Judah ha-Levi may not entirely deserve his reputation as the greatest of medieval Hebrew poets, a reputation which is based largely on nineteenth century scholarship, when little was known of the work of other Hebrew poets of the period; certainly, however, he is one of the four greatest. He mastered most of the themes typical of Hebrew poetry: wine, love (both of women and of boys), nature, friendship, panegyric, complaint, humor. Ha-Levi wrote a number of religious or “liturgical” poems as well. Like most of the religious poems that come from the Spanish school, they are far simpler in style and vocabulary than the secular verse. His secular poetry, which constitutes the largest part of his work, is often difficult and at times stiff, but he can move the modern reader with his emotions; he can arouse a smile and even a laugh. Some of his love poetry, dealing with both sexes, ranks among the finest in Hebrew verse. There is no doubt, however, that the poetry for which he is most famous and was best remembered is his “Zion” poetry. The poet came to the conclusion that, like the rabbi in his religious treatise, the Kuzari, he had to abandon his “temporary home” in the Exile and go to the land scared to his people: “My heart is in the East [Zion] and I am in the ends of the West [Spain]; How can I taste what I eat, and how can it be sweet?”
Leaving his home was not easy, however, and one of ha-Levi’s most poignant poems describes his emotions about leaving his daughter and his grandson and namesake, Judah:
I do not worry about property or possessions
nor wealth nor all my losses—
Except that I foresake my offspring,
sister of my soul, my only daughter.
I shall forget her son, a segment of my heart,
and I have, except for him, nothing to discuss—
Fruit of my womb and child of my delights;
how can Judah forget Judah?
“Ode to Zion”
Of all the poems which ha-Levi wrote while contemplating his trip, and during the perilous sea voyage which he so well describes (the meter of one poem makes the reader “feel” the motion of the sea during a storm), none is more famous than the “Zionide” (“Ode to Zion”), which has been translated into numerous languages in many versions. Of all the poems ever written by Jew or Gentile in praise of Zion, this is surely the best known...
(The entire section is 1000 words.)