Authors born between 800 and 1100 CE
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The Power of the Pen
Man Runs towards the Grave
Two Bouts of Woe
I Look up to the Sky
Before the year 1000 of the Common Era, written records of the Jews that contain poetry or philosophical prose are primarily religious. After that date, however, secular Jewish poetry began to flourish in Spain. This was the time of the Arab conquest of North Africa and Spain, and the Jews active in the region spoke Arabic in their daily lives, while continuing to use Hebrew in their religious observances. Arabic was then the language of Jewish philosophy. As translators, Jews played an important role in bringing the philosophies of the classical world that had been preserved in Arab cultural centers back into Europe. As poets, they brought the techniques of Arab poetry into the language of Hebrew.
Samuel ha-Nagid (Samuel ha-Levi ben Joseph ibn Nagrela, 993-1056 CE) was born in Cordoba. He subsequently settled in Malaga, part of the Berber province of Granada. He was appointed vizier in 1027. David Goldstein points out that Samuel was at one and the same time, poet, rabbi, statesman, and general, and distinguished in each one of these fields. It was his high rank and success in war that led the Jews to call him Nagid (Prince). His poetry shows him a man who appreciated wine and held writing in high regard. Like other poets, he finds himself meditating on the shortness of manís life and of our reactions to birth and death. His experience in war is also captured in his poetry, where he laments the loss of life it incurs and the suffering it causes.
My friend, tell me,
When shall I pour you my wine?
The cry of the cock woke me,
And sleep has deserted my eyes.
Come out and see the morning light
Like a scarlet thread in the East.
Make haste, give me a cup,
Before the dawn starts to rise,
Of spiced pomegranate juice
From the perfumed hand of a girl,
Who will sing songs. My soul
Revives and then dies.
Man's wisdom is at the tip of his pen,
His intelligence is in his writing.
His pen can raise a man to the rank
That the scepter accords to a king.
Man runs towards the grave,
And rivers hasten to the great deep
The end of all living is their death,
And the palace in time becomes a heap.
Nothing is further than the day gone by,
And nothing nearer than the day to come,
And both are far, far away
From the man hidden in the heart of the tomb.
Consider how shameful rejoicing is,
Since it comes between two bouts of woe.
You wept when you came into this world,
And another mourns you when you go.
I stationed a strong force in a citadel
Which soldiers had destroyed long ago.
We slept there, in it, and around it,
And its owners slept beneath us, down below.
I said to myself: "Where are the people,
Those who lived here in years that have gone?
Where are the builders and destroyers, the slaves,
And their masters, the princes and the woebegone?
Where are the parents, the bereaved, the fathers,
The sons, the bridegrooms, and the mourners,
And the large numbers that were born after these,
As the seasons turned through the cycle of the years?
They were all neighbors on the face of the earth,
And now they lie together in the earth's womb.
They moved to the dust from their pleasant courts,
And from their palaces towards the tomb.
Were they to raise their heads and emerge,
They would despoil us, of our lives and possessions.
In truth, my soul, in truth, by to-morrow,
I shall be like them, and all my companions."
I look up to the sky and the stars,
And down to the earth and the things that creep there.
And I consider in my heart how their creation
Was planned with wisdom in every detail.
See the heavens above like a tent,
Constructed with loops and with hooks,
And the moon with its stars, like a shepherdess
Sending her sheep into the reeds;
The moon itself among the clouds,
Like a ship sailing under its banners;
The clouds like a girl in her garden
Moving, and watering the myrtle-trees;
The dew-mistóa woman shaking
Drops from her hair to the ground.
The inhabitants turn, like animals, to rest,
(Their palaces are their stables);
And all fleeing from the fear of death,
Like a dove pursued by the falcon.
And these are compared at the end to a plate
Which is smashed into innumerable shards.
Hebrew Poems from Spain, translated by David Goldstein.
Schocken Books, New York, 1996. Copyright © 1965 David Goldstein.