Chapters On Jewish Literature
By Israel Abrahams

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Chapter VII. The New-Hebrew Piyut

Kalirian and Spanish Piyutim (Poems).–Jannai.–Kalir.

Arabic to a large extent replaced Hebrew as the literary language of the Jews, but Hebrew continued the language of prayer. As a mere literary form, Rabbinic Hebrew retained a strong hold on the Jews; as a vehicle of devotional feeling, Hebrew reigned supreme. The earliest additions to the fixed liturgy of the Synagogue were prose-poems. They were “Occasional Prayers” composed by the precentor for a special occasion. An appropriate melody or chant accompanied the new hymn, and if the poem and melody met the popular taste, both won a permanent place in the local liturgy. The hymns were unrhymed and unmetrical, but they may have been written in the form of alphabetical acrostics, such as appear in the 119th and a few other Psalms.

It is not impossible that metre and rhyme grew naturally from the Biblical Hebrew. Rhyme is unknown in the Bible, but the assonances which occur may easily run into rhymes. Musical form is certainly present in Hebrew poetry, though strict metres are foreign to it. As an historical fact, however, Hebrew rhymed verse can be traced on the one side to Syriac, on the other to Arabic influences. In the latter case the influence was external only. Early Arabic poetry treats of war and love, but the first Jewish rhymsters sang of peace and duty. The Arab wrote for the camp, the Jew for the synagogue.

Two distinct types of verse, or Piyut (i.e. Poetry), arose within the Jewish circle: the ingenious and the natural. In the former, the style is rugged and involved; a profusion of rare words and obscure allusions meets and troubles the reader; the verse lacks all beauty of form, yet is alive with intense spiritual force. This style is often termed Kalirian, from the name of its best representative. The Kalirian Piyut in the end spread chiefly to France, England, Burgundy, Lorraine, Germany, Bohemia, Poland, Italy, Greece, and Palestine. The other type of new-Hebrew Piyut, the Spanish, rises to higher beauties of form. It is not free from the Kalirian faults, but it has them in a less pronounced degree. The Spanish Piyut, in the hands of one or two masters, becomes true poetry, poetry in form as well as in idea. The Spanish style prevailed in Castile, Andalusia, Catalonia, Aragon, Majorca, Provence, and in countries where Arabic influence was strongest.

Kalir was the most popular writer of the earlier type of new-Hebrew poetry, but he was not its creator. An older contemporary of his, from whom he derived both his diction and his method of treating poetic subjects, was Jannai. Though we know that Jannai was a prolific writer, only seven short examples of his verse remain. One of these is the popular hymn, “It was at Midnight,” which is still recited by “German" Jews at the home-service on the first eve of Passover. It recounts in order the deliverances which, according to the Midrash, were wrought for Israel at midnight, from Abraham’s victory over the four kings to the wakefulness of Ahasuerus, the crisis of the Book of Esther. In the last stanza is a prayer for future redemption:

    Bring nigh the hour which is nor day nor night!
    Most High! make known that thine is day, and
         thine the night!
    Make clear as day the darkness of our night!
        As of old at midnight.

This form of versification, with a running refrain, afterwards became very popular with Jewish poets. Jannai also displays the harsh alliterations, the learned allusions to Midrash and Talmud, which were carried to extremes by Kalir.

It is strange that it is impossible to fix with any certainty the date at which Jannai and Kalir lived. Kalir may belong to the eighth or to the ninth century. It is equally hard to decide as to his birth-place. Rival theories hold that he was born in Palestine and in Sardinia. His name has been derived from Cagliari in Sardinia and from the Latin calyrum, a cake. Honey-cakes were given to Jewish children on their first introduction to school, and the nickname “Kaliri,” or “Boy of the Cake,” may have arisen from his youthful precocity. But all this is mere guess-work.

It is more certain that the poet was also the singer of his own verses. His earliest audiences were probably scholars, and this may have tempted Kalir to indulge in the recondite learning which vitiates his hymns. At his worst, Kalir is very bad indeed; his style is then a jumble of words, his meaning obscure and even unintelligible. He uses a maze of alphabetical acrostics, line by line he wreathes into his compositions the words of successive Bible texts. Yet even at his worst he is ingenious and vigorous. Such phrases as “to hawk it as a hawk upon a sparrow” are at least bold and effective. Ibn Ezra later on lamented that Kalir had treated the Hebrew language like an unfenced city. But if the poet too freely admitted strange and ugly words, he added many of considerable force and beauty. Kalir rightly felt that if Hebrew was to remain a living tongue, it was absurd to restrict the language to the vocabulary of the Bible. Hence he invented many new verbs from nouns.

But his inventiveness was less marked than his learning. “With the permission of God, I will speak in riddles,” says Kalir in opening the prayer for dew. The riddles are mainly clever allusions to the Midrash. It has been pointed out that these allusions are often tasteless and obscure. But they are more often beautiful and inspiring. No Hebrew poet in the Middle Ages was illiterate, for the poetic instinct was fed on the fancies of the Midrash. This accounts for their lack of freshness and originality. The poet was a scholar, and he was also a teacher. Much of Kalir’s work is didactic; it teaches the traditional explanations of the Bible and the ritual laws for Sabbath and festivals; it provides a convenient summary of the six hundred and thirteen precepts into which the duties of the Law were arranged. But over and above all this the genius of Kalir soars to poetic heights. So much has been said of Kalir’s obscurity that one quotation must, in fairness be given of Kalir at his simplest and best. The passage is taken from a hymn sung on the seventh day of Tabernacles, the day of the great Hosannas:

    O give ear to the prayer of those who long for thy
    Rejoicing before thee with the willows of the brook,
              And save us now!

    O redeem the vineyard which thou hast planted,
    And sweep thence the strangers, and save us now!
    O regard the covenant which thou hast sealed in us!
    O remember for us the father who knew thee,
    To whom thou, too, didst make known thy love,
              And save us now!

    O deal wondrously with the pure in heart
    That thy providence may be seen of men, and save us now!
    O lift up Zion’s sunken gates from the earth,
    Exalt the spot to which our eyes all turn,
              And save us now!

Such hymns won for Kalir popularity, which, however, is now much on the wane.



Graetz.–III, 4.

Translations of Poems in Editions of the Prayer-Book, and J.Q.R., VII, p. 460; IX, p. 291.

L.N. Dembitz,–Jewish Services, p. 222 seq. CHAPTER VIII

Saadiah of Fayum

     Translation of the Bible into Arabic.–Foundation of a Jewish
     Philosophy of Religion.

Saadiah was born in Fayum (Egypt) in 892, and died in Sura in 942. He was the founder of a new literature. In width of culture he excelled all his Jewish contemporaries. To him Judaism was synonymous with culture, and therefore he endeavored to absorb for Judaism all the literary and scientific tendencies of his day. He created, in the first place, a Jewish philosophy, that is to say, he applied to Jewish theology the philosophical methods of the Arabs. Again, though he vigorously opposed Karaism, he adopted its love of philology, and by his translation of the Bible into Arabic helped forward a sounder understanding of the Scriptures.

At the age of thirty-six Saadiah received a remarkable honor; he was summoned to Sura to fill the post of Gaon. This election of a foreigner as head of the Babylonian school proves, first, that Babylonia had lost its old supremacy, and, secondly, that Saadiah had already won world-wide fame. Yet the great work on which his reputation now rests was not then written. Saadiah’s notoriety was due to his successful championship of Rabbinism against the Karaites. His determination, his learning, his originality, were all discernible in his early treatises against Anan and his followers. The Rabbinites had previously opposed Karaism in a guerilla warfare. Saadiah came into the open, and met and vanquished the foe in pitched battles. But he did more than defeat the invader, he strengthened the home defences. Saadiah’s polemical works have always a positive as well as a negative value. He wished to prove Karaism wrong, but he also tried to show that Rabbinism was right.

As a champion of Rabbinism, then, Saadiah was called to Sura. But he had another claim to distinction. The Karaites founded their position on the Bible. Saadiah resolved that the appeal to the Bible should not be restricted to scholars. He translated the Scriptures into Arabic, and added notes. Saadiah’s qualifications for the task were his knowledge of Hebrew, his fine critical sense, and his enlightened attitude towards the Midrash. As to the first qualification, it is said that at the age of eleven he had begun a Hebrew rhyming dictionary for the use of poets. He himself added several hymns to the liturgy. In these Saadiah’s poetical range is very varied. Sometimes his style is as pure and simple as the most classical poems of the Spanish school. At other times, his verses have all the intricacy, harshness, and artificiality of Kalir’s. Perhaps his mastery of Hebrew is best seen in his “Book of the Exiled" (Sefer ha-Galui), compiled in Biblical Hebrew, divided into verses, and provided with accents. As the title indicates, this book was written during Saadiah’s exile from Sura.

Saadiah’s Arabic version of the Scriptures won such favor that it was read publicly in the synagogues. Of old the Targum, or Aramaic version, had been read in public worship together with the original Hebrew. Now, however, the Arabic began to replace the Targum. Saadiah’s version well deserved its honor.

Saadiah brought a hornet’s nest about his head by his renewed attacks on Karaism, contained in his commentary to Genesis. But the call to Sura turned Saadiah’s thoughts in another direction. He found the famous college in decay. The Exilarchs, the nominal heads of the whole of the Babylonian Jews, were often unworthy of their position, and it was not long before Saadiah came into conflict with the Exilarch. The struggle ended in the Gaon’s exile from Sura. During his years of banishment, he produced his greatest works. He arranged a prayer-book, wrote Talmudical essays, compiled rules for the calendar, examined the Massoretic works of various authors, and, indeed, produced a vast array of books, all of them influential and meritorious. But his most memorable writings were his “Commentary on the Book of Creation” (Sefer Yetsirah) and his masterpiece, “Faith and Philosophy” (Emunoth ve-Deoth).

This treatise, finished in the year 934, was the first systematic attempt to bring revealed religion into harmony with Greek philosophy. Saadiah was thus the forerunner, not only of Maimonides, but also of the Christian school-men. No Jew, said Saadiah, should discard the Bible, and form his opinions solely by his own reasoning. But he might safely endeavor to prove, independently of revelation, the truths which revelation had given. Faith, said Saadiah again, is the sours absorption of the essence of a truth, which thus becomes part of itself, and will be the motive of conduct whenever the occasion arises. Thus Saadiah identified reason with faith. He ridiculed the fear that philosophy leads to scepticism. You might as well, he argued, identify astronomy with superstition, because some deluded people believe that an eclipse of the moon is caused by a dragon’s making a meal of it.

For the last few years of his life Saadiah was reinstated in the Gaonate at Sura. The school enjoyed a new lease of fame under the brilliant direction of the author of the great work just described. After his death the inevitable decay made itself felt. Under the Moorish caliphs, Spain had become a centre of Arabic science, art, and poetry. In the tenth century, Cordova attained fame similar to that which Athens and Alexandria had once reached. In Moorish Spain, there was room both for earnest piety and the sensuous delights of music and art; and the keen exercise of the intellect in science or philosophy did not debar the possession of practical statesmanship and skill in affairs. In the service of the caliphs were politicians who were also doctors, poets, philosophers, men of science. Possession of culture was, indeed, a sure credential for employment by the state. It was to Moorish Spain that the centre of Judaism shifted after the death of Saadiah. It was in Spain that the finest fruit of Jewish literature in the post-Biblical period grew. Here the Jewish genius expanded beneath the sunshine of Moorish culture. To Moses, the son of Chanoch, an envoy from Babylonia, belongs the honor of founding a new school in Cordova. In this he had the support of the scholar-statesman Chasdai, the first of a long line of medieval Jews who earned double fame, as servants of their country and as servants of their own religion. To Chasdai we must now turn.



Graetz.–III, 7.

Schiller-Szinessy.–Encycl. Brit., Vol. XXI, p. 120.

M. Friedlšnder.–Life and Works of Saadia. J.Q.R., Vol. V, p. 177.

Saadiah’s Philosophy (Owen), J.Q.R., Vol. III, p. 192.

Grammar and Polemics (Rosin), J.Q.R., Vol. VI, p. 475; (S. Poznanski) ibid., Vol. IX, p. 238.

E.H. Lindo.–History of the Jews of Spain and Portugal(London, 1848).


Preface  •  Chapter I. The “Vineyard” At Jamnia  •  Chapter II. Flavius Josephus and the Jewish Sibyl  •  Chapter III. The Talmud  •  Chapter IV. The Midrash and Its Poetry  •  Chapter V. The Letters of the Gaonim  •  Chapter VI. The Karaitic Literature  •  Chapter VII. The New-Hebrew Piyut  •  Chapter IX. Dawn of the Spanish Era  •  Chapter X. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (I)  •  Chapter XI. Rashi and Alfassi  •  Chapter XII. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (II)  •  Chapter XIII. Moses Maimonides  •  Chapter XIV. The Diffusion of Science  •  Chapter XV. The Diffusion of Folk-Tales  •  Chapter XVI. Moses Nachmanides  •  Chapter XVII. The Zohar and Later Mysticism  •  Chapter XVIII. Italian Jewish Poetry  •  Chapter XIX. Ethical Literature  •  Chapter XX. Travellers’ Tales  •  Chapter XXI. Historians and Chroniclers  •  Chapter XXII. Isaac Abarbanel  •  Chapter XXIII. The Shulchan Aruch  •  Chapter XXIV. Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century  •  Chapter XXV. Moses Mendelssohn

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