Pre-Yom Kippur Thoughts about Two Giants of Hebrew Literature, Separated by 900 Years

October 4, 2019 | Stuart Schoffman
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In his short story “The Sign,” the great Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon recounts hearing of the murder by the Nazis of the Jews of Buczacz, the Polish city where he was born. The story ends with the narrator sitting in his Jerusalem synagogue, reading one of the works of the great medieval Spanish poet Solomon ibn Gabirol—whose masterful liturgical poems can be found in many prayer books—when Gabirol’s ghost appears to bring him the sad tidings. Stuart Schoffman reflects on the story itself and on the two luminaries of Jewish literature who are its main characters:

The towering medieval poet will be on my mind as I search my soul on Yom Kippur. His best-known work, Keter Malkhut, a magisterial meld of Jewish theology, Ptolemaic cosmology, and personal confession, is read on Kol Nidre night in various communities. A tiny sample, as translated by Peter Cole: “Who could speak of your wonders,/ surrounding the sphere of fire/ with a sphere of sky where the moon/ draws from the shine of the sun and glows?”

Little is known of his life. Born in Malaga in 1021, 1022, or maybe 1026, Solomon ibn Gabirol lived in Saragossa and died circa 1057 or thereafter, maybe in Valencia. . . . He was orphaned young and suffered from a painful skin disease. His massive Az’harot (literally, “Warnings”) is a verse rendition of the Torah’s 613 commandments, all the dos and don’ts in a dazzling acrostic that Gabirol wrote when he was sixteen, or so we are told. . . . Ibn Gabirol was also a prolific secular poet and a neo-Platonic philosopher famed in the Christian world as Avicebron, the author of the treatise Fons Vitae (The Fountain of Life).

Agnon ends “The Sign” in the local shul in Talpiot [the Jerusalem neighborhood where he had settled in 1929], a humble wooden shack where the narrator recites Gabirol’s Az’harot. The doors of the Holy Ark open, and he sees the kingly figure of a man. Gradually he realizes this is Gabirol himself, and weeps. . . . [T]he mystical visitor weaves a memorial acrostic [about Buczacz] that the narrator cannot remember, but “the poem sings itself in the heavens above.” If Rabbeynu Shlomo [“our teacher Solomon,” as Agnon calls him], shows up on Yom Kippur at my shul in Jerusalem—and why wouldn’t he?—I have a question or two to ask him.

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