Chapters on Jewish Literature
by Israel Abrahams
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Graetz.—III, 7.

Schiller-Szinessy.—Encycl. Brit., Vol. XXI, p. 120.

M. Friedlaender.—Life and Works of Saadia. J.Q.R., Vol. V, p. 177.

Saadiah's Philosophy (Owen), J.Q.R., Vol. III, p. 192.

Grammar and Polemics (Rosin), J.Q.R., Vol. VI, p. 475; (S. Poznanski) ibid., Vol. IX, p. 238.

E.H. Lindo.—History of the Jews of Spain and Portugal (London, 1848).



Chasdai Ibn Shaprut.—Menachem and Dunash, Chayuj and Janach.—Samuel the Nagid.

If but a small part of what Hebrew poets sang concerning Chasdai Ibn Shaprut be literal fact, he was indeed a wonderful figure. His career set the Jewish imagination aflame. Charizi, in the thirteenth century, wrote of Chasdai thus:

In southern Spain, in days gone by, The sun of fame rose up on high: Chasdai it was, the prince, who gave Rich gifts to all who came to crave. Science rolled forth her mighty waves, Laden with gems from hidden caves, Till wisdom like an island stood, The precious outcome of the flood. Here thirsting spirits still might find Knowledge to satisfy the mind. Their prince's favor made new day For those who slept their life away. They who had lived so long apart Confessed a bond, a common heart, From Christendom and Moorish lands, From East, from West, from distant strands. His favor compassed each and all. Girt by the shelter of his grace, Lit by the glory of his face, Knowledge held their heart in thrall. He showed the source of wisdom and her springs, And God's anointment made them more than kings. His goodness made the dumb to speak his name, Yea, stubborn hearts were not unyielding long; And bards the starry splendor of his fame Mirrored in lucent current of their song.

This Chasdai, the son of Isaac, of the family of Shaprut (915-970), was a physician and a statesman. He was something of a poet and linguist besides; not much of a poet, for his eulogists say little of his verses; and not much of a linguist, for he employed others (among them Menachem, the son of Zaruk, the grammarian) to write his Hebrew letters for him. But he was enough of a scholar to appreciate learning in others, and as a patron of literature he placed himself in the front of the new Jewish development in Spain. From Babylonia he was hailed as the head of the school in Cordova. At his palatial abode was gathered all that was best in Spanish Judaism. He was the patron of the two great grammarians of the day, Menachem, the son of Zaruk, and his rival and critic, Dunash, the son of Labrat. These grammarians fought out their literary disputes in verses dedicated to Chasdai. Witty satires were written by the friends of both sides. Sparkling epigrams were exchanged in the rose-garden of Chasdai's house, and were read at the evening assemblies of poets, merchants, and courtiers. It was Chasdai who brought both the rivals to Cordova, Menachem from Tortosa and Dunash from Fez. Menachem was the founder of scientific Hebrew grammar; Dunash, more lively but less scholarly, initiated the art of writing metrical Hebrew verses. The successors of these grammarians, Judah Chayuj and Abulwalid Merwan Ibn Janach (eleventh century), completed what Menachem and Dunash had begun, and placed Hebrew philology on a firm scientific basis.

Thus, with Chasdai a new literary era dawned for Judaism. His person, his glorious position, his liberal encouragement of poetry and learning, opened the sealed-up lips of the Hebrew muse. As a contemporary said of Chasdai:

The grinding yoke from Israel's neck he tore, Deep in his soul his people's love he bore. The sword that thirsted for their blood he brake, And cold oppression melted for his sake. For God sent Chasdai Israel's heart to move Once more to trust, once more his God to love.

Chasdai did not confine his efforts on behalf of his brethren to the Jews of Spain. Ambition and sympathy made him extend his affection to the Jews of all the world. He interviewed the captains of ships, he conversed with foreign envoys concerning the Jews of other lands. He entered into a correspondence with the Chazars, Jews by adoption, not by race. It is not surprising that the influence of Chasdai survived him. Under the next two caliphs, Cordova continued the centre of a cultured life and literature. Thither flocked, not only the Chazars, but also the descendants of the Babylonian Princes of the Captivity and other men of note.

Half a century after Chasdai's death, Samuel Ibn Nagdela (993-1055) stood at the head of the Jewish community in Granada. Samuel, called the Nagid, or Prince, started life as a druggist in Malaga. His fine handwriting came to the notice of the vizier, and Samuel was appointed private secretary. His talents as a statesman were soon discovered, and he was made first minister to Habus, the ruler of Granada. Once a Moor insulted him, and King Habus advised his favorite to cut out the offender's tongue. But Samuel treated his reviler with much kindness, and one day King Habus and Samuel passed the same Moor. "He blesses you now," said the astonished king, "whom he used to curse."

"Ah!" replied Samuel, "I did as you advised. I cut out his angry tongue, and put a kind one there instead."

Samuel was not only vizier, he was also Rabbi. His knowledge of the Rabbinical literature was profound, and his "Introduction to the Talmud" (Mebo ha-Talmud) is still a standard work. He expended much labor and money on collecting the works of the Gaonim. The versatility of Samuel was extraordinary. From the palace he would go to the school; after inditing a despatch he would compose a hymn; he would leave a reception of foreign diplomatists to discuss intricate points of Rabbinical law or examine the latest scientific discoveries. As a poet, his muse was that of the town, not of the field. But though he wrote no nature poems, he resembled the ancient Hebrew Psalmists in one striking feature. He sang new songs of thanksgiving over his own triumphs, uttered laments on his own woes, but there is an impersonal note in these songs as there is in the similar lyrics of the Psalter. His individual triumphs and woes were merged in the triumphs and woes of his people. In all, Samuel added some thirty new hymns to the liturgy of the Synagogue. But his muse was as versatile as his mind. Samuel also wrote some stirring wine songs. The marvellous range of his powers helped him to complete what Chasdai had begun. The centre of Judaism became more firmly fixed than ever in Spain. When Samuel the Nagid died in 1055, the golden age of Spanish literature was in sight. Above the horizon were rising in a glorious constellation, Solomon Ibn Gebirol, the Ibn Ezras, and Jehuda Halevi.



Graetz,—III, p. 215 [220].


Graetz.—III, p. 223 [228].


Encycl. Brit., Vol. XIII, p. 737.


M. Jastrow, Jr.—The Weak and Geminative Verbs in Hebrew by Hayyug (Leyden, 1897).


Steinschneider.—Jewish Literature, p. 131.


Letter of Chasdai to Chazars (Engl. transl. by Zedner, Miscellany of the Society of Hebrew Literature, Vol. I).

Graetz.—III, p. 138 [140].


Graetz,—III, p, 254 [260].



Solomon Ibn Gebirol.—"The Royal Crown."—Moses Ibn Ezra.—Abraham Ibn Ezra.—The Biblical Commentaries of Ibn Ezra and the Kimchis.

"In the days of Chasdai," says Charizi, "the Hebrew poets began to sing." We have seen that the new-Hebrew poetry was older than Chasdai, but Charizi's assertion is true. The Hebrew poets of Spain are melodious, and Kalir is only ingenious. Again, it was in Spain that Hebrew was first used for secular poetry, for love songs and ballads, for praises of nature, for the expression of all human feelings. In most of this the poets found their models in the Bible. When Jehuda Halevi sang in Hebrew of love, he echoed the "Song of Songs." When Moses Ibn Ezra wrote penitential hymns, or Ibn Gebirol divine meditations, the Psalms were ever before them as an inspiration. The poets often devoted all their ambition to finding apt quotations from the sacred text. But in one respect they failed to imitate the Bible, and this failure seriously cramped their genius. The poetry of the Bible depends for its beauty partly on its form. This form is what is called parallelism of line. The fine musical effect produced by repeating as an echo the idea already expressed is lost in the poetry of the Spanish Jews.

Thus Spanish-Jewish poetry suffers, on the one side, because it is an imitation of the Bible, and therefore lacks originality, and on the other side it suffers, because it does not sufficiently imitate the Biblical style. In spite of these limitations, it is real poetry. In the Psalms there is deep sympathy for the wilder and more awful phenomena of nature. In the poetry of the Spanish Jews, nature is loved in her gentler moods. One of these poets, Nahum, wrote prettily of his garden; another, Ibn Gebirol, sang of autumn; Jehuda Halevi, of spring. Again, in their love songs there is freshness. There is in them a quaint blending of piety and love; they do not say that beauty is a vain thing, but they make beauty the mark of a God-fearing character. There is an un-Biblical lightness of touch, too, in their songs of life in the city, their epigrams, their society verses. And in those of their verses which most resemble the Bible, the passionate odes to Zion by Jehuda Halevi, the sublime meditations of Ibn Gebirol, the penitential prayers of Moses Ibn Ezra, though the echoes of the Bible are distinct enough, yet amid the echoes there sounds now and again the fresh, clear voice of the medieval poet.

Solomon Ibn Gebirol was born in Malaga in 1021, and died in 1070. His early life was unhappy, and his poetry is tinged with melancholy. But his unhappiness only gave him a fuller hope in God. As he writes in his greatest poem, he would fly from God to God:

From thee to thee I fly to win A place of refuge, and within Thy shadow from thy anger hide, Until thy wrath be turned aside. Unto thy mercy I will cling, Until thou hearken pitying; Nor will I quit my hold of thee, Until thy blessing light on me.

These lines occur in Gebirol's "Royal Crown" (Kether Malchuth) a glorious series of poems on God and the world. In this, the poet pours forth his heart even more unreservedly than in his philosophical treatise, "The Fountain of Life," or in his ethical work, "The Ennoblement of Character," or in his compilation from the wisdom of the past, "The Choice of Pearls" (if, indeed, this last book be his). The "Royal Crown" is a diadem of praises of the greatness of God, praises to utter which make man, with all his insignificance, great.

Wondrous are thy works, O Lord of hosts, And their greatness holds my soul in thrall. Thine the glory is, the power divine, Thine the majesty, the kingdom thine, Thou supreme, exalted over all.

* * * * *

Thou art One, the first great cause of all; Thou art One, and none can penetrate, Not even the wise in heart, the mystery Of thy unfathomable Unity; Thou art One, the infinitely great.

But man can perceive that the power of God makes him great to pardon. If he see it not now, he will hereafter.

Thou art light: pure souls shall thee behold, Save when mists of evil intervene. Thou art light, that, in this world concealed, In the world to come shall be revealed; In the mount of God it shall be seen.

And so the poet in one of the final hymns of the "Royal Crown," filled with a sense of his own unworthiness, hopefully abandons himself to God:

My God, I know that those who plead To thee for grace and mercy need All their good works should go before, And wait for them at heaven's high door. But no good deeds have I to bring, No righteousness for offering. No service for my Lord and King.

Yet hide not thou thy face from me, Nor cast me out afar from thee; But when thou bidd'st my life to cease, O may'st thou lead me forth in peace Unto the world to come, to dwell Among thy pious ones, who tell Thy glories inexhaustible.

There let my portion be with those Who to eternal life arose; There purify my heart aright, In thy light to behold the light. Raise me from deepest depths to share Heaven's endless joys of praise and prayer, That I may evermore declare: Though thou wast angered, Lord, I will give thanks to thee, For past is now thy wrath, and thou dost comfort me.

Ibn Gebirol stood a little outside and a good deal above the circle of the Jewish poets who made this era so brilliant. Many of them are now forgotten; they had their day of popularity in Toledo, Cordova, Seville, and Granada, but their poems have not survived.

In the very year of Ibn Gebirol's death Moses Ibn Ezra was born. Of his life little is certain, but it is known that he was still alive in 1138. He is called the "poet of penitence," and a gloomy turn was given to his thought by an unhappy love attachment in his youth. A few stanzas of one of his poems run thus:

Sleepless, upon my bed the hours I number, And, rising, seek the house of God, while slumber Lies heavy on men's eyes, and dreams encumber Their souls in visions of the night.

In sin and folly passed my early years, Wherefore I am ashamed, and life's arrears Now strive to pay, the while my tears Have been my food by day and night.

* * * * *

Short is man's life, and full of care and sorrow, This way and that he turns some ease to borrow, Like to a flower he blooms, and on the morrow Is gone—a vision of the night.

How does the weight of sin my soul oppress, Because God's law too often I transgress; I mourn and sigh, with tears of bitterness My bed I water all the night.

* * * * *

My youth wanes like a shadow that's cast, Swifter than eagle's wings my years fly fast, And I remember not my gladness past, Either by day or yet by night.

Proclaim we then a fast, a holy day, Make pure our hearts from sin, God's will obey, And unto him, with humbled spirit pray Unceasingly, by day and night.

May we yet hear his words: "Thou art my own, My grace is thine, the shelter of my throne, For I am thy Redeemer, I alone; Endure but patiently this night!"

But his hymns, many of which won a permanent place in the prayer-book, are not always sad. Often they are warm with hope, and there is a lilt about them which is almost gay. His chief secular poem, "The Topaz" (Tarshish), is in ten parts, and contains 1210 lines. It is written on an Arabic model: it contains no rhymes, but is metrical, and the same word, with entirely different meanings, occurs at the end of several lines. It needs a good deal of imagination to appreciate Moses Ibn Ezra, and this is perhaps what Charizi meant when he called him "the poet's poet."

Another Ibn Ezra, Abraham, one of the greatest Jews of the Middle Ages, was born in Toledo before 1100. He passed a hard life, but he laughed at his fate. He said of himself:

If I sold shrouds, No one would die. If I sold lamps, Then, in the sky, The sun, for spite, Would shine by night.

Several of Abraham Ibn Ezra's hymns are instinct with the spirit of resignation. Here is one of them:

I hope for the salvation of the Lord, In him I trust, when fears my being thrill, Come life, come death, according to his word, He is my portion still.

Hence, doubting heart! I will the Lord extol With gladness, for in him is my desire, Which, as with fatness, satisfies my soul, That doth to heaven aspire.

All that is hidden shall mine eyes behold, And the great Lord of all be known to me, Him will I serve, his am I as of old; I ask not to be free.

Sweet is ev'n sorrow coming in his name, Nor will I seek its purpose to explore, His praise will I continually proclaim, And bless him evermore.

Ibn Ezra wandered over many lands, and even visited London, where he stayed in 1158. Ibn Ezra was famed, not only for his poetry, but also for his brilliant wit and many-sided learning. As a mathematician, as a poet, as an expounder of Scriptures, he won a high place in Jewish annals. In his commentaries he rejected the current digressive and allegorical methods, and steered a middle course between free research on the one hand, and blind adherence to tradition on the other. Ibn Ezra was the first to maintain that the Book of Isaiah contains the work of two prophets—a view now almost universal. He never for a moment doubted, however, that the Bible was in every part inspired and in every part the word of God. But he was also the father of the "Higher Criticism." Ibn Ezra's pioneer work in spreading scientific methods of study in France was shared by Joseph Kimchi, who settled in Narbonne in the middle of the twelfth century. His sons, Moses and David, were afterwards famous as grammarians and interpreters of the Scriptures. David Kimchi (1160-1235) by his lucidity and thoroughness established for his grammar, "Perfection" (Michlol), and his dictionary, "Book of Roots," complete supremacy in the field of exegesis. He was the favorite authority of the Christian students of Hebrew at the time of the Reformation, and the English Authorized Version of 1611 owed much to him.

At this point, however, we must retrace our steps, and cast a glance at Hebrew literature in France at a period earlier than the era of Ibn Ezra.



Emma Lazarus.—Poems (Boston, 1889).

Mrs. H. Lucas.—The Jewish Year (New York, 1898), and in Editions of the Prayer-Books. See also (Abrahams) J.Q.R., XI, p. 64.


Graetz.—III, 9.

D. Rosin.—The Ethics of Solomon Ibn Gebirol, 7. J.Q.R., III, p. 159.


Graetz.—III, p. 319 [326].


Graetz.—III, p. 366 [375].

Abraham Ibn Ezra's Commentary on Isaiah (tr. by M. Friedlaender, 1873).

M. Friedlaender.—Essays on Ibn Ezra (London, 1877). See also Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, Vol. II, p. 47, and J. Jacobs, Jews of Angevin England, p. 29 seq.


Graetz.—III, p. 392 [404].


Steinschneider.—Jewish Literature, pp. 141, 146-179.



Nathan of Rome.—Alfassi.—Rashi.—Rashbam.

Before Hebrew poets, scientists, philosophers, and statesmen had made Spain famous in Jewish annals, Rashi and his school were building up a reputation destined to associate Jewish learning with France. In France there was none of the width of culture which distinguished Spain. Rashi did not shine as anything but an exponent of traditional Judaism. He possessed no graces of style, created no new literature. But he represented Judaism at its simplest, its warmest, its intensest. Rashi was a great writer because his subject was great, not because he wrote greatly.

But it is only a half-truth to assert that Rashi had no graces of style. For, if grace be the quality of producing effects with the least display of effort, then there was no writer more graceful than Rashi. His famous Commentary on the Talmud is necessarily long and intricate, but there is never a word too much. No commentator on any classic ever surpassed Rashi in the power of saying enough and only enough. He owed this faculty in the first place to his intellectual grasp. He edited the Talmud as well as explained it. He restored the original text with the surest of critical instincts. And his conscience was in his work. So thoroughly honest was he that, instead of slurring over difficulties, he frankly said: "I cannot understand ... I do not know," in the rare cases in which he was at a loss. Rashi moreover possessed that wondrous sympathy with author and reader which alone qualifies a third mind to interpret author to reader. Probing the depth of the Talmud, Rashi probed the depth of the learned student, and realized the needs of the beginner. Thus the beginner finds Rashi useful, and the specialist turns to him for help. His immediate disciples rarely quote him by name; to them he is "the Commentator."

Rashi was not the first to subject the Talmud to critical analysis. The Gaonim had begun the task, and Nathan, the son of Yechiel of Rome, compiled, in about the year 1000, a dictionary (Aruch) which is still the standard work of reference. But Rashi's nearest predecessor, Alfassi, was not an expounder of the Talmud; he extracted, with much skill, the practical results from the logical mazes in which they were enveloped. Isaac, the son of Jacob Alfassi, derived his name from Fez, where he was born in 1013. He gave his intellect entirely to the Talmud, but he acquired from the Moorish culture of his day a sense of order and system. He dealt exclusively with the Halachah, or practical contents of the Rabbinic law, and the guide which he compiled to the Talmud soon superseded all previous works of its kind. Solomon, the son of Isaac, best known as Rabbi Shelomo Izchaki (Rashi), was born in 1040, and died in 1105, in Troyes, in Champagne. From his mother, who came of a family of poets, he inherited his warm humanity, his love for Judaism. From his father, he drew his Talmudical knowledge, his keen intellect. His youth was a hard one. In accordance with medieval custom, he was married as a boy, and then left his home in search of knowledge rather than of bread. Of bread he had little, but, starved and straitened in circumstances though he was, he became an eager student at the Jewish schools which then were dotted along the Rhine, residing now at Mainz, now at Speyer, now at Worms. In 1064 he settled finally in Troyes. Here he was at once hailed as a new light in Israel. His spotless character and his unique reputation as a teacher attracted a vast number of eager students.

Of Rashi's Commentary on the Talmud something has already been said. As to his exposition of the Bible, it soon acquired the widest popularity. It was inferior to his work on the Talmud, for, as he himself admitted in later life, he had relied too much on the Midrash, and had attended too little to evolving the literal meaning of the text of Scripture. But this is the charm of his book, and it is fortunate that he did not actually attempt to recast his commentary. There is a quaintness and fascination about it which are lacking in the pedantic sobriety of Ibn Ezra and the grammatical exactness of Kimchi. But he did himself less than justice when he asserted that he had given insufficient heed to the Peshat (literal meaning). Rashi often quotes the grammatical works of Menachem and Dunash. He often translates the Hebrew into French, showing a very exact knowledge of both languages. Besides, when he cites the Midrash, he, as it were, constructs a Peshat out of it, and this method, original to himself, found no capable imitators.

Through the fame of Rashi, France took the leadership in matters Talmudical. Blessed with a progeny of famous men, Rashi's influence was carried on and increased by the work of his sons-in-law and grandsons. Of these, Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam, 1100-1160) was the most renowned. The devoted attention to the literature of Judaism in the Rhinelands came in the nick of time. It was a firm rock against the storm which was about to break. The Crusades crushed out from the Jews of France all hope of temporal happiness. When Alfassi died in 1103 and Rashi in 1105, the first Crusade had barely spent its force. The Jewish schools in France were destroyed, the teachers and scholars massacred or exiled. But the spirit lived on. Their literature was life to the Jews, who had no other life. His body bent over Rashi's illuminating expositions of the Talmud and the Bible, the medieval Jew felt his soul raised above the miseries of the present to a world of peace and righteousness, where the wicked ceased from troubling, and the weary were at rest.



Graetz.—III, p. 285 [292] seq.


I.H. Weiss.—J.Q.R., I, p. 290.


Schiller-Szinessy.—Encycl. Brit., Vol. XX, p. 284.



Jehuda Halevi.—Charizi.

Turning once more to the brighter condition of Jewish literature in Spain, we reach a man upon whom the whole vocabulary of praise and affection has been exhausted; a man of magnetic attractiveness, whom contemporaries and successors have agreed to admire and to love. Jehuda Halevi was born in Toledo about 1085, the year in which Alfonso VI recaptured the city from the Moors. It was a fit birth-place for the greatest Jewish poet since Bible times. East and West met in Toledo. The science of the East there found Western Christians to cultivate it. Jew, Moor, and Christian displayed there mutual toleration which existed nowhere else. In the midst of this favorable environment Jehuda Halevi grew to early maturity. As a boy he won more than local fame as a versifier. At all festive occasions his verses were in demand. He wrote wedding odes, elegies on great men, eulogies of the living. His love poems, serenades, epigrams of this period, all display taste, elegance, and passion.

The second period of Jehuda Halevi's literary career was devoted to serious pursuits, to thoughts about life, and to practical work. He wrote his far-famed philosophical dialogue, the Cuzari, and earned his living as a physician. He was not an enthusiastic devotee to medicine, however. "Toledo is large," he wrote to a friend, "and my patients are hard masters. I, their slave, spend my days in serving their will, and consume my years in healing their infirmities." Before making up a prescription, he, like Sir Thomas Browne, used to say a prayer in which he confessed that he had no great faith in the healing powers of his art. Jehuda Halevi was, indeed, dissatisfied with his life altogether. "My heart is in the East, but I am sunk in the West," he lamented. He was unhappy because his beloved was far from him; his lady-love was beyond the reach of his earnest gaze. In Heine's oft-quoted words,

She for whom the Rabbi languished Was a woe-begone poor darling, Desolation's very image, And her name—Jerusalem.

The eager passion for one sight of Jerusalem grew on him, and dominated the third portion of his life. At length nothing could restrain him; go he would, though he die in the effort. And go he did, and die he did in the effort. The news of his determination spread through Spain, and everywhere hands were held out to restrain him. But his heart lightened as the day of departure came. His poems written at this time are hopeful and full of cheery feeling. In Egypt, a determined attempt was made by the Jews to keep him among them. But it was vain. Onward to Jerusalem: this was his one thought. He tarried in Egypt but a short while, then he passed to Tyre and Damascus. At Damascus, in the year 1140 or thereabouts, he wrote the ode to Zion which made his name immortal, an ode in which he gave vent to all the intense passion which filled his soul. The following are some stanzas taken from this address to Jerusalem:

The glory of the Lord has been alway Thy sole and perfect light; Thou needest not the sun to shine by day, Nor moon and stars to illumine thee by night. I would that, where God's spirit was of yore Poured out unto thy holy ones, I might There too my soul outpour! The house of kings and throne of God wert thou, How comes it then that now Slaves fill the throne where sat thy kings before?

Oh! who will lead me on To seek the spots where, in far distant years, The angels in their glory dawned upon Thy messengers and seers?

Oh! who will give me wings That I may fly away, And there, at rest from all my wanderings, The ruins of my heart among thy ruins lay?

* * * * *

The Lord desires thee for his dwelling-place Eternally, and bless'd Is he whom God has chosen for the grace Within thy courts to rest. Happy is he that watches, drawing near, Until he sees thy glorious lights arise, And over whom thy dawn breaks full and clear Set in the orient skies. But happiest he, who, with exultant eyes, The bliss of thy redeemed ones shall behold, And see thy youth renewed as in the days of old.

Soon after writing this Jehuda arrived near the Holy City. He was by her side at last, by the side of his beloved. Then, legend tells us, through a gate an Arab horseman dashed forth: he raised his spear, and slew the poet, who fell at the threshold of his dear Jerusalem, with a song of Zion on his lips.

The new-Hebrew poetry did not survive him. Persecution froze the current of the Jewish soul. Poets, indeed, arose after Jehuda Halevi in Germany as in Spain. Sometimes, as in the hymns of the "German" Meir of Rothenburg, a high level of passionate piety is reached. But it has well been said that "the hymns of the Spanish writers link man's soul to his Maker: the hymns of the Germans link Israel to his God." Only in Spain Hebrew poetry was universal, in the sense in which the Psalms are universal. Even in Spain itself, the death of Jehuda Halevi marked the close of this higher inspiration. The later Spanish poets, Charizi and Zabara (middle and end of the twelfth century), were satirists rather than poets, witty, sparkling, ready with quaint quips, but local and imitative in manner and subject. Zabara must receive some further notice in a later chapter because of his connection with medieval folk-lore. Of Charizi's chief work, the Tachkemoni, it may be said that it is excellent of its type. The stories which it tells in unmetrical rhyme are told in racy style, and its criticisms on men and things are clever and striking. As a literary critic also Charizi ranks high, and there is much skill in the manner in which he links together, round the person of his hero, the various narratives which compose the Tachkemoni. The experiences he relates are full of humor and surprises. As a phrase-maker, Charizi was peculiarly happy, his command of Hebrew being masterly. But his most conspicuous claim to high rank lies in his origination of that blending of grim irony with bright wit which became characteristic of all Jewish humorists, and reached its climax in Heine. But Charizi himself felt that his art as a Hebrew poet was decadent. Great poets of Jewish race have risen since, but the songs they have sung have not been songs of Zion, and the language of their muse has not been the language of the Hebrew Bible.



Graetz.—III, II.

J. Jacobs.—Jehuda Halevi, Poet and Pilgrim (Jewish Ideals, New York, 1896, p. 103).

Lady Magnus.—Jewish Portraits (Boston, 1889), p. 1.

TRANSLATIONS OF HIS POETRY by Emma Lazarus and Mrs. Lucas (op. cit.): Editions of the Prayer-Book; also J.Q.R., X, pp. 117, 626; VII, p. 464; Treasurers of Oxford (London, 1850); I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, chs. 7, 9 and 10.

HIS PHILOSOPHY: Specimen of the Cusari, translated by A. Neubauer (Miscellany of the Society of Hebrew Literature, Vol. I). John Owen.—J.Q.R., III, p. 199.


Graetz.—III, p. 559 [577]

Karpeles.—-Jewish Literature and other Essays, p. 210 seq.

M. Sachs.—Hebrew Review, Vol. I.



Maimon, Rambam = R. Moses, the son of Maimon, Maimonides.—His Yad Hachazaka and Moreh Nebuchim.—Gersonides.—Crescas.—Albo.

The greatest Jew of the Middle Ages, Moses, the son of Maimon, was born in Cordova, in 1135, and died in Fostat in 1204. His father Maimon was himself an accomplished scientist and an enlightened thinker, and the son was trained in the many arts and sciences then included in a liberal education. When Moses was thirteen years old, Cordova fell into the hands of the Almohades, a sect of Mohammedans, whose creed was as pure as their conduct was fanatical. Jews and Christians were forced to choose conversion to Islam, exile, or death. Maimon fled with his family, and, after an interval of troubled wanderings and painful privations, they settled in Fez, where they found the Almohades equally powerful and equally vindictive. Maimon and his son were compelled to assume the outward garb of Mohammedanism for a period of five years. From Fez the family emigrated in 1165 to Palestine, and, after a long period of anxiety, Moses Maimonides settled in Egypt, in Fostat, or Old Cairo.

In Egypt, another son of Maimon, David, traded in precious stones, and supported his learned brother. When David was lost at sea, Maimonides earned a living as a physician. His whole day was occupied in his profession, yet he contrived to work at his books during the greater part of the night. His minor works would alone have brought their author fame. His first great work was completed in 1168. It was a Commentary on the Mishnah, and was written in Arabic. But Maimonides' reputation rests mainly on two books, the one written for the many, the other for the few. The former is his "Strong Hand" (Yad Hachazaka), the latter his "Guide of the Perplexed" (Moreh Nebuchim).

The "Strong Hand" was a gigantic undertaking. In its fourteen books Maimonides presented a clearly-arranged and clearly-worded summary of the Rabbinical Halachah, or Law. In one sense it is an encyclopedia, but it is an encyclopedia written with style. For its power to grapple with vast materials, this code has few rivals and no superiors in other literatures. Maimonides completed its compilation in 1180, having spent ten years over it. During the whole of that time, he was not only a popular doctor, but also official Rabbi of Cairo. He received no salary from the community, for he said, "Better one penny earned by the work of one's hands, than all the revenues of the Prince of the Captivity, if derived from fees for teaching or acting as Rabbi." The "Strong Hand," called also "Deuteronomy" (Mishneh Torah), sealed the reputation of Maimonides for all time. Maimonides was indeed attacked, first, because he asserted that his work was intended to make a study of the Talmud less necessary, and secondly, because he gave no authorities for his statements, but decided for himself which Talmudical opinions to accept, which to reject. But the severest scrutiny found few real blemishes and fewer actual mistakes. "From Moses to Moses there arose none like Moses," was a saying that expressed the general reverence for Maimonides. Copies of the book were made everywhere; the Jewish mind became absorbed in it; his fame and his name "rang from Spain to India, from the sources of the Tigris to South Arabia." Eulogies were showered on him from all parts of the earth. And no praise can say more for this marvellous man than the fact that the incense burned at his shrine did not intoxicate him. His touch became firmer, his step more resolute. But he went on his way as before, living simply and laboring incessantly, unmoved by the thunders of applause, unaffected by the feebler echoes of calumny. He corresponded with his brethren far and near, answered questions as Rabbi, explained passages in his Commentary on the Mishnah or his other writings, entered heartily into the controversies of the day, discussed the claims of a new aspirant to the dignity of Messiah, encouraged the weaker brethren who fell under disfavor because they had been compelled to become pretended converts to Islam, showed common-sense and strong intellectual grasp in every line he wrote, and combined in his dealings with all questions the rarely associated qualities, toleration and devotion to the truth. Yet he felt that his life's work was still incomplete. He loved truth, but truth for him had two aspects: there was truth as revealed by God, there was truth which God left man to discover for himself. In the mind of Maimonides, Moses and Aristotle occupied pedestals side by side. In the "Strong Hand," he had codified and given orderly arrangement to Judaism as revealed in Bible and tradition; he would now examine its relations to reason, would compare its results with the data of philosophy. This he did in his "Guide of the Perplexed" (Moreh Nebuchim). Maimonides here differed fundamentally from his immediate predecessors. Jehuda Halevi, in his Cuzari, was poet more than philosopher. The Cuzari was a dialogue based on the three principles, that God is revealed in history, that Jerusalem is the centre of the world, and that Israel is to the nations as the heart to the limbs. Jehuda Halevi supported these ideas with arguments deduced from the philosophy of his day, he used reason as the handmaid of theology. Maimonides, however, like Saadiah, recognized a higher function for reason. He placed reason on the same level as revelation, and then demonstrated that his faith and his reason taught identical truths. His work, the "Guide of the Perplexed," written in Arabic in about the year 1190, is based, on the one hand, on the Aristotelian system as expounded by Arabian thinkers, and, on the other hand, on a firm belief in Scripture and tradition. With a masterly hand, Maimonides summarized the teachings of Aristotle and the doctrines of Moses and the Rabbis. Between these two independent bodies of truths he found, not contradiction, but agreement, and he reconciled them in a way that satisfied so many minds that the "Guide" was translated into Hebrew twice during his life-time, and was studied by Mohammedans and by Christians such as Thomas Aquinas. With general readers, the third part was the most popular. In this part Maimonides offered rational explanations of the ceremonial and legislative details of the Bible.

For a long time after the death of Maimonides, which took place in 1204, Jewish thought found in the "Guide" a strong attraction or a violent repulsion. Commentaries on the Moreh, or "Guide," multiplied apace. Among the most original of the philosophical successors of Maimonides there were few Jews but were greatly influenced by him. Even the famous author of "The Wars of the Lord," Ralbag, Levi, the son of Gershon (Gersonides), who was born in 1288, and died in 1344, was more or less at the same stand-point as Maimonides. On the other hand, Chasdai Crescas, in his "Light of God," written between 1405 and 1410, made a determined attack on Aristotle, and dealt a serious blow at Maimonides. Crescas' work influenced the thought of Spinoza, who was also a close student of Maimonides. A pupil of Crescas, Joseph Albo (1380-1444) was likewise a critic of Maimonides. Albo's treatise, "The Book of Principles" (Ikkarim), became a popular text-book. It was impossible that the reconciliation of Aristotle and Moses should continue to satisfy Jewish readers, when Aristotle had been dethroned from his position of dictator in European thought. But the "Guide" of Maimonides was a great achievement for its spirit more than for its contents. If it inevitably became obsolete as a system of theology, it permanently acted as an antidote to the mysticism which in the thirteenth century began to gain a hold on Judaism, and which, but for Maimonides, might have completely undermined the beliefs of the Synagogue. Maimonides remained the exemplar of reasoning faith long after his particular form of reasoning had become unacceptable to the faithful.



Graetz.—III, 14.

Karpeles.—Jewish Literature and other Essays, p. 145.

Steinschneider.—Jewish Literature, pp. 70, 82 seq., 94 seq.

Schiller-Szinessy.—Encycl. Brit., Vol. XV, p. 295.


Eight Chapters.—B. Spiers in Threefold Cord (1893). English translation in Hebrew Review, Vols. I and II.

Strong Hand, selections translated by Soloweycik (London, 1863).

Letter to Jehuda Ibn Tibbon, translated by H. Adler (Miscellany of the Society of Hebrew Literature, Vol. I).

Guide of the Perplexed, translated by M. Friedlaender (1885).


I.H. Weiss.—Study of the Talmud in the Thirteenth Century, J.Q.R., I, p. 290.

J. Owen.—J.Q.R., III, p. 203.

S. Schechter.—Studies in Judaism, p. 161 [197], etc.

On MAIMON (father of Maimonides), see L.M. Simmons, Letter of Consolation of Maimon ben Joseph, J.Q.R., II, p. 62.


Graetz.—IV, pp. 146 [157], 191 [206].


Graetz.—IV, 7.

English translation of Ikkarim, Hebrew Review, Vols. I, II, III.



Provencal Translators.—The Ibn Tibbons.—Italian Translators.—Jacob Anatoli.—Kalonymos.—Scientific Literature.

Translators act as mediators between various peoples and ages. They bring the books and ideas of one form of civilization to the minds and hearts of another. In the Middle Ages translations were of more importance than now, since fewer educated people could read foreign languages.

No men of letters were more active than the Jews in this work of diffusion. Dr. Steinschneider fills 1100 large pages with an account of the translations made by Jews in the Middle Ages. Jews co-operated with Mohammedans in making translations from the Greek, as later on they were associated with Christians in making Latin translations of the masterpieces of Greek literature. Most of the Jewish translations, however, that influenced Europe were made from the Arabic into the Hebrew. But though the language of these translations was mostly Hebrew, they were serviceable to others besides Jews. For the Hebrew versions were often only a stage in a longer journey. Sometimes by Jews directly, sometimes by Christian scholars acting in conjunction with Jews, these Hebrew versions were turned into Latin, which most scholars understood, and from the Latin further translations were made into the every-day languages of Europe.

The works so translated were chiefly the scientific and philosophical masterpieces of the Greeks and Arabs. Poetry and history were less frequently the subject of translation, but, as will be seen later on, the spread of the fables of Greece and of the folk-tales of India owed something to Hebrew translators and editors.

Provence was a meeting-place for Arab science and Jewish learning in the Middle Ages, and it was there that the translating impulse of the Jews first showed itself strongly. By the beginning of the thirteenth century, Hebrew translation had become an art. True, these Hebrew versions possess no graces of style, but they rank among the best of their class for fidelity to their originals. Jewish patrons encouraged the translators by material and moral support. Thus, Meshullam of Lunel (twelfth century) was both learned and wealthy, and his eager encouragement of Judah Ibn Tibbon, "the father of Jewish translators," gave a strong impetus to the translating activity of the Jews.

Judah Ibn Tibbon (about 1120-1190) was of Spanish origin, but he emigrated from Granada to Provence during the same persecution that drove Maimonides from his native land. Judah settled in Lunel, and his skill as a physician won him such renown that his medical services were sought by knights and bishops even from across the sea. Judah Ibn Tibbon was a student of science and philosophy. He early qualified himself as a translator by careful attention to philological niceties. Under the inspiration of Meshullam, he spent the years 1161 to 1186 in making a series of translations from Arabic into Hebrew. His translations were difficult and forced in style, but he had no ready-made language at his command. He had to create a new Hebrew. Classical Hebrew was naturally destitute of the technical terms of philosophy, and Ibn Tibbon invented expressions modelled on the Greek and the Arabic. He made Hebrew once more a living language by extending its vocabulary and adapting its idioms to the requirements of medieval culture.

His son Samuel (1160-1230) and his grandson Moses continued the line of faithful but inelegant translators. Judah had turned into Hebrew the works of Bachya, Ibn Gebirol, Jehuda Halevi, Ibn Janach, and Saadiah. Samuel was the translator of Maimonides, and bore a brave part in the defence of his master in the bitter controversies which arose as to the lawfulness and profit of studying philosophy. The translations of the Tibbon family were in the first instance intended for Jewish readers only, but later on the Tibbonite versions were turned into Latin by Buxtorf and others. Another Latin translation of Maimonides existed as early as the thirteenth century.

Of the successors of the Tibbons, Jacob Anatoli (1238) was the first to translate any portion of Averroes into any language. Averroes was an Arab thinker of supreme importance in the Middle Ages, for through his writings Europe was acquainted with Aristotle. Renan asserts that all the early students of Averroes were Jews. Anatoli, a son-in-law of Samuel Ibn Tibbon, was invited by Emperor Frederick II to leave Provence and settle in Naples. To allow Anatoli full leisure for making translations, Frederick granted him an annual income. Anatoli was a friend of the Christian Michael Scot, and the latter made Latin renderings from the former's Hebrew translations. In this way Christian Europe was made familiar with Aristotle as interpreted by Averroes (Ibn Roshd). Much later, the Jew Abraham de Balmes (1523) translated Averroes directly from Arabic into Latin. In the early part of the fourteenth century, Kalonymos, the son of Kalonymos, of Aries (born 1287), translated various works into Latin.

From the thirteenth century onwards, Jews were industrious translators of all the important masterpieces of scientific and philosophical literature. Their zeal included the works of the Greek astronomers and mathematicians, Ptolemy, Euclid, Archimedes, and many others. Alfonso X commissioned several Jews to co-operate with the royal secretaries in making new renderings of older Arabic works on astronomy. Long before this, in 959, the monk Nicholas joined the Jew Chasdai in translating Dioscorides. Most of the Jewish translators were, however, not Spaniards, but Provencals and Italians. It is to them that we owe the Hebrew translations of Galen and Hippocrates, on which Latin versions were based.

The preceding details, mere drops from an ocean of similar facts, show that the Jews were the mediators between Mohammedan and Christian learning in the Middle Ages. According to Lecky, "the Jews were the chief interpreters to Western Europe of Arabian learning." When it is remembered that Arabian learning for a long time included the Greek, it will be seen that Lecky ascribes to Jewish translators a role of the first importance in the history of science. Roger Bacon (1214-1294) had long before said a similar thing: "Michael Scot claimed the merit of numerous translations. But it is certain that a Jew labored at them more than he did. And so with the rest."

In what precedes, nothing has been said of the original contributions made by Jewish authors to scientific literature. Jews were active in original research especially in astronomy, medicine, and mathematics. Many Jewish writers famous as philosophers, Talmudists, or poets, were also men of science. There are numerous Jewish works on the calendar, on astronomical instruments and tables, on mathematics, on medicine, and natural history. Some of their writers share the medieval belief in astrology and magic. But it is noteworthy that Abraham Ibn Ezra doubted the common belief in demons, while Maimonides described astrology as "that error called a science." These subjects, however, are too technical for fuller treatment in the present book. More will be found in the works cited below.



Graetz.—III, p. 397 [409].


Graetz.—III, p. 566 [584].

Karpeles.—Sketch of Jewish History (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1897), pp. 49, 57.


Steinschneider, Jewish Literature, p. 62 seq.


Steinschneider.—Ibid., pp. 179 seq., 260 seq.

Also, A. Friedenwald.—Jewish Physicians and the Contributions of the Jews to the Science of Medicine (Publications of the Gratz College, Vol. I).



Barlaam and Joshaphat.—The Fables of Bidpai.—Abraham Ibn Chisdai.—Berachya ha-Nakdan.—Joseph Zabara.

The folk-tales of India were communicated to Europe in two ways. First, there was an oral diffusion. In friendly conversation round the family hearth, in the convivial intercourse of the tavern and divan, the wit and wisdom of the East found a home in the West. Having few opportunities of coming into close relations with Christian society, the Jews had only a small share in the oral diffusion of folk-tales. But there was another means of diffusion, namely, by books. By their writings the Jews were able to leave some impress on the popular literature of Europe.

This they did by their translations. Sometimes the Jews translated fables and folk-tales solely for their own use, and in such cases the translations did not leave the Hebrew form into which they were cast. A good example of this was Abraham Ibn Chisdai's "Prince and Nazirite," compiled in the beginning of the thirteenth century. It was a Hebrew version of the legend of Buddha, known as "Barlaam and Joshaphat." In this the story is told of a prince's conversion to the ascetic life. His father had vainly sought to hold him firm to a life of pleasure by isolating him in a beautiful palace, far from the haunts of man, so that he might never know that such things as evil, misery, and death existed. Of course the plan failed, the prince discovered the things hidden from him, and he became converted to the life of self-denial and renunciation associated with the saintly teaching of Buddha. This story is the frame into which a number of charming tales are set, which have found their way into the popular literature of all the world. But in this spread of the Indian stories, the book of Abraham Ibn Chisdai had no part.

Far other it was with the Hebrew translation of the famous Fables of Bidpai, known in Hebrew as Kalila ve-Dimna. These fables, like those contained in the "Prince and Nazirite," were Indian, and were in fact birth-stories of Buddha. They were connected by means of a frame, or central plot. A large part of the popular tales of the Middle Ages can be traced to the Fables of Bidpai, and here the Jews exerted important influence. Some authorities even hold that these Fables of Bidpai were brought to Spain directly from India by Jews. This is doubtful, but it is certain that the spread of the Fables was due to Jewish activity. A Jew translated them into Hebrew, and this Hebrew was turned into Latin by the Italian John of Capua, a Jew by birth, in the year 1270. Moreover, the Old Spanish version which was made in 1251 probably was also the work of the Jewish school of translators established in Toledo by Alfonso. The Greek version, which was earlier still, and dates from 1080, was equally the work of a Jew. Thus, as Mr. Joseph Jacobs has shown, this curious collection of fables, which influenced Europe more perhaps than any book except the Bible, started as a Buddhistic work, and passed over to the Mohammedans and Christians chiefly through the mediation of Jews.

Another interesting collection of fables was made by Berachya ha-Nakdan (the Punctuator, or Grammarian). He lived in England in the twelfth century, or according to another opinion he dwelt in France a century later. His collection of 107 "Fox Fables" won wide popularity, for their wit and point combined with their apt use of Biblical phrases to please the medieval taste. The fables in this collection are all old, many of them being AEsop's, but it is very possible that the first knowledge of AEsop gained in England was derived from a Latin translation of Berachya.

Of greater poetical merit was Joseph Zabara's "Book of Delight," written in about the year 1200 in Spain. In this poetical romance a large number of ancient fables and tales are collected, but they are thrown into a frame-work which is partially original. One night he, the author, lay at rest after much toil, when a giant appeared before him, and bade him rise. Joseph hastily obeyed, and by the light of the lamp which the giant carried partook of a fine banquet which his visitor spread for him. Enan, for such was the giant's name, offered to take Joseph to another land, pleasant as a garden, where all men were loving, all men wise. But Joseph refused, and told Enan fable after fable, about leopards, foxes, and lions, all proving that it was best for a man to remain where he was and not travel to foreign places. But Enan coaxes Joseph to go with him, and as they ride on, they tell one another a very long series of excellent tales, and exchange many witty remarks and anecdotes. When at last they reach Enan's city, Joseph discovers that his guide is a demon. In the end, Joseph breaks away from him, and returns home to Barcelona. Now, it is very remarkable that this collection of tales, written in exquisite Hebrew, closely resembles the other collections in which Europe delighted later on. It is hard to believe that Zabara's work had no influence in spreading these tales. At all events, Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans, all read and enjoyed the same stories, all laughed at the same jokes. "It is," says Mr. Jacobs, "one of those touches of nature which make the whole world kin. These folk-tales form a bond, not alone between the ages, but between many races who think they have nothing in common. We have the highest authority that 'out of the mouths of babes and sucklings has the Lord established strength,' and surely of all the influences for good in the world, none is comparable to the lily souls of little children. That Jews, by their diffusion of folk-tales, have furnished so large an amount of material to the childish imagination of the civilized world is, to my mind, no slight thing for Jews to be proud of. It is one of the conceptions that make real to us the idea of the Brotherhood of Man, which, in Jewish minds, is forever associated with the Fatherhood of God."


J. Jacobs.—The Diffusion of Folk Tales (in Jewish Ideals, p. 135); The Fables of Bidpai (London, 1888) and Barlaam and Joshaphat (Introductions).

Steinschneider.—Jewish Literature, p. 174.


J. Jacobs.—Jews of Angevin England, pp. 165 seq., 278.

A. Neubauer.—J.Q.R., II, p. 520.


I. Abrahams.—J.Q.R., VI, p. 502 (with English translation of the Book of Delight).



French and Spanish Talmudists.—The Tossafists, Asher of Speyer, Tam, Isaac of Dompaire, Baruch of Ratisbon, Perez of Corbeil.—Nachmanides' Commentary on the Pentateuch.—Public controversies between Jews and Christians.

Nachmanides was one of the earliest writers to effect a reconciliation between the French and the Spanish schools of Jewish literature. On the one side, his Spanish birth and training made him a friend of the widest culture; on the other, he was possessed of the French devotion to the Talmud. Moses, the son of Nachman (Nachmanides, Ramban, 1195-1270), Spaniard though he was, says, "The French Rabbis have won most Jews to their view. They are our masters in Talmud, and to them we must go for instruction." From the eleventh to the fourteenth century, a French school of Talmudists occupied themselves with the elucidation of the Talmud, and from the "Additions" (Tossafoth) which they compiled they are known as Tossafists. The Tossafists were animated with an altogether different spirit from that of the Spanish writers on the Talmud. But though their method is very involved and over-ingenious, they display so much mastery of the Talmud, such excellent discrimination, and so keen a critical insight, that they well earned the fame they have enjoyed. The earliest Tossafists were the family and pupils of Rashi, but the method spread from Northern France to Provence, and thence to Spain. The most famous Tossafists were Isaac, the son of Asher of Speyer (end of the eleventh century); Tam of Rameru (Rashi's grandson); Isaac the Elder of Dompaire (Tam's nephew); Baruch of Ratisbon; and Perez of Corbeil.

Nachmanides' admiration for the French method—a method by no means restricted to the Tossafists—did not blind him to its defects. "They try to force an elephant through the eye of a needle," he sarcastically said of some of the French casuists. Nachmanides thus possessed some of the independence characteristic of the Spanish Jews. He also shared the poetic spirit of Spain, and his hymn for the Day of Atonement is one of the finest products of the new-Hebrew muse. The last stanzas run thus:

Thine is the love, O God, and thine the grace, That holds the sinner in its mild embrace; Thine the forgiveness, bridging o'er the space 'Twixt man's works and the task set by the King.

Unheeding all my sins, I cling to thee! I know that mercy shall thy footstool be: Before I call, O do thou answer me, For nothing dare I claim of thee, my King!

O thou, who makest guilt to disappear, My help, my hope, my rock, I will not fear; Though thou the body hold in dungeon drear, The soul has found the palace of the King!

Everything that Nachmanides wrote is warm with tender love. He was an enthusiast in many directions. His heart went out to the French Talmudists, yet he cherished so genuine an affection for Maimonides that he defended him with spirit against his detractors. Gentle by nature, he broke forth into fiery indignation against the French critics of Maimonides. At the same time his tender soul was attracted by the emotionalism of the Kabbala, or mystical view of life, a view equally opposed to the views of Maimonides and of the French school. He tried to act the part of reconciler, but his intellect, strong as it was, was too much at the mercy of his emotions for him to win a commanding place in the controversies of his time.

For a moment we may turn aside from his books to the incidents of his life. Like Maimonides, he was a physician by profession and a Rabbi by way of leisure. The most momentous incident in his career in Barcelona was his involuntary participation in a public dispute with a convert from the Synagogue. Pablo Christiani burned with the desire to convert the Jews en masse to Christianity, and in 1263 he induced King Jayme I of Aragon to summon Nachmanides to a controversy on the truth of Christianity. Nachmanides complied with the royal command most reluctantly. He felt that the process of rousing theological animosity by a public discussion could only end in a religious persecution. However, he had no alternative but to assent. He stipulated for complete freedom of speech. This was granted, but when Nachmanides published his version of the discussion, the Dominicans were incensed. True, the special commission appointed to examine the charge of blasphemy brought against Nachmanides reported that he had merely availed himself of the right of free speech which had been guaranteed to him. He was nevertheless sentenced to exile, and his pamphlet was burnt. Nachmanides was seventy years of age at the time. He settled in Palestine, where he died in about 1270, amid a band of devoted friends and disciples, who did not, however, reconcile him to the separation from his Spanish home. "I left my family," he wrote, "I forsook my house. There, with my sons and daughters, the sweet, dear children whom I brought up on my knees, I left also my soul My heart and my eyes will dwell with them forever."

The Halachic, or Talmudical, works of Nachmanides have already been mentioned. His homiletical, or exegetical, writings are of more literary importance. In "The Sacred Letter" he contended that man's earthly nature is divine no less than his soul, and he vindicates the "flesh" from the attacks made on human character by certain forms of Christianity. The body, according to Nachmanides, is, with all its functions, the work of God, and therefore perfect. "It is only sin and neglect that disfigure God's creatures." In another of his books, "The Law of Man," Nachmanides writes of suffering and death. He offers an antidote to pessimism, for he boldly asserts that pain and suffering in themselves are "a service of God, leading man to ponder on his end and reflect about his destiny." Nachmanides believed in the bodily resurrection, but held that the soul was in a special sense a direct emanation from God. He was not a philosopher strictly so-called; he was a mystic more than a thinker, one to whom God was an intuition, not a concept of reason.

The greatest work of Nachmanides was his "Commentary on the Pentateuch." He reveals his whole character in it. In composing his work he had, he tells us, three motives, an intellectual, a theological, and an emotional motive. First, he would "satisfy the minds of students, and draw their heart out by a critical examination of the text." His exposition is, indeed, based on true philology and on deep and original study of the Bible. His style is peculiarly attractive, and had he been content to offer a plain commentary, his work would have ranked among the best. But he had other desires besides giving a simple explanation of the text. He had, secondly, a theological motive, to justify God and discover in the words of Scripture a hidden meaning. In the Biblical narratives, Nachmanides sees types of the history of man. Thus, the account of the six days of creation is turned into a prophecy of the events which would occur during the next six thousand years, and the seventh day is a type of the millennium. So, too, Nachmanides finds symbolical senses in Scriptural texts, "for, in the Torah, are hidden every wonder and every mystery, and in her treasures is sealed every beauty of wisdom." Finally, Nachmanides wrote, not only for educational and theological ends, but also for edification. His third purpose was "to bring peace to the minds of students (laboring under persecution and trouble), when they read the portion of the Pentateuch on Sabbaths and festivals, and to attract their hearts by simple explanations and sweet words." His own enthusiastic and loving temperament speaks in this part of his commentary. It is true, as Graetz says, that Nachmanides exercised more influence on his contemporaries and on succeeding ages by his personality than by his writings. But it must be added that the writings of Nachmanides are his personality.



I.H. Weiss, Study of the Talmud in the Thirteenth Century, J.Q.R., I, p. 289.

S. Schechter.—Studies in Judaism, p. 99 [120].

Graetz.—III, 17; also III, p. 598 [617].


Graetz.—III, p. 375 [385].


Graetz.—III, p. 344 [351], 403 [415].



Kabbala.—The Bahir.—Abulafia.—Moses of Leon.—The Zohar.—Isaac Lurya.—Isaiah Hurwitz.—Christian Kabbalists.—The Chassidim.

Mysticism is the name given to the belief in direct, intuitive communion with God. All true religion has mystical elements, for all true religion holds that man can commune with God, soul with soul. In the Psalms, God is the Rock of the heart, the Portion of the cup, the Shepherd and Light, the Fountain of Life, an exceeding Joy. All this is, in a sense, mystical language. But mysticism has many dangers. It is apt to confuse vague emotionalism and even hysteria with communion with God. A further defect of mysticism is that, in its medieval forms, it tended to the multiplication of intermediate beings, or angels, which it created to supply the means for that communion with God which, in theory, the mystics asserted was direct. Finally, from being a deep-seated, emotional aspect of religion, mysticism degenerated into intellectual sport, a play with words and a juggling with symbols.

Jewish mysticism passed through all these stages. Kabbala—as mysticism was called—really means "Tradition," and the name proves that the theory had its roots far back in the past. It has just been said that there is mysticism in the Psalms. So there is in the idea of inspiration, the prophet's receiving a message direct from God with whom he spoke face to face. After the prophetic age, Jewish mysticism displayed itself in intense personal religiousness, as well as in love for Apocalyptic, or dream, literature, in which the sleeper could, like Daniel, feel himself lapped to rest in the bosom of God.

All the earlier literary forms of mysticism, or theosophy, made comparatively little impression on Jewish writers. But at the beginning of the thirteenth century a great development took place in the "secret" science of the Kabbala. The very period which produced the rationalism of Maimonides gave birth to the emotionalism of the Kabbala. The Kabbala was at first a protest against too much intellectualism and rigidity in religion. It reclaimed religion for the heart. A number of writers more or less dallied with the subject, and then the Kabbala took a bolder flight. Ezra, or Azriel, a teacher of Nachmanides, compiled a book called "Brilliancy" (Bahir) in the year 1240. It was at once regarded as a very ancient book. As will be seen, the same pretence of antiquity was made with regard to another famous Kabbalistic work of a later generation. Under Todros Abulafia (1234-1304) and Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291), the mystical movement took a practical shape, and the Jewish masses were much excited by stories of miracles performed and of the appearance of a new Messiah.

At this moment Moses of Leon (born in Leon in about 1250, died in Arevalo in 1305) wrote the most famous Kabbalistic book of the Middle Ages. This was named, in imitation of the Bahir, "Splendor" (Zohar), and its brilliant success matched its title. Not only did this extraordinary book raise the Kabbala to the zenith of its influence, but it gave it a firm and, as it has proved, unassailable basis. Like the Bahir, the Zohar was not offered to the public on its own merits, but was announced as the work of Simon, the son of Yochai, who lived in the second century. The Zohar, it was pretended, had been concealed in a cavern in Galilee for more than a thousand years, and had now been suddenly discovered. The Zohar is, indeed, a work of genius, its spiritual beauty, its fancy, its daring imagery, its depth of devotion, ranking it among the great books of the world. Its literary style, however, is less meritorious; it is difficult and involved. As Chatterton clothed his ideas in a pseudo-archaic English, so Moses of Leon used an Aramaic idiom, which he handled clumsily and not as one to the manner born. It would not be so important to insist on the fact that the Zohar was a literary forgery, that it pretended to an antiquity it did not own, were it not that many Jews and Christians still write as though they believe that the book is as old as it was asserted to be. The defects of the Zohar are in keeping with this imposture. Absurd allegories are read into the Bible; the words of Scripture are counters in a game of distortion and combination; God himself is obscured amid a maze of mystic beings, childishly conceived and childishly named. Philosophically, the Zohar has no originality. Its doctrines of the Transmigration of the Soul, of the Creation as God's self-revelation in the world, of the Emanation from the divine essence of semi-human, semi-divine powers, were only commonplaces of medieval theology. Its great original idea was that the revealed Word of God, the Torah, was designed for no other purpose than to effect a union between the soul of man and the soul of God.

Reinforced by this curious jumble of excellence and nonsense, the Kabbala became one of the strongest literary bonds between Jews and Christians. It is hardly to be wondered at, for the Zohar contains some ideas which are more Christian than Jewish. Christians, like Pico di Mirandola (1463-1494), under the influence of the Jewish Kabbalist Jochanan Aleman, and Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522), sharer of Pico's spirit and precursor of the improved study of the Scriptures in Europe, made the Zohar the basis of their defence of Jewish literature against the attempts of various ecclesiastical bodies to crush and destroy it.

The Kabbala did not, however, retain a high place in the realm of literature. It greatly influenced Jewish religious ceremonies, it produced saintly souls, and from such centres as Safed and Salonica sent forth men like Solomon Molcho and Sabbatai Zevi, who maintained that they were Messiahs, and could perform miracles on the strength of Kabbalistic powers. But from the literary stand-point the Kabbala was a barren inspiration. The later works of Kabbalists are a rehash of the older works. The Zohar was the bible of the Kabbalists, and the later works of the school were commentaries on this bible. The Zohar had absorbed all the earlier Kabbalistic literature, such as the "Book of Creation" (Sefer Yetsirah), the Book Raziel, the Alphabet of Rabbi Akiba, and it was the final literary expression of the Kabbala.

It is, therefore, unnecessary to do more than name one or two of the more noted Kabbalists of post-Zoharistic ages. Isaac Lurya (1534-1572) was a saint, so devoid of self-conceit that he published nothing, though he flourished at the very time when the printing-press was throwing copies of the Zohar broadcast. We owe our knowledge of Lurya's Kabbalistic ideas to the prolific writings of his disciple Chayim Vital Calabrese, who died in Damascus in 1620. Other famous Kabbalists were Isaiah Hurwitz (about 1570-1630), author of a much admired ethical work, "The Two Tables of the Covenant" (Sheloh, as it is familiarly called from the initials of its Hebrew title); Nehemiah Chayun (about 1650-1730); and the Hebrew dramatist Moses Chayim Luzzatto (1707-1747).

A more recent Kabbalistic movement, led by the founder of the new saints, or Chassidim, Israel Baalshem (about 1700-1772), was even less literary than the one just described. But the Kabbalists, medieval and modern, were meritorious writers in one field of literature. The Kabbalists and the Chassidim were the authors of some of the most exquisite prayers and meditations which the soul of the Jew has poured forth since the Psalms were completed. This redeems the later Kabbalistic literature from the altogether unfavorable verdict which would otherwise have to be passed on it.



Graetz.—III, p. 547 [565]


Graetz.—IV, 1.


A. Neubauer.—Bahir and Zohar, J.Q.R., IV, p. 357.

Steinschneider.—Jewish Literature, p. 104.


Graetz.—IV, p. 618 [657].


Graetz.—V, p. 118 [125].


Graetz.—V, 9.

Schechter.—Studies in Judaism, p. 1.



Immanuel and Dante.—The Machberoth.—Judah Romano.—Kalonymos.—The Eben Bochan.—Moses Rieti.—Messer Leon.

The course of Jewish literature in Italy ran along the same lines as in Spain. The Italian group of authors was less brilliant, but the difference was one of degree, not of kind. The Italian aristocracy, like the Moorish caliphs and viziers, patronized learning, and encouraged the Jews in their literary ambitions.

Yet the fact that the inspiration in Spain came from Islam and in Italy from Christianity produced some consequences. In Spain the Jews followed Arab models of style. In Italy the influence of classical models was felt at the time of the Renaissance. Most noteworthy of all was the indebtedness of the Hebrew poets of Italy to Dante.

It is not improbable that Dante was a personal friend of the most noted of these Jewish poets, Immanuel, the son of Solomon of Rome. Like the other Jews of Rome, Immanuel stood in the most friendly relations with Christians, for nowhere was medieval intolerance less felt than in the very seat of the Pope, the head of the Church. Thus, on the one hand Immanuel was a leading member of the synagogue, and, on the other, he carried on a literary correspondence with learned Christians, with poets, and men of science. He was himself a physician, and his poems breathe a scientific spirit. As happened earlier in Spain, the circle of Immanuel regarded verse-making as part of the culture of a scholar. Witty verses, in the form of riddles and epigrams, were exchanged at the meetings of the circle. With these poets, among whom Kalonymos was included, the penning of verses was a fashion. On the other hand, music was not so much cultivated by the Italian Hebrews as by the Spanish. Hence, both Immanuel and Kalonymos lack the lightness and melody of the best writers of Hebrew verse in Spain. The Italians atoned for this loss by their subject-matter. They are joyous poets, full of the gladness of life. They are secular, not religious poets; the best of the Spanish-Hebrew poetry was devotional, and the best of the Italian so secular that it was condemned by pietists as too frivolous and too much "disfigured by ill-timed levity."

Immanuel was born in Rome in about 1270. He rarely mentions his father, but often names his mother Justa as a woman of pious and noble character. As a youth, he had a strong fancy for scientific study, and was nourished on the "Guide" of Maimonides, on the works of the Greeks and Arabs, and on the writings of the Christian school-men, which he read in Hebrew translations. Besides philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, Immanuel studied the Bible and the Talmud, and became an accomplished scholar. He was not born a poet, but he read deeply the poetical literature of Jews and Christians, and took lessons in rhyme-making. He was wealthy, and his house was a rendezvous of wits and scientists. His own position in the Jewish community was remarkable. It has already been said that he took an active part in the management of communal affairs, but he did more than this. He preached in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement, and delivered eulogistic orations over the remains of departed worthies. Towards the end of his life he suffered losses both in fortune and in friends, but he finally found a new home in Fermo, where he was cordially welcomed in 1328. The date of his death is uncertain, but he died in about 1330.

His works were versatile rather than profound. He wrote grammatical treatises and commentaries, which display learning more than originality. But his poetical writings are of great interest in the history of Jewish literature. He lived in the dawn-flush of the Renaissance in Italy. The Italian language was just evolving itself, under the genius of Dante, from a mere jumble of dialects into a literary language. Dante did for Italy what Chaucer was soon after to do for England. On the one side influenced by the Renaissance and the birth of the new Italian language, on the other by the Jewish revival of letters in Spain and Provence, the Italian Jews alone combined the Jewish spirit with the spirit of the classical Renaissance. Immanuel was the incarnation of this complex soul.

This may be seen from the form of Immanuel's Machberoth, or "Collection." The latter portion of it, named separately "Hell and Eden," was imitated from the Christian Dante; the poem as a whole was planned on Charizi's Tachkemoni, a Hebrew development of the Arabic Divan. The poet is not the hero of his own song, but like the Arabic poets of the divan, conceives a personage who fills the centre of the canvas—a personage really identical with the author, yet in a sense other than he. Much quaintness of effect is produced by this double part played by the poet, who, as it were, satirizes his own doings. In Immanuel's Machberoth there is much variety of romantic incident. But it is in satire that he reaches his highest level. Love and wine are the frequent burdens of his song, as they are in the Provencal and Italian poetry of his day. Immanuel was something of a Voltaire in his jocose treatment of sacred things, and pietists like Joseph Karo inhibited the study of the Machberoth. Others, too, described his songs as sensuous and his satires as blasphemous. But the devout and earnest piety of some of Immanuel's prayers,—some of them to be found in the Machberoth themselves—proves that Immanuel's licentiousness and levity were due, not to lack of reverence, but to the attempt to reconcile the ideals of Italian society of the period of the Renaissance with the ideals of Judaism.

Immanuel owed his rhymed prose to Charizi, but again he shows his devotion to two masters by writing Hebrew sonnets. The sonnet was new then to Italian verse, and Immanuel's Hebrew specimens thus belong to the earliest sonnets written in any literature. It is, indeed, impossible to convey a just sense of the variety of subject and form in the Machberoth. "Serious and frivolous topics trip each other by the heels; all metrical forms, prayers, elegies, passages in unmetrical rhymes, all are mingled together." The last chapter is, however, of a different character, and it has often been printed as a separate work. It is the "Hell and Eden" to which allusion has already been made.

The link between Immanuel and his Provencal contemporary Kalonymos was supplied by Judah Romano, the Jewish school-man. All three were in the service of the king of Naples. Kalonymos was the equal of Romano as a philosopher and not much below Immanuel as a satirist. He was a more fertile poet than Immanuel, for, while Immanuel remained the sole representative of his manner, Kalonymos gave birth to a whole school of imitators. Kalonymos wrote many translations, of Galen, Averroes, Aristotle, al-Farabi, Ptolemy, and Archimedes. But it was his keen wit more than his learning that made him popular in Rome, and impelled the Jews of that city, headed by Immanuel, to persuade Kalonymos to settle permanently in Italy. Kalonymos' two satirical poems were called "The Touchstone" (Eben Bochan) and "The Purim Tractate." These satirize the customs and social habits of the Jews of his day in a bright and powerful style. In his Purim Tractate, Kalonymos parodies the style, logic, and phraseology of the Talmud, and his work was the forerunner of a host of similar parodies.

There were many Italian writers of Piyutim, i.e. Synagogue hymns, but these were mediocre in merit. The elegies written in lament for the burning of the Law and the martyrdoms endured in various parts of Italy were the only meritorious devotional poems composed in Hebrew in that country. Italy remained famous in Hebrew poetry for secular, not for religious compositions. In the fifteenth century Moses Rieti (born 1389, died later than 1452) imitated Dante once more in his "Lesser Sanctuary" (Mikdash Meaet). Here again may be noticed a feature peculiar to Italian Hebrew poetry. Rieti uses regular stanzas, Italian forms of verse, in this matter following the example of Immanuel. Messer Leon, a physician of Mantua, wrote a treatise on Biblical rhetoric (1480). Again, the only important writer of dramas in Hebrew was, as we shall see, an Italian Jew, who copied Italian models. Though, therefore, the Hebrew poetry of Italy scarcely reaches the front rank, it is historically of first-rate importance. It represents the only effects of the Renaissance on Jewish literature. In other countries, the condition of the Jews was such that they were shut off from external influences. Their literature suffered as their lives did from imprisonment within the Ghettos, which were erected both by the Jews themselves and by the governments of Europe.


S. Morals.—Italian Jewish Literature (Publications of the Gratz College, Vol. 1).


Graetz.—IV, p. 61 [66].

J. Chotzner.—Immanuel di Romi, J.Q.R., IV, p. 64.

G. Sacerdote.—Emanuele da Roma's Ninth Mehabbereth, J.Q.R., VII, p. 711.


Graetz.—IV, p. 68 [73].


Graetz.—IV, p. 230 [249].


Graetz.—IV, p. 289 [311].



Bachya Ibn Pekuda.—Choboth ha-Lebaboth.—Sefer ha-Chassidim.—Rokeach.—Yedaiah Bedaressi's Bechinath Olam.—Isaac Aboab's Menorath ha-Maor.—Ibn Chabib's "Eye of Jacob."—Zevaoth, or Ethical Wills.—Joseph Ibn Caspi.—Solomon Alami.

A large proportion of all Hebrew books is ethical. Many of the works already treated here fall under this category. The Talmudical, exegetical, and philosophical writings of Jews were also ethical treatises. In this chapter, however, attention will be restricted to a few books which are in a special sense ethical.

Collections of moral proverbs, such as the "Choice of Pearls," attributed to Ibn Gebirol, and the "Maxims of the Philosophers" by Charizi, were great favorites in the Middle Ages. They had a distinct charm, but they were not original. They were either compilations from older books or direct translations from the Arabic. It was far otherwise with the ethical work entitled "Heart Duties" (Choboth ha-Lebaboth), by Bachya Ibn Pekuda (about 1050-1100). This was as original as it was forcible. Bachya founded his ethical system on the Talmud and on the philosophical notions current in his day, but he evolved out of these elements an original view of life. The inner duties dictated by conscience were set above all conventional morality. Bachya probed the very heart of religion. His soul was filled with God, and this communion, despite the ascetic feelings to which it gave rise, was to Bachya an exceeding joy. His book thrills the reader with the author's own chastened enthusiasm. The "Heart Duties" of Bachya is the most inspired book written by a Jew in the Middle Ages.

In part worthy of a place by the side of Bachya's treatise is an ethical book written in the Rhinelands during the thirteenth century. "The Book of the Pious" (Sefer ha-Chassidim) is mystical, and in course of time superstitious elements were interpolated. Wrongly attributed to a single writer, Judah Chassid, the "Book of the Pious" was really the combined product of the Jewish spirit in the thirteenth century. It is a conglomerate of the sublime and the trivial, the purely ethical with the ceremonial. With this popular and remarkable book may be associated other conglomerates of the ritual, the ethical, and the mystical, as the Rokeach by Eleazar of Worms.

A simpler but equally popular work was Yedaiah Bedaressi's "Examination of the World" (Bechinath Olam), written in about the year 1310. Its style is florid but poetical, and the many quaint turns which it gives to quotations from the Bible remind the reader of Ibn Gebirol. Its earnest appeal to man to aim at the higher life, its easily intelligible and commonplace morals, endeared it to the "general reader" of the Middle Ages. Few books have been more often printed, few more often translated.

Another favorite class of ethical books consisted of compilations made direct from the Talmud and the Midrash. The oldest and most prized of these was Isaac Aboab's "Lamp of Light" (Menorath ha-Maor). It was an admirably written book, clearly arranged, and full to the brim of ethical gems. Aboab's work was written between 1310 and 1320. It is arranged according to subjects, differing in this respect from another very popular compilation, Jacob Ibn Chabib's "Eye of Jacob" (En Yaakob), which was completed in the sixteenth century. In this, the Hagadic passages of the Talmud are extracted without arrangement, the order of the Talmud itself being retained. The "Eye of Jacob" was an extremely popular work.

Of the purely devotional literature of Judaism, it is impossible to speak here. One other ethical book must be here noticed, for it has attained wide and deserved popularity. This is the "Path of the Upright" (Messilath Yesharim) by Moses Chayim Luzzatto, of whom more will be said in a later chapter. But a little more space must be here devoted to a species of ethical tract which was peculiar to Jewish moralists. These tracts were what are known as Ethical Wills.

These Ethical Wills (Zevaoth) contained the express directions of fathers to their children or of aged teachers to their disciples. They were for the most part written calmly in old age, but not immediately before the writers' death. Some of them were very carefully composed, and amount to formal ethical treatises. But in the main they are charmingly natural and unaffected. They were intended for the absolutely private use of children and relatives, or of some beloved pupil who held the dearest place in his master's regard. They were not designed for publication, and thus, as the writer had no reason to expect that his words would pass beyond a limited circle, the Ethical Will is a clear revelation of his innermost feelings and ideals. Intellectually some of these Ethical Wills are poor; morally, however, the general level is very high.

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