Selected Religious Poems
Solomon Ibn Gabirol
Judaism
3:11 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
of
Solomon Ibn Gabirol
From a Critical Text Edited
by
Israel Davidson, Ph. D.

Translated Into English Verse by Israel Zangwill


Introduction

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.