Selected Religious Poems
Category: Judaism
2:57 h
Solomon ibn Gabirol (b. 1021, d. ca. 1058) was a Jewish Neoplatonist philosopher and poet who lived in Spain during the Islamic period. His devotional poetry, featured here, is considered among the best post-canon, and portions of his poetic works have been incorporated into the Jewish liturgy.

Selected Religious Poems


Solomon Ibn Gabirol

From a Critical Text Edited
Israel Davidson, Ph. D.

Translated Into English Verse by Israel Zangwill

The Jewish Publication Society of America [1923]


POETRY, philosophy, and science, apparently three distinct fields of intellectual endeavor, are essentially but three different manifestations of the same spiritual force, which urges man onward to search for the solution of the riddle of existence. Science attacks the problem from the physical side; philosophy grapples with it from the rational, or mental side; poetry tries to penetrate the mystery with its vision.

Poetry need not necessarily reveal itself through the art of versification. The astronomer whose eye sweeps through the vast vacancies of space and whose ear catches the harmony of the spheres, the mathematician who calculates the eons, and the physicist who measures the electron and weighs the sun are indeed greater poets than those who merely compose melodious lines. On the other hand, the great poet, who ascends by the light of the divine fire within him to the heights of Pisgah, whence he may look at life from a higher altitude and see it more complete, more in its totality, often catches in a flash of inspiration that which it takes the scientific investigator years of painstaking labor to discover. The difference between those three seekers after truth is only in the method. The aim is the same — to penetrate the veil that hides from us the ultimate truth of life.

That none of them has ever succeeded, or is ever likely to succeed, in lifting the veil that shrouds the great mystery, matters not. The effort in itself is of the greatest moment to mankind. The ceaseless striving and unquenchable yearning after the ultimate truth leaves us at least nobler and purer for the attempt. It also matters little to us when the poet or philosopher or investigator lived. Their achievements are ever present, ever exerting their influences. If the law of motion holds good in the physical world, it holds still stronger in the world of ideas. An idea once set in motion will travel onward and onward and will gain in momentum as it proceeds on its course down the ages. The great poet therefore does not live for his own time. His mission is for all times.

The time and place of the poet are, however, of great moment to the poet himself. More than the philosopher and the physicist, is he affected by his surroundings. The soul of the poet is a most delicate instrument, extremely susceptible to everything that comes in contact with it. Like the harp that hung over David’s couch, the faintest breath will play a tune upon it. The coloring of the sunset, the rumbling of the thunder, the perfume of the woods, are all reflected, echoed or exhaled by it. Of no less importance to the poet are his social surroundings. Encouragement is the breath of his nostrils; disparagement, the blasting wind that withers. In an atmosphere of warm sympathy his genius will put forth the finest fruit of his imagination. In an environment of cold criticism his soul will shrink and shrivel up.

With these reflections in view, the personality of Solomon ibn Gabirol becomes doubly interesting. For he was not only a great poet but also a great philosopher. His vision was broad and his penetration keen. He saw further than the ordinary poet and felt deeper than the ordinary philosopher. He even cultivated science in his effort to grapple with the riddle of existence. His genius flourished in an atmosphere of exceptional instability — now warm, now cold; now hostile, now cordial; and this constant change in the condition of his environment is not without its corresponding change in the temper of his poems.

To obtain an adequately complete view of the life of this poet-philosopher it would have been well to step out of the present and, leaping over centuries and bounding over continents, transfer ourselves to one of those delightful towns of Spain, of nine hundred years ago. It would have been necessary to depict the past with such vivid colors that we could visualize this man of the eleventh century as he lived his daily life, as he feasted or fasted, as he communed with his God or chatted with his neighbor, as he greeted his friends or raged against his enemies, as he pored over his books or roamed in the fields — as he suffered at times and at other times bubbled over with joy. To know him more intimately we should have to enter his private study and watch him work, look over his shoulder and see how he wrote and polished what he wrote, how he passed all problems through the fiery crucible of his brain ere he put them before the world. But to accomplish such a feat one must have abundant material or else possess the magic wand of the poet. I have only a few slender threads with which to weave the story of his life. The biographical material is so scant and, in certain instances, so contradictory that practically all that can be said of him with certainty must be gathered from casual utterances scattered through the multitude of his verses. And, since a poet’s verses are often unintelligible until interpreted by the events of his life, we are in danger here of moving in a vicious circle, trying to make the verses yield up some facts of his life so that these facts, in turn, may help us understand his verses. Under these circumstances, the life of Solomon ibn Gabirol must remain obscure in parts. Still we may succeed in drawing a picture in which the salient features of our poet shall stand out clear and distinct in spite of the shadows of uncertainty here and there.

To begin with, we must deal with the outstanding facts of Gabirol’s life. Solomon ibn Gabirol was born in Malaga, a town in the south of Spain, sometime during the period covering the end of 1021 and the beginning of 1022. His father Judah hailed from Cordova whence he is supposed to have emigrated to Malaga during the political upheaval of 1013. As far as we can gather from the poems of his son, he must have been a scholar and a man of considerable repute, for Gabirol often signs himself ‏בירבי‎ (a sign of distinction for the father) and in one of his poems speaks of him as the “ornament of the world” (‏עדי תבל‎). From the conclusion of the same poem in which he speaks of his father’s death, we learn that his father must have been the last of his near relations to depart from life. “Enough,” he says, “my fears have come true, but my soul will see no further misfortune.” That Solomon ibn Gabirol was left an orphan early in life may be gathered from another poem in which he says: “Grieved, without mother or father, inexperienced, lonely and poor, I am alone without a brother and without friends, save my own thoughts.” The order of the words “without mother or father” is not required by the meter and we should expect to find the biblical usage of mentioning the father first. Hence, we may bring this as an additional argument that his mother died first and his father later. The same verse states also that he had no brothers. It is therefore safe to assume that, when his father died, he was left without kith or kin.

In Malaga he remained only during his childhood. His formative years he spent in Saragossa. For this we have the evidence of Moses ibn Ezra, in his well-known Arabic work “Al-Muhadarah wal-Mudhakarah” (Discussions and Memoirs). It is possible that his father migrated to Saragossa and took his son with him, or that, on the death of his father, he was taken by some friend to Saragossa, which was then an important center of Jewish culture. It was the seat of Jonah ibn Ganaḥ, Joseph ibn Ḥasdai and a host of other scholars. It was also the seat of a prominent man by the name of Yekutiel who would have remained unknown in Jewish history but for the fact that he befriended the young poet who immortalized him in his poems. Through the kindness of this Maecenas, Gabirol was able to develop his powers without having to trouble about mundane matters.

Who were Gabirol’s masters? This question must remain unanswered. Among all his poems there is only one place in which he speaks of himself as a disciple. In his epistolary poem, addressed to R. Nissim of Kairwan, he says: “Men of my counsel, bring greetings to my friend, and may he accept blessing from his disciple.” This would seem to support the statement of Sa’adya ibn Danan that, when R. Nissim came to Granada to give his daughter in marriage to Joseph, the son of Samuel ha-Nagid, Gabirol was one of his disciples. But aside from the fact that ibn Danan is not quite reliable, the marriage of R. Nissim’s daughter took place in 1049, when Gabirol was at least twenty-seven years of age, which would make it rather improbable that at that age he sat at the feet of any man. We must therefore consider the verse of Gabirol, mentioned above, as a mere poetic compliment. His precocity undoubtedly kept him from regarding anyone as his particular master.

His literary activity began at a remarkably early age. We know of five poems which he composed at the age of sixteen and one of these, according to the testimony of Sambari, was no less than his versification of the six hundred and thirteen commandments, known as Azharot, and it is not unlikely that the Azharot, beginning ‏אלהיך אש אוכלה‎, which are written without meter, were composed at even an earlier date.

Endowed with remarkable gifts, it is no wonder that Gabirol easily acquired all the learning of the age. The only branch of knowledge into which he did not inquire was that of medicine. Again and again he dwells upon his devotion to learning for its own sake:

How can I forsake wisdom,
And the spirit of God has made a covenant between me and her?
Or how can she forsake me when she is to me like a
mother and I to her as a child of old age?. . . .
For my soul has sworn that I rest not until I find the knowledge of her Maker.


From my youth I labored in the cause of wisdom, for her goal is pleasant.
She was my sister from my childhood, and of all men she chose me as her friend.

As these two lines occur in a poem which he composed at the age of sixteen, the expression “from my childhood” is significant, pointing to a much earlier period of intellectual activity.

It is also not surprising to find that he was conscious of his powers from the very beginning of his career. It must have produced a spirit of antagonism among his contemporaries to hear a youth of sixteen proclaim himself superior to anyone of his generation. One of his imaginary interlocutors says:

Know that you are unique in your generation.

And in another poem he says:

I am the Mastersinger and Song is my slave. . . .
Though I am but sixteen, I have the wisdom of a man of eighty.

This must have sounded to them as vain boasting. We, however, can see that it is not vulgar boasting. It is rather the self-expression of exuberant youth. The lines in which he sets forth his prowess remind one of a young warrior issuing forth to challenge the enemy — Sohrab leaving his tent to fight Rustum — and it is not so much himself that he exalts as the weapons which God has given him.

I search out the secrets of Rhetoric and open the gates of knowledge and understanding;
I gather stray phrases into strings of thought, and
from scattered words I collect pearls of wisdom. . . .
I penetrate into places closed to all men of understanding,
And sing songs that make the soul rejoice and deliver the heart from sorrow. . . .
My song is the legitimate offspring of poesy —
Theirs the child of harlotry. . . .
My song is as polished as pearls and through it I am exalted above all men in all times.

We who are removed from him by nearly a millennium and know the true merit of his work feel that he did not overestimate himself. He was indeed the greatest poet of his day and one of the few great poets of all times. Even critics like Moses ibn Ezra and Judah al-Harizi, who were removed from him only by one or two generations, felt the same way about him and placed him above all his contemporaries. But his contemporaries evidently did not relish his claims to superiority. Their antagonism soon grew into resentment, and resentment turned into hatred. Their hatred, in turn, only roused his anger and brought forth such caustic lines as the following:

I am filled with wrath when I behold fools parading as wise men. . . .
They deem their song superior to mine whereas they do not even understand it. . . .
Tiny little ants that they are, they venture to compare themselves with me.

He certainly understood the gentle art of making enemies. Moses ibn Ezra says of him: “Although he was a philosopher as far as his intellectual attainments were concerned, yet his anger always got the better of his understanding. He was unable to control his temper and was easily led to ridicule great men and subject them to contempt in his writings.” In fact, he himself admits this weakness on his part:

When my anger is roused,
The heavens rumble with my thunder. . . .
I am not like the man who speaks mellow words and bows and scrapes in humility.

Again, in reproaching a friend, who proved false to him, he boldly tells him that while he humbles himself to his friends it is by no means because of his inferiority. He proclaims his own value in no doubtful terms:

My light is diffused through the world,
It has reached the confines of Shinar and Elam. . . .
Yet I am dirt beneath the feet of my true friends,
Dust to those who keep faith with me. . . .
But to my enemies I am a sky raining fire upon their heads.
They can sooner reach the sky with a ladder than they can reach
me. . . .
Now that you have failed me I untie the bonds of friendship;
I blot thy name from my speech, and will never stoop to
mention it again.

In an age when the execution of a happy couplet was considered an achievement, when literary quarrels were taken seriously, such lines as the above were bound to bring trouble to their author. As long as Yekutiel lived, Gabirol’s enemies were unable to harm him, but when, in 1039, Yekutiel himself fell at the hands of his political enemies, Gabirol was at the mercy of his opponents. They certainly could not fight him with his own weapons, but they embittered his life to such an extent that he had to leave Saragossa. In the poem with which he took leave of this city he says:

My dwelling is amongst ostriches,
Among the crooked and the fools who think they are very wise. . . .
They are a people whose fathers I would disdain to set with the dogs of my flock. . . .
Woe unto knowledge, woe to me
In the midst of such a people do I dwell.

But in spite of all his difficulties, his literary activity went on apace and one masterpiece after another issued from his pen. Allusion has already been made to the poems which he composed at the age of sixteen. During that early period in his life he also wrote the various panegyrics on Yekutiel, since the latter died before Gabirol was eighteen. At the age of nineteen he composed a poem of four hundred verses in which he set forth the rules of Hebrew grammar. In 1045, before he left Saragossa, while still in the early twenties, he completed his Arabic work on the “Improvement of the Moral Qualities.” Graetz justly assumes that in depicting certain evil traits of character, he had in mind some members of the Saragossa community and that his characterization was so bold that it drew upon him the bitter enmity of these people. Likewise, I do not think it farfetched to assume that Moses the Miser, against whom he indited his famous satire ‏ככלות ייני‎, was a native of Saragossa and that this Miser was one of those instrumental in bringing about Gabirol’s departure from the city where he had spent his youth. We do not know when he completed his collection of Proverbs, “The Choice of Pearls,” and his philosophic work, “The Source of Life.” Nor can we give any definite dates for most of his poems. These extended over the whole of his life, and even if we hold to the opinion that he lived as late as 1069 or 1070, he lived his life fully to produce, in the short space of forty-seven years, over three hundred poetic compositions besides works on philosophy and ethics.

His productivity may have been enhanced by the fact that he never had to engage in practical occupations. As Harizi puts it, he was one of the few fortunate who sold their pearls at high prices. When Yekutiel died, Samuel ha-Nagid took up his cause, and while we frequently hear Gabirol complaining of ill-fortune, it is not unsafe to assume that his complaints have no reference to material want. It is rather his ill-health and the fickleness of friends that he has in mind. Thus, he was free to devote all his energies to his literary pursuits. Another fact that may have contributed to his large literary productivity was that he had no one dependent upon him. It is quite safe to assume that he never married. Nay, he boasts that he never loved. “Behold,” he says, “I have spent my life in search after truth while others have wasted their substance on love.” He had no other passion in life but the passion for wisdom and truth. His sole ambition was to study and enjoy the friendship of great men. That he realized his ambition cannot be doubted, for he certainly numbered among his friends and admirers the most exalted personages of his time, and his search after knowledge resulted in the production of literary monuments that have withstood the currents of a millennium and will undoubtedly remain on their high pedestal for ages to come.

Of his life outside of his studies very little can be said. Even the date of his death is a much mooted question. There is a brilliant array of counsel on each side. Dukes, Steinschneider, Neubauer, and Kaufmann are inclined to consider the statements of Moses ibn Ezra and Harizi as authentic that Gabirol died before he reached his thirtieth year. On the other hand, Munk, Geiger, Graetz, and Sachs hold that he lived at least as late as 1069 or 1070, which would bring his age to about forty-seven or forty-eight years. I feel that the arguments on both sides are equally balanced and that a decision must be reserved. We must wait for further evidence.

Gabirol’s literary activity may be classified under the following headings: Biblical Exegesis, Grammar, Philosophy and Ethics, and Poetry. That he actually wrote a commentary on the Bible is doubtful, but there are indications that he did not neglect the Bible entirely. Abraham ibn Ezra cites him on three occasions in his commentary on the Pentateuch, once in his commentary on Isaiah, twice in his commentary on Psalms, and once in his commentary on Daniel. All these instances, however, are examples of the allegorical method of interpretation, and it is possible that they were taken from some philosophical work of Gabirol or from some special work on the subject of biblical allegory. In fact we have two citations from Gabirol in David Kimḥi’s commentary on Psalms (37-8, 23) which are taken from his ethical work. But the biblical illustrations in which this very work on ethics abounds lend countenance to the suggestion that Gabirol also engaged in biblical exegesis.

Of his work in the field of Hebrew philology we happily possess more tangible proof in the poem on Hebrew Grammar alluded to above, of which Abraham ibn Ezra speaks in the highest terms of praise. Unfortunately, only about one-fourth of the four hundred verses of this poem has come down to us. Already in the time of R. Solomon Parḥon, in the twelfth century, the remainder of this poem had been lost, and the greater part of the fragment before us is given to remarks of a general nature. Still, even this fragment is sufficient to show that he was a master of the subject. We may look askance at compositions of this sort, but we must remember that, in the days of Gabirol, the art of versification was not limited to emotional subjects. Law, medicine, and even mathematics were considered legitimate themes for the poet. And, in this particular instance, Gabirol seems to have sensed the incongruity between the theme and the form and justified himself by saying that he used the poetic form so that it may be more easily remembered.

The introductory part of this poem has a special interest for us. His plaintive lines on the neglect of the study of Hebrew seem to fit our own times even more than his:

I know that the holy tongue has languished among them, nay,
almost perished.
Their language is foreign to the Hebrew, strange to the Jewish
Half of them speak the language of Edom and half in obscure
Kedar-tongue hold discourse. . . .
They know not the prophets, they know not the Book, How then
should they read secular writings? . . . .
The Lord will call you to account, O remnant of Jacob, for
forsaking the most chosen of languages. . . .
Is it fit that a mistress become a maid-servant, waiting upon the
Woe unto her who does not tend her own vineyard but nurses
the vineyards of others.

Gabirol’s more arduous labors, however, lay in the field of philosophy and ethics for which he, in common with his contemporaries, employed Arabic, the language of the country. And here it must be pointed out, first of all, that what has come down to us of Gabirol’s philosophical works represents but a small part of his labors in this field. To Senior Sachs we are indebted for a more exact knowledge of Gabirol’s philosophical activities. In a most ingenious as well as convincing manner, Sachs showed that a number of pseudepigraphic compositions, ascribed to King Solomon, really belonged to Solomon ibn Gabirol. This is the story of his discovery: Johanan Allemano, the teacher of Pico della Mirandola (fifteenth century), in the introduction to his commentary on the Song of Songs, wherein he collected all sorts of compositions, ascribed to King Solomon, cites in the name of an Arabic philosopher, Abu Afláh, an older contemporary of Maimonides, seventeen philosophical essays under the title “Essays of King Solomon, the Jew.” In the name of Apollonius, Allemano cites also four other compositions ascribed to King Solomon, making twenty-one compositions in all. Sachs showed that “King Solomon, the Jew” was none other than Solomon ben Judah ibn Gabirol. How this poor poet was elevated to a kingdom was very simple. Gabirol was often called The Malagan, after his native city, Malaga. In fact, he occasionally signed himself so in the acrostics of his poems. In Arabic this appellation would be written ‏אלמלאק or ‏אלמלאך which is but one step from ‏אל מלך‎, the king. In this way Gabirol was elevated to the throne and was lost to us. Sachs also pointed out that two of the works cited by Allemano are no other than his “Improvement of the Moral Qualities” and the “Choice of Pearls” under different titles. Nor does this opinion rest on mere ingenious conjecture. Gabirol himself remarks in one of his poems that he had written twenty books, a number borne out by the titles cited by Allemano.

Unfortunately nothing but the titles of these books and essays has come down to us, and our estimate of Gabirol as a philosopher must rest only on two of his works which have survived the ravages of time. Even of these two, the larger and more important one exists no longer in the original and is to be studied only in a Latin version, and in an eclectic Hebrew translation. We have seen how Gabirol travelled down the ages under the disguise of King Solomon, we shall now see that Fate cloaked him also with other disguises. The “Source of Life,” his chief work in philosophy, was translated from the Arabic into the Latin in the middle of the twelfth century by Dominicus Gundissalvus, archdeacon of Segovia, with the assistance of a converted Jewish physician, Ibn Daud, afterwards called Johannes Hispalensis. Henceforth, the Fons Vitae, as it is called in Latin, became a work to be reckoned with in the world of scholasticism. And just “as Ibn Sina was corrupted by the Latin writers into Avicena and Ibn Roshd into Averroes, so Ibn Gabirol became, in turn, Avencebrol, Avicembron, Avicebron; and the scholastics who fought about his philosophy had no idea he was a Jew and celebrated as a writer of religious hymns used in the Synagogue.” The reason for this confusion is inherent in the work itself. “Gabirol nowhere betrays his Judaism in the Fons Vitae. He never quotes a Biblical verse or a Talmudic dictum . . . . . . . The treatise is purely speculative.” And so, for centuries, Gabirol marched through the philosophic schools of Mediaeval Europe, some taking him for a Christian and some for a Mohammedan, none suspecting that he was a Jew. It was on November 12, 1846, that the learned world was startled by the announcement of Solomon Munk, in the Literaturblatt des Orients that the well-known scholastic Avicebron was identical with the still better known Solomon ibn Gabirol.

The details of this discovery need not be gone into again, nor can I enter here on a learned disquisition on all the various problems connected with the Fons Vitae. Such investigation must be left to men who have devoted their lives to this field of research. For quite different reasons Gabirol’s other philosophic works need likewise not detain us long. The “Improvement of the Moral Qualities” is a meritorious work, but far from epoch-making, and the “Choice of Pearls,” which may be grouped in this class, lays no claim to originality. All that may be claimed for Gabirol in connection with this work is that in the collecting and arranging of the proverbs he showed a fine sense of discrimination and a fair skill of classification. On the other hand, I regard it as my special privilege to glean from Gabirol’s poetic compositions whatsoever bears upon his philosophy. This is the ‏לקט שכחה ופאה, the poor man’s portion of the harvest in the field of philosophic research to which I am justly entitled.

While a philosophic strain may be detected in many of Gabirol’s poems, we, on our part, need dwell here only on a few of them — those in which the philosophic note is more strongly pronounced and which may really be regarded as philosophic thoughts expressed in the measured cadences of verse rather than poetic reflections with a philosophic coloring.

The first stanza of a Piyyut recited in the Musaf service of the New Year, according to the Sephardic ritual, begins:

He who dwelleth forever, exalted is He alone from of yore.
Solitary in His royal grandeur is He, and there is none by His
From the light in which He is cloaked He fashioned the universe.
In the manner of the three sealed books.

Here we see Gabirol giving expression to the fundamental principle of Jewish philosophy — that God is the first cause, and that to Him the conception of time and place does not apply. Furthermore, the universe is but an emanation of God. What he meant by the last phrase, “in the manner of the three sealed books,” becomes clear in the light of one of his remarks in the “Source of Life”: “The active Will of God is analogous to the Scribe; the Form resulting from the action of the Will upon Matter can be compared to the Script, while Matter is analogous to the tablet upon which the writing is engraved.” By שלשה ספרים, therefore, he does not mean literally three books, but the threefold etymological conception that may be attributed to the letters ‏ס-פ-ר‎, namely ‏סופר‎, ‏ספור‎, and ספר. In other words, the three entities which are accountable for the creation of the universe, namely, Will, Form, and Matter, may be compared to the three agencies involved in the writing of a book, the Scribe, Script, and Scroll, an idea which Gabirol very likely borrowed from the Sefer Yezirah.

The influence of the Sefer Yezirah is even more evident in the remaining stanzas of this poem where he speaks of the ten Sefirot, the ‘En Sof, and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet.

In fact, the poem gives the impression of being little more than a versification of the Sefer Yezirah.

In another poem, for a long time known only through a quotation in Ibn Daud’s Emunah Ramah and for the first time edited by Senior Sachs and further elucidated by David Kaufmann, Gabirol sums up his theory of Matter in two lines. Matter, according to him, is an emanation of God. But as long as it is without form, it has only a pseudo-existence; therefore, in order to make its existence real, Matter strives after form as one friend longs for another. This idea is put in the following two verses:

‏חכמים אמרו כי סור היות-כל למען כל אשר הכל בידו
והוא נכסף לשומו יש כמו-יש כמו חושק אשר נכסף לדודו

This may be rendered freely as follows:

The wise men have said that the origin of all material existence lies in the All-embracing-One who has everything in His hand.
Like the lover seeking after the beloved, so does Matter long after the Form, that its semblance of existence (‏כמרוש‎) may be turned into real existence (‏יש‎).

The longest philosophic poem, however, is the well-known “Royal Crown.” In it Gabirol gives expression to his philosophic ideas in a clear and lucid style.

Ocean 2.0 Reader. Empty coverOcean 2.0 Reader. Book is closedOcean 2.0 Reader. FilterOcean 2.0 Reader. Compilation cover