Yehuda Halevi

Yehuda Halevi

Yehuda Halevi, in full Yehuda ben Shemuel Ha-Levi, also Judah Halevi, or Judah ben Samuel Halevi (Hebrew: יהודה הלוי) (c.1075–1141) was a Spanish Jewish philosopher and poet. He was born in Tudela, Navarre, Spain.


Halevi was born either in Tudela or Toledo; he often referred to himself as coming from Christian territory, which would point to Toledo, which was conquered by Alfonso VI from the Muslims in Halevi's childhood (1086). As a youth, he seems to have gone to Granada, the main center of Jewish literary and intellectual life at the time, where he found a mentor in Moses Ibn Ezra. 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, the head of the academy. [Brody, "Diwan des Abul-Ḥasan Jehuda ha-Levi," ii., No. 14, p. 100] His aptitude as a poet was recognized early. He was educated in traditional Jewish scholarship, in Arabic literature, and in the Greek 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. [Brody, l.c. i. 224, 225] 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. He was in fact the most prolific of the Hebrew poets of the Hebrew Golden Age and was regarded by some of his contemporaries (and by modern critics as well) 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, 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 the Holy Land

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. 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,that true religious fulfillment is possible only in the presence of 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 pilgrimageirst.

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. He died during the summer, presumably after having reached Palestine. According to tradition, Halevi was murdered by an Arab as he knelt at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, soon after he arrived.

Halevi dealt with his pilgrimage extensively in the poetry written during his last year, which includes panegyrics 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. 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).

His work

The life-work of Judah ha-Levi was devoted to poetry and philosophy. His poetry is usually classified under the headings "secular and religious," or, as in Brody's new edition of the "Diwan," under "liturgical and non-liturgical." Such a division, however, can be only external; for the essential characteristic of Judah's poems is the expression of a deeply-religious soul, which is the lofty key to which they are attuned. Even in his drinking- and love-songs, an attentive reader may hear the vibrations of religion's overtones.

Secular poetry

The first place in his 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 Saragossa, the aged poet Judah ben Abun, Judah ibn Ghayyat of Granada, Moses ibn Ezra 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. Judah is considered the Prince of Poets. However, the Vizier Samuel ha-Nagid of Granada who excelled the Sephardic poetry scale was in the previous generation as was the poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol of Malaga and Saragossa.

Also with the grammarian Abraham ibn Ezra. In Córdoba, 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, ["Monatsschrift," xl. 417 et seq.] 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". [Brody, l.c. i., No. 45)]

Especially tender and plaintive is Judah's tone in his elegies [Brody, l.c. ii. 67 et seq.] Many of them are dedicated to friends. Besides those composed on the deaths of 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 Aifasi (No. 14), and others, one of the most affecting is that on Solomon ibn Farissol, who was murdered on May 3, 1108. The news of this friend's death suddenly changed Judah's poem of eulogy (Nos. 11, 22) into one of lamentation (Nos. 12, 13, 93 et seq.), which for grandeur and loftiness of tone has been compared to David's lament over Jonathan (see David and Jonathan).

Love songs

Joyous, careless youth, and merry, happy delight in life find their expression in his love-songs. Many of these are epithalamia; 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". [Geiger, l.c. p. 168]

: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 songs and enigmas in rime 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 and other wars. There was a new kind of religio-political fanaticism emerging in the Christian and Muslim worlds. Holy wars 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 geniuses, 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. [S. D. Luzzatto, "Diwan," No. 14; Heller, "Die Echten Melodien," p. 227] Without God, his soul would wither away; nor is it well with him except he prays. [Luzzatto, l.c. No. 57; Heller, l.c. p. 135] The thought of God allows him no rest; early and late He is his best beloved, and is his dearest concern. [Heller, l.c. p. 82; "Ṭal Orot," No. 12] 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. [Luzzatto, l.c. No. 81; Heller, l.c. p. 229]

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. The period of political agitation about 1130, when Islam, 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, [Geiger, l.c. p. 154] 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. [Luzzatto, l.c. No. 61; transl. by Nina Davis in "Songs of Exile," p. 49]

Analysis of his poetry

The remarkable, and apparently in-dissoluble, union of religion, nationalism, and patriotism, 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" might be received with indifference, or even with mockery; [Luzzatto, l.c. No. 86] 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 [Brody, l.c. ii. 153] 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," with its remarkable monotony, is found in every Jewish liturgy, and is usually repeated in the synagogue on the Ninth of Ab. [Brody, l.c. ii. 155] The following is the English translation by Nina Davis (l.c. p. 37) of the opening lines:

: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."

Synagogal 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 (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.Zunz, "S. P." p. 231] The following criticism of 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, 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 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 meters in his poems, with much good taste. [For further details see Brody, H. "Studien zu den Dichtungen Jehuda ha-Levi's", Berlin, 1895] A later critic, applying a Talmudic 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, [see "Cuzari," v. 16)] he would not except himself from the number of those he had blamed. His pupil Solomon Parḥon, who wrote at Salerno 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",Fact|date=February 2007 and in succeeding generations, by all the great scholars and writers in Israel.

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, 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 translation of Judah ibn Tibbon by the title "Sefer ha-Kuzari," Judah ha-Levi expounded his views upon the teachings of Judaism, which he defended against the attacks of non-Jewish philosophers, Karaites, and those he viewed as "heretics".

For a discussion of ha-Levi's philosophical work, see Kuzari, considered one of the finest works in Jewish literature.


External links

* [ The Kitab al-Khazari of Judah Hallevi, full English translation at]

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