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Judah Halevi

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Judah Halevi
Statue in Caesarea, Israel.
Bornc. 1075
Died1141 (66 years)
Notable workSefer ha-Kuzari[1]
EraMedieval philosophy
RegionJewish philosophy
Main interests
Religious philosophy

Judah Halevi (also Yehuda Halevi or ha-Levi; Hebrew: יהודה הלוי and Judah ben Shmuel Halevi יהודה בן שמואל הלוי‎‎; Arabic: يهوذا اللاوي, romanizedYahūḏa al-Lāwī; c. 1075 – 1141) was a Sephardic Jewish poet, physician and philosopher. He was born in Al-Andalus, either in Toledo or Tudela, in 1075.[2] He is thought to have died in 1141, in either Jerusalem, at that point the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, or in Alexandria, Egypt.[2]

Halevi is considered one of the greatest Hebrew poets, celebrated both for his secular and religious poems, many of which appear in present-day liturgy. His most famous philosophical work is the Sefer ha-Kuzari.[3]


Judah ben Shmuel Halevi was born either in Toledo or Tudela, Spain in 1075. The confusion surrounding his place of birth arises from unclear text in a manuscript.[2] Both cities were under Muslim control when he grew up but were conquered by Christian rulers during his lifetime; Toledo by Alfonso VI in 1086, and Tudela by Alfonso the Battler in 1118. He was educated in traditional Jewish scholarship, in Arabic literature, and in the Greek sciences and philosophy that were available in Arabic. As a youth, he traveled to Granada, the main center of Jewish literary and intellectual life at the time. There he modeled work after Moses Ibn Ezra for a competition, sparking recognition for Halevi’s aptitude as a poet as well as a close friendship with Ibn Ezra.[2] As an adult he was a physician and an active participant in trade and Jewish communal affairs. He was in contact with both Jewish and non-Jewish nobles and dignitaries within Spain and around the world. For at least part of his life he lived in Toledo and may have practiced medicine for the court there. He and Abraham ibn Ezra were well acquainted[4] and the latter quoted Halevi on multiple occasions in his commentary on Tanakh.

Like other Jewish poets during the “Golden Age of Jewish culture” of the 10th to 12th century,[5] he employed the patterns and themes of Arabic poetry. His themes embrace all those that were current among Hebrew poets: panegyric odes, funeral odes, poems on heartbreak, yearning and the pleasures of life, gnomic epigrams, and riddles. He was also a prolific author of religious verse. His poetry is distinguished by special attention to acoustic effect and wit.

Halevi’s poems report that he had a daughter and that she had a son, also named Judah. He could well have had other children.

Journey to Israel[edit]

Although he occupied an honored position as a physician, intellectual, and communal leader, Halevi was stirred to attempt a perilous journey to spend his final days in Israel. In his treatise known as the Kuzari, he argues that the presence of the God of Israel is most palpable in the Land of Israel, and it is therefore ideal and most religiously fulfilling for Jews to live there. He wanted to make his own aliyah: a trip believed to allow spiritual ascension by going “up” to the land. His deep passion for Israel eventually overpowered his hesitation and concerns about leaving his friends, family and status to live under difficult Crusader rule. Additionally, the uncertainties of Jewish communal status and favor within the government during the period of the Reconquista may have caused him to consider the future security of Jews in the Diaspora.

On September 8, 1140, Halevi arrived in Alexandria, where he was greeted enthusiastically by friends and admirers. He then went to Cairo, where he visited several dignitaries and friends. It is uncertain if he arrived safely in Jerusalem after that or if his departure was delayed and he died in Egypt.[2] A letter from Abu Nasr ben Avraham to Halfon ben Netanel dated November 12, 1141 suggests Halevi died in July or August.[6] Legend also has it that Halevi was trampled by an Arab horseman as he arrived in Jerusalem, with the first account found within a Hebrew miscellany published around 450 years after Halevi's presumed death.[6][4]

An 1141 letter to a prominent rabbi in Damascus also potentially refers to Halevi's death at the gates of Jerusalem. As only fragments are preserved of this letter, it's unclear whether the writer is discussing Halevi or another Jew.[6]

Documents that remain from Halevi’s last years are panegyric to his various hosts in Egypt and explorations of his religious motivations for his aliyah, preserved in the Cairo geniza. Some contain imaginary details of the voyage, such as descriptions of a turbulent sea that express trepidation for the journey but hope for the spiritual light that might follow. Poems and letters bearing on Halevi’s journey are translated and explicated in Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Song of the Distant Dove (Oxford University Press, 2007).


Halevi’s work covers common subjects in Spanish Hebrew poetry using forms and artistic patterns of secular and religious poetry. Some formats include the zajal, the muwashshah, and poems utilizing internal rhyme, classical monorhyme patterns and the recently invented strophic patterns. About 800 of his poems are known to us today.[2][7] The scholar Jose de la Fuente Salvat elevates Halevi to the "most important poet in Judaism of all times".[8]

The 1895-1904 edition of his collected work by Hayyim Brody divides his work as follows:

  1. Poems about friendship and laudatory poems (shirei yedidut veshirei hakavod): 138 poems.
  2. Pieces of correspondence in rhymed prose (mikhtavim): 7 pieces.
  3. Love poems (shirei ahavah): 66 poems.
  4.  Elegies (kol bochim; kinot v’hespedim): 43 pieces.
  5.  Elevation of the soul to Zion; traveling poems (massa nefesh tziyonah; shirei tziyon veshirei massa): 23 poems.
  6.  Riddle poems (ḥidot): 49 poems.
  7. Other poems (she’erit Yehudah; shirim shonim): 120 poems.[9]

Secular poetry[edit]

Judah's secular or non-religious poetry is composed of poems of friendship, love, humor, and eulogy. Drinking songs by Judah have also been preserved,[6] as well as verses relating to his vocational work as a physician. Halevi's prayer for the physician was first translated into English in 1924:[10]

“My God, heal me and I shall be healed.
Let not Thine anger be kindled against me so that I be consumed.
My medicines are from you, whether good
Or evil, whether strong or weak.
It is Thou who shalt choose, not I.
Of Thy knowledge is the evil and the fair.
Not upon my power of healing I rely.
Only for Thine healing do I watch.”


Even in Judah’s youth, a large number of illustrious men gathered around him, like Levi al-Tabban of Zaragoza, the aged poet Judah ben Abun, Judah ibn Ghayyat of Granada, Moses ibn Ezra and his brothers Judah, Joseph, and Isaac, the vizier Abu al-Hasan, Meïr ibn Kamnial, the physician and poet Solomon ben Mu'allam of Seville, besides his schoolmates Joseph ibn Migas and Baruch Albalia and the grammarian Abraham ibn Ezra.

In Córdoba, Judah addressed a touching farewell poem to Joseph ibn Ẓaddiḳ, the philosopher and poet. In Egypt, celebrated men vied with one another in entertaining him, his reception was a veritable triumph. Here his particular friends were Aaron ben Jeshua Alamani in Alexandria, the nagid Samuel ben Hananiah in Cairo,[11] Halfon ha-Levi in Damietta, and an unknown man in Tyre, probably his last friend. In their sorrow and joy, in the creative spirit and all that moved the souls of these men, Judah sympathetically shared; as he says in the beginning of a short poem: "My heart belongs to you, ye noble souls, who draw me to you with bonds of love".[12]


Especially tender and plaintive is Judah's tone in his elegies.[13] He often utilized the qasida form and meditated on death and fate. Many of them are dedicated to friends such as the brothers Judah (Nos. 19, 20), Isaac (No. 21), and Moses ibn Ezra (No. 16), R. Baruch (Nos. 23, 28), Meïr ibn Migas (No. 27), Isaac Alfasi, head of the yeshiva in Lucena, Cordoba[14] (No. 14), and others. In the case of Solomon ibn Farissol, who was murdered on May 3, 1108, Judah suddenly changed his poem of eulogy (Nos. 11, 22) into one of lamentation (Nos. 12, 13, 93 et seq.).

Child mortality due to plague was high in Judah's time and the historical record contains five elegies that mourn the death of a child. Biographer Hillel Halkin hypothesizes that at least one of these honors one of Judah's children who did not reach adulthood and who is lost to history.[6]


Joyous, careless youth, and merry, happy delight in life find their expression in his love-songs, many of which are epithalamia. In Egypt, where the muse of his youth found a glorious "Indian summer" in the circle of his friends, he wrote his "swan-song":[15] "Wondrous is this land to see, With perfume its meadows laden, But more fair than all to me Is yon slender, gentle maiden. Ah, Time's swift flight I fain would stay, Forgetting that my locks are gray."

Many of his poems are addressed to a gazelle or deer according to the custom in al-Andalus,[2] and his oeuvre includes homoerotic poems such as “That Day While I Had Him” and “To Ibn Al-Mu’allim.” They follow established themes in Arabic and Hebrew poetry such as the yearning of the lover contrasted with the cruelty of the beloved, who possesses a shining countenance. It is unknown whether this work reflects personal experience or artistic tradition.


Judah is noted as the most prolific composer of Hebrew riddles, with a corpus of at least sixty-seven riddles,[16][15] some of which survive in his own hand, and even in draft form,[17][12][13] though only a few have been translated into English. Judah's riddles are mostly short, monorhyme compositions on concrete subjects such as everyday objects, animals and plants, or a name or word. One example is the following: “What is it that’s blind with an eye in its head, but the race of mankind its use can not spare; spends all its life in clothing the dead, but always itself is naked and bare?”[18]

Religious poetry[edit]

Shirei Zion (Songs of Zion)[edit]

Halevi’s attachment to the Jewish people is a significant theme in his religious poetry; he identifies his sufferings and hopes with that of the broader group. Like the authors of the Psalms, he sinks his own identity in the wider one of the people of Israel, so that it is not always easy to distinguish the personality of the speaker. Though his impassioned call to his contemporaries to return to Zion might have been received with indifference, or even with mockery;[19] his own decision to go to Jerusalem never wavered. "Can we hope for any other refuge either in the East or in the West where we may dwell in safety?" he exclaims to one of his opponents (ib.). His Zionides give voice both to the Jewish people as a whole and to each individual Jew, and he never lost faith in the eventual deliverance and redemption of Israel and his people:

“Lo! Sun and moon, these minister for aye; The laws of day and night cease nevermore: Given for signs to Jacob's seed that they Shall ever be a nation — till these be o'er. If with His left hand He should thrust away, Lo! with His right hand He shall draw them nigh.”[20]

One of his Zionides, Zion Halo Tishali, laments the destruction of the temple and puts forth the dream of redemption. It is also one of the most famous kinnot Jews recite on Tisha B'Av:[2] “Zion, wilt thou not ask if peace's wing / Shadows the captives that ensue thy peace / Left lonely from thine ancient shepherding? Lo! west and east and north and south — world-wide / All those from far and near, without surcease / Salute thee: Peace and Peace from every side."

Halevi’s poems of longing for Israel like Libi baMizrach (my heart is in the east) juxtapose love and pain, and dream and reality to express the distance between Spain and the Middle East and his desire to bridge it. He believed he would find true liberation through subservience to God’s will in Israel.[2]

Judah was recognized by his contemporaries and in succeeding generations as "the great Jewish national poet.”[4] Some of his poetry and writing has also been considered an early expression of support for Jewish nationalism.[21]

Shirei Galut (Songs of the Diaspora)[edit]

Judah combined descriptions from Scripture with personal and historical Jewish experiences to form another kind of religiously themed poetry. He used devices like sound patterns and vivid imagery to evoke the suffering of exile and fear of the destruction of his people as a result of a delayed redemption.[2]

Lyrical poetry[edit]

Halevi was a prolific author of piyyutim, selichot and kinnot.[2] They were carried to all lands, even as far as India,[22] and they influenced the rituals of the most distant countries. Even the Karaites incorporated some of them into their prayer-book; so that there is scarcely a synagogue in which Judah's songs are not sung in the course of the service. The following observation on Judah's synagogal poems is made by Zunz:

"As the perfume and beauty of a rose are within it, and do not come from without, so with Judah word and Bible passage, meter and rime, are one with the soul of the poem; as in true works of art, and always in nature, one is never disturbed by anything external, arbitrary, or extraneous."

His piyyut Mi Khamokha (Hebrew: מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה, romanizedmi-ḵāmoḵā), was translated by Samuel di Castelnuovo and published in Venice in 1609.

Much of his work that expresses his personal relationship with God was later established as liturgical poetry.[2]

Judah also wrote several Shabbat hymns. One ends with the words:

“On Friday doth my cup o'erflow / What blissful rest the night shall know / When, in thine arms, my toil and woe / Are all forgot, Sabbath my love!

'Tis dusk, with sudden light, distilled / From one sweet face, the world is filled; / The tumult of my heart is stilled / For thou art come, Sabbath my love!

Bring fruits and wine and sing a gladsome lay, / Cry, 'Come in peace, O restful Seventh day!'

Judah used complicated Arabic meters in his poems.[4] However, his pupil Solomon Parḥon, who wrote at Salerno in 1160, relates that Judah repented having used the new metrical methods, and had declared he would not again employ them. A later critic, applying a Talmudic witticism to Judah, has said: "It is hard for the dough when the baker himself calls it bad."

Editions, translations and commentaries[edit]

  • Heinrich Brody, Dîwân des Abû-l-Hasan Jehudah ha-Levi/Diwan wĕ-hu 'sefer kolel šire 'abir ha-mešorerim Yĕhudah ben Šĕmu'el ha-Levi. 4 vols (Berlin: Itzkowski, 1894-1930): vol. 1, vol. 2 part 2 (notes), pp. 157-330, vol. 3, pp. 1-144, vol. 3, pp. 145-308, vol. 4. According to a 2002 assessment, this is 'a flawed edition marred by numerous textual mistakes and by the erroneous inclusion of poems by other poets. It was also far from including ha-Levi’s complete oeuvre'. However, 'even today, nearly a century after Brody’s effort, there is still no authorized edition of Judah ha-Levi’s work. The absence of such an edition has been, and will continue to be, an obstacle toward the completion of any credible study of ha-Levi’s poetry.'[23]
  • Selected Poems of Judah Halevi, ed. by Heinrich Brody and Harry Elson, trans. by Nina Salaman (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974), ISBN 0-8276-0058-5 [first publ. 1924].
  • Poemas sagrados y profanos de Yehuda Halevi, trans. by Maximo Jose Kahn and Juan Gil-Albert (Mexico, [Ediciones mensaje] 1943).
  • Yehuda Ha-Leví: Poemas, trans. by Ángel Sáenz-Badillos and Judit Targarona Borrás (Madrid: Clasicos Alfaguara, 1994)
  • Las 'Sĕlīḥot la-'ašmurot' de R. Yehudah ha-Leví: traducción y estudio literario, ed. and trans. by M.ª
  • Isabel Pérez Alonso, Colección vítor, 415 (Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 2017), ISBN 978-84-9012-763-6
  • Luzzatto, דיואן ר' יהודה הלוי. Lyck, 1864.
  • Rosenzweig, Franz. Jehuda Halevi, zweiundneunzig Hymnen und Gedichte Deutsch. Berlin, [publication date thought to be 1926[24]]
  • Bernstein, S. Shirei Yehudah Halevi. 1944
  • Zmora, ר' יהודה הלוי. 1964
  • Schirmann, שירים חדשים מן הגניזה, 1965

Literary journals and periodicals that have published his work include:[2]

  • Geiger, Abraham. Melo Hofnayim, 1840.
  • Edelman, S. H. Ginzei Oxford, 1850.
  • Dukes, J. L. Ozar Nehmad, 1857.
  • Luzzatto, S. D. Tal Orot (1881) and Iggeret Shadal (1881, 1882-4)

Some anthologies of Hebrew poetry that feature his work include:[2]

  • Albrecht, H. Brody-K, Sha’ar ha-Shir (1905)
  •  Wiener, H. Brody-M, Mivhar ha-Shirah ha-Ivrit (1922, 1946 ed. Habermann, A. M.)
  •  Schirmann, H. Ha-Shirah ha-Ivrit be-Sefarad u-ve-Provence, vol. 1, 1959.

In 1422, Provencal Jewish scholar Jacob ben Chayyim Comprat Vidal Farissol published a commentary on the Kuzari called the “Beit Ya’akob.”[25]


Halevi studied philosophy as a youth. He admired it but criticized it[7] in a way comparable to al-Ghazali.[2] In the Kuzari, he confronts Aristotelian philosophy, Christianity and Islam and expounds his views upon the teachings of Judaism, speaking in favor of accessing God through tradition and devotion rather than philosophical speculation. The work was originally written in Arabic, and entitled Kitab al-Ḥujjah wal-Dalil fi Nuṣr al-Din al-Dhalil, كتاب الحجة و الدليل في نصرة الدين الذليل,. Judah ibn Tibbon translated it into Hebrew in the mid-12th century with the title Sefer Hokhahah ve ha Re’ayah le Hagganat haDat haBezuyah or Sefer ha-Kuzari).


The traditional tombs of Judah Halevi and Abraham ibn Ezra are located in Cabul, a village in the Galilee.[26]


  1. ^ Silverstein, Adam J. (2015). "Abrahamic Experiments in History". In Blidstein, Moshe; Silverstein, Adam J.; Stroumsa, Guy G. (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of the Abrahamic Religions. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 43–51. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199697762.013.35. ISBN 978-0-19-969776-2. LCCN 2014960132. S2CID 170623059.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Encyclopaedia Judaica. Jerusalem, Israel: Keter Publishing House. 1971. pp. 355–366.
  3. ^ Blidstein, Moshe; Silverstein, Adam J. (2015). "Abrahamic Experiments in History". The Oxford Handbook of Abrahamic Religions. Oxford University Press. pp. 43–51. ISBN 978-0-19-969776-2.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ a b c d Brody, Hayyim (1895). Studien zu den Dichtungen Jehuda ha-Levi's. Berlin.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  5. ^ Kaplan, Gregory B. "Review of: The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain". Ross Brann, Johns Hopkins UP, Hispanic Review. 61 (3 (Summer, 1993)): 405–407 – via JSTOR 475075.
  6. ^ a b c d e Halkin, Hillel (2010). Yehuda Halevi. Nextbook Press. pp. 4, 81, 236, 237, 240.
  7. ^ a b "Judah Halevi". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Sep 10, 2014 [May 21, 2008].
  8. ^ De la Fuente Salvat, Jose (2017). Yehudá Ha-Leví: el poeta judío más grande de todos los tiempos.
  9. ^ Schippers, Arie (1994). Spanish Hebrew Poetry and the Arabic Literary Tradition: Arabic Themes in Hebrew Andalusian Poetry, Medieval Iberian Peninsula Texts and Studies. Brill. pp. 89–90.
  10. ^ "אֱלִי, רְפָאֵנִי וְאֵרָפֵא | Eli Refa'eni v'Erafé, the personal physician's prayer of Rabbi Dr. Yehudah haLevi (ca. early 12th c.)". The Open Siddur Project. 2020-06-07.
  11. ^ "Encyclopaedia Judaica". Encyclopedia.com.
  12. ^ a b Allony, Nechemia. "Thirty autograph riddles by R. Yehudah ha-Levi". Alei Sefer: A Journal for the Study of the Hebrew Book. 3 (October 1976): 20–43.
  13. ^ a b Ben Shabat, Shmuel. "The Solution of Hitherto Unsolved Riddles of Yehuda Hallevi and Shelomo ibn Gabirol". Mandel Institute for Jewish Studies: 390–391. JSTOR 23588346.
  14. ^ Brody, Hayyim. l.c., ii., No. 14. p. 100.
  15. ^ a b Geiger, Abraham. Ha-Levi, Judah. Divan Des Jehuda Halevi (l.c. ed.). p. 168.
  16. ^ Salvatierra, Aurora (1998). La "Granada" más hermosa: una adivinanza de Yĕhudah Ha-Levi (Biblio 47 ed.). pp. 19–36.
  17. ^ Brody, Hayyim (1894–1930). Dîwân des Abû-l-Hasan Jehudah ha-Levi. Diwan wĕ-hu 'sefer kolel šire 'abir ha-mešorerim Yĕhudah ben Šĕmu'el ha-Levi. Vol. II. Berlin. pp. 191–211, 141–156.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  18. ^ Jacobs, Joseph (1901–1906). "Riddle". In Singer, Isidore; et al. (eds.). The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
  19. ^ Luzzatto, S.D. l.c. No. 86; Songs of Exile, trans. Salaman, Nina Ruth Davis.
  20. ^ Luzzatto, S.D. l.c. No. 61; Songs of Exile, trans. Salaman, Nina Ruth Davis.
  21. ^ "Introduction". Judah Halevi. Retrieved 2023-08-03.
  22. ^ Zunz, Leopold (1855). Die synagogale Poesie des Mittelalters. Berlin: Digital Form Freimann-Sammlung. p. 231.
  23. ^ Tova Rosen and Eli Yassif (2002). 'The Study of the Hebrew Literature in the Middle Ages: Major Trends and Goals', in The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies, ed. by Martin Goodman, Jeremy Cohen, and David Sorkin. Oxford University Press. pp. 241–94 (252).
  24. ^ Tsevat, Matitiahu (1980). "An Index to the Religious Poetry of Judah Halevi". Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion. 13 (Winter, 1980/81): 3–16. JSTOR 27943486 – via JSTOR.
  25. ^ Farissol, Jacob Ben Ḥayyim (1971). "Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias. Encyclopedia Judaica". Archived from the original on 2019-01-08.
  26. ^ Levi-Naḥum, Yehuda (1986). "The graves of the fathers and of the righteous". Sefer ṣohar le-ḥasifat ginzei teiman (in Hebrew). Ḥolon, Israel: Mifʻal ḥaśifat ginze Teman. p. 252. OCLC 15417732.

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