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eBook Selected Poems of Jehudah Halevi
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Publisher:  Varda Books
Original Publisher:  The Jewish Publication Society
Published:  2001
Language:  English
Pages:   373

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ISBN: 1590451775

About the Book -- Selected Poems of Jehudah Halevi


The gift of song, cherished and tended as it was by the Spanish Jews of the Middle Ages, reached its highest development in the poems of Jehudah ben Samuel Halevi, born, as is now generally accepted, in Toledo in 1086, the story of whose life as physician, philosopher and poet has come down to us in but slight fragments, and ends vaguely among the mists of tradition. In the disturbed atmosphere of the Spain of his day, Castile lay under the comparatively mild sway of the Catholic King Alfonso VI. Persecution was as yet occasional, and only burst into flames if the favor shown to the Jews was considered by their ill-wishers to be unduly great. Judging from Jehudah Halevi's letters to his friends, his life passed in serving the people of Toledo, where many of his years were spent, as their much sought-after and hard-worked physician; and one suspects his profession to have been a rather burdensome incident in his life, while his whole heart and soul were consumed in the pursuit, as he says, of the “fount of living waters.”

Yet we must be on our guard against taking too literally his depreciation of the medical art. He was equally outspoken against metaphysics in his treatise on the Philosophy of Judaism, the Kitab al-Khazari, his one great Arabic work. The truth is that, even more than Spinoza, Jehudah Halevi was “God-intoxicated” or, to use Heine's phrase, “God-kissed”. God, not the physician, was to him the Healer; God, not human reason, was the source of truth. The physician was but God's servant, and by Him endowed with such gift of healing as he possessed.

From evidence to be found in the poems, we know that their author was bound to Spain by the presence and love of his one daughter and her little son, Jehudah, as well as by the minor ties of memory and by many friendships. But one love was to be conquered by the power of another, and we find the poet at the age of fifty years journeying forth on the perilous seas to seek the still more greatly beloved land of his fathers. Heine detected this love and this longing, but it needs not the insight of a Heine to perceive it—the most casual reader of Halevi's poems realizes that the poet's soul is bound up with his love for his people and their lost land. It was about the year 1141 that he set out on his journey to Palestine, cheerfully facing the hardships of the way and the stormy seas, and making songs about them as he went. Not the least of his inheritance from the sweet singer of Israel was his descriptive power. He pictures storm and landscape with the vivid touch of actuality. His praise of nature is no literary trick, we catch the genuine notes of a nature-lover.

So we can trace his steps from Spain to Alexandria, the Jews everywhere giving him a friendly reception, and strongly but vainly urging him to remain with them and to discontinue his perilous pilgrimage. Further we hear of his passing up the Nile and visiting the community at Cairo and Damietta, and he is known to have touched Tyre and Damascus. But after his arrival in Palestine, definite reports fade into rumours. Tradition tells us that he was ridden down and slain by an Arab when at last he reached his goal and was singing his great Song to Zion by the ruins he had longed to see. Certain it is, however, that many of its lines must have been written while his desire to reach Jerusalem was yet but a dream. His poem reaches its appointed end in his ardent confidence that the age-long hope of his suffering people will find its fulfillment.

This great poet of the Jewish hope said of himself when singing to Zion of her further restoration, “I am a harp for thy songs.” Here indeed we hear the real man. His love poems, as Harizi said, are made of dew and fire. But in his poems to Zion there is no such combination of a poet's ordinary artifices. It is his soul that is the instrument—and on his heartstrings is played the song of Israel's hope.

Many other compositions were modelled on Jehudah Halevi's Ode to Zion, as the liturgy for the Fast of Ab proves. These have their beauty, but the poets who followed Halevi appear to us like the stars after the moon has risen. In Spain the poets still sang because, for many years after Jehudah Halevi's death, his voice re-echoed in theirs. A poet and the begetter of poets—we need seek no more splendid epitaph for this “poet by the grace of God.”

About the Book


Introduction, by NINA SALAMAN

Text and Translation







An Excerpt from the Book -- Selected Poems of Jehudah Halevi

My God, the wonder of Thee is astir from

age to age:

From the mouth of father to children no falsehood

could be told.

And here is the Nile for witness, that Thou

hast turned it into blood,

Not by magic nor by divination nor by


But by Thy name, by the hand of Moses

and Aaron,

And the staff which was turned into a serpent.


O be a help unto the servant who hath faith

in Thee,

And who hasteth to behold the places of Thy




On the way from Egypt to Zion

Can bodies of clay

Be prison-houses

For hearts bound fast

To eagles' wings—

For a man life-weary

Whose whole desire

Is to lay his face

In the chosen dust?

Yet he feared and trembled

With falling tears,

To cast Spain from him

And seek shores beyond;

To ride upon ships,

To tread through wastes,

Dens of lions,

Mountains of leopards—-

But he rebuketh his dear ones

And chooseth exile,

Forsaketh shelter

And inhabiteth deserts,

While wolves of the forests

Find in his sight

The favour of maidens

In the sight of youths;

And ostriches please him

Like singers and players,

And the roaring of lions

Like the bleating of flocks;

And he setteth his delight

In the burnings of his bosom,

And the floods of his tears

Are like streams of the rivers.

He goeth up by the hills,

He goeth down by the valleys,

To perform oaths,

To fulfil vows;

He journeyeth, he wandereth,

He passeth by Egypt,

Toward the land of Canaan,

Toward the chosen of mountains.

The reproofs of his adversaries

Are renewed round about him,

But he heareth and is silent,

Like a man without words;

For how long should he strive with them

And how long refute them,

And why should he harass them,

Seeing they are drunken?

But how call him happy

In the bondage of kings,

Which is in his eyes

But a service of idols?

Were it well to be happy

For a man simple and upright,

Like a bird that is bound

In the hand of little boys—

In slavery to Philistines,

And Hagrites and Hittites,

Alluring his heart

With other gods

To seek their favour

And forsake God's will,

To betray the Creator

And serve His creatures?—

The face of the morning

Would be black to his eyes,

The cup of sweetness

Bitter to his mouth

Wearied and toiling,

Oppressed and weak,

And longing for Carmel

And the City of the Forests,

To seek forgiveness

At the peaceful graves

Of the ark and the tablets

That are buried there.—

I shall hope to pass thither,

I shall fall on their grave,

And mine eyes, at their ruin,

Shall break forth into torrents,

And all my thoughts

Trembling unto Sinai,

Mine heart and mine eyes

Unto Mount Abarim!

And how should I not weep

And pour forth tears,

And hope therefrom

The quickening of the dead?

Since there are the Cherubim

With the written tablets—

Among the earth clods,

In a place of secrets,

A place of wonders,

The fountain of prophecies—

Their faces glowing

With the glory of God!

I shall fondle its dust

I shall nestle beside it

And lament upon it

As over a grave—

And the goal of my thoughts

To make my couch

'Mid my fathers' graves

In the demesne of the pure.

An Excerpt from the Book

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