Judah ha-Levi Additional Biography


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Yehuda ben Shemuel ha-Levi, in Arabic surnamed Abū al-hasan, was born in Tudela, Spain. His father is referred to in a letter as a rabbi and great scholar, but this may have been merely a courtesy. Otherwise, nothing is known of him. There is absolutely no evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that Judah studied either with the great Isaac Alfasi in Lucena or with his successor Joseph ibn Megash. It is true that ha-Levi composed a eulogy on the death of the former, but this was not unusual considering that Alfasi was the greatest rabbi in Spain, and many poets composed eulogies in his honor. At some time during his youth, certainly not later than 1089, ha-Levi left Christian Spain for Andalusia in Muslim Spain and sent a letter to Moses ibn Ezra in Granada, together with an imitation of one of Ibn Ezra’s poems. Thus began a long friendship with Ibn Ezra and his brothers that lasted until their death.

Like many Jews in medieval Spain, Judah ha-Levi was trained in medicine, and he practiced as a doctor at a later period in his life. Although he was probably wealthy in his later years, and even engaged in commerce, in his younger life he received financial support by writing poetry in praise of patrons.

Judah ha-Levi had one daughter, who is supposed to have written at least two poems and who was married to Isaac ibn Ezra (the son of the great biblical commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra, himself a poet but not related to Moses ibn Ezra). Isaac, also a poet of note in later years, accompanied his father-in-law on his famous journey, when, at about the age of fifty, ha-Levi decided to leave his beloved Spain and go to the Holy Land. He and his companions arrived in Egypt in 1140. He remained in Egypt for a year, and died there in July, 1141.