Samuel Ha-Nagid
The General & His War Poems by Israel Zinberg

Beginning in 1038, when the accession of the tyrant King Badis of Granada propelled Samuel ha-Nagid to the height of his power, until the Nagid's death in 1055, the Jewish statesman would spend several months out of each year participating in military engagements on behalf of the Muslim king.

Jews were not known for military acuity or prowess, that place being held by Andalusia's Arabs, Berbers, and Spaniards. But the Nagid was a great exception. We know of his military activities mostly from his poems. He may have shared with others the command of the Granadan companies he led, but nonetheless he held commanding positions during these campaigns.[1]

The Nagid often referred to his military activities as being conducted in behalf of his people, and the Jewish community certainly viewed his victories as their own as well. Indeed, Samuel's first major victory, over the army of Almeria, was celebrated by a special Purim by Granada's Jews.[2] Samuel's rigorous military campaigns, which depleted his physical health, were probably a major contributor his death at 62 or 63, just after a last successful battle against Seville.[3] His death was met by tremendous grief throughout the Jewish world.

The state of Granada in general, and its Jewish vizier in particular, had numerous enemies in the neighboring Arabic states. The army of Granada, under the command of Samuel, often carried on warfare. Not infrequently Samuel's army was surrounded on all sides, but the ingenious and calm warrior always succeeded in delivering his army from danger and bringing it to brilliant victory. These triumphs were celebrated by the heroic vizier in Hebrew poems.

After a hiatus of many centuries, Jewish battle poems expressing praise and gratitude to the God of war, the mighty helper on the battlefield, were again heard. Samuel's wine songs are awkward and crude, but his songs of praise and battle poems are saturated with fiery enthusiasm, with the flame of powerful feeling. At times the odor of blood is to be smelled in them. The fervor of ancient Biblical days, the victorious cry of the era of King David and his heroes, echo in them.

Characteristic is the song of praise in which Samuel celebrates his triumph over the army of his enemy Ibn Abbas. The paean begins with the glory to the "God of might, the God of vengeance, the God who is above all praises and laudations." Soon, however, the song of praise passes over into a quiet mood of prayer, in which a confident plea to the God of mercy, who takes up the cause of innocently shed blood and is the sure helper of those who hold the sacred Torah precious, is heard. Immediately after the heartfelt prayer the tone again changes. In the God-fearing man is awakened the warrior who has just conquered his enemy. Intoxicated with victory, he recounts the bloody details of the battle

"Their strong men lay on the battlefield, puffed up like bellows and pregnant women. All together they lay, slaves and lords, princes and servants together. With their king, the new Agag, they all lay around like dung on the field and were not brought to burial. Only one out of a thousand was saved, like single grapes in an abandoned vineyard. Blotted out is Amalek's memorial from the Spanish land, his army scattered, his kingdom destroyed . . .

The slain we left for the jackals, for the leopards and wild boars; their flesh we gave as a gift to the wolves of the field and the birds of heaven. And great was the banquet, all were satiated. Over thorns and thistles were their limbs dragged; the lionesses stilled their young with them . . . Great and rich was the banquet prepared, and all were filled, drunk on blood without measure. The hyenas made their rounds, and the night was deafened with the cries of the ostriches . . .

And we conquered their land, destroyed the fortresses and towers, subjugated villages and towns, and overwhelmed the capital city with violence."

footnotes [1] Jefim Schirmann. "Samuel Hannagid, the Man, the Soldier, the Politician." Jewish Social Studies, 2 (April, 1951), p. 107. [back]
[2] Encyclopedia Judaica, "Samuel ha-Nagid." [back]
[3] Schirmann, p. 126. [back]
excerpted From: Zinberg, Israel. A History of Jewish Literature. Bernard Martin, trans., ed. Copyright 1988 by Ktav Publishing House, Inc. (Hoboken, NY)" By permission of Ktav Publishing House, Inc.

For more about SAMUEL HA-NAGID, see Table of Contents above



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