Primarily famous as a poet, Judah ha-Levi also wrote an apologetic religious treatise, the Kuzari (twelfth century; English translation, 1947), and several letters, in the rhymed prose characteristic of formal Hebrew and Arabic letters of the Middle Ages, which have been preserved and are of interest for their literary style. One of these is translated in Benzion Halper’s Post-Biblical Hebrew Literature (1921) and reprinted in Franz Kobler’s Letters of Jews Through the Ages. Some important Judeo-Arabic letters were translated into English by S. D. Goitein, “Judeo-Arabic Letters from Spain,” in J. M. Barral, editor, Orientalia Hispanica, 1974.
In order to understand Judah ha-Levi’s position as one of the foremost Hebrew poets not only of the medieval period but also of all time, it is necessary to survey briefly the “firmament” in which he is said to be one of the shining stars—that is, medieval Hebrew poetry. Hebrew poetry began with the Bible, and it would even be possible to argue that secular poetry began there as well, if such books as the Song of Songs may be understood to be secular rather than allegorical. In the Hellenistic period, Jewish poets wrote some Greek verse, and apparently some verse in Persian during the period of the post-Talmudic era in Babylonia. It was the influence of Arabic poetry, however, throughout the Muslim world—where the majority of Jews in the medieval period lived—that aroused Jewish intellectuals to attempt a renaissance of the Hebrew language. Hebrew had long been relegated to religious poetry (piyyut) for recitation in the synagogue and some few compositions on purely religious subjects. Simply by composing Hebrew poetry on secular themes, and using adaptations of Arabic meter, Judah ha-Levi’s predecessors were effecting a linguistic revolution. These first efforts began in Muslim Spain in the tenth century, and quickly reached a level of excellence in the eleventh century with the generation preceding ha-Levi.
Samuel ibn Nagrillah, born in Córdoba at the height of the cultural flourishing of Muslim civilization in Spain, rose to a position of power almost unheard of for a Jew at that time and in that area; he became prime minister and commander in chief of the armies of the Muslim kingdom of Granada (there were other Jewish ministers and even prime ministers in Muslim Spain and elsewhere, but he was the first known Jewish general since the one who served Cleopatra). As an active soldier, fighting battles against the enemies of his kingdom every year for eighteen years, he wrote virtually the only Hebrew war poetry extant. In addition, he found time to compose no less than three volumes of Hebrew poetry on a variety of themes, as well as a work on grammar and a book on Jewish law.
Solomon ibn Gabirol was the other outstanding Hebrew poet of that period. Although his life was marked by frustration and suffering, his poetry can only be described as brilliant, often rising above whatever his misfortunes may have been to sing the lyric themes of love, nature, wine, and other topics. He began writing while still a teenager and expressed the audacity and hubris of youth in some of his early poems, praising his own poetry and fame. He was a philosopher and a mystic—more famous in the Christian world for his Fons vitae (the Latin translation of his original work) than among his fellow Jews. Both of these elements are present in many of his poems, some of which reveal profound philosophical insights or are tinged with mystical longings. Most famous of these is the lengthy religious-mystical-philosophical poem Keter malkhut, translated frequently into numerous languages (perhaps the best version in English is The Kingly Crown, translated by Bernard Lewis).
Contemporary with Judah ha-Levi, although his senior and...
“Ode to Zion” became almost an anthem of the Jewish people in the Middle Ages and for centuries afterward, although astonishingly few know it today. It entered into the liturgy and was recited in synagogue services throughout the world. No other Hebrew poem was so frequently imitated by so many poets in different lands.
In recent years, the revival of Hebrew as a living language has prompted renewed interest in the entire corpus of Hebrew poetry, and several excellent anthologies have been published, ranging from biblical verse to modern Hebrew poetry written in Israel. In this renaissance of Hebrew poetry, the works of Judah ha-Levi have been discovered by a new generation of readers.
Druck, David. Yehuda Halevy: His Life and Works. Translated by M. Z. R. Frank. New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1941. Good introduction to ha-Levi’s life and writings. Weak on specific details, but the discussions of the Book of the Kuzari and the poetry remain useful.
Efros, Israel. “Some Aspects of Yehudah Halevi’s Mysticism.” Proceedings of the American Academy of Jewish Research 11 (1941): 27-41. An erudite discussion of the Book of the Kuzari’s treatment of mysticism and rationalism. Notes ha-Levi’s sources and explores the meanings of certain obscure terms in the work.
Feldman, Leon A. “Yehudah Halevi: An Answer to a Historical Challenge.” Jewish Social Studies 3 (1941): 243-272. Based on an address given at the octocentennial observance of ha-Levi’s death. Calls ha-Levi “the greatest Hebrew poet after the conclusion of the Bible.” Solid historical and philosophical background on medieval Spain and the relationship of that milieu to ha-Levi’s ideas. Concludes with a discussion of ha-Levi’s enduring significance.
Kayser, Rudolf. The Life and Time of Jehudah Halevi. Translated by Frank Gaynor. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949. Kayser begins by saying that his “book does not claim to be a learned tome. It presents no new facts. Its deductions are not based on documents heretofore unknown.” The book is half finished before ha-Levi himself is...