This is the fourth in a series of occasional essays by David Wolpe on lesser-known figures in Jewish history. The first, on the biblical king Josiah, the second, on the talmudic figure Bruriah, and the third on the philosopher Saadya Gaon, are available here.
In my junior year of college, I studied in Edinburgh and took courses in English and Scottish literature. I wrote a letter to my father, talking about my enthusiasm for the poets Wordsworth and Burns and the other greats of the English canon. His response was memorable. He told me he was glad I appreciated their works, but that I should never forget that English poetry became the poetry of the world “on the backs of British soldiers” and that we Jews too had our great poets, even if our poets had no army to bring their works to the world.
We are about to mark the thousandth anniversary of the birth of a great poet and philosopher of Israel. Solomon Ibn Gabirol was born in late 1021 or early 1022. Although too little known even among many Jews, this tortured spirit wrote a work of philosophy that was studied for a millennium by Christians who did not know he was a Jew. Remarkably, his greatest achievement was not in philosophy at all but in poetry. Ibn Gabirol’s poems became part of Jewish liturgy, enduring this day, especially in the Sephardi world. It is time to revisit the life and work of this prodigious, short-lived genius.
Ibn Gabirol was born in Malaga, on the southern coast of Spain. His life was never easy. He talks about being alone, without “father, mother, or brother” and he was afflicted with a painful, lifelong disease, perhaps lupus. His solitude and suffering were manifest in Ibn Gabirol’s prickly personality, and his sense of himself as set apart, an outsider. He possessed an outstanding creative intellect, and so perhaps he might have felt somewhat different and alone no matter his circumstances; but as an orphan without siblings, his plight was an unhappy one.
Early on Ibn Gabirol found a patron, a man by the name of Yekutiel, and he moved to Zaragoza, home to a significant and culturally creative Jewish community. His talent for expression blossomed early in life, and he knew it; already at sixteen he wrote “I am the master and song is a slave to me.” He wrote elsewhere, at the same age, “my song can split rocks and create a fresh spring out of hard stones . . . my word will be inscribed in the memory of all future generations.” It seems fair to say that he had a robust sense of his gifts.
Robust, but not exaggerated. By the age of seventeen he had already composed poems that are still remembered to this day. Unfortunately, as a result of a political conspiracy, Yekutiel was assassinated, and then Ibn Gabirol was once again left alone. He offered two eulogies for his patron. The longer of the two is among his best known poems, beginning, “If Yekutiel’s days have come to an end, the stars in heaven will not shine eternally” and continuing in this melancholic spirit for 200 verses. But his shorter eulogy gives an even more pointed sense of loss, evoking the setting sun and closing with the lines: “The earth—she leaves it cold and bare/ To huddle in the shadows all night long./ At once the sky is dark: you’d think/ Sackcloth it wore for Yekutiel.”
If the solitude that Ibn Gabirol experienced in his early life returned upon Yekutiel’s death, his physical suffering remained with him always. His writing is peppered with memorable reminders of what he endured on a daily basis. “Sickness has wasted my body”; “I toss on my bed the whole night through, as on thorns and piercing reeds.” In a poetic image of his own infirmity, he writes, “My body is emaciated and a weak fly can carry it away on its wings.” So here you see something of Ibn Gabirol’s perspicacity about himself: at one and the same time he would feel self-pity and pride, wallowing in his loneliness and sickliness, while in awe at his own capacities of expression and eloquence. Even as a young man, Ibn Gabirol refers to himself as an eagle with broken wings.
Some of his poetry took up social subjects, such as drinking, friendship, and the culture of Spain that surrounded him, apart from his usual devotional focus. In one poem he asks that his body after death be bathed in “the juice of the grape” and his monument be a pile of wine jars, new and old. And this Jew during Spain’s golden age wrote a beautiful poem on the construction of the Alhambra, a project overseen by Joseph, the son of one of the great figures of Spanish Jewry, Shmuel HaNagid. In celebrating the magnificent structure, he was following the model of the Andalusian poets of his time.
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As Raymond Scheindlin notes in his aptly titled anthology of golden-age Jewish poetry from Spain, Wine, Women, and Death, it was an Andalusian practice of high culture to introduce wine after dinner, and, so gladdened, to recite poetry about drinking, love, and mortality. Such declamations will be best known to Western readers from the The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Ibn Gabirol wrote somewhat less of this celebrant poetry than some of his contemporaries, but he did compose sharply worded poems about those contemporaries: “Sitting among everybody crooked and foolish his [the poet’s] heart only was wise./ The one slakes you with adder’s poison, the other, flattering, tries to confuse your head.” His brilliance did not expand his soul enough to look with generosity or magnanimity upon his fellows. As his older contemporary and fellow poet Moses Ibn Ezra, wrote, “his anger got the better of his understanding.” As petulant and cantankerous as Ibn Gabirol was, even Ibn Ezra acknowledged him to be the greatest poet of the age.
Ibn Gabirol is probably the author of Mivḥar P’ninim (A Collection of Pearls), a work of maxims aimed at inculcating virtue; but it is his stirring liturgical poems, not his ethical writing, for which he is best known in the Jewish world today. Like much of his poetry, they sparkle with lyricism, piety, and a magical use of language.
Particularly in Sephardi prayer books, Ibn Gabirol has contributed some of the best known and most loved prayer-poems. The short and lovely “Shaḥar Avakeshkha”—in the morning I seek You—is frequently printed as an introduction to the morning service. In the translation of the Conservative movement’s Lev Shalem prayer book, it runs:
At dawn I seek You, my refuge, my haven;
Morning and evening, to You I pray,
Though facing Your greatness, I am awed and confused,
for You know already what I would think and say.
What might in thought and speech can there be?
What power the spirit within me?
Yet, You treasure the sound of human song;
and so I would thank You, as long as Your soul is in me.
One of Ibn Gabirol’s poems, often included in the Yom Kippur liturgy and at funerals, is based on the words of Eliphaz from the book of Job (4:19: “those who dwell in houses of clay, whose origin is dust”). It concludes:
Pour out Your pity
To the nation that knocks at Your door
For You are our God
And our eyes look to You.
Or, in Raphael Loew’s less literal but more musical rendition:
Thine, thine alone is pity: pour it free
For folk who knock Thy door so urgently.
Since Thou—none else – it be that art our Lord,
To whom, then, should our eyes turn, save to Thee?
Perhaps the most interesting story hidden in Ibn Gabirol’s life is tied to his masterpiece, Keter Malkhut (Crown of Kingship). But to understand this story, we need to start by looking at another work—not of poetry, but philosophy.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the theological masterpiece Fons Vitae (The Source of Life) was read and appreciated by the leading minds of the time, including Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. It was assumed that a brilliant but unknown Christian or perhaps Muslim theologian had composed the book. Although knowledge of its true origins had skirted around the margins of some for centuries, not until the research of Salomon Munk in 1846 was it definitively shown that Ibn Gabirol was its author. Munk made this discovery by uncovering a 13th-century Hebrew summary of the work by Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera in which the text is attributed to Ibn Gabirol. By comparing the philosophical conceptions in Fons Vitae with Ibn Gabirol’s poetry, Munk recognized that it had to have been penned by the 11th-century Jewish poet. Munk’s discovery astounded the scholarly world.
Fons Vitae does not cite Talmudic passages or, for that matter, any Jewish voices. Indeed, the only thinker mentioned by name is Plato, and the book itself falls squarely within the neoplatonic tradition, according to which everything is from a single origin, and the world, properly seen, is a reflection of that ultimate unity and perfection. Ibn Gabirol’s contribution was to analyze everything that existed as a combination of matter and form. All of it points to God. Emanations of God’s ultimate reality flow into the world, connecting everything to this Ultimate Source. That idea is known to Jewish readers from Kabbalah. Indeed, once the background of its author came to be known, scholars came to see in Fons Vitae additional kabbalistic influences from Sefer Y’tsirah, the early work of Jewish mysticism. But, because the idea of emanations are also familiar in medieval writing rooted in other traditions as the great chain of being, and since Ibn Gabirol did not give them Jewish sources, the book was not remembered as having been written by a Jew.
Fons Vitae was published in Hebrew as M’kor Chaim. It is composed in the form of a dialogue between a master and a disciple, and begins with the question “why was man created?”—that is, what should we seek in this life? The answer, as one would expect from a philosopher, is that human beings were created for knowledge, to understand the ways of the world and to penetrate its mysteries in order to aid the soul’s ascent. The work was preserved not by the Jewish community, but by the Catholic Church. Its author, before he was revealed as Ibn Gabirol, was called Avicebron (or Avicebrol).
Ibn Gabirol’s greatest poem, “Keter Malkhut” is a versified exploration of the same issues in his philosophic work. In it the created world testifies to the greatness of its Creator. But unlike Fons Vitae, the poem is filled with biblical and talmudic allusions ending with the familiar phrase from the book of Psalms that also concludes the Amidah prayer: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
Although the poem is erudite and, in places, not easily understood, it too found its way into Jewish liturgy and was occasionally read on Yom Kippur with, as the Hebrew commentator A.Y. Zeidman writes, “hushed whispers, in the midst of the soul’s unity with its Creator, in confessional and repentant purity of heart.”
In the end, as Ibn Gabirol himself wrote, “the earth returns to the earth and the soul ascends to join the soul.” Ibn Gabirol suffered an unfortunate fate in life and beyond. He complained even 1,000 years ago that people did not understand Hebrew and so his writing would go unappreciated. His philosophy was unattributed even as people recognized its genius. Many of his works are lost to us. His artistry was rarely understood by the world beyond the synagogue walls. He suffered, writing that he would “welcome death as a liberator.” And yet the same man who felt both loneliness and pride, who wallowed in his misfortune and extolled his own excellence, the man who would welcome death as a liberator also felt God’s sustaining presence. “I will praise The singing/ While Thy breath is in me.”
Wordsworth and Burns had Britain and its soldiers to rescue them from anonymity. Today we live in an age where there is a Hebrew-speaking country, and so we have the chance to relieve the long-suffering Ibn Gabirol and give him his due. Much of his work is easily available in translation and the books of Raymond Scheindlin and Peter Cole are an excellent place to discover both Ibn Gabirol and other poets of the golden age. The tenth centennial of his birth is a good time to revive the memory of one of the greatest minds of medieval Jewry, a man who sang to God from the midst of his pain and left the music of his words to sound throughout the generations.