Samuel Ha-Nagid
Wine Poem, commentary by Raymond Scheindlin

Much of Andalusian Jewish poetry took its cue from the established literary styles and genres of Arabic poetry in which these Jews were steeped. The wine-party was a time-honored tradition in 10th-century Moslem Spain, and an entire genre of wine poetry grew around its rituals. Though stylized and based on a preexisting genre, wine poems such as the one below by Samuel ha-Nagid would most likely have drawn upon first-hand experience as well, because wine parties were part of the courtier lifestyle.[1]

The Nagid wrote many wine poems. A significant aspect of the one below is its mention of King David, with whom the Nagid identified and from whom he derived his view of his own divinely favored status.[2]

The speaker assumes the tone of sage counselor. [However,] the opening sententious reflection on life's insubstantiality, the closing admonition to live in accordance with the precepts of scripture, and the allusions to biblical personages in the body of the poem make it a parody of pietistic verse.

The Hebrew words translated as "all such things" in verse 2 do not have a very definite antecedent, but given the straight faced gnomic opening of the poem, it seems to be the "pleasures and the pains" of the material world that the listener is advised to ignore. The next line suggests intellectual self control as the proper counterpart to physical asceticism, a view with surprisingly deep roots in Jewish pietism. But when verse 4 makes us aware of the poem's true message, the ironic character of the preceding verses becomes apparent. Verse 2 is really advising the listener to censor bothersome reflections such as that which opens the poem. If life is nothing but sleep, then sleep! Leave the thinking to God, and drink up. . . .

Although poetic descriptions of wine customarily deal with its fragrance, color, age, and effect upon the drinker, the descriptive portion of this poem, beginning with verse 4, focuses on the wine's age and only touches on the other themes. It was traditional to invent the most absurd hyperboles regarding the age of the wine. This practice the Nagid has put in the service of his parody by associating the age of the wine with biblical characters, just as a preacher might draw upon the exempla of great men of old.

This hyperbolic claim does not originate with the Nagid, nor is it of Jewish origin; the eighth-century Arabic poet Abu Nuwas describes wine as coming from the age of Adam, Eve, Seth, and Noah.

But the Nagid put his personal stamp upon the biblical motif by singling out King David as the model drinker. King David is named both as a measure of the wine's antiquity and because he represents a particular social model, providing the imagination with an ideal setting for drinking wine; no fewer than four verses are devoted to a speech by one of his courtiers that makes wine drinking into a moral legacy bequeathed by this noble king to future generations of discerning men.

My friend, we pass our lives as if in sleep;
Our pleasures and our pains are merely dreams.
But stop your ears to all such things, and shut
Your eyes--may Heaven grant you strength!--
Don't speculate on hidden things; leave that
To God, the Hidden One, whose eye sees all.

But send the lass who plays the lute
To fill the cup with coral drink,
Put up in kegs in Adam's time,
Or else just after Noah's flood,
A pungent wine, like frankincense,
A glittering wine, like gold and gems,
Such wine as concubines and queens
Would bring King David long ago.

The day they poured that wine into the drum,
King David's singer Jerimoth would strum
And sing: "May such a wine as this be kept
Preserved and stored in sealed-up kegs and saved
For all who crave the water of the grape,
For every man who holds the cup with skill,
Who keeps the rule Ecclesiastes gave,
Revels, and fears the tortures of the grave."

Medieval Hebrew poets loved to allude to out-of-the-way passages from the Bible; able to rely on the audience's rote knowledge of scripture, they could even draw upon the "begats" of Genesis and Chronicles for whimsical effects. Here the Nagid has outdone himself in obscurity, choosing as King David's spokesman a biblical personage that even a medieval rabbi might have been slow to identify.

Jerimoth was the fifth of the fourteen sons of Herman, who was one of the three Levites whom David appointed with their sons to serve as Temple singers. Mentioned only once in the Bible, in the midst of the stupefying list of names comprising Chapters 23 through 27 of I Chronicles, Jerimoth (as well as his thirteen brothers and numerous cousins) went unmentioned in the Jewish literature of the next 1300 years until revived by Samuel the Nagid, still as a musician, but with a distinctly secular function.

Although his sermon on wine-bibbing derives a tone of mock authority from his sacerdotal profession, Jerimoth seems to combine his role as a clergyman with that of court poet. The Nagid must have fancied King David and the members of his entourage to have lived like contemporary Andalusian princes; in his imagination, the biblical Levite stood in for the poet or singing girl, whose songs celebrated the way of life epitomized by the Andalusian wine party. The Nagid repeatedly lays claim, through his Levitic ancestry, to membership in the Jewish aristocracy and a hereditary gift for poetry a status equivalent to that of a pure-blooded descendant of Bedouins in medieval Andalusia.

Even more to the point, the Nagid often compares himself to King David, especially in those poems that reflect seriously on his career. In moments of self-doubt, he looked to David like himself, a man of God with bloody hands--as the biblical paradigm for his own career as statesman, warrior, and poet. David became his model, patron, and vindication: "They ask: 'Should you extol the Lord on high' / I say: the David of the age am I!'"

The Nagid has thus placed his role model, King David, at a wine party of the Andalusian type, listening to the Nagid's Levitical ancestor Jerimoth singing in praise of the wine and the drinkers. Jerimoth's song, in fact, speaks of wine drinking as the moral legacy of King David's reign. Pietist that he is, he cites biblical authority, saying that the wine being laid up in David's time is to be kept for a later generation of men who will be true to the rule of Ecclesiastes. Although he neglects to tell us which of the many rules of life propounded by Ecclesiastes he has in mind, verses 10 and 11 imply that he is thinking of a passage that commends mixing revelry with piety. Ecclesiastes 11:9 fits the purpose admirably:

Rejoice, young man, in your youth
And let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth,
And walk in the ways of your heat
And in the sight of your eyes
But know that for all these things
God will bring you into judgment.

As in so many poems of the Golden Age, part of the wit lies in the overlapping of Jewish and Arabic religious and secular motifs. The secular stock motif here is the antiquity of the wine and the image of cobweb-covered jars sealed generations ago. When this motif is put into Hebrew, especially in the context of a mock sermon delivered by a biblical divine and supported by allusion to a biblical prooftext, it must have reminded his listeners of a theme from a completely different sphere. Steeped in traditional Jewish lore, they would recall the legend of the wine laid up by God for the banquet of the righteous in the world to come.

It may seem surprising that the Nagid tempers his recommendation of a life of revelry with thoughts of the grave and the last judgment. Perhaps he is alluding to the talmudic idea that a person will be judged after his death for pleasures forgone in life.


[1] Raymond P. Scheindlin. Wine, Women, and Death. Copyright 1986 by The Jewish Publication Society of America (Philadelphia, PA). p. 20. [back]

[2] Encyclopedia Judaica "Samuel ha-Nagid" Israel: Keter Publishing Company. [back]

excerpted From: Raymond P. Scheindlin. Wine, Women, and Death Copyright 1986 by The Jewish Publication Society of America (Philadelphia, PA). pp. 55-9. Permission of The Jewish Publication Society of America.

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