It may be the only time on record when a young man in a tavern has insisted, not that he was old enough to drink, but that he was not old enough to stop drinking.
It happened in Andalusia, in the Muslim-ruled south of Spain. We can't say exactly where. It could have been in Cordoba, or in Granada, or in Seville, or in any of the other towns that the young man passed through and lived in after leaving the Christian north as an adolescent. We can't say exactly when it happened, either. Since the young man was born sometime between 1070 and 1075, we know only that it was toward the end of the eleventh century. This was a time—a thousand years after the destruction of the Second Temple, eight hundred years after the redaction of the Mishnah, and five hundred years after the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud—in which 90 percent of the world's Jews lived in a Muslim expanse that stretched from the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Morocco to the Indian subcontinent, and from Yemen to the Aral Sea. Andalusia was in the far northwestern corner of this vast territory, pressing against and pressed back on by Christian Europe. It had been a part of the Islamic realm ever since Arab and Berber warriors from North Africa stormed the Straits of Gibraltar in 711 and conquered most of Spain.
If the night was warm and rainless, as most Andalusian nights are, the young man was probably sitting at a table out-of-doors, in an interior courtyard of the sort still found everywhere in the south of Spain. (What tourist to the region has not seen, on a street of seemingly plain houses, a door swing open and shut on a gardened patio like the tantalizing flash of a secret existence?) Perhaps, if it was springtime, a blossoming orange or lemon tree gave off its sweet and sour scent. The young man was unlikely to have been drinking alone, since he was too popular to beleft by himself for long. From a neighboring table, an admirer sent a jug of wine. The young man thanked him with a poem. It may have been written afterwards and delivered by a messenger. Yet judging by the young man's gifts and the art of poetic improvisation in Muslim Spain, it was most probably composed on the spot and carried back by the waiter who had brought the wine. It went, in a free English translation:
I shall sing your praise all my days
For the nectar you sent for my lips.
Brother jug joins in my lays,
And from him I won't cease my sips.
Even though all my friends say, "Come, come!
How much longer will you play the rake?"
"What?" I'll reply. "I have Gilead's balm
And shan't drink to cure every ache?"
I'm too young to put down the cup
I've only begun to pick up. To and for
What end should I stop
When my years are not yet two and four?
In Hebrew, the language in which this poem was written, the young man's punning avowal that he was under twenty-four (which need not mean that he was twenty-three; he could just as well have been sixteen or seventeen) works differently from my English rendition. Traditionally, each of the Hebrew consonants has a numerical value, and the word kad, "jug," is composed of the letters kaf, which stands for twenty, and dalet, which stands for four. Literally, then, the poem's last two lines read:
And how can I give up the kad [jug]
When my years have not yet reached kad [twenty-four]?
Its pun aside, the young man's poem obeyed complex rules, since not only was the Hebrew verse of his day required to have meter and rhyme, its standards for bot were more stringent than those of formal English poetry. Regardless of its length, a poem in the classical style was allowed only a single mono-rhyme, with which each of its lines had to end. When it came to meter, on the other hand, a poet had to choose among a dozen possible patterns, each consisting of a rigidly adhered-to alteration of "long" and "short" syllables. For this particular poem, the young man chose the meter, known as the marnin or "allegro," short-long-long-long, short-long-long-long, short-long-long, a single sequence of which made up the half-lines or hemistiches into which each of the poem's full lines was divided.
Dashing off, amid the hubbub of a tavern, a poem so demanding yet wittily accom[plished would have been an impressive feat. It would not have ranked, however, as a singular one. Talented poets in Andalusia were expected to do such things. It is told of Shmuel Hanagid (993-1056), the first of the great Hispano-Hebrew poets, that he once had quoted to him a couplet on the subject of biting into an apple. Not to be outdone, he proceeded to compose, one after another, fifteen short but perfectly constructed poems on the same theme before running out of time, breath, or inspiration.
Indeed, if calling an age "poetic" refers, not to some supposed collective sublimity or imaginativeness of mind, but, more mundanely, to the widespread use of poetry in ordinary life as a medium of communication and social exchange, the young man was born in one of the most historically poetic of ages. When, for instance, the same Shmuel Hanagid decided one spring day in Granada to throw a party for his friends, the invitations he sent out were in the form of a poem telling them to "Take note, make haste, and do not fail/ To gather in my garden." But this would have been only the beginning. Hanagid's invitees might have informed him of their acceptance by sending him a poem in return; some might have turned up at his door with poems as gifts; if there were toasts or speeches, these would have been in poetic form, too; any party games played would have included competitions in which the guests were asked to write a poem on the same theme or having the same formal properties; and a good time having been had, poems would be sent as thank-you notes. It was a world in which, in cultivated circles, no solemn occasion and no occurrence of note went without a poem to commemorate it; in which friends wrote each other letters in poetry or, if they were in a hurry, in a more easily composed rhymed prose; in which the ability to pen a creditable poem was considered as indispensable a part of an education as filling out a job application is in our age. A poet who was more than merely creditable was a sought-after figure, often supported by wealthy patrons for whom he wrote verse to order.
In the Arabic-speaking Jewish society in which our young man lived, the language of these poems was always Hebrew. Yet the central role accorded to poetry did not stem originally from a Jewish impulse. Its history went back to the pre-literate life of the Arabian desert, whose Bedouin tribes had poured out of it following the founding of Islam in the early seventh century and rapidly overrun much of the world under the new religion's martial banner. Among these desert nomads, the ability to extemporize verse had always been valued greatly. Poems were an everyday vehicle for the expression of emotion; for the sending of messages and requests; for the carrying of news from one encampment to another; for the recording and remembering of unusual events; for the wooing of the opposite sex; for the enhancement of celebrations; for the flattering of authority; for the vaunting of one's exploits; for the praising of one's friends and the derogation of one's enemies, and the like. The popular poetry tournaments held at the commercial fairs of pre-Islamic times testified to the regard in which gifted poetic improvisers were held—and when, at moments of high drama or strong feeling, characters in medieval Arabic prose narratives like One Thousand and One Nights break into poetic speech, they are harking back to the traditions of the desert.
The cosmopolitan culture of the great Islamic cities of the East, such as Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo, with their class of professional poets supported by the patronage of royalty and wealth, was far removed from Bedouin life. Yet the special place of poetry persisted in Arab society and spread from the East to Andalusia. The annals of Muslim Spain are replete with stories that illustrate how readily men and women were moved to, and swayed by, poetic diction.
The eleventh-century poet-king of Seville, Ala'llahi Al-Mu'tamid, we are told, owed his marriage to this propensity. Once, as a young prince, he was sailing on the Guadalquivir River with a friend when, struck by the ripples on it, he spontaneously exclaimed, Sana'a 'r-rihu min elmai zarad, "The wind has spun a coat-of-mail from the water," and challenged his companion to add a second line. Some slave girls were doing their laundry on the river bank, and while the friend racked his brain, one of them, a stunning beauty who had overheard the prince's challenge, called back across the water, Eyyu dir'in Ii-qitalin low qamad, "What armor for battle if it stiffened!" Al-Mu'tamid was so taken by her cleverness and looks that he bought her from her master and married her. She was ro be the love of his life.
Jewish Andalusia was not an exact replica of its Muslim surroundings. But while Jews in the Muslim world lived, on the whole, within a social framework of their own, they were more heavily influenced by their host culture than any previous rabbinically regulated Jewish society in the Diaspora. This was why Hebrew poetry, which was modeled on its Arabic counterpart in form and content, was so important to them, and why our young man had left home in his teens to seek his literary fortune in Spain's south, where the art of poetry was more advanced.
In the Christian north in which he was born and raised, he had received a solid Jewish education. In those days, this meant amassing a far greater fund of knowledge than a Jewish day-school or yeshiva student would be expected to acquire in our own age, one that included a thorough mastery of Hebrew and its grammar, a comprehensive familiarity with the Bible, a rigorous training in the Talmud and rabbinic texts, and a detailed acquaintance with Jewish religious law. In fact, it is likely that, by the time he set out for Andalusia, our young man had acquired the title of "rabbi" that was frequently prefixed to his name in later life. This did not mean that he ever was considered, or acted as, a religious authority. A rabbinic ordination, was routinely granted to anyone who had progressed far enough in his studies, and signified little more than a college degree does today.
The young man had begun to write Hebrew poetry in his school years, and in setting out for the Muslim south, where he hoped to find a friendlier and more stimulating environment for his talents, he was acting in the same spirit of adventure that, centuries later, brought a Balzac and a Stendhal to Paris from the French provinces and a Hart Crane and a Thomas Wolfe to New York from rural America. Andalusia had a rich Hebrew literary life that did not exist in Castile. Its greatest luminary at the time was the wealthy Granadan poet Moshe ibn Ezra (lO55-1135), to whom the young man now sent a rhymed prose letter, angling for an invitation to meet him. "Though a humble youth from Castile," he wrote, "it is my hope that I still may bask in the suns of the South's greatest sons. The thought of meeting them sets my heart beating."
Disappointingly, Ibn Ezra failed to respond. For a while, the young man led an itinerant existence, traveling from place to place in search of a position or patron to provide him with an income. At one point he probably lived a student's life in Lucena, whose yeshiva, Spain's foremost center of Jewish learning, was headed by the renowned Talmudist Yitzhak Alfasi. He need not have been either indigent or lonely. He may have brought money from home or found work tutoring pupils, and wherever he went, he would have run into aspiring young Hebrew poets like himself. He was with a group of them one night when an opportunity arose that he made the most of.
He was drinking again, this time with friends who were struggling with a poem. Or rather, with two poems. The first had been recently written by the great Ibn Ezra himself and sent to a younger colleague in Córdoba, Yosef ibn Tsaddik, at whose home the group may have met. Ibn Ezra's poem was insome ways an ordinary one. It belonged to a genre known in Hebrew as shirey yedidut, or "friendship poems," in which the poet customarily expressed his esteem and affection for the person he was writing to and--if the latter lived at a distance--his longing for him. The imagery of this particular friendship poem was conventional, too. In the intricate and allusive language that was typical of the Hebrew verse of the times, it began with the line "On this night of deep thought I sit up awake"; described the poet missing his friends so badly that he was unable to sleep; spoke of his consoling himself tor their absence by repairing to the wine jug, his ailing heart's "physician"; and rejected the criticism of the "foolish scolds" who disapproved of drowning one's sorrows in drink. Thence it moved on to one friend in particular, Yosef ibn Tsaddik, praising him as a boon companion and paragon of virtue and concluding with the wish to see him soon.
All of this--the sleepless night, the missing friend, the fire of longing that wine alone could quench, the obnoxious carping of prudish moralists-was shopworn material, endlessly repeated and embellished by the poets of Ibn Ezra's age. The problem was the poem's formal structure, which departed from the classical rules that Ibn Tsaddik and his companions were used to. Ibn Ezra had written his poem as a muwashah, or "girdle song," to translate the Arabic term--a new, freer form of verse first developed in Andalusia in the late eleventh century, in which rhymes and meters were allowed to change within a pattern formed by two types of stanzas known as the "necklace" and the "girdle." Often sung to the musical accompaniment of lutes, guitars, and drums, the muwashah sometimes humorously mixed languages in a final stanza known as a kharja. On this occasion, Moshe ibn Ezra had ended with a kbarja in Arabic inviting Yosef ibn Tsaddik to visit him in Granada. B'Allah rasul, / Ku ll'il khalil / Keif es-sabil / Wa-yabit 'andi, it went: "By God, O messenger, / Tell my friend / The road to take / That he might lodge with me."
Ibn Tsaddik and his friends must have seen Hebrew girdle songs before and tried their hand at them. Yet now the challenge facing them was greater, for they had decided that night, as was often done with friendship poems, to reply to Ibn Ezra's tribute with an exact imitation. This wasn't easy. As was the practice when writing Hebrew, Ibn Ezra had penned his poem in a script consisting only of consonants) omitting the vowel points, which had to be supplied by the reader--a simple enough task had the language been ordinary, but not so when it was complex. Moreover, not only didthe vocalization need to be correct for a poem to be fully understood, it also determined the alteration of short and long syllables that constitutedthe meter--and whereas a classical poem's strictregularity quickly revealed what this was, the meter of Ibn Ezra's girdle song kept shifting. How reproduce so tricky an original if one couldn't make out all its tricks?
In the end itwas the newcomer, the young man from Castile, who came to the rescue. We know this from a jocular rhymed prose letter in which he later described the scene to an acquaintance. He was, he wrote, "making music on the wine cups" one night with some friends who were endeavoring to compose a girdle song. It was addressed to "their commander-in-chief--and to be brief, I made a good start on the poem's first part. But after continuing well, my companions soon fell into such a confusion that they cried in profusion, 'What you've started, please end!' I replied, 'God forefend! How can I add one more line with these poor skills of mine?'''
The poets' "commander-in-chief" was of course Moshe ibn Ezra, and in the end the young man, his"poor skills" notwithstanding, heeded his friends' pleas, successfully puzzled out Ibn Ezra's poem, and produced a perfect copy that was sent to the master. Indeed, not only didhe impeccably mimicthe formal structure of "On This Night of Deep Thought,'* he played repeatedly with its language, echoing it, reflecting it, and sometimes surpassing it while following its every step like a consummate dance partner. First came his opening necklace. Using the same meter
and rhyme as Ibn Ezra's, he began by high-spiritedly boasting of having parsed the text before him and banished the intrusive voiceof propriety that its author had complained of:
With the secrets [of Ibn Ezra's poem] revealed, what's
left to hide?
See the cup in my hand, the friends at my side,
And be gone, Mr. Snoop whom I can't abide!
My abode is wherever you don't reside.
The young man continued to pursue this theme in his next stanza, the poem's first girdle. We can get a better idea of how he did ithy transliterating both his and Ibn Ezra's Hebrew into Latin characters and providing each with a literal translation. A flat line above a syllable indicates that it is long, a dot that it is short; the short "uh" sound of the Hebrew rhva na vowel is shown by an apostrophe; Ibn Ezra's girdle appears in ordinary typeface, theyoung man's in bold. (Readers lacking the patience for what follows arc invited to skip a page while taking my word for it that the young man acquitted himself brilliantly and that they will not again be burdened in this book with so much technical detail.)
_ _ . _ _ _ . _
‘Ash im k'sil, uvriv k'sil
The Hyades and Orion [above inthe night sky] and a scolding fool [below],
_ _ . _ _ _ . _
1m atr'gil, simha v'-gil
If you [the scold] are snooping, joy and merriment,
_ _ . _ _ . _ _ _
Linvi f'sil ya'arokh negdi
As is to a prophet [i.e., a poet like myself] a false god, so he confronts me
_ _ . _ _ . _ _ _
Eden v'-gil'ad r'eh negdi.
[The garden of] Eden and [the balm of] Gilead, you'll
see around me.
_ _ . _ _ _ . _
Otsbi, y'val libi u-val
With my sadness. My heart languishes and is not
_ _ . _ _ _ . _
La e'eval ka-yom aval
I will not mourn this day, but rather
_ _ . _ _ _ _ _
Nirpa, aval rof'i khadi.
Healed, but my physician is my wine jug.
_ _ . _ _ . _ _ _
Ba-tov eval kol y'mei heldi.
Will live well all the days of my life.
In this girdle, as was permitted by the freer form of the muwashah, Ibn Ezra varied his meter in three lines out of four (his first and third lines arc metrically identical); the young man matched him syllable for syllable, departing from his model only once, with an extra short vowel in line four. He was equally exacting when it came to the rhymes. His first line has an internal and final -il where Ibn Ezra's has the same; his second line, again like Ibn Ezra's, repeats the -il internally and ends with the word negdi; his third line follows Ibn Ezra's once more in changing the internal and end rhyme to -al; and his fourth line matches Ibn Ezra's with another internal -al while end-rhyming negdi with heldi in place of Ibn Ezra's khadi. And yet though mirroring the master flawlessly, the young man opposed his own youthful joie de vivre to the older man's melancholy, his "balm of Gilead" a source of conviviality rather than a solitary solace.
It was a virtuoso performance, made all the more remarkable by its having had to be executed quickly while all around him the young man's friends joked, argued, gave advice, and refilled his and their glasses. Moreover, this girdle was only the poem's second stanza. Eight more stanzas came after it--and the young man tossed them off just as flawlessly, devoting half of them, as convention required, to praising Moshe ibn Ezra in even more laudatory terms than Ibn Ezra had praised Yosef ibn Tsaddik. This he did by comparing Ibn Ezra to his namesake, the Moses of the Bible, cleverly using scriptural language to make the point.
He must have had an exuberant feeling of achievement. It was of such moments that he wrote years later, in a book composed in middle age, that the true poet had nothing in common with those whose words, though they study verse and pay close attention to its structure, arc like babble to the man who has such a natural sense of these things that he cannot sound a false note. They spend their lives trying to learn what is known to him intuitively, so that he cannot teach them what they think they can teach him. And yet were he to meet someone as gifted as himself, he could explain it all to him with the barest of hints.
As young as he was, he would not have been wrong to believe that the only other such gift in Andalusia belonged to Moshe ibn Ezra. Indeed, he was playing for higher stakes than his own satisfaction or the admiration of his fellows, for he could count on Ibn Ezra's soon finding out who had written the answer to his friendship poem. And so in finishing it, he allowed himself a sly hint. Taking from the Book of Proverbs the Hebrew phrase tsir ne'eman, "a faithful messenger," which rabbinic tradition applied to the biblical Moses, he ended his final necklace with the line tsir ne'eman nishba Ieymor, "The faithful messenger has sworn," and then, rather than compose his own kharja, quoted verbatim Moshe ibn Ezra's "Tell my friend the road to take that he might lodge with me," in effect transferring Ibn Ezra's invitation from Yosef ibn Tsaddik to himself.
Sent to the great poet, this girdle song accomplished its mission. Discovering its author's identity as the young man had surmised that he would, Ibn Ezra was sufficiently impressed this time to reply. He did so in a bit of light verse in which, still playing the role of the griever for absent friends, he opened with a military metaphor, comparing his heart to an army so decimated by "the sword of parting" that only a small sliver of it remained. The one bright note, he wrote, was the young man's poem that he had just received. It was wondrous how "One so young / And still unsung / Has shouldered all / Of wisdom's weight," so that "Come from the North, / His light shines forth / To everywhere / Illuminate." Appealing to whoever knew the young man's whereabouts and could deliver a message to him, the Granadan concluded:
Have him make haste
(No time to waste!)
To the grounds
Of my estate.
There, where flowers
Scent the bowers,
He can rest
And eat good things,
At no expense
And live within
My spacious inn,
No matter who
Else shuts his gate.
It was all the young man could have hoped for. Not only was he at last invited to meet the leading Hebrew poet of the age, he had been asked, in the most flattering terms, to be Ibn Ezra's houseguest. Although we have no concrete information about what he did next, it is safe to assume that he packed his bags and headed lor Granada.
The young man, whose name was Yehuda ben Shmuel Halevi, Judah the son of Samuel the Levite, was to become one of the great Hebrew poets of all time. He was also to write one of the most important works of religious philosophy in the Jewish canon; to make, late in life, a personal decision that was to resound in Jewish history; to then vanish mysteriously, leaving no record of whether this decision was carried out in full; to be turned subsequently into a legend, most of whose poetry was lost; to have, in modern times, first, his lost verse miraculously recovered, and then, his fate clarified with the help of an astonishing archival discovery; and finally, to be implicated in our own age, more than any other medieval Jewish figure, in the great intellectual and political debates regarding Zionism and the state of Israel. Such is the bare outline of our story.
1. Hillel Halkin's work includes Letters to an American Jewish Friend; Across the Sabbath River; In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel; A Strange Death; Grand Things to Write a Poem On; A Verse Autobiography of Shmuel Hanagid; and dozens of translations from Hebrew and Yiddish by major contemporary and classical authors. Yehuda Halevi won the National Jewish Book Award in the Sephardic category. He has since published a novel, Melisande, What are Dreams? (2012).He lives in Israel. This, the first chapter of the book, is reproduced by kind permission of the author from Yehuda Halevi (New York: Schocken/Nextbook, 2010), pp. 3-19.
2. Hispano-Hebrew poems had no titles and were known by their first line or words.