The Ladino poetry of Hezkia Shemuel Tarica
By Ralph Tarica1

Contemporary readers wishing to consult Ladino books are generally confronted with the obstacle posed by the nature of the writing system in which the language is printed: Hebrew and “Rashi” characters used for texts composed in the Judeo-Spanish language.  And yet a contemporary reader of Spanish with a good literary education would probably have little trouble in reading and understanding most of these texts. Transliteration into Latin characters will undoubtedly continue to be indispensible in making this literature more accessible to scholars and other interested readers.  This article is offered as a modest contribution to that general effort.

The text chosen, the Shirah Hadashah [in Hebrew, “A New Song”] is one that I found by chance at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, one to which my curiosity was attracted mainly because the author bore the same family name as myself.  Little is known today of Hezkia Shemuel Behor Tarica,2 the first-born child [behor] of Mosheh, as he states in the Hebrew introduction to one of the poems.  Born towards the end of the 18th century, he became a rabbi and would become the patriarch of a prominent Sephardic family in Rhodes, a branch of which subsequently moved to the inland Turkish town of Milas, and eventually to Izmir.  In addition to the work under consideration, he is cited as having authored a book in Hebrew.3  He is buried in the Jewish cemetery of Rhodes, with date of death given as 1859.4

The Sefer Shirah Hadashah, published in Izmir in 1861, is a 19-page booklet of twelve liturgical and moral poems meant to be sung in the vernacular language, Judeo-Spanish.  It centers on a variety of popular religious themes that have become folkloric: the aborted sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, praise to God the Merciful, a prayer for rain, a prayer on the occasion of a b’rit mila, and several songs in honor of great men: Moses, Aaron, Samuel, Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai, etc.  Each poem is preceded by an introductory sentence in Hebrew, sometimes followed by a brief explanation in Ladino, and then always followed by a series of quatrains in Ladino. 

The poem to be considered here is the last, by far the longest (52 stanzas) and the one that is most different from the others in that it does not honor a great figure or pray for grace but elaborates a moral theme, that of the soul in conflict with the material world -- a theme at least as old as that found in the Biblical book of Kohelet [Ecclesiastes].  The soul is personified as a beloved daughter who would have been much happier to remain forever in the womb. Before being born into the material world and housed in a physical body – el enkonado, the unclean thing -- she is presented with a vision of the vices that await her, and is advised to keep God’s commandments and do good upon the earth.  No sooner is she ejected into the world, however, than all this is forgotten; she is confronted with the realm of human pride, vanity, dishonesty, rebellion against God’s commandments, evil and sin.  The person the soul inhabits is of course aware of sinning but he cannot stop himself, and his soul is rife with anxiety.

The writer’s skill here is evident in the challenge he has presented himself in extracting so many meanings from the single word tyera [earth].  One of his more curious images is that of sinners burning in hell [gehinam)]– an icon we do not readily associate with Jewish theology.  The writer seems particularly familiar with the clothing trade.  In an example of the double sin of cheating and vanity, he portrays a merchant who uses dishonest tactics to get his customer to purchase an item of clothing.  The customer, in turn, is blinded by his personal sense of vanity to the obvious truth that the finest cloth and furs ultimately come from plants grown in the earth, from worms and from wild beasts, all soon destined to return to the earth.  The earth, then, serves the writer’s purpose in portraying the inescapable condition of being alive in the physical world.  Man is given weight (“Por su pezar...”) in order to live in the material world, but human objects and activities that provide physical pleasure and satisfaction will soon return to the earth, along with the human body.  The soul housed in the body has been too easily distracted from living according to the promises made before birth.

The writer here plays both narrator and interlocutor, describing the predicament of the soul and engaging it in a dialogue between father and daughter.  He then turns from the predicament of a single soul to that of all human beings.  His final admonishment is that both soul and body will together be judged for an individual’s moral conduct after the body dies.  The poem ends on a hopeful prayer to God to hasten the day of redemption and the end of the diaspora for the Jews. 

Form and language

As is the case for all the poems in the book, the first three lines of each stanza have a variable number of syllables ranging from 7 to 10, generally stressed on three accented beats (e.g., De verme kon muncha fatiga, Ijo de ombre vas pedrido).  The rhyme scheme is generally based on the repetition of the last two syllables of the line (e.g., presyada / pozada / arondjada).  The fourth line becomes a short refrain that repeats the name of the person or theme that is the subject of the poem, in this case the repetition of la tyera, the earth--at the end of each stanza. 

Following a traditional form that goes back to late antiquity, the author structures the poem through an alphabetical acrostic (that is, the first letter of each stanza follows the order of the Hebrew alphabet) or a “signature” acrostic (that is, the first letter of each stanza spells out the author’s name).  The author calls attention to this feature by having the Hebrew letters printed in bold type (reproduced here in the transliteration).  In this particular poem, the alphabet begins with the Aleph of the second stanza and ends with the Tav of the 23rd.  This is followed by 22 stanzas that give us A-N-I Hh-E-Z-K-I-A SH-E-M-U-E-L T-A-R-I-K-A (I am Hezkia Shemuel Tarika), after which we have 12 stanzas with no acrostic, and finally 3 stanzas whose initial letters spell out Hh-Z-K, “Be strong,” stated traditionally as a kind of “mission accomplished” statement at the end of an undertaking.  Not coincidentally, it is also a pun on the etymological root of the author’s Hebrew first name, Hezkiyá.

The goal of the translation into English here is to convey the literal meaning of the text as accurately as possible, not its poetic qualities.  As for the language itself, it is in a Spanish that might have just as easily been understood by a contemporaneous 19th century Spaniard as by a Rhodeslí Jew--except, of course, for the non-Spanish words.  The fact that the text is so richly interspersed with learned Hebrew expressions is a firm indication of rabbinical training.  Particularly worthy of note is the almost total absence of Turkish words; the two exceptions appear in stanzas 22, mushtiri [customer] and 24, fent [also fenk: ruse, trick].  Notably absent is any evidence of the linguistic influence of either French or Italian that would eventually flood into Judeo-Spanish and transform it by the end of the 19th century.

Transliteration into Latin characters:

The Aki Yerushalayim model has been followed here, with the exception that accent marks have been inserted to aid in pronunciation.  For specific characters, note that h = Hebrew heh and hh = het or khaf.  Hebrew words (and the two instances of a Turkish word) are shown in italics.  Such combinations as enla have been kept as given in the text, also -ly- spellings in such words as elya, elyos, even though these words are pronounced eya and eyos.  As for special problems in transliterating, there is the usual ambiguity as to whether yod represents an e or i and whether vav should be o or u (further complicated by the tendency in the Rhodes dialect to pronounce unaccented o and e respectively as u and i).  When in doubt I have consulted Joseph Nehama’s Dictionnaire du Judéo-Espagnol (Madrid: Instituto Benito Arias Montano, 1977; reprinted Gordes, France: Ed. de la Lettre Sépharade, 2003).  Other problems include the absence of punctuation other than a dot after each poetic line (but not always so indicated), the absence of hyphens to connect parts of a word, the sometimes poor quality of the print font (in particular the lack of clarity between yod and vav), the occasional possible typographical error  in the original, and so on.  Where a correction is clearly called for or where doubts have persisted, I have inserted a question mark in brackets.  Despite numerous rereadings, errors may yet subsist in both the transliterations and translations.  Corrections or recommendations for better readings will be most gratefully received by this writer at .

Shir lihhan “Ija miya mi kerida” velihhan halihhim kahal adat Yisrael verashi habatim al sidur a”b ani Shemuel Tarika uvo hhazak

[A song to sing, “My daughter my beloved,” and to sing in the assembly of the community of Israel and [by] the heads of households, in alphabetical order; I am Shemuel Tarika, HZK within him [hazak (strength) is the root of his first name, Hizkiyá].

ד De verme kon muncha fatiga
Ordení esta kantiga 
Kon elya se kastiga
     El ombre kriado de la tyera.

א Ijo de ombre, vas pedrido
En byenes enbovesido
De gota fedyonda[fedyenda] sos venido
     I tu fin polvo i tyera.

ב Bendicha la alma presyada
Debasho la siya su pozada
I súpito es arondjada
     De los syelos ala tyera.

ג Gran kavod elya teniya
De estar debasho de la siya
Muncho tsar elya sentiya
     De venir ala tyera.

ד Dibur bueno a elya le davan
Si sus mitsvot elya guadrava
De la shehhina se aprovechava
     Kuando torna de la tyera.

ה Ah sinyor padre presyado
En buen lugar es mi estado
Mi espanto no sea akuzado
     Del yétser de la tyera.

ו Vate, mi ija, mi kerida
Para byen sea tu ida  
No pyedras toda tu vida
     En vanidades dela tyera.

ז Zehhut ternás de ser kumplida
Kon la ley serás rejida
I kon shalom tu venida 
     En tornando de la tyera.

ח Hsed grande aze kon migo
Eskápame del enemigo 
Vos ke sosh padre amigo
     Sinyor de toda la tyera.

ט Tanto gusto elya tomava
Kuando en la tripa elya estava
Un siryo le arelumbrava
     Ke veya toda la tyera.

י Yevan a elya ke se pasée
Los visyos de Gan Eden ke dezée
Los tsadikim kon su ojo ve[?]
     Los ke se fueron de la tyera.

כ Kavod grande tu ternás
Si el yétser no eskojerás
A mis mitsvot tu afirmarás
     Las ke se azen enla tyera.

ל La yevan despues a elya
Ke gehinam kon su ojo veya
Los rashim se keman enelya
     Los ke pekaron en la tyera.

מ Mira tu i mete tino 
No lo eskuches al espino
No te pyedras del kamino
     Porke te echa enla tyera.

נ No ay vida tan presyada
Komo los diyas de la prenyada
De los malahhim es guadrada
     Ke no kayga en la tyera.

ס Syendo ke buena su pasada
Salir no kere desu estada
Por fuersa es arondjada
     Ke aga mitsvot de la tyera.

ע Oíd despues de ser nasida
Todo esto se olvida 
Syenpre elya va pedrida
     En los visyos de la tyera.

פ Por muncho ke fue akavidada
I tambyen akondjurada
Lo echa detras dela espalda
     I se apega kon la tyera.

צ Tsorer de yétser el malo
No lo desha despegarlo
Su tino es por arankarlo
     De kaminos de la tyera.

ק Kontaremos loke azemos
Por buenos mos kontenemos
No savemos ke aremos
     Por podestar enla tyera.

ר Reveamos enel alto
Djuramos su nombre santo
Falsamos enel trato
     Komo uzansa de la tyera.

ש Shalom le damos kon buena kara
Al mushtirí kon avla klara
La ropa mos kosta kara 
     Ropa fina de Ingletyera.

ת Tahhbulot i armot munchas azemos
Todo es kelo enganyemos
I despues lo aboresemos
     Lo desteramos dela tyera.

א El nombre del rovo lo trokamos
Fent por nombre lo yamamos
Menos de esto no ganamos
     Los byenes de la tyera. 

נ Nada no keda de esta ganansya
Su vida es kon muncha ansya
Su yétser kon su dezgrasya
     Lo eskombra dela tyera.

י   Yenos estamos de maldades
No avlamos verdades 
Si no todo falsidades
     Las ke pasan enla tyera.

ש   Shabat vyene no meldamos
Kon dibur shel hhol lo menospresyamos
Alos hhahhamim no eskuchamos
     Los sinyores de la tyera.

מ   Miramos buena komida
I buena sea la bevida
La alma keda apreída 
     No goza de la tyera.

ו   Vyéndomos byen vestidos
De gavá somos enbolvidos
No metemos muestro sentido
     Ke todo keda en la tyera.

א   El nombre de la gavá es fedorenta
La tenemos en la enkuvyerta
Fyede komo koza muerta
     Ke afedente la tyera.

ל Los vestidos mas validos
Ke de kitin[kotón] son teshidos
De Frankíya son venidos
     Son kresidos de la tyera.

ט Toda la ropa ke es kerida
Ke de seda es teshida 
Del guzano es salida
     Los ke komen el onbre en la tyera.

א I los djares[chares?] mas alavados
Ke de lana son ilados 
De behemot son triskilados
     Las ke kaminan en la tyera.

ר Ropa fina i muy presyada
Ke por samara es nombrada
Es koza enkonada
     De hhayut de la tyera.

י Yerado está el ke se kontyene
Kon los vestidos ke el tyene
Pare myentes de ande vyene
     Ke todo sale de la tyera

ק Kon todo esto le parese
Ke para esto el krese
No save ke se anochese
     I se eskurese la tyera.

א El ke no vayga pedrido
En este mundo enbovesido
Ke no se tope arepentido
     Kuando torna ala tyera.

Pense en su alma la presyada
De lugar santo es abashada
Si terná zehut sera sonalsada
     Kuando se va de la tyera.

Si no tyene zehhut elya va penando
Los mekatregim la van akusando
I por el mundo va bolando
     Na vagad en la tyera.

Pense en su puerpo el enkonado
En su vida va penando 
En su muerte es djuzgado
     El hhibut hakever en la tyera.

I su tripa es partida
I su [vyentre?] es salida
I su karne es komida
     Del guzano de la tyera. 

El ke para esto es aparejado
Komo tyene gana de ir pekando
No se despega de el enkonado
     El enemigo de la tyera. 

El ke pense en todo esto
I no peke tan presto 
I no se olvide de el resto
     Los syete dinim de la tyera.

Por su pezar es abashado
I por su pezar es afigurado
I por su pezar es kriado
     A vinir a la tyera. 

Por su pezar es nasido
I por su pezar es kresido
I por su pezar es salido 
     De sovrefases de la tyera. .

Por su pezar es enterado
I por su pezar es alevantado
I por su pezar es djuzgado
     Delantre sinyor de la tyera.

El puerpo se deskulpa No izi pekado
La alma pekó i yo so livrado
Kuando se va la alma so asemejado
     Komo pyedra kayada en la tyera.

Responde la alma Yo so alavada
El puerpo pekó i yo no kulpo nada
Por el oír del mundo so abolada
     Kuando me vo de la tyera.

Trae ala alma el Dyo abastado
La echa en el puerpo en loke esta enterado 
I despues son djuzgados
     Djuntos debasho la tyera.

Hhanun verahum amanziyávos
De nuestro puevlo apiyadávos
En siya de rahamim asentávos
     Apiyadávos de la tyera.

Zehhut ternemos de ser fraguada
La kaza santa i alavada 
Presto sea abashada 
     De los syelos ala tyera. 

Kantaremos kon alegriya
Alegre toda la djuderiya
Mas galut no avriya 
     No se desole muestra tyera.

Seeing myself greatly fatigued
I arranged this song
With it may be admonished
     Man created from the earth.

Son of man, you have lost your way
By worldly goods made foolish
From a stinking drop you came
     And your end dust and earth.

Blessed is the precious soul
Beneath the seat, its resting place,
And is suddenly expelled
     From heaven to earth.

Great honor did it have
To be beneath the seat
Great anguish did it feel
     To come upon earth.

A good promise they gave her
If her commandments she were to keep
Of the divine presence would she benefit
     When returning from the earth

  “Oh Lord, precious father
a good place is my stay
May my fear not be accused
     By the evil spirits of the earth.”

Go now, my daughter, my beloved one
May your departure be for the good
Do not lose your whole life
     In vanities of the earth.

Reward will you have in having instruction
By the law will you be ruled
And with peace when you come back
     Returning from earth.”  

 “Great kindness does he do for me         
Keep me away from the enemy
You who are father and friend
     Master of the whole earth.”

So much happiness did she have
When she was in the womb
A candle shone upon her                          
     So she could see the whole earth.

They take her to let pass before her
vices of Eden that she might desire
The righteous ones she sees[?] with her eye
     Those who have left the earth.

  “Great honor will you have
If the evil spirit you do not choose
My commandments will you affirm
     Those that are performed on earth.”

They then take her
So that she see hell with her eye
The evil ones are burning there
     Those who sinned on earth.

 “Look now and set your mind
Do not listen to the schemer
Do not stray from the path
     Because he will throw you to the earth.”

There is no life as precious
As the days of a pregnant woman
By angels is she guarded
     So that she not fall to earth.

Inasmuch as her stay is good
She does not wish to leave her place
By force is she thrown out
     So that she do good deeds on earth.

Listen now, after being born
All that is forgotten
She always goes about lost
     In the vices of the earth.

As much as she was forewarned
And also the oath she took
She throws that over her shoulder
     And glues herself to the earth.

The torture of the Evil one
Does not allow that to be cut loose
His intention is to root that out
     From the paths of the earth.

Let us recount what actions we do
We pride ourselves on being good
We don’t know what we will do
     To take power on earth.

We rebel against the almighty
We swear by his holy name
We cheat in business
     As being the custom of the earth.

Greetings we give with a straight face
To our customer, with sincere talk,
“Clothing costs us dearly,
     Fine clothing from England.”

Much trickery and craftiness we perfom
The whole thing is for us to trick him
And afterwards we scorn him
     We banish him from the earth.

The name for theft we change
We call it by the name of “Fent” [Turkish: ruse]
Anything less than that we won’t earn
     The wealth of the earth.

Nothing remains of these earnings
His life has much anxiety
His evil spirit along with his misfortune
     These he clears away from the earth.

We are filled with evils
We do not speak truths
But only falsehoods
     Those that pass on earth.

Shabbat comes, we don’t read meditatively         
With promises of sand we treat it with scorn
We do not listen to the wise men,                         
     masters of the earth.

We seek good food
And let our drink be good
Our soul remains anxious
     It does not enjoy the earth.

Seeing ourselves well dressed
By pride are we enveloped
We do not set our mind
     That everything remains on earth.

The name of pride is malodorous
We hide it under the covers
It smells like something dead                   
     That stinks up the earth.

The sturdiest articles of clothing
Which are woven of cotton
Came from France [or western Europe]
     They grew out of the earth.

All cloth that is costly
That is woven from silk
Came out of worms
     Those that eat men in the earth

And the most praiseworthy [??]
That are woven from wool                                    
Are spun from beasts                  
     Which walk upon the earth.

Fine and very precious material
That goes by the name of fur
Is a befouled thing
     From beasts of the earth.

Mistaken is he who boasts
About the clothing he owns
Let him pay attention whence it comes
     For everything comes out of the earth

With all this it seems to him
That he grows up for this
He does not know that night approaches
     And that the earth is turning dark.

Let him not go about lost          
In this dimwitted world
Let him not find himself regretful
     When he returns to the earth.

Let him think of his soul, the precious one
From a holy place did she come down
If she has merit she will be exalted
     When she leaves the earth.

If she has no merit she goes about suffering
Pursuers go about accusing her 
And she goes flying about the world
     A wanderer on earth.

Let him think about his body, the unclean thing,
In his life it suffers        
At his death it is judged
     The beating of the dead in the earth.       

And his belly is split
And his [stomach?] comes out
And his flesh is devoured
     By the worm in the earth.

He who is prepared for this
As he desires to go about sinning
Does not unglue himself from the unclean
     The enemy of the earth.

Let him think about all this
And be not so quick to sin          
And let him not forget the rest   
     The seven Laws of the earth.

For his weight was he descended                         
And for his weight was he designed
And for his weight was he created
     To come to the earth.

For his weight was he born
And for his weight was he made to grow
And for his weight did he come out
     From the surfaces of the earth.

For his weight is he buried
And for his weight is he lifted up
And for his weight is he judged
     Before Lord of the earth

The body excuses itself, “I did not sin
The soul sinned and I am freed
When the soul goes I am comparable
     To a stone fallen to the earth.”

Responds the soul, “I am praiseworthy
The body sinned and I am not at fault
As far as people have heard I have flown off
     When I leave the earth.”

God the Almighty brings the soul
Throws it into the body in which it is buried
And afterwards they are judged              
     Together beneath the earth.

Gracious and merciful One, have compassion
On our people take pity
On the seat of the merciful be seated
     Take pity on the earth.

We will be rewarded by seeing built
The holy and exalted house
Let it come down quickly
     From the heavens to the earth.

We will sing with joy
Joy for all Jewry
There will no longer be a diaspora
      Let not be saddened our earth.


1. Ralph Tarica is a professor emeritus of French at the University of Maryland College Park, author of several works of criticism on 20th century French literature, and former chair of the Department of French and Italian there. Since retirement he has worked with the collection of books printed in Judeo-Spanish held at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. A founding member and prime organizer of the Vijitas de Alhad of the Greater Washington, DC area, his translation/adaption of Marie-Christine Varol’s book on Judeo-Spanish language and culture, Manual of Judeo-Spanish Language and Culture, appeared in 2008 with the University Press of Maryland. He has contributed book reviews and articles for La Lettre Sépharade and is on the editorial board of Sephardic Horizons. One of his main interests currently is to work at rescuing Judeo-Spanish literature from oblivion by making it available to a contemporary audience.

2. Hezkia, from the Biblical name Hezekiah, is pronounced Hezkiyá and can also be found spelled Hizkia, Heskia, etc.  The name Tarica can also be found spelled Tarika.

3. The Shutah Deyenukah. See in particular Rabbi Marc D. Angel, The Jews of Rhodes: The History of a Sephardic Community (New York: Sephar-Hermon Press, 1978), p. 75.

4. The lengthy inscription may be viewed on the “Tombs of the Rabbis” site of the www.RhodesJewishMuseum.Org .

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