“Hebrew Melodies,” Heinrich Heine’s series of three poems, written in 1851, constitutes the third and final section of Romanzero, a collection published that year and also containing groups of “Historien” (Tales) and “Lamentationen.” The title Romanzero suggests old-fashioned romantic ballads, but the volume is actually a compendium of sophisticated mid-nineteenth century poetry. The title of the sequence was suggested to Heine by the “Hebrew Melodies” of George Gordon, Lord Byron (1815), though the two sets of poems have little or nothing in common. Heine’s poems reflect both continuity and change as far as his attitude toward Judaism and his Jewishness was concerned.
The first poem, “Prinzessin Sabbath” (“Princess Sabbath”), consists of thirty-eight unrhymed stanzas that present a warmly appreciative picture of the Sabbath observance in a synagogue. On the eve of the Jewish day of rest, Israel—that is, a Jew—is freed temporarily from the witch’s curse that has transformed him into a dog, and he enters the synagogue as a prince ready to meet his princess, the personification of the Sabbath, who is as humble and quiet as she is beautiful. The poet describes the richly symbolic festive bustle in the house of worship as the cantor intones the traditional chant L’khah dodi likrat kallah (“Come, beloved [or my friend] the bride awaits you”), which Heine erroneously credits to Don Jehuda ben Halevy. (The real author is Salomo ben Moshe Alkabez.) Instead of a smoke, which is prohibited on the Sabbath, the princess promises her beloved the culinary delight of schalet (or cholent, a slowly simmered bean stew). Such treats evoke visions of biblical scenes, but the waning of the Sabbath threatens to force the observant Jew to resume his dog’s life. Heine ends his poem with a description of the traditional havdalah ceremony: Smelling a spice box keeps the worshipers (whom the need to bid the Sabbath farewell has saddened and weakened) from fainting, and a few drops from a goblet of wine serve to extinguish the candle and, with it, the Sabbath.
In a letter dated August 21, 1851, Heine called “Jehuda ben Halevy” his most beautiful poem. It is the...
(The entire section is 916 words.)