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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Judah Halevi (c. 1075–1141)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Richard Gottheil (1862–1936)
 
IN the sunny lands of Spain, the Jews, outcast from their Eastern homes, had found a second fatherland. Under the rule of Arabic caliphs, Orientals as they themselves were, occasion had been given them to develop that taste for literature which their continued occupation with the Bible had instilled into them. Cordova, Granada, and Toledo soon became homes of Jewish learning, in which the glory of the schools of Babylon and Palestine was well-nigh hidden. Under the influence of a quieter life, the heart of the Jew expanded and his imagination had freedom to run its own course. The Hebrew muse, which had almost forgotten the force with which it had poured forth psalm and song in ancient days, awoke again to a sense of its power. The harp of David was once more strung to catch the outpourings of hearts thankful and gay. The priests in the Temple of God, less grand outwardly now, but more fully the expression of the feelings of the individual, chanted anew Israel’s songs of praise and of sanctification.  1
  Of the many poets which this new life produced,—lived as it was among a people to whom poetry was so natural a mode of expression,—to Abulhasan Jehudah ben Halevi all unite in giving the crown. Born in Toledo, Old Castile, his songs and verses soon became so well known and so oft recited that the person of their author has been almost forgotten in the love shown his productions. He lived only for his pen, and no deeds are accounted him which might make the telling of his life more than of a passing interest. He was learned—as most of the men of his race then were—in all the sciences of the Arabians; had made himself proficient in the language of both Quran and Bible, was learned in the practice of medicine and facile in the discussion of philosophy. His was a thoroughly religious nature; and in joining together philosophy, and poetry, and medicine, he was following a custom not unknown in the Jewish high schools. In philosophy he communed with man about God, in poetry with God about man; while his service to his fellow-men was through his power in the healing art. “I occupy myself in the hours which belong neither to the day nor to the night, with the vanity of medical science, although I am unable to heal. I physic Babel, but it continues infirm,” are his own words in a letter to a friend. This art he practiced in Toledo and Cordova; and in one of these places he wrote in the Arabic tongue a philosophical work (‘Kuzari’) which, though perhaps bad philosophy, is a poetical and beautiful defense of his own faith against the conflicting claims of Christianity and Mohammedanism.  2
  But at the early age of thirteen, his pen had commenced to run in the cadence of rhyme and metre. His first poems were upon subjects which touch the young,—poems of friendship, of love, and of wine, in which he made the old sedate and stately language of the Bible shake with youthful mirth and laughter. And though he never really forsook such subjects light and gay, these poems were not the real expression of his inmost being. A strong sense of the Divine presence, a romantic love for the home of his faith,—in spite of its second home in Spain,—have made of Judah Halevi the chief of the national poets of Israel whose love was rooted in the land of the patriarchs and prophets. Of all his three hundred religious poems—almost one third of the poet’s legacy—none bear the stamp of intense feeling as do these national ones. In verse after verse he bemoans the ruins of the ancient places, bewails the exile of Israel’s children, and sings the larger hope of her returned glory.  3
  So strong was the love of Zion within him that he could not rest until he had seen in the flesh that which his spiritual eye had beheld since his youth. He had already reached the age of sixty when he set out on his long journey to the Holy Land; alone, because he had not sufficiently persuaded others up to the pitch of his own faith. And yet not entirely alone! His muse went with him; and his track was strewn with the brightest pearls which have fallen from his lips. He reached Palestine; but our knowledge of his further doings there is cut off. His body must have been laid in the sacred soil; but no man knoweth the place of his sepulture. Like Elijah of old, he went up to heaven. The popular fancy has seized upon so welcome a figure, and has told how he was cut down by an Arab at the very walls of Jerusalem, after he had poured forth the ‘Ode to Zion,’ which has done more than any of his other pieces to keep his memory alive; and of which Heine—of the elder poet’s race, and inwardly also of his faith—has said:—

  “Tears of pearl, that on the golden
Thread of rhyme are strung together,
From the shining forge of poetry
Have come forth in song celestial.
  
“And this is the song of Zion
That Jehudah ben Hallevi
Sang when dying on the holy
Ruins of Jerusalem.”
  4
 
  Judah Halevi has thus become the exponent of suffering Israel, the teller of its woes, the prophet of its hopes. A depth of pure feeling is revealed in him; a freedom from artificial constraint, and a power of description, which we meet with nowhere among the Middle-Age Hebrew poets. As a true poet, love remains his theme to the end; but the love of the fair one is exchanged for a love purer and greater,—his people, his faith.

  “But a wan and woeful maiden
Was his love: a mournful image
Of despair and desolation,
Who was named Jerusalem.
  
“Even in his early boyhood
Did he love her, deeply, truly,
And a thrill of passion shook him
At the word Jerusalem.”

And that people has returned his love a thousandfold.
  5
 
  NOTE.—See ‘Songs of Zion by Hebrew Singers of Mediæval Times’; translated into English verse by Mrs. Henry Lucas. London, 1894.  6
 
 
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