A Notable Jewish Spanish-Language Poet of the Middle Ages

Some of the great literary and scholarly works of medieval Spanish Jewry were written in Arabic, and many others in Hebrew. The 14th-century poet Shem Tov of Carrión, however, wrote in Castilian, the precursor to modern Spanish. Vivian Mills describes his work:

Some [scholars], like the late Yitzḥak Baer, have identified him with Shem Tov ben Yitzḥak Ardutiel, a prominent rabbi and author who lived in Carrión de los Condes, home to a flourishing Jewish community . . . that boasted its own rabbinical school. There are a few works in Hebrew that have been attributed to Ardutiel, among them the maqama (a fictional composition that alternates between prose and poetry and often has a humorous or satirical nature) known as The Rabbi’s Tale or The Battle of the Pen and the ScissorsYam Kohelet (“The Sea of Ecclesiastes”), and a penitential prayer used in Sephardi Yom Kippur ceremonies.

But [the identity of the two Shem Tovs is uncertain, and some scholars have disputed Baer’s conclusion]. What is certain about our Shem Tov is that he was a Jew who lived in Castile during a time of political transition and uncertainty for the kingdom’s Jews, as the old king, Alfonso, had passed away and his heir, Peter, was establishing his reign.

In his poem, Shem Tov petitions the king to settle his father Alfonso’s debt and reminds him of his moral obligation to protect the Jews of Castile, as their lives and safety depend upon being considered “the king’s property.” He exhorts his king to follow in the tradition of his predecessors, who had extended their protection to the aljamas (Jewish settlements) of Castile.

Shem Tov then embarks on a literary reflection that touches on humanity’s fallibility and insignificance in the face of divine greatness, reflects on what makes a good man and the dangers of relying on fortune’s whims, as tragedy and affliction happen to all—even those who perform good deeds—and reminds readers that righteous acts and benevolence should not lead to complacency, because the world is a complicated place. . . . Shem Tov closes the poem by listing the qualities that make a good ruler and by bringing up once more the merçed, or favor, the new king owes him and the Jews of Castile—his protection and goodwill.

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Read more at Stroum Center for Jewish Studies

More about: History & Ideas, Medieval Spain, Poetry, Sephardim

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