Judah Halevi (also Yehuda Halevi or ha-Levi; Hebrew: יהודה
הלוי and Judah ben Shmuel Halevi יהודה בן שמואל
הלוי; Arabic: يهوذا اللاوي; c. 1075 – 1141) was
a Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher. He was born in
Spain, either in Toledo or Tudela, in 1075 or 1086, and died
shortly after arriving in the Holy Land in 1141, at that point the
Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Halevi is considered one of the
greatest Hebrew poets, celebrated both for his religious and secular
poems, many of which appear in present-day liturgy. His greatest
philosophical work was The Kuzari.
2 Journey to Israel
3 His work
3.1 Secular poetry
3.1.1 Love songs
3.2 Religious poetry
3.2.1 Liturgical poetry
3.3 Analysis of his poetry
3.4 As a philosopher
5 External links
Convention suggests that Judah ben Shmuel Halevi was born in Toledo,
Spain in 1075. He often referred to himself as coming from
Alfonso the Battler
Alfonso the Battler conquered Tudela in 1119;
Toledo 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. 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. At other
times he lived in various Muslim cities in the south.
Like most Jewish intellectuals of Muslim Spain, Halevi wrote prose in
Arabic and poetry in Hebrew. During the "Hebrew Golden Age" of the
10th to 12th century, he was the most prolific of the Hebrew poets
and was regarded by some of his contemporaries, as well as by modern
critics, as the greatest of all the medieval Hebrew poets. Like all
the Hebrew poets of the Hebrew Golden Age, he employed the formal
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, he 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 Israel
Halevi's various residences in Spain are not known; he seems to have
lived at times in
Christian Toledo, at other times in Islamic Spain
(al-Andalus). Although he occupied an honored position as a physician,
intellectual, and communal leader, his religious convictions compelled
him to abandon his homeland in order to end his days in 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 the 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 pilgrimage.
Halevi sailed for Alexandria. Arriving on September 8, 1140, he was
greeted enthusiastically 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 Israel on May 14, 1141. Little
is known of his travels after. He died during the summer, presumably
after having reached Palestine. Legend, however, has it that Halevi
was killed after being run over by an Arab horseman as he arrived in
Halevi dealt with his pilgrimage extensively in the poetry written
during his last year, which includes panegyric 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,
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The life-work of
Judah Halevi was devoted to poetry and philosophy.
The scholar Jose de la Fuente Salvat elevates him as the "most
important poet in judaism of all times".
Manuscripts give some grounds for believing that Halevi himself
divided his ouvre into sacred (shirē haq-qodesh) and profane (shirē
ha-hol) poetry. The poetry can be divided as follows (following the
1895-1904 edition by Hayyim Brody):
Poems about friendship and laudatory poems (shirē yedidut we-shirē
hak-kabod): 138 poems.
Pieces of correspondence in rhymed prose (miktabim): 7 pieces.
Love poems (shirē ahabah): 66 poems.
Elegies (qol bokim; qinot we-hespēdim): 43 pieces.
Elevation of the soul to Zion; travelling poems (massa‘ nefesh
Ṣiyyonah; shirē Ṣiyyon we-shirē massa‘): 23 poems.
Riddle poems (ḥidot): 49 poems.
Other poems, various poems (she’ērit Yehudah; shirim shonim): 120
Judah's 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 Zaragoza, the aged poet Judah ben Abun, Judah ibn Ghayyat of
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
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, 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".
Especially tender and plaintive is Judah's tone in his elegies
Many of them are dedicated to friends such as 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 Alfasi (No. 14),
and others. In the case of Solomon ibn Farissol, who was murdered on
May 3, 1108, Judah suddenly changed his poem of eulogy (Nos. 11, 22)
into one of lamentation (Nos. 12, 13, 93 et seq.). Child mortality due
to plague was high in Judah's time and the historical record contains
five elegies written for the occasion of the death of a child.
Hillel Halkin hypothesizes that at least one of these poems
may have been written in honor of one of Judah's own children that did
not reach adulthood and who is lost to history.
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:" "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 by Judah have also been preserved.
Judah is noted for composing riddles, which often have religious
themes underlying their challenges to the wit; his diwan contains
forty-nine of them. One example is:
What is it that's blind with an eye in its head,
But the race of mankind its use can not spare;
Spends all its life in clothing the dead,
But always itself is naked and bare?
After living a life devoted to worldly pleasures, Halevi 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
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 Halevi 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 Halevi must
certainly be regarded among the greatest produced by medieval Judaism.
His vision of a God that is accessed through tradition and devotion,
and not philosophical speculation, dominates his later work.
His attachment to the Jewish people is an equally significant theme:
he identifies his sufferings and hopes with that of the broader group.
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 the conflict between
Islam and Christianity
intensified, giving Judah reason to hope for such a return in the near
future. The vision of the night, in which this was revealed to
him, 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.
His piyyut, Mi Kamoka, was translated by
Samuel di Castelnuovo and
published in Venice in 1609.
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
Psalm 103. These poems were carried
to all lands, even as far as India, 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. The following observation on 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
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
'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. 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, 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
Judah was recognized by his contemporaries as "the great Jewish
national poet", and in succeeding generations, by all
the great scholars and writers in Israel. His poetry and writing have
also been considered an early expression of support for Jewish
Analysis of his poetry
The remarkable, and apparently indissoluble, union of religion,
nationalism, and patriotism, which were so characteristic of
post-exilic Judaism, reached its acme in
Judah Halevi 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; 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 sound like one great symphony, wherein the "Zionides"
— the single motive never varied — voice the deepest "soul-life"
alike; of the Jewish people and of each individual Jew.
The most celebrated of these "Zionides" is found in every Jewish
prayerbook, and is usually repeated in the synagogue on the Ninth of
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
As a philosopher
The position of
Judah Halevi in the domain of
Jewish philosophy is
parallel to that occupied in
Islam by Ghazali, by whom he was
Judah Halevi strongly despised Islam. 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 Halevi expounded his views
upon the teachings of Judaism, which he defended against the attacks
of non-Jewish philosophers, Aristolean, Greek philosophers and against
those he viewed as "heretics".
^ "The question of Judah Halevi's birthplace is still unsolved.
Schirmann (Tarbiz, 10 (1939),237-9) argued in favor of Tudela, rather
than Toledo..." [Encyclopedaedia Judaica, pages 355–356]
^ Encyclopaedia Judaica,
^ Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Judah Ha-Levi".
Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
^ Brody, "Diwan des Abul-Ḥasan Jehuda ha-Levi," ii., No. 14, p. 100
^ Brody, l.c. i. 224, 225
^ Gregory B. Kaplan, Review of: The Compunctious Poet: Cultural
Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain, Ross Brann, Johns Hopkins
UP, 1991. Hispanic Review, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Summer, 1993), pp.
405–407. JSTOR 475075.
^ a b Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Judah
Ha-Levi". Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls
^ De la Fuente Salvat, Jose. "Yehudá Ha-Leví: el poeta judío más
grande de todos los tiempos"
^ Arie Schippers, Spanish Hebrew Poetry and the
Arabic Themes in Hebrew Andalusian Poetry, Medieval Iberian
Peninsula Texts and Studies, 7 (Leiden: Brill, 1994), pp. 89–90.
^ "Monatsschrift," xl. 417 et seq.
^ Brody, l.c. i., No. 45)
^ Brody, l.c. ii. 67 et seq.
^ Halkin, Hillel. Yehuda Halevi. New York: Nextbook, 2010. p. 81.
^ Geiger, l.c. p. 168
^ Halkin, Hillel. Yehuda Halevi. New York: Nextbook, 2010. p. 4.
^ The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian
Spain, 950–1492, ed. and trans. by Peter Cole (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2007), p. 443.
^ Jacobs, Joseph (1901–1906). "Riddle". In Singer, Isidore; et
al. Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company. .
The answer is 'a needle'.
^ Geiger, l.c. p. 154
^ Luzzatto, l.c. No. 61; transl. by Nina Davis in "Songs of Exile," p.
^ Zunz, "Ritus," p. 57
^ a b Zunz, "S. P." p. 231
^ For further details see Brody, H. Studien zu den Dichtungen Jehuda
ha-Levi's, Berlin, 1895
^ see "Cuzari," v. 16)
^ Luzzatto, l.c. No. 86
^ Brody, l.c. ii. 153
^ Brody, l.c. ii. 155
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
"Yehudah Ha-Levi: Poet
Philosopher of Sepharad," Video Lecture by Dr.
Henry Abramson of Touro College South
The Kitab al-Khazari of Judah Hallevi, full English translation at
The Kitab al-Khazari of Judah Hallevi, Judeo-
Poems by Judah Ha-Levi – English translations
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