One of the greatest of the medieval poets of Spain was Solomon b. Judah Ibn Gabirol of Cordova,[1] "a poet whose poems are consecrated by the intellect, a thinker whose thoughts are transfigured by poetry."[2] He was filled with enthusiasm for the Hebrew language; from earliest childhood he made it his goal to restore its original charm and freshness; and he strove to make it possible for the song of the pious singers of old to be heard in it again.

Faithful to his goal, he did more than anyone else for the dissemination of Hebrew poetry. Tried by hardships and pursued by fate, and therefore often filled with dark thoughts, he made religious poetry his refuge. Here he could restore his soul's balance, and elevate himself to the pure harmony of a faithful heart. Here the proud thinker and the daring doubter is transformed into a humble worshiper. Ibn Gabirol was active in all the fields of religious lyric. We have from his hand hymns and meditations, selihot (penitential prayers) and prayers, qinot (dirges) and hopeful, longing visions of the future in the most varied forms and styles.

Ibn Gabirol's poems, which number a few hundred, encompass the entire cycle of prayers of the Jewish year. Besides the ma'amad for the Day of Atonement and its poems of rebuke and atonement, we have his compositions for the three pilgrim festivals, for Purim, Hanukkah, the Ninth of Av and the other fast days. He enriches the prayers with additions and charming little poems; no other Hebrew poet knows how to strike so exactly the tone of prayer.

The most valuable poetic achievement, in which religious, national and philosophical writing are combined into a harmonious whole, is his great didactic poem Keter Malkhut, "The Kingly Crown,"[3] which unites in poetic form the picture of the world as it was then conceived with the fundamental principles of Judaism.

The work begins with the believer lifting his eyes to God, whose wondrous revelation is shown in the cosmos, sphere by sphere "as it proceeds in its various parts from the Almighty." From this height, the poet descends to man, praising his soul as a ray of light ignited by the power of divine wisdom. And just as he had earlier sought to apply his poetic powers to praising the greatness and might of the Creator, so he now cannot find enough traits of humility with which to express the degree to which man falls short of this highest perfection. This remarkable poem, one of the most marvelous products of philosophical poetry in world literature, concludes with a prayer and a confession of sin.

It is very doubtful that "The Kingly Crown" was originally meant for the synagogue, but its deeply religious content lent it such value in the eyes of the communities that it was adopted in all rites as a supplement to the Day of Atonement liturgy. The same happened also to many of Ibn Gabirol's shorter poems, which he did not compose for use in the synagogue, but which were adopted in most prayer books as the supreme expression of the religious spirit and trust in God.

There is no rite that does not contain a large number of Gabirol's prayers and poems. Therefore, his large compositions were often broken up, and only certain sections taken up by the communities. But his spirit lives on, and the influence of his lofty piety is felt even today; throughout the Jewish world the memory survives of the one of whom Heines said:[4]

Yes, Gabirol, that truehearted
God-enraptured minnesinger,
Pious nightingale who warbled
To the God Who was his rose —
That sweet nightingale, who caroled
Tenderly his lilting love songs
In the rayless darkness of the
Gothic medieval night!

Selections from "The Kingly Crown"

May this my prayer aid mankind
The path of right and worth to find;
The living God, His wondrous ways
Herein inspire my song of praise.
Nor is the theme at undue length set down
Of all my hymns behold "The Royal Crown."

Wonderful are your works, as my soul overwhelmingly knows
Yours, O Lord, are the greatness and the might,
the beauty, the triumph and the splendor.
Yours, O Lord, is the Kingdom, and You are exalted as head over all.
Yours are all the riches and honor;
Yours the creatures of the heights and depths.
They bear witness that they perish, while You endure.
Yours is the might in whose mystery our thoughts can find no stay,
so far are You beyond us.
In You is the veiled retreat of power, the secret and the foundation.
Yours is the name concealed from the sages.
The force that sustains the world on naught,
And that can bring to light every hidden thing.
Yours is the loving kindness that rules over all Your creatures.
Yours are the mysteries that transcend understanding and thought.
Your is the life over which extinction holds no sway.
And Your throne is exalted above every sovereignty,
And Your habitation hidden in the shrouded height.
Yours is the existence from the shadow of whose light every being was created,
Of which we say, in His shadow we live.
Yours are the two worlds between which You have set a boundary,
The first for deeds and the second for reward.
Yours is the reward which You for the righteous have stored up and hidden,
Yea, You saw it was goodly and you hid it....

[1] Ibn Gabirol's sacred poems were collected in the (second) edition by H.N. Bialik and I.H. [back] Ravnitzky (Tel Aviv, Dvir, 1927/8, 1931/32). See Selected Religious Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol, ed. I. Davidson, trans. I. Zangwill I(Philadelphia: JPS, 1928).
[2] Michael jehiel Sachs, Der Religiöse Poesie der Juden in Spanien. Berlin: Veit und Co., 1845, p. 223. [back]
[3] Ibid. [back]
[4] Heinrich Heine, "Jehuda ben Halevy" in Romanzero (1851). English translation by Hal Draper, The Complete Poems of Heinrich Heine: A Modern English Version (Boston: Suhrkamp/Insel, 1982), p. 676. [back]
From Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History, by Ismar Elbogen, translated by Raymond P. Scheindlin, JPS, 1993. Based on the original 1913 German edition, and the 1972 Hebrew edition edited by Prof. Joseph Heinemann, et al. This excerpt is reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

Raymond P. Scheindlin, the translator, is Professor of Medieval Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He is the author of two other books on medieval Hebrew secular and religious poetry, both published by Jewish Publication Society.

Ismar Elbogen (1874-1943) was a scholar, teacher and public figure in Italy, Germany and later in the United States. He made major contributions to studies in Jewish history, literature, and biblical exegesis; served as editor for several encyclopedias and scholarly collections; and took part in writing the liberal prayer book for German Jews. Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History, from which this article is taken, in considered his major work.

author A letter upon the garden: A poem by Solomon ibn Gabirol



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