Judah ha-Levi Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Judah ha-Levi, one of the greatest Hebrew poets, was also an important medieval religious philosopher.

Early Life

The son of Samuel ha-Levi, Judah ha-Levi was born around the year 1075 in Muslim Spain. As a member of an affluent, well-educated Jewish family, ha-Levi began the study of Hebrew and religion when he was quite young, but his schooling was not limited to those subjects. Growing up during a golden age of Jewish life in Spain, he was exposed to a wide range of learning—Arabic, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy. Because of the fluidity of religious demarcations in Spain during this period, he also learned Castilian, and the languages of all three Spanish religions (Hebrew, Arabic, and Castilian) are employed in his poetry.

When Judah ha-Levi was about fifteen, he may have gone to Lucena to study under the noted Talmudist Isaac Alfasi. According to some sources, after this teacher’s death in 1103 ha-Levi remained at Lucena at least for a while, serving as secretary to Alfasi’s successor, Joseph ibn Megash. The death of Alfasi and the succession and marriage of Ibn Megash occasioned some of ha-Levi’s earliest verses. Sometime in his youth, he also became friendly with a celebrated older Jewish poet, Moses ibn Ezra of Granada. Ha-Levi had participated in a poetry contest at Córdoba, the object being to write an imitation of a complex poem by Ibn Ezra. Ha-Levi’s entry won, and it so impressed the senior poet that he invited ha-Levi to visit him. After meeting the handsome, dark-haired youth, Moses ibn Ezra wrote,

How can a boy so young in years
Bear such a weight of wisdom sage,
Nor ’mongst the greybeards find his peers
While still in the very bloom of age?

The two remained lifelong friends. Ha-Levi for a time lived in Ibn Ezra’s house, and the older man’s death in 1139 elicited a moving elegy from ha-Levi.

Ha-Levi was making other important friendships as well. From Baruch Albalia he may have derived his interest in Arabic-Aristotelian philosophy, while Levi al-Taban of Saragossa, Judah ben Gajath of Granada, and Abraham ibn Ezra shared and encouraged his poetic interest. Abraham ibn Ezra became an especially close friend. The two enjoyed discussing biblical exegesis, and Ibn Ezra’s important commentaries occasionally show evidence of ha-Levi’s influence. Tradition maintains that Ibn Ezra’s son married ha-Levi’s daughter.

Life’s Work

Throughout his life, ha-Levi was a poet first, a physician and philosopher only secondarily. Of his literary work, some eight hundred poems survive. Though most are religious, a substantial number are secular; of these, about eighty are love poems in the manner of Arabic and Christian verses of the day. In these poems, the lady typically is cruel to her lover; the lover yearns for her and fills buckets with his tears; the lady shines even in the darkest night; her eyes slay the lover. Despite their highly stylized formula, the poems reveal technical virtuosity in the use of internal rhyme and musicality, and the imagery can be strikingly original, as when he likens a face surrounded by long red hair to the setting sun turning the sky crimson. Humor, too, surfaces in these poems:

Awake, my dear, from your slumber arise,
The sight of you will ease my pain;
If you dream of one who is kissing your eyes,
Awake, and soon the dream I’ll explain.

Throughout his life, ha-Levi would admire and celebrate female beauty.

Ha-Levi was also sensitive to the beauty and grandeur of nature. Celebrating the return of spring, he wrote,

And now the spring is here with yearning eyes
Midst shimmering golden flower beds,
On meadows a tapestry of bloom over all;
And myriad-eyed young plants upspring,
White, green, or red like lips that to the mouth
Of the beloved one sweetly cling.

On another occasion, a storm at sea prompted him to proclaim the power of nature and to recognize man’s weakness in the face of elemental rage. Commenting on these nature poems, Heinrich Graetz has observed,

One can see in his lines the flowers bud and glisten; one inhales their fragrance; one sees the branches bending beneath the weight of golden fruits, and hears the songsters of the air warble their love songs. . . . When he describes the fury of a storm-tossed sea, he imparts to his readers all the sublimity and terror which he himself felt.

Another, larger group of ha-Levi’s secular poems are occasional pieces, such as those composed for the death of his teacher and the marriage of Ibn Megash. Most of the extant poems in this category are eulogies or laments, which often combine personal grief with a sense of cosmic desolation, for in the death of a friend or fellow Jew he read the fate of the Jewish nation:

There is no sanctuary and no rest,
in the West or in the East.
Should Edom [Christianity] or Ishmael [Islam] be victor,
the Jew is always the vanquished.

This concern for the Jewish condition also informs ha-Levi’s religious poetry. About half the surviving poems, some 350, are prayers for festivals (piyyutim), many of which continue to be recited. His models here were not only the biblical lamentations of Job and Jeremiah but also contemporary Hebrew and Arabic verses. Most focus on national tragedies, though he sometimes describes personal experiences and expresses a desire for salvation. The Psalms provided examples for other, more personal religious poetry in which he recorded his fears and struggles, failures and joys.

Only about thirty-five known poems deal directly with Zion, yet on these more than any others rest his fame and reputation as a poet, for into these works he poured his deepest, most powerful feelings. “My heart is in the East, and I am in the uttermost West—/ How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?” For him, the vision of Israel was not an abstraction but a reality that he saw before him daily. Recognizing the plight of the Jews in the Diaspora, subject to the whims of mobs and petty tyrants, he asks rhetorically,

Have we either in the east or in the west
A place of hope wherein we may trust,
Except the land that is full of gates,
Toward which the gates of Heaven are open—
Like Mount Sinai and Carmel and Bethel,
And the houses of the prophets, the envoys,
And the thrones of the priests of the Lord’s throne,
And the thrones of the kings, the anointed?

Of these poems, none is more moving than the “Zionide” (“Ode to Zion”), still recited in synagogues around the world each Ninth of Ab, the fast commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem and, fittingly, the 1492 banishment of the Jews from Spain, a disaster ha-Levi had feared and foreseen. In four stanzas with but a single rhyme throughout, ha-Levi expresses the Jewish longing for Jerusalem, the joy and grief for its past glories, the sense of hope unfulfilled, and the anticipation of joyful redemption when “the chosen are returned to thee/ And thy first youth in glory is renewed.” The Hebrew poet Israel Efros has declared, “If the hearts of the Jews of all time could be formed into one great throbbing heart and made to turn toward the East, the song that it would sing would be” ha-Levi’s “Ode to Zion.”

Ha-Levi’s poetry circulated widely in manuscript, and from the beginning of printing his works were incorporated into prayer books. They have been translated into German (1845), English (1851), Italian (1871), Hungarian (1910), Dutch (1929), and Spanish (1932).


(The entire section is 3248 words.)