Commentary Magazine

The First Post-Ancient Jew

Sometime around the middle of the 10th century, writes Robert Alter in his introduction to Dan Pagis’s Hebrew Poetry of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (1991),

a momentous revolution occurred. A gifted, brash young man named Dunash ibn Labrat arrived in Córdoba, then the great center of Andalusian culture, after having served as secretary in Baghdad to Saadia Gaon, the leading talmudic and philosophical authority of the age. Dunash proceeded to do something shockingly iconoclastic: to compose secular Hebrew poems, using the Arab quantitative meters and following the Arabic conventions of genre, rhetorical ornamentation, and subject matter. Though many Jews were scandalized, and protests against the secular literary movement would continue for generations, the new poetry caught on like wildfire.

It is a complex question why Jews loyal to their religion—and there was no “secular” Hebrew poet in Muslim Spain who did not also compose religious verse and participate in Jewish communal life—were influenced by their Muslim environment to write in their sacred language on non-sacred themes when centuries of exposure to Greek and Roman culture had failed to have a like effect. Most simply stated, however, it can be said that whereas the world of Greco-Roman culture was one that tradition-minded Jews felt ideologically called upon to reject in its entirety, Islam—under the domination of which the great bulk of world Jewry was living by Dunash’s age—was close enough to Judaism in its strict monotheism and belief in a divine text revealed in human language both to pose a disturbing challenge and to serve as a permissible model of emulation. For the first time in the history of rabbinic Judaism, what the linguistic scholar Max Weinreich called the principle of “horizontal” as opposed to “vertical legitimation”—that is, the acceptance of a scale of values taken from one’s non-Jewish environment rather than from the immanent logic of Jewish tradition—vigorously asserted itself.

As a poet, indeed, Dunash (who had been brought to Córdoba by Hasdai ibn Shaprut, a Jewish physician and official in the court of the Caliph ‘Abd ar-Rahman III, and the first prominent figure in a Spanish Jewish community just beginning to emerge from historical obscurity) was primarily an emulator. Only one of his poems is memorable enough to be anthologized today, and it too shows him caught in the shaky midflight of transition. It begins with an unnamed Jewish friend rousting the poet out of bed to attend a drinking party, an all-night revel such as was common among sophisticated Muslims of the age despite the Islamic ban on alcohol:1

“Rise from sleep!” I was told.
“Come, drink wine that is old
Among myrrh and aloes
And the scent of the rose,
While soft water in rills
Joins the lute in sweet trills
Beneath grape vines and dates
And tall pomegranates. . . .”

The friend continues to entice the poet with promises of a lush garden, unlimited drinks, and a barbecue the next day, but is finally rebuffed:

“Say no more!” I did scold.
“How can you make so bold
When God’s Temple lies seized
By the uncircumcised?

. . . . . . . . . . . . .
How dare you to carouse,
And uplift downcast brows,
Who are nought but exiled
And despised and reviled?”

The poem thus ends without indicating whether the poet has been inwardly tempted by an invitation which religious norms oblige him to reject, or is as genuinely offended as he insists. Certainly, the fact that his friend is given more and livelier lines than he makes a strong case for ambivalence. It has even been argued that Dunash’s sympathies lie entirely with the friend, and that the poet’s rejoinder is purely pro forma, a prudent concession to conservative readers for whom the very idea of a Hebrew poem on such a subject would have been scandalous.

Prosodically, too, the Arabic elements imported by Dunash show signs of incomplete assimilation. Whereas post-biblical Hebrew verse was not obliged to rhyme and did not have metrical feet, its practice being to count only stressed syllables while remaining indifferent to the unstressed ones, Arabic metrics and rhymes were extremely rigorous; and although my translation does not reproduce their intricacies, it does aim to convey Dunash’s strict adherence to their regularity. Even the way it forces the reader to mispronounce “pomegranates,” or unnaturally to stress “you” instead of “dare,” has close parallels in Dunash’s Hebrew, which prefers sacrificing diction and even grammar to missing an Arabic beat. One feels here the convert’s uncritical deference to the formal poetics of a verse tradition, perhaps the world’s greatest in the centuries between the rise of Islam and the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate (the Arabs themselves, who also produced a rich literature of literary criticism, had no doubt that it was), with which the purely religious and liturgical Hebrew verse of the period could not compete.



I have dwelled at some length on Dunash because only in reference to his starting point can one gauge the achievement of Shmuel Hanagid, the first of the great medieval Hebrew poets and one of the most remarkable public personalities in Jewish history, the unnoticed 1,000th anniversary of whose birth in Córdoba has so far this year not even been the occasion of a postage stamp.

One March or April day, a generation after Dunash’s death, Hanagid threw a party himself in Granada, where he had entered the service of the Berber king Habus (ruled 1019-38), whose close adviser he became before rising under Habus’s son Badis (r. 1038-73) to the position of head vizier. The Hebrew invitations he sent out read:

The cold is gone.
Now spring presides at winter’s funeral.
The turtledoves are back
And from the treetops sound their call.

So, camerados, true-pledged friends,
Take note, make haste, and do not fail
To gather in my garden!
You will pluck roses there, scented like myrrh,
And—midst flowers and the twitter of the
Toast time for its kindness
In bringing us together once again.
There will be song,
And wine
Bright as a lover’s blush,
And free as our tears for those of us long gone.

We are still in Dunash’s garden, but hardly in Dunash’s world. Granted, the distance traveled is not quite so great as it has been made to seem: Hanagid’s poem not only has the identical setting as Dunash’s, it is composed according to similar rules and looks as different as it does only because I have disregarded these rules in translation. And yet my having felt compelled to do so is itself indicative of how much more technically sophisticated a poet Hanagid is, for unlike Dunash, he is relaxed enough with the formal system he is working in to create the kinds of counterpointing irregularities that a mimetic translation cannot easily capture.

Equally noteworthy is the way in which the conflict expressed by Dunash, whether it is psychological or merely social, has evaporated. There is not the slightest suggestion in Hanagid’s poem that its author—who, apart from his political career, was also a leading rabbi and talmudic scholar and the unchallenged head of the Granada Jewish community—sees anything to apologize for, either in the party that he is giving or in the Hebrew lyric written in its honor. Its mood is one of anticipatory nostalgia, and it is an impressive illustration of how within 30 or 40 years, Jewish society in Spain had adapted to a new Muslim cosmopolitanism which—like Dunash’s poetics—originally came from the East.



It was this cosmopolitanism that made possible the rise of Shmuel Halevi ben Yosef ibn Naghrela, the scion of a wealthy family which originally hailed from Mérida. (The Hebrew epithet of Hanagid, which was already applied to him by his fellow Jews in his lifetime, means “the governor.”) And yet by itself it would not have sufficed, as is evidenced by the fact that nowhere else in the Muslim world was such a career duplicated.

The particular opportunities for political advancement that 11th-century Andalusia offered were also a result of the breakdown of central authority that followed the sacking of Córdoba by Berber troops from North Africa in 1013, an event which marked the end of the city’s dominance in southern Spain and of a unified Muslim kingdom there. From now on, power was dispersed among Berber warlords who established competing city-states in centers like Málaga, Seville, Ronda, Algeciras, and Valencia. Outsiders who imposed themselves by force and fought each other for territory and plunder while living in fear of palace coups, these kings were on the lookout to promote reliable administrative talent with no dangerous connections to local clans or factions.

Granada was founded as a city by such a ruler, Zawi ibn Ziri (r. 1013-19), who built his capital in a small fortress town in the Sierra Nevada and was succeeded by his nephew, Habus ibn Maksan. Of Hanagid’s ascendancy under Habus and his son Badis, we are given an account by Badis’s grandson ‘Abd Allah (r. 1073-90), whose lost chronicle of Granada’s history was discovered in a mosque in Fez in the 1930’s. ‘Abd Allah’s none-too-friendly portrait of Hanagid was motivated both by a desire to explain how his ancestors could have mistakenly preferred a Jew to Muslims and by the conviction—the historical accuracy of which is in doubt—that Badis’s son (that is, ‘Abd Allah’s own father) was poisoned by Hanagid’s son Yehosef, who then sought to betray the Granadans to their enemies. Yet despite his animus against Hanagid, ‘Abd Allah also points to some impressive qualities: resourcefulness, political savvy, enormous energy, unwavering allegiance, and coolness in risky situations.



To get back to gardens, however: a large, walled one was de rigueur for entertainment in Andalusia, as were plenty of shade and water; the Caliph ‘Abd ar-Rahman III was said to have had such extensive ponds on his palace grounds in Córdoba that it took 12,000 loaves of bread a day to feed the fish. Hanagid has left us a charming poem about how his son Yehosef, who would become the publisher of Hanagid’s poems after the latter’s death in 1056, installed a decorative moat in his own garden, a renovation comparable to adding a swimming pool to a suburban backyard today:

Little or big, to make his father do it,
A word from Yehosef is all it takes.
“Come,” he said,
“You haven’t seen the garden.
It’s never been so full of flowers,
And I’ve put in a lawn that I can loll on,
And run a brimming channel all around it
That rims it as the blue sky rims the earth.”

We stepped into the garden,
Where paths of flowers thick as a scroll’s lines
Could make a browser wonder which to
And sat beneath some trees—
Not rustic mastic or rude oak,
But pomegranate and castilian chestnut,
The leaves of which wove canopies above
While grasses cushioned us below
And a servant poured red wine in cups,
Put them on a raft of mottled reeds,
And floated them to us across the water,
As if they were two brides on palanquins,
And we, their grooms.
We tossed them off
And stowed them with the empties on the deck
For their return trip to our barquetender,
Who in a jiffy filled them up
And with a “Down the hatch, sirs!”
Sent them back.

It was a wonder to behold.
Talk of grand things to write a poem on!
There’s nothing like a drink with someone
And all that grass and water in a garden!

The man liked to drink and to write about it—and, on the evidence of his poems, he could hold his liquor well. Recalling a young party-goer who could not, he once wrote with a wistful and blatantly sexual pathos that reminds one of the middle-aged Cavafy:

What would I not do for the youth
Who awoke in the night to the sound of the
  skilled flutes and lutes,
And seeing me there, cup in hand, said to me:
“Here, drink the grape’s blood from my lips.”
Oh, the moon was a comma writ small
On the cloak of the dawn in a watery gold!

Was Hanagid actively homosexual? It is hard to say, and, within the context of an Andalusian Arab culture with different notions of sexuality from our own, it is no less hard to say precisely what this would have meant. For one thing, besides being married and the father of children, he wrote heterosexual poetry, too:

Will you not uncage the stag of love?
Send it, sweet-scented, word it is free,
You whose lips, so they say,
Are stained not with rouge,
But with the blood of young bucks.
Give love for love, for such are lovers’ wages,
And take my soul and let that be your price.
My heart is cleft in two by your two eyes—
Unlock on yours the locket and revive it!

But the women in such verses are often predatory, and the poet’s declarations suspiciously rhetorical. For any real erotic tenderness, we have to turn to his poems about young men, such as one that I have called “A Prayer for Sleep” (like other poets of the times, Hanagid gave his poems no titles):

Lord, turn the stripling’s heart who stole my
And see that he returns it to my eyelids!

You cursed me when You let him make me
The gift of all the love he then took back,
But what young beauty hasn’t done the same?

Bear with his sin, for if aught happens to him,
Better it were I never had been born!



Is the “Lord” addressed here the same God of Israel Whom Hanagid turns to in his religious poems? Must we invoke some sort of cognitive dissonance to explain how the same man could, with no apparent sense of inconsistency, live the life of a prominent rabbinical authority and that of a philandering bon vivant? And yet if we must, we are calling upon what was becoming in the 10th and 11th centuries a common enough talent.

“To bed with reason is to awaken bruised,” remarked Hanagid’s contemporary, the Baghdad poet and intellectual Abu-al-Ala al-Ma’arri—which did not prevent him, a practicing Muslim, from conducting a lifelong affair with the lady; and while the odd bedfellows in Hanagid’s case were not so much faith and reason as religious precept and behavior, juggling worlds was a trick that his age had learned to be adept at. Some, like the Muslim el-Farabi, practiced philosophy; Hanagid, who did not possess a particularly speculative mind, preferred wit. There are poems of his in which we may be witnessing the historical birth of Jewish humor, or, at least, of that Jewish propensity, not always comprehensible to the pious of other faiths, to joke freely about Scripture and tradition while remaining firmly attached to them. One of these I have named “Spoken in a Tavern”:

They’ve slept themselves away, my dear,
The years,
The good, the bad in them—
A dream.
Well, let them snore, I say!
God give you pluck to turn your look away
From mysteries whose mastery’s best left to
And tell that miss to fetch a glass
(Yes, that lovely serving lass)
Of fine falernian,
Of vintage so antediluvian
That Adam drank of it,
Or at the very least,
No newer than Noah’s
First harvest from the slowly drying earth.
I want a wine
Of tawny coral with the scent of myrrh,
The kind King David once was served
By queens and courtly concubines.
And when it was decanted into vials,
He had the Levites tune their viols
And sing in clearest clarion
(Just don’t ask what Psalm it’s in):
“O Lord,
Long be it stored
And poured
From bung-tight barrels evermore
For all who drink the grape’s juice in good
And wisely clasp the cup!”
                                My dear,
As for the rest
(Fear God, remember death, etcetera),
You do not need a teacher.
And anyway, it’s in a book
By David’s son, the Preacher.

Some scholars have sought to defend Hanagid’s moral probity, and that of the Hebrew poets in Spain who came after him, by reminding us that poetry is not fact and that the medieval Muslim world was less inclined to believe that beauty is truth than is our own, which tends to associate honesty of expression with emotive power and aesthetic integrity. Arabic poetry was replete with stock themes and images on which poets were expected to ring repeated changes regardless of their personal experience, and there was a strong tendency in medieval Arabic literary criticism to follow Plato rather than Aristotle in equating the poetic with skillful dissembling rather than with idealizing verisimilitude. In the words of the 10th-century Andalusian Muslim critic Ibn ‘Abd Rabbih, who may well have been expressing his own view in the guise of an unnamed source’s:

A man of letters was once asked who, in his opinion, was the greatest of all poets. To this he answered: he who can present what is false under the appearance of truth, and what is true under the appearance of falsehood, through the charm of his poetic concept and the delicacy of a poetic expression, in such a way that he may be able to deface the most perfect beauty and to embellish even utter ugliness.

Hanagid’s drinking poems, let alone his erotic poems, it is therefore argued, cannot be read autobiographically; a poet in his day and age was judged by how much better than his rivals he said the same things they did, and poetry was a species of competition whose form and subject matter were as much a given as a tennis court is to an athlete. Indeed, Arab poets commonly held improvisatory contests on themes and in meters arbitrarily presented to them, or else entertained themselves with group verses in which each participant matched a line to what came before. When challenged, his son tells us, Hanagid himself once made up thirteen off-the-cuff poems about some apples lying in a bowl. One of the more successful of these went:

Nearby some ruby-red, farm-grown apples,
I spied a spice-box, apple-shaped itself,
All silver and gold leaf.
“Would you not like a realer peel?” I asked.
It flashed a wordless smile that meant:
“Of course—
When knaves have no more teeth.”

Needless to say, this is in itself a sly comment on the difference between art and life. And yet even if it is only our modern, romantic illusion to think that we can instinctively tell when a verse has come from a living place in a poet, few of us would believe that a poem like “What Would I Not Do for the Youth,” which seems to net the very tease and wriggle of time, can be a mere studio sketch. Moreover, much of Hanagid’s poetry is so self-statedly experiential that, whatever cultural influences were brought to bear on it, its immediate inspiration can hardly have been the copybooks.



More than any Spanish Hebrew poet who followed him, Hanagid was in the habit of writing occasional verse linked to specific events that often enable us to date the precise day of composition. Take, for example, a poem he wrote about an unusual series of eclipses that occurred in the winter and spring of 1044-45: astronomical tables establish that its first part, or a draft of it, was in all likelihood written on the night of the lunar eclipse of November 8 (the 15th of the Hebrew month of Kislev), 1044; its second part, on or soon after the solar eclipse of November 22; and its third part, before the lunar eclipse of May 3 (the 15th of Iyyar), 1045. Accordingly, I have broken it up into three sections, although its Hebrew text has no such formal divisions.




How can you sleep, my friend?
Get out of bed and up to wake the dawn,
And look up at the leopard-coated sky,
All, everywhere, bespangled,
And at the full-grown moon,
Half-blackened, like a saucepan from the fire,
Or a fair face recessed in a deep doorway—
And think too of the day that, late this month,
Will so precipitously lose its light
That what is left gleams like a golden crown
Upon a Moorish head,
While livid mother earth weeps for her sun!



He has struck His two lights in one month, the
  glory-great God,
First blotting the moon with earth’s orb and
  then hiding the sun with the moon!
All this He has done, He who willed the work
  of Creation,
Already at which He bruised the dark eyes of
  night’s mistress
And dazzling made the day’s queen,
So that, bedimmed from view,
They can be likened to two stricken women,
One all in black,
The other black and blue,
And He to a grand lord,
Who, having dealt to each a deathly potion,
Wife after paramour,
Now grimly gathers all his starry liegemen.



Look, look and wonder, regard all this, look
  and say: All might is Yours,
Who trims His lamps and palms them in the
  scale-pan of His hands!
In mid-Kislev You trapped the moon in
  darkness like a bird,
And in Iyyar will cage its light again,
You, who need but frown
                                                  at the earth
For it to totter like a drunk,
Who dips
                His Dipper
                                 toward the Pole
And puts the fool’s cap on Orion’s head,
And rounds this buckler of earth for men to
  live on,
Then treads them out in a hurrahless harvest.
Yours is all glory, all everything!
Nothing there is—no chariot, no horse—can
  move without You;
No wind, no weather hot or cold, You cannot
  chill or heat.
You roil the bottom of the depths and fret the
And see to it that all men wing to death
Like arrows to their targets—
From which,
Upon that bitter, great, and frightful day,
Them will You wake and judge who left Your
Ah, in Your scales of justice then, O Lord,
Let my right deeds outweigh, eclipse, my sins.



The poem ends with a movement typical of Hanagid’s religious verse, from an event observed to the self of the observer. He is indeed the first post-biblical Hebrew poet to display a self at all—in the special destiny of which he had a mystic belief. One of his poems tells of a childhood vision in which his God-favored status was first revealed to him:

In the worst of times, I think of Your visitation.
You are good, and just are all Your words and
But when desperate days come
And I scan them in vain
For Your saving chivalry,
I think of that time.
Archangels you sent me, and I—
I was only a boy in his bed.
They sat across from me and Mikha’el said
“This is what God says: ‘I am your champion.
Cross wild waters and I will be with you.
Let foes flood and you will breast the river.’”
Then his companion Gavriel spoke too
And said that he had heard it said to me
In and about Your chariot:
“Walk through fire, you will not be burned,
For I will tell the flame never to touch you.”
This was the message, like a sword put in my
When I see swords now, Lord, I count on Yours.

The first and last lines make it clear that this memory was evoked during a difficult juncture in one of the military campaigns in which Hanagid helped lead the Granadans. Perhaps it was the war that climaxed in the battle of Alpuente, where a Granadan army defeated the forces of Almeria on August 4, 1038; for in a long poem written about this bloody clash, Hanagid refers to the same “visitation.” He begins there by reviewing the events that led up to the hostilities and proceeds to a description of the fighting itself, which took place in a defile in the mountains:2

                            It was a day
Of purest fury with no quarter given:
So tightly did the facing ranks press forward
That death could have been thought a fought-
  for prize.
Each man sought fame in battle, though each
His life might be the price. The hoof-struck
Quaked as it did when brimstone fell on
And faces flushed with glory grew as grime-
As the bottom of a pot. The day was bleak and
The sun, black as my heart; the sound of war,
Like heaven’s thunder or a storm at sea
When breakers crash. The very fundament
Tottered on its pillars as though drunk,
While over it steeds darted in and out
Like vipers from their holes.
Spears bright as lightning filled the firmament;
The bent-backed bows spat bees,
Arrows thick as raindrops
That made sieves of shields;
Swords, raised overhead,
Gleamed like torches through the gloom,
Till with a downward stroke their light went
Blood flowed on the ground as in the aisles
Around the altar in the Temple, and brave men
Flung down their lives as if they vied to die
And thought the gory gashes on their brows
Were laurel leaves, and self-annihilation
Their faith’s creed.

At this point, characteristically shifting back to his own situation, the poet writes:

Ah, what was I to do,
Trapped in that fray
With no one and with nothing to sustain me?
All hope was wrenched from me—and so it
While warriors poured out their blood like
In prayer I poured out my heart to God. . . .

And he cries out:

Can a man You gladdened with Your pledge of
“If you pass through water, I am with you”
Be washed away?
Surely Your long arm can rescue him!
If you promised him
“Though you walk through fire, you shall not
  be burned,”
Can battle scathe him?



Yehosef’s recognition of the formative importance of this childhood experience made him put “In the Worst of Times, I Think of Your Visitation” at the head of his collection of his father’s verse. Several of Hanagid’s poems were written as letters from the front to Yehosef himself. From an attack on an anti-Granadan coalition outside the city of Lorca on the Sangonera River in the summer of 1042 we have two such missives—one penned on the eve of the assault and the other the morning after.

The first, an ethical will, is fraught with anxiety:

All that I have been through,
And all the peril I have taken on myself,
Have been for you—
And were it not for you, I long ago
Would have become a wanderer in this world
As have become so many in your time.
I write you the plain truth—
Who is there to write it but a father?—
And as I write, death japes at us,
Its long mouth wide agape, and I know not
Whether in the morn, when the foe rises,
The battle will go for us or against us.
But if it is fated, son, that never again
You see me, nor I you,
Then, when thou sittest and when thou risest,3
Mark my words.
May they be first to rouse you from your
And on the day there is no one to teach you
Let them be your teachers and your guides.

In all your ways—
With all your soul—
With all you are—
Fear your Maker and Creator.
Study to be wise and sensible,
For wisdom is the only praise you need,
And sensibleness the sole pedestal.
Obey your mother;
Speak gently to your uncle and your kin;
Respect your friends;
Be loving to all creatures;
See, before all goods, to your good name.

Give to each man what he asks of you,
And if you have it not, have a soft answer.
Share in what there is with those who need it,
Although in sharing, think of your need too.
Make something of yourself! Do not make do
With what I’ve done, for doing’s all.
Excel, exceed your elders—and yet be not
Unaccepting of those younger than you.
Ah, how much more I still could say regarding
That you may have to find out for yourself.
If God brings me home, I’ll tell you of it—
O may He save you from all harm!

In the end, victory proved easy: the enemy panicked and fled and Hanagid sent poetic word of the rout to his son in Granada, 120 miles away, by carrier pigeon. The giddy relief—and most probably, the speed—with which this poem was composed is reflected in its tumbling, two-beat lines (of all the translations appearing here, this one is formally most faithful to the original):

Go, tongueless dove
                          on a herald’s commission,
For pinned to your wing
                            is a note I have written,
Rose-and-lavender scented—
                      and since in its transmission,
Although you fly fast
                         and head for the horizon,
A hawk or a snare
                   you did not keep your eyes on
May stay or delay you
                             midway in your mission,
I’ll send after you
                              a second swift pigeon.
Whichever lands first
                             atop the high ridge on
Yehosef’s roof
                             will drop like a falcon
Onto his arm
                                for him to unfasten
This letter and read:
                                          Dearest son!
The accursed foe has fled
                       to the hills like chaff blown
In a field by the wind,
                                  or else he has flown
Along the back roads
                                  in a fit of confusion
Like a lost flock.
                                  Ah, what an illusion
To think he could wreak
                                  on us the grim ruin
He ran from last night
                           before our lead column
Could even attack!
                                     Slaying and slain
By one another,
                 his men fought and drowned in
The ford of the river
                       while the walls of the town
They had hoped to conquer
                          looked down in derision.
By God, they were caught
                              like a thief in the open,
Wearing their shame
                          as a man wears a coat on
His back! With the dregs
                  of disgrace they were drunken,
And I, who had feared
                              like a laboring woman,
Was delivered by God
                                as by rain in a famine,
Which lightened my eyes
               while it made their skies darken.
Therefore I sing
                            amid their lamentation,
In my household—joy,
                                 in theirs—desolation.
And it is you, Lord, I hymn:
                           the Rock and the Bastion
Ever addressed
                          by my soul’s supplication.

In the awe of the great
            hand of God therefore stand, son!
Now assemble the people
                      and read them this chanson.
Bind it tight to your heart
                like the thongs that we pray in,
With these words to remember
                                        victory’s day in!

Although Granada had a large Jewish population, it is unlikely that Hanagid actually expected his son, who was seven years old at the time, to “assemble the people” and read them a Hebrew poem, and one can assume that he had already sent notice of the triumph to his liege Badis. Be that as it may, though, Yehosef—who succeeded his father as Badis’s prime minister before being killed in an uprising accompanied by savage anti-Jewish pogroms in 1066—was one of Hanagid’s two great loves.



The other was his elder brother Isaac, a prominent rabbi in his own right, who died in the spring of 1042. The nineteen poems about him that Hanagid wrote in the course of the following year are not only the greatest body of elegiac poetry in Hebrew, they are unique in world literature as a poetic documentation of bereavement. Beginning on a note of disbelief and ending with final acceptance, they omit not a stage or emotion in the process of mourning.

The first poem of the cycle tells of Isaac’s sudden illness. In the second, the poet learns of his brother’s death while on the way to visit him with a physician:

Hurrying to my brother
(Hearing he had fallen still more ill),
I met—stock still stood he!—a messenger of
“Why speak you not?” I asked.
“Tell me of Isaac! Well?”

“Ah, he is dead,”
Was all that that man said.

“Be still,” I cried, “and may dust fill your
Would every woe were your woe!
Might they bury you who bore you!
The doctor with me many like him healed has
  and made well,
And you say he is dead who led his age and
I tell you he but sleeps!”

“Alas,” said he,
“Into such sleep
No man who woke thereafter ever fell.”

In the fifth and shortest poem of the cycle, the realization of loss sinks in irrevocably as the poet, thinking of his brother, tells himself:

Give up, my soul, all thought of seeing him
Learn to live without him—and if you
Find that unthinkable, die too!

By poem seven, shock has yielded to the full force of grief. The poet returns to visit his brother’s grave on the day after the funeral, and says to him:

Ah, God bless you, brother,
For my sorrow would not let me stay away!
I buried you last night with bitter heart
And bitter-hearted I return today
To visit you.
                    Are you all right?
                                             Shall I speak
And will you hear me if I raise a voice
That’s cracked with grief?
Why don’t you answer me?
Say how you passed the night in your new
Did you begin to feel your skin peel from your
Your jaw unsocketed?
Did life’s last sap run slowly out of you
As my tears trickle from me, one by one?
O eldest of my father’s sons,
What can I do but leave you in the hands
Of Him who is my hope, and hope
That as He birthed you from our mother’s
He will unearth you from a brother’s tomb—
And go in peace!

Poem eleven is about the guilt the mourner feels as the first, paralyzing sense of anguish begins to wear off:

My brother scarcely dead a month,
And I already long for bathhouses,
  amusements, dalliance?
Can I so faithless be, a traitor to my cause?
Let me mourn on, then: days desolate, hands
  struck in grief, beard unbarbered, meals
  chewed in solitude, all consolation spurned,
He lies untongued. What voice to weep with
  except mine does he have left?

Yet another, more tentative turning point is marked by the fifteenth poem, in which the poet pays a condolence call on another family that has lost a brother. For the first time since his own bereavement, his feelings go out to others rather than to himself, preparing the way for a return to the human ranks. At the last moment, though, still not ready for the relinquishment, he retreats to the centrality of his own loss:

A close-knit family,
Clustered like stars,
The Dipper, or the Hyades,
And he their first and brightest.
Why, they swore by him, lived by his word!
Well, Death has him now,
And though they grieve for him
And rue their fate,
He’s gone.

I thought of you today, my mother’s son,
When, come to condole,
I joined my voice to theirs and wept with them.
In truth, had any eye of theirs been dry,
I would have been the first to chide
Such coldness,
Since every tear those mourners cried
Fell, in my heart, for you.

The eighteenth and next-to-last poem is written on the first anniversary of Isaac’s death and is once again addressed to him. With it, the poet’s mourning is almost complete. His old verve is back, and his longing, into which for the first time a note of jocularity has crept, is more wistful than pained:

Twelve months gone by, and still the huntsman
Holds you ensnared! Or do you like his clay so
Find worms such better company than men,
That you would stay?
                                Just think, my dear,
If you could shake the dust off, drop in on
   your old haunts, chat with old friends again,
   and let me tell you of my latest conquests!
If only a man—flesh putrefied, bones dry as
   twigs, a prisoner (soul heaven-prised) of
   earth, a meal for maggots, a banquet of
   stuffed shrouds—could do it!

Latest conquests? I have taken a liberty, because the Hebrew (kravai ha-hadashim) apparently refers to military engagements alone. And yet in translating Hanagid one owes him so many untranslatable puns and double entendres—he was, as I hope I have managed sporadically to indicate, a great lover of word-play—that one may be pardoned for seeking to indemnify him by straddling meanings in a place where he does not. I doubt that in this particular case he would have minded. As he aged, it is true, his verse, like that of many poets, grew more somber and meditative, but even at its most pleasure-renouncing it is not above a roguish wink. He remained to the end a man of contradictions.



A friend once remarked to me about Ovid that if he were magically transported to the present, it would take him 48 hours to be up and running: 24 to get over his time-machine lag and 24 more to refill his address book. I do not think that Hanagid would acclimatize nearly so well. First-century Rome stands closer to New York than does 11th-century Granada, and even among the neo-Orthodox Jewish sophisticates of Manhattan, he would be unlikely to feel quite at home.

And yet just as, according to kabbalistic legend, all men and women have the roots of their souls in the soul of Adam, there is a sense in which all Jewish souls today, although they may feel no particular affinity with him, have their roots in Hanagid’s. To call him the first modern Jew might appear to be millennial hyperbole; let us say then that he is the first unmistakably post-ancient one. Jews have been juggling worlds ever since.


1 Translations throughout are my own.

2 It is unclear what Hanagid's precise role was in this or other battles described in his poetry. He himself implies that he was in command of the Granadan troops, but it is possible that he was more of a head quartermaster and political commissar than a tactical commander.

3 This is an allusion to the biblical verses in Deuteronomy: “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart. And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” Hanagid's poetry is, in the tradition of Hebrew intertextuality, full of linguistic references to the Bible, some solemn and some humorous, a feature that the translator generally has no choice but to ignore.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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