way. On the whole, one has the impression that a slimmer volume might have given him more time to polish each line. (It might also have made room for the original Hebrew texts, whose absence in The Dream of the Poem, although they are available on the website of Princeton University Press, is regrettable.) Although it may sometimes be possible to translate a short poem perfectly in a matter of hours or even minutes, another poem of the same length may have to be lived with for days or weeks before getting it right. Not even the most skillful translator can always force the best solution into existence. Some things must be allowed to come by themselves.

Of course, in the case of any translation, words like “perfectly” and “best” are moot. Can there be such a thing as a “perfect” translation of any great poem, or even a “best” one when many versions exist? Since the translation of poetry always involves trading gains for losses, and one translator’s trades will never be exactly the same as another’s, the “best” translation would presumably be the one in which the balance sheet of gains and losses showed the greatest “profit.” Yet who is to be the bookkeeper entrusted with drawing this balance sheet up?

Take one of the best-known of all Hispano-Hebrew poems, Yehuda Halevi’s short lyric “My Heart Is in the East.” This was written when Halevi was living in Muslim Spain, at the western end of the Mediterranean, and Palestine, at its eastern end, was ruled by the Crusaders (called by Halevi “Edom,” the rabbinic term for Christendom). Many translations have been done of it. Below, after first transliterating its Hebrew into Latin characters, I shall give four of them: the literal prose translation of T. Carmi in his anthology, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (1981); Peter Cole’s translation in The Dream of the Poem; a translation by the Israeli-American poet Gabriel Levin in his Yehuda Halevi: Poems from the Diwan (2002); and a previously unpublished translation of my own.

First, Halevi’s Hebrew:

Libi ve-mizrah ve-anokhi b’sof ma’arav—
eikh et’ama et asher okhal ve’eikh ye’erav?
Eikha ashalem nedarai ve’esarai, be’od
Tsiyon b’hevel edom va’ani b’khevel arav?
Yeikal be’eynai azov kol tuv sefarad,
k’mo yikar be’eynai re’ot afrot d’vir neherav.


My heart is in the East and I am at the edge of the West. Then how can I taste what I eat, how can I enjoy it? How can I fulfill my vows and pledges while Zion is in the domain of Edom, and I am in the bonds of Arabia? It would be easy for me to leave behind all the good things of Spain; it would be glorious to see the dust of the ruined Shrine.


My heart is in the East—
And I am at the edge of the West.
How can I possibly taste what I eat?
How could it please me?
How can I keep my promise
or ever fulfill my vow
when Zion is held by Edom
and I am bound by Arabia’s chains?
I’d gladly leave behind me
all the pleasures of Spain—
if only I might see
the dust and ruins of your Shrine.


My heart is in the east and I’m at the far end of the west.
How can I taste or savor what I eat?
How keep my vows and pledges—while Zion lies
Shackled to Edom, and I to Arabia bound?
Giving up the riches of Spain would be as easy for me
as it were precious in my eyes to feast
on dust and rubble of the shrine razed to the ground.


My thoughts in the East
But the rest of me far in the West—
How can I savor this life, even taste what I eat?
How, in this land of the Moor,
Zion under the Cross,
Can I do what I’ve vowed to and must?
With what ease I could leave
All the best of grand Spain
For one glimpse of Jerusalem’s dust.



Apart from its general terseness and compression, how can we formally describe Halevi’s Hebrew poem? It is composed of three long lines, each consisting of 28 syllables with a regular pattern of long-long-short and each ending with the rhyme –rav, with which the first line also rhymes internally at its 14th syllable; the other two lines, although lacking internal rhyme, similarly break in half at or near their midpoint. In addition, there is one double pun—hevel (“domain” in Carmi’s translation, but also “rope” or “tether”) and khevel (“bonds”)—and two other word pairs: mizrah (“East”) and ma’arav (“West”) and yeikal (“it would be easy” [or “a slight thing”] and yikar (“it would be glorious”), in which thematic opposites are linked (or “yoked together,” to use Samuel Johnson’s fine phrase in speaking of the English metaphysicals) by their similar sounds. The entire poem, indeed, is a magically achieved unity of geographical and conceptual polarities—East/West, Edom/Arabia, Spain/Shrine—that tug in different directions while remaining musically joined.

None of the four translations comes close to transmitting all of this.

Carmi, by deliberately declining to be poetic, is entirely faithful to Halevi’s meaning while conveying none of his sound, whereas Cole and Levin seek to steer a middle poetic course. Although both of them shorten Halevi’s long Hebrew lines (Cole turns each line into four, Levin into two or three), they retain the poem’s internal structure while adhering to its semantic content and even to its syllabic length. (Halevi’s Hebrew has 84 syllables, Cole has 88, and Levin has 86.) Yet neither attempts to be metrical or even particularly rhythmic, and each makes do with partial rhyming or assonance in place of Halevi’s rhyme scheme. Cole begins with the half-rhymes of “East”/“West”/“eat” and ends with “chains”/“Spain”/“Shrine.” Levin has the same first three half-rhymes and achieves a final full rhyme of “bound” and “ground” at the expense of lengthening Halevi’s last line beyond what may seem reasonable.

My own translation is the least faithful semantically and structurally, but the most strictly musical. It is highly rhythmic and even semi-metrical, with an underlying anapestic beat ( _ _ /) that is not unlike Halevi’s long-long-short, and its spareness—it has only 64 syllables—stresses Halevi’s terseness by tightening it still further. And yet my version can be accused of sacrificing meaning to the point of inadmissibility, especially in its final line, where, in order to rhyme “must” with “dust,” it omits all mention of the destroyed “Shrine,” the Temple in Jerusalem whose site the poet yearns to see. (Its opening half-rhymes of “East,” “West,” and “eat” are the same as Cole’s and Levin’s; Halevi’s Hebrew, it would seem, practically forces these on the translator.)

Is there a “best” translation here? Probably not in the sense that ten people of literary discernment could agree on one. All four translations are complementary; each points to the deficiencies of the others and in turn has its own deficiencies pointed to. Perhaps the only perfect translation that can be made of a great poem is the aesthetic sum of all the translations that have been and will ever be made of it. In the meantime, the translations in Peter Cole’s The Dream of the Poem will weigh heavily in the ledger.


1 Princeton University Press, 576 pp., $50.00.

2 I myself take this line to mean, “If you deceive yourself with its goodness in the morning, you can expect its reversal by dusk.” But Cole’s reading is tenable, and the two possibilities illustrate the challenges of parsing the complexities of Hispano-Hebrew poetic syntax.

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