Halevi, Yehuda (Judah Halevi, Judah ha-Levi, Yehuda ben Samuel Halevi)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Halevi, Yehuda (Judah Halevi, Judah ha-Levi, Yehuda ben Samuel Halevi)

Halevi, Yehuda (Judah Halevi, Judah ha-Levi, Yehuda ben Samuel Halevi) (ca. 1075-1141) Spanish Jewish poet and theologian

A physician and writer during the Hebrew golden age (900-1200), Yehuda Halevi composed an overview of opposing agnostic, Christian, Hebraic, and Islamic theologies. He was born in Toledo in southern Castile, Spain, a territory that passed from Muslim control under the Abbasid Empire to the rule of Alfonso VI when Halevi was 11 years old. After his training at a seminary in Lucena, he entered the caliph’s court at Castile. In his midteens, he began writing love ditties, riddles, drinking songs and nature verse in Arabic, Hebrew, and Spanish. His entry into medical practice in Cordoba brought him face-to-face with the Jews' position between Muslim expansionism and the Christian reconquest of Spain. He became a vigorous Zionist. Through 800 original elegies, laments, liturgical hymns, and prayers, he championed Judaism as a superior faith. He died during a voyage to Palestine, though details of his death are unclear.

Because of his balance of lyricism and gravitas, Halevi earned fame as the leading medieval Jewish poet. His secular verse includes a May-December EPITHALAMIUM that reminds the gray-haired philosopher of the span of time separating him from comely maidens. Of the materialism and pomp of empires, he warns, “He who lengthens the train of his coat, / easily stumbles over his own robe” (Halevi 2000, 126). Of his own fallability, “The Sick Physician” suggests that piety relieves professional ennui and despair.

In the poem “Conquered Darkness,” Halevi rhapsodizes on the vulnerability of the dove and, by extension, of himself. He intones, “May his light enter into my darkness!” and envisions the coming of the Messiah, the summation of light to a dark world (160). In liturgical stanzas similar in fealty and joy to Sufist verse, he replicates the tone and imagery of the Davidic PSALMS. Through worship, atonement, and praise, he seeks the sincerity and peace of the sabbath as an escape from the troubled politics of central and southern Spain as Christianity fought to regain it from Islam. The poet's spiritual escapism into a holy land takes literary form in his Lionide, odes to Lion that shape Jewish identity. The nationalistic poems appeared in translation throughout the late Middle Ages.

Through four-way debate, Halevi's great philosophical work, the Kuzari (written over 20 years and completed in 1140), vindicates the Jewish perspective on piety, biblical miracles, and the foundation of human history. The first of five chapters introduces CREATION LORE by naming Adam and Eve as the initial earth dwellers and honors Torah patriarchs, prophets, and chroniclers for their adherence to Mosaic law.


Halevi, Yehuda. The Kuzari: In Defense of the Despised

Faith. Translated by Hartwig Hirschfeld. New York: E. E Dutton, 1905.

----- . Ninety-Two Poems and Hymns of Yehuda Halevi. Translated by Thomas Kovach, Eva Jospe, and Gilya Gerda Schmidt. Edited by Richard A. Cohen. New York: State University of New York Eress, 2000.