Dana International, Israel’s award winning trans-sexual pop singer, announced that her song at the 1999 Eurovision Song Contest in Jerusalem would be “Dror Yikra.” Wearing a strapless dress in the style of traditional Yemenite Jewish costume and heavily guarded by security agents, she noted that “this is a Yemenite song and I am Yemenite. I remember singing it in synagogue when I was young. . . . It’s part of me. The organizers of the contest noted that “Dror Yikra” was written by Rabbi Shlomo Shabazi in the sixteenth century and is a poem with no overt religious overtones. The director of the show noted, “People are attributing all kinds of meanings to the words that they wouldn’t if Dana wasn’t singing it.”

One of my now very famous professors of medieval Hebrew poetry once noted that there are three words that don’t attract students to courses or lectures—medieval, Hebrew, and poetry—and noted that his field involves all three. Yet this news story, which had all the qualities for making big headlines in Israel and to sustain life at it its usual combative, bilious level, moves a discussion of medieval Hebrew poetry from the academy to the forefront of Jewish cultural wars.

While Dana International may be able to get an operation to change his sex, it is not so easy to change the historical provenance of a major cultural artifact. “Deror Yikra” was one of the first Hebrew poems written in the rhyme and meter of Arabic verse. It was written in Córdoba, Spain, in the mid-tenth century by Dunash ibn Labrat (d. 990), who was born in Baghdad, studied with Saadia Gaon, the leading rabbinic and cultural figure of the day,  and later moved to Fez in North Africa. Dunash’s poetic innovations gained him the position of court poet and Hebrew secretary to Hasdai ibn Shaprut (910-970 or 905-975), who served as the court physician and vizier to Abdurahman III (912-961), the founder, in 929, of  the Caliphate of Córdoba. Shalem Shabazi was actually a great seventeenth-century Yemenite Hebrew poet. The time difference between Dunash and Shalem is at least seven hundred years, a significant margin of error, a fact that highlights the long history of Hebrew poetry, a history that extends by many centuries beyond both points of reference in this contemporary discussion of medieval Hebrew poetry.

1. Early Hebrew Poetry

The foundation stone of Jewish poetic creativity is the Bible. At least a third of the Bible is written in poetry, mainly using various forms of parallelism rather than meter and rhyme. With the end of the biblical period, Jews did not stop writing Hebrew poetry.

During the third and fourth centuries of the common era Jewish mystics in Palestine wrote Hekhalot hymns as part of the larger phenomenon known as Hekhalot literature; hekhalot, the Hebrew word for “palace,” in this case refers to the heavenly palace. This literature describes in depth the structure of the seven heavens and the ways to address the heavenly beings in order to attain the spiritual and material blessings over which they presided. Some of the most famous works of this genre include Sefer Harazim, a second- or third-century Hebrew magic book, written in Hebrew that closely approximates that of the Mishnah, and Sefer Enoch, which represents a milestone in the development of Jewish mysticism.

Out of Hekhalot literature developed one of the richest, although not uncontroversial, forms of Jewish cultural creativity, piyyut (or piut). Piyyutim, derived from the Greek word for poetry, are complex creations by Hebrew poets from Palestine, usually dated from between the fourth and seventh centuries of the common era. Piyyut constituted poetic reactions, often based on midrash, to biblical stories, especially the sacrifices, to various prayers in the prayerbook, and to subsequent events in Jewish history. Piyyut uses rich, imaginative language so creative it can be enigmatic.

One view of the development of piyyut understands it as a form of biblical exegesis created when study of the Torah was banned by the Romans in Byzantium. Critics of this view note that piyyut was around before any bans by the Romans in the sixth century. The names of most of the payytanim, those who wrote the piyyutim, are no longer known. The three main ancient payytanim known by name are Yose ben Yose, Yannai, and Eleazar ben Kallir, although very little is known about them.

Some piyyut was included in the text of the prayerbook. Most piyyut, however, was lost, and only relatively recently large amounts were rediscovered in the Cairo Geniza, a medieval storehouse for worn-out manuscripts. During the medieval period Jews around the world continued to write more restrained piyyut, usually reflecting the poetic styles of the country in which they lived.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, enlightened Jews, maskilim, made fun of the arcane language of piyyut, and modern Jews—Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist—began to eliminate much of this cultural treasure from the prayerbook, although some is still found in the High Holiday prayerbook of every movement.

a. The Akedah in Piyyut
The anonymous author of the piyyut “Akedah: The Sacrifice of Isaac” stresses the religious quality of the commandment to sacrifice Isaac, the haste with which Abraham followed the commandment, and the salvific quality of the act, even though it ended with the sacrifice of a ram instead of the boy: “. . . your boy as a fragrant offering I desired—how he observed the commandment, not delaying at all! He quickly split the wood . . . offering up a lamb, taking in his hand a sword, he showed no mercy. . . . Accept, God, these ashes, remember us with his covenant, consider us his Akedah, answer the affliction of our soul.”

b. Moses in Piyyut
Moses, because of the intimate connections he had with the deity in the biblical text, is singled out in several Hekhalot hymns for similar supernatural skills. In “Into the Desert” by Yannai (the title cites an expression explicitly from Exodus 3), Moses is miraculously transported with his flock to the site of the burning bush, turning the desert green. He becomes an angel and is taught magic secrets of fiery visions by God, moving the events of the divine revelation at the burning bush from the ground to the heavens. At the theological level Moses is presented in many ways similar to those in which Jesus appeared. At the aesthetic level, it is an alphabetical acrostic—the first word of the first line begins with an aleph, the second with a bet, and so on—and the end of each hemistich (half-line) rhyming. Kallir took the theme of fire further in “The Celestial Fire,” his poetic adaptation of Exodus 3:2, in which an angel of the Lord appears before Moses in a burning fire. In this work, in which every line starts with the word fire, the next word begins an alphabetical acrostic covering the entire alphabet in Hebrew.

In Spain, under Islamic influence the Hebrew poets made a major break from the tradition of piyyut to produce rhymed and metered poetry that drew almost exclusively on the vocabulary of the Bible, a trend that continued in other Islamic countries and then in Italy, especially under the influence of Renaissance poetic genres.

2. Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain

Under the influence of Arab culture, Hebrew poets radically changed Hebrew poetry from the often obscure and usually very religious style of piyyut associated with cultural developments in Palestine, Babylonia, Ashkenazic lands, and Spain up to the tenure of Menahem ibn Saruq, whom Dunash ibn Labrat replaced as court poet. Influenced by the Muslims’ devotion to the Koran, the Hebrew poets of Spain stopped using the language of the midrash in their poetry and returned to the pure language of the Bible. Inspired by the secular poetry of the Arabs about love, wine, and war, the Hebrew poets began to write secular themes as well. Finally, compelled by the quantitative syllabification of the Arabs, Hebrew poets began to include precise rhythms in their poetry. The Hebrew poetry of Spain can be scanned: The sheva (:) represents a short sound, while all the other vowels represent equally long sounds.

Although the Hebrew poetry of Spain can be understood without commentaries, understanding its stylized conventions is helpful. Since much of this poetry reflects a conscious borrowing of themes, images, and forms from the Muslim poets, it is important not to fall into the trap of viewing the motifs of these poems as accurate reflections of Jewish life in Spain. Rather, they are accurate reflections of the kinds of images that Jews borrowed from the poetry of the Arabs. Thus when the Hebrew poets wrote about carousing all night in gardens around bonfires and drinking wine, we cannot automatically assume that this is what Jews did, but only that this is modeled on what they read. Jews borrowed these themes in their poems because they wanted to match what the Arabs did in Arabic to show the strength and flexibility of Hebrew. This process reached its fullest development in the Hebrew poems about sexual intimacy between young boys and old men written in biblical Hebrew by rabbis in medieval Spain.

a. Wine Poetry
Among Jews, those in Muslim Spain wrote the first wine poetry. It was a playful, seemingly secular genre with little obvious religious or ethical purpose. This imitation of the Arabic, like most subsequent drinking literature, usually has six basic themes: 1) the place where the wine was drunk; 2) the group of drinkers; 3) the time of the drinking; 4) a description of the wine; 5) an erotic image of the person serving the wine; 6) a description of the musicians playing in the background.

The contention by members of Dana International’s posse that the author of “Deror Yikra” may not have been as religiously devout as some of the singer’s religious detractors finds mixed support in the first Hebrew wine poem, written by Dunash. In this poem, the listener is encouraged not to sleep but rather to spend the whole night awake amid all sorts of fragrant spices in a garden of pomegranates filled with fountains and musical instruments. However, after a call to drink by the bowl, the poem shifts to a call for offering a sacrifice of choice bulls and rams and calves along with the anointing of oil and the lighting of incense.

Now this could be a sumptuous banquet or it could be a reference to the Temple sacrificial cult, leading us to reconsider the beginning of the poem and to ask whether it refers to natural bounty or to a specific religious setting. This impression is sustained in the next stanza as well. There, as part of a poetic dialogue, the listener reproaches his interlocutor by asking how he could issue such an invitation when the Holy House, the footstool of God, is in the hands of the uncircumcised ones. He further chastises him for neglecting the Torah while Zion lies in desolation, adding nationalistic to religious themes.

Samuel HaNagid, the Jewish vizier of Córdoba, also wrote some zesty wine poems. At first one might be tempted to say that they are purely secular, focusing on the hedonistic aspects of life with calls for drinking, often to excess, and good company. However, a careful examination of each of the poems usually reveals some connection with religious themes.

In one, “The Reward,” the poet suggests dividing one’s time evenly between serving God and carousing with wine. In another, “Winter Wine Song,” the development of the vintage process traces the Jewish calendar from Av and Elul to Tishri, reaching its height at the time of the high holidays. In another, however, he connects wine with the theme of the love of men for young boys: “I would be a ransom for the fawn who gets up at night with the sound of the harp and flute.” Moses ibn Ezra connects wine with sexual lust.

“Hug the breasts of the beautiful woman all night; kiss her image all day.” But even here religious imagery from the Temple sacrifice is added to create a sexual-religious double entendre: “This is earthly delight. Take your portion from it as did the priests from the ram of installation. . . . Don’t stop sucking your moist lips until you have taken your portion, a breast and a thigh” (see Leviticus 10:15). 

b. Love Poetry
Medieval Hebrew love poetry has a secular, hedonistic side to it, often as part of a wine song. The poems are a continuation of Arabic themes, not biblical motifs, despite the use of biblical terminology.

The basic themes of secular love poetry include: 1) the lover is usually described as tall, with white skin and dark eyes and hair; 2) the lover is called by the names of biblical animals for example,  deer or gazelle—or by the names of biblical personalities; 3) the love is kept a secret, especially from the family; 4) the love is described in terms of a stylized frustration—the poet is awake, cannot sleep, and has no appetite; 5) the lover can be a young man or a woman; 6) a friend tries to convince the poet to give up the frustrating relationship; 7) the poet sees himself as a sacrifice and the object of his affection as an animal of prey; often parts of the woman’s body, especially her eyes, are described as weapons. In short, people who are happily in love rarely write love poetry. These love poems are usually about frustrated love and can sometimes turn misogynistic.

In “The Laundress,” Judah Halevi captures the spirit of the victimization of the man by his unavailable but radiant object of affection: “Ophra washes her clothing in the water of my tears and spreads them out to dry in her radiance. With my two eyes, she doesn’t bother with water from the well; nor, with the beauty of her body, with the sun.” He cries his eyes out over his lover, but all she can do is use his tears to do her laundry, an image that both elevates her and condemns her in the harshest terms.

c. Religious Poetry
The Hebrew religious poetry of Muslim Spain borrows many themes from secular love poetry, and often the only difference is the choice of the object of desire.

Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote two religious poems that follow all the contours of erotic poetry: “The Shut Gate” and “The One Who Lies on Beds of Gold.” The cause for confusion between religious and erotic poetry here is that, as in Dunash’s wine poem above, ibn Gabirol’s Hebrew text describes the Temple cult with the double entendre of a house of earthly assignation as well: “Rise and open the gate which is closed, send to me my beloved who fled, when you come to me to spend the night between my breasts, there you will leave your pleasant fragrance.” Carmi’s translation includes glosses, not found in the Hebrew, that impose on the poem the sense that it is a conversation between God and Israel. The Hebrew certainly allows for this but not in certain terms. Ambiguities in the meaning of the poems, differing interpretations of the stylistic conventions, and difficulties in translating the poems often lead to translations with anywhere from minor to major differences in wording and meaning.

Similarly ibn Gabirol’s “He Who Lies on Beds of Gold,” which Carmi translates as “Zion Longing for the Messiah,” actually begins in the Hebrew with a woman speaking to a man: “He who dwells on beds of gold in my castle, when will you ready my bed for the redhead?” The text finds the loved one sleeping in the morning and offering an affirmation of their suitability for each other. The poem ends: “He who comes in my castle will find my hidden delights, the juice of my pomegranate, my myrrh and my cinnamon.” These expressions point either to an amorous tryst or to the Temple sacrifice. Once again, sexual-religious ambiguities in the original poem may manifest in differences in translations.

d. Zion
Medieval Hebrew religious poetry, like love poetry, includes the element of pining for a lost object, sometimes Zion, particularly the Temple and its cult, connected with both memories of the past and messianic hopes for the future. Judah Halevi’s odes to Zion represent some of the most important examples of this genre. These hopes for a return to Zion, wherever they appear, are often accompanied by coded polemical utterances against Muslims and Christians.

For example, in his famous poem “My Heart Is in the East,” Halevi writes: “My heart is in the east, and I am in the distant west. How can I taste what I eat and how can it be sweet? How can I fulfill my vows and oaths as long as Zion is in the chains of Edom and I am in the binds of the Arabs?” Although other interpretations exist (e.g., Carmi, in his note on this poem), the point of this verse is the poet’s emphatic sense that he cannot function fully as long as the Temple is destroyed. Like a frustrated lover, he can neither eat nor sleep. Edom is a medieval Hebrew reference to Christianity, referring in particular to the Crusader Kingdom in Jerusalem. When Halevi writes, “It would be easy in my eyes to leave all the good of Spain, how dear it would be in my eyes to see the dust of the destroyed Temple,” he prefers the salvific power of the ruined Temple to the good life in Spain. In his “Ode to Zion” he gives a graphic description of the Holy Land, almost a traveler’s account, based on the biblical text, and the immediacy of God’s presence there, especially where the Temple once stood.

e. The Dirge
The Hebrew dirge in Muslim Spain, despite antecedents in the Bible, is based on the Muslim genre. There are four aspects of the dirge: 1) the crying: the personalized pain of the poet over his loss, the negative image of the messenger who brought the news of the death, the projection of personal feelings on the whole world and all of nature; 2) the eulogy: praise of the dead, especially his generosity towards the poet; 3) the expression of wisdom about fate, the world, life, and death; 4) the consolation: usually the superficial notion that all life must endure death.

One of the most beautiful poems of this type from the period is Solomon ibn Gabirol’s tribute to Yekutiel, his late patron. In it, all of nature shares his grief, as the Hebrew reads: “See how red the sun is at evening time, like it is dressed in a scarlet robe. It uncovers the corners of the north and the west and it covers the south and the east with purple. It has left the earth naked, . . . and the world becomes dark, as if it is covered in sackcloth because of the death of Yekutiel.”

3. Hebrew Poetry in Christian Spain

Whatever golden age happened in Islamic Spain was over by the mid-twelfth century. At that time, with Christian successes in reconquering Spain, Jews began to enjoy a golden age of cultural creativity in the Christian north. One of the outstanding cultural creations of this period was the Tahkemoni, by Judah Al-Harizi (1170-1235), an epic in makama, a mixture of  poetry and rhymed prose. With its picaresque adventures, the Tahkemoni resembles a traveler’s account, including accounts of Jerusalem, a history of Hebrew poetry, and much on the subject of women, usually hostile if not violent.

The sixth gate of the Tahkemoni formulates the juxtaposition commonly found in medieval discussions between the good woman and the bad woman, the goddess and the whore. At the beginning of the chapter the protagonist is promised the ideal woman. Instead he gets a very unattractive woman. Here Al-Harizi draws together snippets from biblical verses to present what is a literary tour de force, but less than satisfying towards the end when he beats her. But, in the spirit of gender transformations, she then turns out to be his best friend (masculine) and long-time fellow joker. His abuse of men is equally cutting. In “The Generous Man, he is afraid to urinate less he be thirsty and he reluctant to move his bowels lest  he be hungry.” Al-Harizi is drawing on the medieval popular culture of the grotesque, exaggerated, mocking, and satirical uses of bodily processes, especially sexual and digestive. He draws on animal fables as well.

Similar characteristics are found in Sefer Hashaashuim (The Book of Delight), a makama by Joseph ibn Zabara (1140-1200), also from Christian Spain. Like the Tahkemoni, by his contemporary Al-Harizi, this book is difficult to characterize. It contains elements of a travel account, satire, poetry, parables from other peoples, and ethics.  Indeed, perhaps non-ethics would be a better term since it contains parodies of ethics. It also contains extensive dialogue on the nature of women, much of it hostile in the tradition of querelle des femmes, the medieval debate about the nature of women.

Similar gender transformations are seen in the work of Todros Abulafia (1247-1295). In “Oh, to Be a Woman” he writes with even less restraint, fantasizing that if he were a women he could kiss an Arab woman with whom he is infatuated. “[B]ecause I am a male, I lost out.” Another poem, “Figs,” is about the poet’s request for figs from a friend: “[S]end a ripening fig, give a portion for seven of them, even for eight.” Carmi translates the next line as “And in return, here is my flatus,” noting that the Hebrew word used, zemorah, also means “vine twig.” Although his translation is certainly not bowdlerized, it seems to miss the point, once again illustrating the challenges involved in translating these poems: Zemorah means “penis” and “fig,” a reference to “vagina.” I think that this is a sexual and not a scatological reference; both, however, fit the category of the grotesque. The next line—”Henceforth I won’t give it to strangers”—could fit either way.

4. Hebrew Poetry in Germany and France

a.  The First Crusade
The First Crusade, called for in 1095 by the pope as a way for European Christians to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims who had conquered it, produced an  immediate, unintended series of violent, unprecedented, popular attacks on Jewish communities, particularly in the Rhineland. In May 1096, Jews in Worms, Speyer, and Mainz (Mayence) were slaughtered or forcibly converted and in some cases they chose to take the lives of their loved ones and then their own, often in the form of ritual human sacrifice. Narratives and poetry from the period of the Crusades graphically reflect the influence of the Akedah on Jewish reactions to the trauma.

In an anonymous dirge, “The Martyrs of Mainz,” the language of the biblical story of the Akedah is mixed with descriptions of martyrdom (kiddush ha-shem, “sanctifying the divine name”) and ritual sacrifice: “Young men went forth, each from his room, to sanctify the great name, because today he tests his chosen ones.” Rabbis extended their necks to be slaughtered and a mother bound (not, however, using the same root as Akedah) her child and the father said a blessing on the slaughter. Mothers strangled their children and brides kissed their new husbands and ran off to be slaughtered. The analogy to the Akedah is made explicit when the poet asks why, with so many being bound and destroyed, the angels are not interrupting this time.

David bar Meshullam of Speyer (twelfth century) wrote an even more graphic dirge on the massacres, chosen death, and ritual slaughter, mixed with a call for vengeance, with even more explicit references to the Akedah. The central theme of his poem “The Sacrifices is the ritual quality of the bloody acts of self immolation, regularly drawing on the same root as the word Akedah, performed by Jews. The poet notes that the original Akedah had a power to protect Jews, but now the number of sacrifices multiplies. Writing in Germany, Meshulam used Hebrew metrical from Spain, a sign of expanding Spanish cultural influences. He also wrote this poem using a double acrostic; every two lines begin with the same Hebrew letter,  moving through the alphabet in order. The final lines include an acrostic that spells out his name, David…Meshullam, and a classic medieval expression of self-deprecation that only great sages can use, “Hakatan” (the little one), Hai (lives). Over the years the poem was altered because various editors did not realize that the acrostic contained his name. Thus, this was a cultural artifact based on a variety of aesthetic criteria. Even writing about self-immolation, the poet was very careful about the form his work took and imposed challenges on his writing that heightened his display of artistic virtuosity and a little vanity.

The major poem about subsequent ritual sacrifices in the Rhineland was written by Ephraim of Bonn (1132-1200), chronicler of the Second Crusade of 1145-1149.  Stylistically, this poem was written as an Atbash acrostic: Each line (every two lines in this printed version) begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order, going both forwards from aleph and backwards from tav; hence the expression Atbash (aleph, tav, bet, shin). In addition, each hemistich, or half-line, rhymes with the next. This poem retells the story of the Akedah in great detail emphasizing Abraham’s enthusiasm to fulfill the divine commandment to sacrifice his son. Adding a dash of local color to the story, Ephraim of Bonn identifies Mt. Scopus as the place from which Abraham, at the end of the three days of travel, had seen where he was to perform the sacrifice—Mt. Moriah, presumably the Temple Mount (now the Dome of the Rock)—which can be seen very well from Mt. Scopus. The key to this poem is its explicitly stating that Isaac was aware of what was going to happen to him, blessed the Lord, and asked that his ashes be taken to his mother. Abraham then, after pinning him down, ritually slaughtered Isaac. Not only was Isaac resurrected by God, but his zealous father tried to slaughter him again, causing the Lord to have to call out to him a second time. Once his son had been accepted as a sacrifice by God and transported to the Garden of Eden, he offered up the ram. Afterwards, the father and son met again and prayed together that their deed would atone for the sins of future generations of Jews.

b. The Aleinu
A study of the Aleinu, a prayer with both universalistic and particularistic themes, provides an opportunity to see how Jewish history has influenced a Jewish prayer and how prayer has influenced history.

The Aleinu is usually attributed to Rav, a third-century Babylonian rabbi. There are references to the Aleinu in the Talmud of the Land of Israel. The Aleinu began as a piyyut, with short lines of four words each, rhythm, and parallel structures, read before the malkhuyot, the kingship readings, in the Amidah of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf, the late morning service dedicated to the theme of sacrifice. It was added to the Yom Hakippurim Musaf Amidah. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim Ashkenazim kneel and prostrate themselves during this prayer. By the twelfth century it was also used to conclude the daily morning service, then the other two daily services.

In 1171 in Blois, France, according to Emek Habakha, the sixteenth-century Hebrew chronicle by Joseph Cohen, a Jewish trader was watering his horse by a river. A Christian who happened by thought he saw a child’s body fall out of his goods and into the rapidly flowing river. No body was ever found, nor was anyone found missing. A trial was held, including an examination by ordeal, which the witnesses passed by not drowning. As a result, thirty-four Jews, after escaping the flames several times and even dragging a Christian into the flames with them, were burned alive chanting the Aleinu.

Christians have felt that the Aleinu prayer was said against them, a sense that the incident at Blois did not help to undermine nor did the legend that some Jews  spit in the synagogue when saying the prayer. Of particular concern to Christians has been the line in the Aleinu “She-hem mishtahavim la-hevel va-rik umitpalellim el el lo yoshia”—”They bow down to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who will not save. It was not enough that the word rik can mean “emptiness.” Christians further asserted that it also meant “spit”; that according to their calculations the word va-rik added up in gematria (a system by which numerical values are assigned to each Hebrew letter) to 316, the same as Yeshu, the Hebrew for Jesus; that the full phrase “hevel va-rik” added up to the same as “Yeshu umohammed,” meaning Jesus and Muhammed”; and that when Jews recited this line, they spat on the floor. It didn’t help that in Yiddish the expression “Er kumt tsum oysshpayen”— “He arrives at spitting time”—means to be very late for services, since the Aleinu comes at the end of the prayer service.

During the middle ages Christians protested against the prayer and  tried to force Jews to abstain from saying the offensive line. In the modern period, governments, such as Prussia in the eighteenth century, investigated the prayer and banned Jews from saying the offending line and spitting.

Jews offered a range of responses to such charges. They often eliminated the controversial line, and hence it is not found in many Ashkenazi prayerbooks. Some Jews changed the line to read, “She-hayu mishtahavim laelilim umitpallelim el ale lo yoshia”—”They used to bow down to idols and pray to a god who does not save.” This way they changed the meaning from the present, against Christians, to the past, against pagans. Jews also argued that many of the phrases were from the and that this prayer was written by Joshua or the Men of the Great Assembly, showing that it was written before Christianity and therefore could not be against Christians.

In a similar vein, Moses Mendelssohn, the foremost Jewish thinker in eighteenth-century Europe, tried to argue that because the Aleinu contained no references to the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, it must have been written before the Destruction and hence had no connection with Christianity. Menasseh Ben Israel, a Dutch rabbi, writing in his Vindiciae Judaerorum in 1656, devoted a whole chapter to a defense of the Aleinu, including praise of it by the Sultan of Turkey. In Jewish communities, often from Muslim countries where Christians were usually not in power, the full prayer is still said.

In the congregation to which I belonged while living in Jerusalem, I noticed that an interesting compromise had been worked out concerning this line, perhaps unwittingly, since nobody could recall any discussion about it. The offending line appears in the standard Israeli prayerbook Rinat Yisrael, reflecting a historical reality and some contemporary Jewish practices, but it is not recited, reflecting local custom based on either sensitivity or habit. Nevertheless, in his commentary on the prayerbook, Joseph Hertz, a former chief rabbi of Britain, whose biblical and prayerbook commentaries are valuable as a repositories of apologetics, crowed that this prayer is “sublime,” “noble,” “ancient,” and “universalist,” voicing “Israel’s undying hope for the day when all idolatry shall have disappeared” and “the essential character” of Judaism.

5. Hebrew Poetry in Italy

Hebrew poetry reached new creative heights in the work of Immanuel of Rome (1261-1328) as well as what some Jews saw as new depths in terms of taste and suitability, culminating in his work being explicitly banned in the Shulhan Arukh, a code of Jewish law. Influenced by Dante and familiar with the Divine Comedy, which he imitated, Immanuel was for a while a correspondent for the Roman Jewish community until he went into exile. His Makhberot, a collection  of poetry and rhymed prose on many subjects, usually combining biblical and rabbinic idioms with intensive mockery, have not been fully translated into English. In one example he uses  religious terminology to describe a patient taking a laxative: “Isolate yourself after you drink this mixture and set aside all your work until your body is purged and do not trouble your thoughts with anything. Shut the doors of your house from all sides because the wind will cause tekiah, teruah, and three shevarim,” the sound made by the shofar on solemn days.

Immanuel’s work is filled with misogynistic passages as well as a few barbs at men. In “The Miser”, he mocks: “Though he has a penis, for fear of wearing it out, when he has sex he uses somebody else’s.” Again, this shows Jewish poets writing in Hebrew who draw heavily upon popular use of the grotesque. Writings about misogyny, sexuality, and scatology appear regularly but do not necessarily represent positivistic reporting about actual behavior.

One of the paradoxes of Italian Hebrew poetry is the fate of Leon Modena’s “Song for the Minor Day of Atonement,” which refers to the fast day at the end of every Hebrew month initiated by the kabbalists. Modena (Yehudah Aryeh mi-Modena, 1571-1648) was a bitter opponent of Kabbalah, yet it was this poem that became the anthem for that day, leaving not only his words but his name spelled out in the acrostic that begins every other line. Heightening the paradox is the fact that many years after his death in 1648 various rabbis tried to ban the poem because of its alleged reference to Shabbetai Tzvi, the messianic pretender whose movement reached its height  in the year 1666, many years after Modena’s death. The poem ends with a hope for the coming of the messiah and the reestablishment of burnt offerings in the Temple in Jerusalem. Modena uses the expression “nezer roshenu,” “the crown of our head.” Opponents of Shabbetai Tzvi, however, saw that the gematria of the expression added up to 814, the same as that of the name of  the messianic pretender Shabbetai Tzvi, even though Modena had died way before Tzvi’s movement had crested. Nevertheless, the expression “hod roshenu”—“the glory of our head” or simply “Messiah”—replaces the original troubling expression.

Many of the rollicking, frivolous, witty, and abusive qualities of Immanuel are also found in the poetry of the Frances brothers, Jacob (1615-1667) and Immanuel (1618-1710). Often rewriting each other’s work, they cover many of the conventional themes of wine, women (oversexed or undersexed), and misogyny.

In Immanuel Frances’s “There Are Only Three Exits,” the poet lords over women the three moments of transition and subordination in their lives: when she is born, in filth; when she gets married; and when she dies, which he viciously calls the most exalted of all.

In the eighteenth century Ephraim Luzzatto expresses a sense of self, not previously found in Hebrew poetry, when he writes about his land, his street, his house, and even his own name. Still in the tradition of Italian Hebrew literature, Luzzatto, moving from the politically incorrect to sexual harassment, describes a doctor who falls passionately in love with his female patient and propositions her.

6. Hebrew Poetry in the East

Several poems by Hebrew poets from eastern Mediterranean countries have had an enduring impact on Jewish culture. With roots in both Spain and Italy as well as in indigenous Jewish culture, these poems often reflect mystical traditions. One such poem, written by Simon Labi (1492-1585), a Spanish-North African writer, has been made into a popular song called “Bar Yohai,” named for Simon bar Yohai, the first-century rabbi to whom traditional Jews attribute the writing of the Zohar, the classic Jewish mystical text, although modern scholars believe the Zohar was composed in Christian Spain in the thirteenth century. The song is sung on the festival of Lag be-omer, which commemorates the rabbi’s mystical ascension. The poem can be read as connecting each stanza to a different one of the ten sephirot, the mediating stages between God and humans, or as each stanza’s referring to a different moment in the mystical experience of Simon Bar Yohai or the Jewish people: Acacia wood recalls the Temple; the apple trees refer to the Garden of Eden—a reference borrowed from Christianity, since rabbinic literature never identifies the tree of the Garden as an apple tree; the sword evokes the flaming sword protecting the entrance to the Garden; the marble stones are from the talmudic story of the four men who entered pardes, the mystical orchard; and so on.

“Yedid Nefesh,” which now adorns both synagogue services and radio stations, was composed in Safed by the kabbalist Eliezer Azikri. One of the most famous verses in this poem is “eli, mahmad libi, husha na, ve-al titalem”—”my God, my heart’s delight, have compassion, and do not disappear.” From this emerged a popular Hebrew song which garbles the words of the original by singing, “Ele hamdah libi . . .,” which makes no sense whatsoever with its masculine subject (libi) and feminine predicate (Israel Najara (c. 1555-1625), author of the Sabbath hymn “Yah Ribbon,” rabbi in various cities in the land of Israel, and noted for acquiring his melodies in Arab taverns, composed a dirge for the fast of the Ninth of Av on the theme of child sacrifice based on a midrashic story. In his poem, a mother builds an alter to sacrifice her son, slaughters him, and removes his flesh like a sacrificial offering and dismembering him into twelve parts (see the story of the concubine in Givah in Judges 19, who is also cut into twelve parts). When the other Jews found her, they confronted her with a verse from the Akedah, “Here are the fire and the wood!” Significantly, it is in the land of Israel that the imperative to sacrifice emerges.

The fact remains that a central theme in all periods of Hebrew poetry was the desire to offer sacrifices. Whether writing about drinking wine, or love, or prayer, the poets gave expression to the continued desire of Jews to offer sacrifices in Jerusalem, a desire not eliminated by the destruction of the Temple and one that continues to loom large in our own day.

In the meantime, during the long and often culturally productive diaspora from the land of Israel and from the Temple, Jews in all parts of the world continued literary, cultural, and religious traditions from Palestine, while at the same time, continually influenced by their neighbors, produced new works which reflected the environment they lived in, Christian or Islamic.

— © Howard Tzvi Adelman, director of the Jewish Studies Program at Queens University at Kingston, Ontario, Canada