Judah Halevi

Judah Halevi
Born c. 1075
Toledo or Tudela, Spain
Died 1141
Jerusalem, Kingdom of Jerusalem
Notable work The Kuzari
Era Medieval philosophy
School Jewish philosophy

Judah Halevi (also Yehuda Halevi or ha-Levi; Hebrew: יהודה הלוי and Judah ben Shmuel Halevi יהודה בן שמואל הלוי; Arabic: يهوذا اللاوي; c. 1075 – 1141) was a Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher. He was born in Spain, either in Toledo or Tudela,[1] in 1075[2] or 1086, and died shortly after arriving in Israel in 1141, at that point the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Halevi is considered one of the greatest Hebrew poets, celebrated both for his religious and secular poems, many of which appear in present-day liturgy. His greatest philosophical work was The Kuzari.


Convention suggests that Judah ben Shmuel Halevi was born in Toledo, Spain in 1075.[3] He often referred to himself as coming from Christian territory. Alfonso the Battler conquered Tudela in 1119; Toledo was conquered by Alfonso VI from the Muslims in Halevi's childhood (1086). As a youth, he seems to have gone to Granada, the main center of Jewish literary and intellectual life at the time, where he found a mentor in Moses Ibn Ezra. Although it is often said that he studied in the academy at Lucena, there is no evidence to this effect. He did compose a short elegy on the death of Isaac Alfasi, the head of the academy.[4] His aptitude as a poet was recognized early. He was educated in traditional Jewish scholarship, in Arabic literature, and in the Greek sciences and philosophy that were available in Arabic. As an adult he was a physician, apparently of renown, and an active participant in Jewish communal affairs. For at least part of his life he lived in Toledo and may have been connected with the court there as a physician. In Toledo he complains of being too busy with medicine to devote himself to scholarship.[5] At other times he lived in various Muslim cities in the south.

Like most Jewish intellectuals of Muslim Spain, Halevi wrote prose in Arabic and poetry in Hebrew. During the "Hebrew Golden Age" of the 10th to 12th century,[6] he was the most prolific of the Hebrew poets and was regarded by some of his contemporaries, as well as by modern critics, as the greatest of all the medieval Hebrew poets. Like all the Hebrew poets of the Hebrew Golden Age, he employed the formal patterns of Arabic poetry, both the classical monorhymed patterns and the recently invented strophic patterns. His themes embrace all those that were current among Hebrew poets: panegyric odes, funeral odes, poems on the pleasures of life, gnomic epigrams, and riddles. He was also a prolific author of religious verse. As with all the Hebrew poets of his age, he strives for a strictly biblical diction, though he unavoidably falls into occasional calques from Arabic. His verse is distinguished by special attention to acoustic effect and wit.

Nothing is known of Halevi's personal life except the report in his poems that he had a daughter and that she had a son, also named Judah. He could well have had other children. The tradition that this daughter was married to Abraham Ibn Ezra does not rest on any evidence, though Halevi and Abraham Ibn Ezra were well acquainted, as we know from the writings of the latter.[7]

Journey to Israel

Halevi's various residences in Spain are not known; he seems to have lived at times in Christian Toledo, at other times in Islamic Spain. Although he occupied an honored position as a physician, intellectual, and communal leader, his religious convictions compelled him to abandon his homeland in order to end his days in Israel. His motivations were complex. His personal piety intensified as he aged, leading him to desire to devote himself entirely to religious life. The uncertainties of Jewish communal status in the period of the Reconquista led him to doubt the future security of the Jewish position in the diaspora. The failure of messianic movements weighed on him. His earlier commitment to philosophy as a guide to truth gave way to a renewed commitment to faith in revelation. He came to the conviction, elaborated in his treatise known as the Kuzari, that true religious fulfillment is possible only in the presence of the God of Israel, which, he believed, was most palpable in the Land of Israel. Contrary to a prevalent theory, his poetry shows beyond doubt that his pilgrimage was a completely individual act and that he had no intention of setting off a mass pilgrimage.

Halevi sailed for Alexandria. Arriving on September 8, 1140, he was greeted enthusiastically by friends and admirers. He then went to Cairo, where he visited several dignitaries, including the Nagid of Egypt, Samuel ben Hanania, and his friend Halfon ben Nethaniel Halevi. He did not permit himself to be persuaded to remain in Egypt, but returned to Alexandria and sailed for Israel on May 14, 1141. Little is known of his travels after. He died during the summer, presumably after having reached Palestine. Legend, however, has it that Halevi was killed after being run over by an Arab horseman as he arrived in Jerusalem.[7]

Halevi dealt with his pilgrimage extensively in the poetry written during his last year, which includes panegyric to his various hosts in Egypt, explorations of his religious motivations, description of storms at sea, and expressions of his anxieties and doubts. We are well informed about the details of his pilgrimage thanks to letters that were preserved in the Cairo geniza. Poems and letters bearing on Halevi's pilgrimage are translated and explicated in Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Song of the Distant Dove (Oxford University Press, 2007).

His work

The life-work of Judah Halevi was devoted to poetry and philosophy.

Secular poetry

Judah's secular or non-liturgical poetry is occupied by poems of friendship and eulogy. Judah must have possessed an attractive personality; for there gathered about him as friends, even in his earliest youth, a large number of illustrious men, like Levi al-Tabban of Zaragoza, the aged poet Judah ben Abun, Judah ibn Ghayyat of Granada, Moses ibn Ezra and his brothers Judah, Joseph, and Isaac, the vizier Abu al-Hasan, Meïr ibn Kamnial, the physician and poet Solomon ben Mu'allam of Seville, besides his schoolmates Joseph ibn Migas and Baruch Albalia.

Also with the grammarian Abraham ibn Ezra. In Córdoba, Judah addressed a touching farewell poem to Joseph ibn Ẓaddiḳ, the philosopher and poet. In Egypt, where the most celebrated men vied with one another in entertaining him, his reception was a veritable triumph. Here his particular friends were Aaron ben Jeshua Alamani in Alexandria, the nagid Samuel ben Hananiah in Cairo,[8] Halfon ha-Levi in Damietta, and an unknown man in Tyre, probably his last friend. In their sorrow and joy, in the creative spirit and all that moved the souls of these men, Judah sympathetically shared; as he says in the beginning of a short poem: "My heart belongs to you, ye noble souls, who draw me to you with bonds of love".[9]

Especially tender and plaintive is Judah's tone in his elegies[10] Many of them are dedicated to friends such as the brothers Judah (Nos. 19, 20), Isaac (No. 21), and Moses ibn Ezra (No. 16), R. Baruch (Nos. 23, 28), Meïr ibn Migas (No. 27), his teacher Isaac Alfasi (No. 14), and others. In the case of Solomon ibn Farissol, who was murdered on May 3, 1108, Judah suddenly changed his poem of eulogy (Nos. 11, 22) into one of lamentation (Nos. 12, 13, 93 et seq.). Child mortality due to plague was high in Judah's time and the historical record contains five elegies written for the occasion of the death of a child. Biographer Hillel Halkin hypothesizes that at least one of these poems may have been written in honor of one of Judah's own children that did not reach adulthood and who is lost to history.[11]

Love songs

Joyous, careless youth, and merry, happy delight in life find their expression in his love-songs. Many of these are epithalamia and are characterized by a brilliant near-eastern coloring, as well as by a chaste reserve. In Egypt, where the muse of his youth found a glorious "Indian summer" in the circle of his friends, he wrote his "swan-song:"[12] "Wondrous is this land to see, With perfume its meadows laden, But more fair than all to me Is yon slender, gentle maiden. Ah, Time's swift flight I fain would stay, Forgetting that my locks are gray."

Drinking songs by Judah have also been preserved.[13]

Religious poetry

After living a life devoted to worldly pleasures, Halevi was to experience a kind of "awakening"; a shock, that changed his outlook on the world. Like a type of "conversion" experience, he turned from the frivolous life of pleasure, and his poetry turned to religious themes.

It seems that his profound experience was the consequence of his sensitivity to the events of history that were unfolding around him. He lived during the First Crusade and other wars. There was a new kind of religio-political fanaticism emerging in the Christian and Muslim worlds. Holy wars were brewing, and Halevi may have recognized that such trends had never been good for the Jews. At the time, life was relatively good in Spain for the Jewish community. He may have suspected things were about to change for the worse, however.

If one may speak of religious geniuses, then Judah Halevi must certainly be regarded among the greatest produced by medieval Judaism. No other writer, it would seem, drew so near to God as Judah; none else knew how to cling to Him so closely, or felt so safe in His shadow. At times the body is too narrow for him: the soul yearns for its Father in Heaven, and would break through the earthly shell.[14] Without God, his soul would wither away; nor is it well with him except he prays.[15] The thought of God allows him no rest; early and late He is his best beloved, and is his dearest concern.[16] He occupies the mind of the poet waking and sleeping; and the thought of Him, the impulse to praise Him, rouse Judah from his couch by night.[17]

Next to God, the Jewish people stands nearest to his heart: their sufferings and hopes are his. Like the authors of the Psalms, he gladly sinks his own identity in the wider one of the people of Israel; so that it is not always easy to distinguish the personality of the speaker.

Often Judah's poetic fancy finds joy in the thought of the "return" of his people to the Promised Land. He believed that perfect Jewish life was possible only in the Land of Israel. The period of political agitation about 1130, when Islam, so intensely hated by the poet, was gradually losing ground before the victorious arms of the Christians, gave Judah reason to hope for such a return in the near future. The vision of the night, in which this was revealed to him,[18] remained indeed but a dream; yet Judah never lost faith in the eventual deliverance of Israel, and in "the eternity" of his people. On this subject, he has expressed himself in poetry:

Lo! Sun and moon, these minister for aye; The laws of day and night cease nevermore: Given for signs to Jacob's seed that they Shall ever be a nation — till these be o'er. If with His left hand He should thrust away, Lo! with His right hand He shall draw them nigh.[19]

Liturgical poetry

The poems of Judah Halevi, number (in all) more than 300. The longest, and most comprehensive poem is a "Kedushah," which summons all the universe to praise God with rejoicing, and which terminates, curiously enough, in Ps. ciii. These poems were carried to all lands, even as far as India (Zunz, "Ritus," p. 57); and they influenced the rituals of the most distant countries. Even the Karaites incorporated some of them into their prayer-book; so that there is scarcely a synagogue in which Judah's songs are not sung in the course of the service.[20] The following observation on Judah's synagogal poems is made by Zunz:

As the perfume and beauty of a rose are within it, and do not come from without, so with Judah word and Bible passage, meter and rime, are one with the soul of the poem; as in true works of art, and always in nature, one is never disturbed by anything external, arbitrary, or extraneous.[20]

Judah by his verses has also beautified the religious life of the home. His Sabbath hymns should be mentioned here; one of the most beautiful of which ends with the words:

On Friday doth my cup o'erflow, What blissful rest the night shall know, When, in thine arms, my toil and woe Are all forgot, Sabbath my love!
'Tis dusk, with sudden light, distilled From one sweet face, the world is filled; The tumult of my heart is stilled — For thou art come, Sabbath my love!
Bring fruits and wine and sing a gladsome lay, Cry, 'Come in peace, O restful Seventh day!'

Judah used complicated Arabic meters in his poems, with much good taste.[21] A later critic, applying a Talmudic witticism to Judah, has said: "It is hard for the dough when the baker himself calls it bad." Although these forms came to him naturally and without effort, unlike the mechanical versifiers of his time,[22] he would not except himself from the number of those he had blamed. His pupil Solomon Parḥon, who wrote at Salerno in 1160, relates that Judah repented having used the new metrical methods, and had declared he would not again employ them. That Judah felt them to be out of place, and that he opposed their use at the very time when they were in vogue, plainly shows his desire for a national Jewish art; independent in form, as well as in matter.

Judah was recognized by his contemporaries as "the great Jewish national poet", and in succeeding generations, by all the great scholars and writers in Israel. His poetry and writing have also been considered an early expression of support for Jewish nationalism. [23]


Judah is noted for composing riddles, which often have religious themes underlying their challenges to the wit; his diwan contains forty-nine of them.[24] One example is:

What is it that's blind with an eye in its head,
But the race of mankind its use can not spare;
Spends all its life in clothing the dead,
But always itself is naked and bare?[25]

Analysis of his poetry

The remarkable, and apparently indissoluble, union of religion, nationalism, and patriotism, which were so characteristic of post-exilic Judaism, reached its acme in Judah Halevi and his poetry. Yet this very union, in one so consistent as Judah, demanded the fulfillment of the supreme politico-religious ideal of medieval Judaism—the "return to Jerusalem". Though his impassioned call to his contemporaries to return to "Zion" might be received with indifference, or even with mockery;[26] his own decision to go to Jerusalem never wavered. "Can we hope for any other refuge either in the East or in the West where we may dwell in safety?" he exclaims to one of his opponents (ib.). The songs that accompany his pilgrimage[27] sound like one great symphony, wherein the "Zionides" — the single motive never varied — voice the deepest "soul-life" alike; of the Jewish people and of each individual Jew.

The most celebrated of these "Zionides" is found in every Jewish prayerbook, and is usually repeated in the synagogue on the Ninth of Ab.[28]

Zion, wilt thou not ask if peace's wing Shadows the captives that ensue thy peace, Left lonely from thine ancient shepherding?
Lo! west and east and north and south — world-wide — All those from far and near, without surcease, Salute thee: Peace and Peace from every side."

As a philosopher

The position of Judah Halevi in the domain of Jewish philosophy is parallel to that occupied in Islam by Ghazali, by whom he was influenced yet Judah Halevi strongly despised Islam. Like Ghazali, Judah endeavored to liberate religion from the bondage of the various philosophical systems in which it had been held by his predecessors, Saadia, David ben Marwan al-Mekamez, Gabirol, and Bahya. In a work written in Arabic, and entitled Kitab al-Ḥujjah wal-Dalil fi Nuṣr al-Din al-Dhalil, كتاب الحجة و الدليل في نصرة الدين الذليل, (known in the Hebrew translation of Judah ibn Tibbon by the title Sefer ha-Kuzari), Judah Halevi expounded his views upon the teachings of Judaism, which he defended against the attacks of non-Jewish philosophers, Aristolean, Greek philosophers and against those he viewed as "heretics".


  1. "The question of Judah Halevi's birthplace is still unsolved. Schirmann (Tarbiz, 10 (1939),237-9) argued in favor of Tudela, rather than Toledo..." [Encyclopedaedia Judaica, pages 355–356]
  2. Encyclopaedia Judaica,
  3.  Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Judah Ha-Levi". Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
  4. Brody, "Diwan des Abul-Ḥasan Jehuda ha-Levi," ii., No. 14, p. 100
  5. Brody, l.c. i. 224, 225
  6. Gregory B. Kaplan, Review of: The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain, Ross Brann, Johns Hopkins UP, 1991. Hispanic Review, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Summer, 1993), pp. 405–407. JSTOR 475075.
  7. 1 2  Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Judah Ha-Levi". Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
  8. "Monatsschrift," xl. 417 et seq.
  9. Brody, l.c. i., No. 45)
  10. Brody, l.c. ii. 67 et seq.
  11. Halkin, Hillel. Yehuda Halevi. New York: Nextbook, 2010. p. 81.
  12. Geiger, l.c. p. 168
  13. Halkin, Hillel. Yehuda Halevi. New York: Nextbook, 2010. p. 4.
  14. S. D. Luzzatto, "Diwan," No. 14; Heller, "Die Echten Melodien," p. 227
  15. Luzzatto, l.c. No. 57; Heller, l.c. p. 135
  16. Heller, l.c. p. 82; "Ṭal Orot," No. 12
  17. Luzzatto, l.c. No. 81; Heller, l.c. p. 229
  18. Geiger, l.c. p. 154
  19. Luzzatto, l.c. No. 61; transl. by Nina Davis in "Songs of Exile," p. 49
  20. 1 2 Zunz, "S. P." p. 231
  21. For further details see Brody, H. Studien zu den Dichtungen Jehuda ha-Levi's, Berlin, 1895
  22. see "Cuzari," v. 16)
  23. http://thegreatthinkers.org/halevi/introduction/
  24. The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950–1492, ed. and trans. by Peter Cole (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 443.
  25.  Jacobs, Joseph (1901–1906). "Riddle". In Singer, Isidore; et al. Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
  26. Luzzatto, l.c. No. 86
  27. Brody, l.c. ii. 153
  28. Brody, l.c. ii. 155

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