In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hebrew Poetry in Spain

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference
  • Bibliographies
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Forms, Genres, Themes
  • Poetics
  • Genizah
  • Gender

Jewish Studies Hebrew Poetry in Spain
Tova Rosen, Uriah Kfir
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0055


Hebrew poetry began flourishing in mid-10th-century Spain (Sefarad, the ancient Jewish name for Spain) and survived there until the 1492 expulsion. Between 950 and 1150 (often referred to as its golden age), Hebrew poetry prospered in Muslim Spain. It was then already widely acknowledged as the indisputable Jewish poetic center. This poetic efflorescence was part of a wider renaissance of Jewish letters (which had its roots in earlier developments in the Orient). Poets were often themselves Talmudic scholars, biblical exegetes, Hebrew grammarians, and Neoplatonic philosophers. But whereas most writings were in Arabic, poetry was uniquely in Hebrew. Poets and audiences belonged to the elite known in scholarship as “the courtier-rabbis.” They were deeply immersed in the Arabic culture and way of life, and some of them served as officers in Muslim courts. As poets, they extensively employed Arabic poetics (genres, themes, prosody, and rhetoric) in both their secular and their liturgical poems. The Arabic influence persisted beyond 1150, at which time the literary center moved to the Jewish communities in the Christian kingdoms of Iberia. In its second period, from the mid-12th century on, liturgical poetry waned, while Kabbalah expanded, and secular poetry receded to give way to narrative compositions in rhymed prose (influenced by the Arabic maqāma and possibly also affected by the rise of European narrative genres). Medieval Hebrew poetry in Spain is evaluated today as one of the highest summits of Hebrew literature (between biblical and modern Hebrew poetry).

General Overviews

Modern scholarship of the subject had its constitutive moment in the Wissenschaft des Judentums (German Jewish or Judaic studies, c. 1850–1920). Scholars such as Zunz, Steinschneider, Luzzatto, and others viewed medieval Hebrew poetry in Spain as a gem of Jewish—and universal—culture, and began researching and publishing it. Another critical moment was the discovery of the Cairo Genizah (see under Genizah). Scholarship’s main objectives had been for a long time the discovery of manuscripts and publication of poetic texts. A valuable survey of trends and goals in research in the field is Rosen and Yassif 2002. Useful extensive histories and overviews of the field were quite late to be written. The anthology Schirmann 2006 (cited under Bibliographies) had a canonical public effect. Originally published in 1961, it was followed by Schirmann 1995 and Schirmann 1997, posthumous historical volumes. Scholars differ in the geo-historical background against which they choose to view Hebrew poetry in Spain: Menocal, et al. 2000 puts it in an Andalusian setup; Schirmann 1995, Schirmann 1997, and Pagis 1976 place it with a European connection; while Scheindlin 1999 insists on an oriental-Arabic context. Weiss 1952, a disseminating lecture on the links among poetry, society, and culture, was a critical milestone that was further elaborated in scholarship. Scheindlin 2002 is one of its most articulate elaborations.

  • Menocal, Maria Rosa, Raymond P. Scheindlin, and Michael Sells, eds. The Literature of Al-Andalus. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    The volume’s approach to Andalusian culture (its literature, philosophy, art, architecture, and music) focuses on the ethnic, religious, and linguistic hybridity of al-Andalus, and on cross-cultural contacts rather than on boundaries and difference. Articles by Brann, Drory, Rosen, and Scheindlin (some listed elsewhere in this list) present Hebrew poetry and Jewish culture as enmeshed in Andalusian culture.

  • Pagis, Dan. Change and Tradition in the Secular Poetry: Spain and Italy. Jerusalem: Keter, 1976.

    Pagis’s historical survey is of literary (mainly structural) orientation. He considers various literary facets of secular poetry (genres, themes, rhetoric, etc.) in their poetic dynamic, stressing their evolution over time, space, and changing cultural ambience. The second half of this volume is about Hebrew literature in Italy. In Hebrew.

  • Rosen, Tova, and Eli Yassif. “The Study of Hebrew Literature of the Middle Ages: Major Trends and Goals.” In The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies. Edited by Martin Goodman, 241–294. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    An exhaustive overview of 150 years of research since the Jewish Wissenschaft. Rosen’s part covers the research of poetry (from Spain and other centers); Yassif, that of folk-narratives. Mapping the field historically, Rosen surveys philological and critical enterprises, discerning subfields, innovations, critical turning points, and important debates. She also exposes ideological subtexts and political biases (e.g., Orientalism, Secularism, Zionism, Diasporism).

  • Scheindlin, Raymond P. “The History of Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain: The History of Hebrew Poetry in Christian Spain and Southern France, by Jefim Schirmann (edited, supplemented, and annotated by Ezra Fleischer); A Review-Essay.” Zion 64 (1999): 384–400.

    Scheindlin reckoned Schirmann and Fleischer’s histories (Schirmann 1995) as methodologically insufficient. He criticized the outdated “lives of the poets” approach, suggesting instead a survey of the dynamic evolution of poetry and its various poetical aspects. Additionally, he pointed at Schirmann-Fleischer’s “European bias,” i.e., their failure to view Jewish Andalus against the wider cultural context of Arabized Jewry. In Hebrew.

  • Scheindlin, Raymond P. “Merchants and Intellectuals, Rabbis and Poets: Judeo-Arabic Culture in the Golden Age of Islam.” In Cultures of the Jews: A New History. Edited by David Biale, 313–386. New York: Schocken, 2002.

    A characterization of the Jewish elite in Muslim Spain as part of a wider sociological map, including medieval Jewish communities under Islam in the East as well.

  • Schirmann, Jefim. The History of Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain. Edited by Ezra Fleischer. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1995.

    The volume offers a historical survey of Hebrew poetry in al-Andalus from the mid-10th to mid-12th centuries, furnishing ample details about the life, time, and work of each poet. Schirmann’s university lectures were edited here by his renowned disciple, Ezra Fleischer, who annotated them, updated the bibliography, and added his own critical notes. Fleischer’s own additions come within square brackets. In Hebrew.

  • Schirmann, Jefim. The History of Hebrew Poetry in Christian Spain and Southern France. Edited by Ezra Fleischer. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1997.

    This volume continues Schirmann 1995. Its chapters furnish ample details about the life, time, and work of Hebrew poets in Iberia and Provence from the mid-12th century to the 1492 expulsion. Scheindlin 1999 criticized both volumes for their outdated approach. In Hebrew.

  • Weiss, Joseph. “Tarbut ḥatsranit ve-shirah ḥatsranit.” In Proceedings of the World Congress of Jewish Studies. Vol. 1. Edited by Ben-Zion Dinburg and Naftali H. Tur-Sinai, 396–403. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1952.

    A brilliant and groundbreaking lecture about the Andalusian Jewish elite by—and for—whom Hebrew poetry was written. Combining sociological and literary insights, Weiss maintains that poetry not only mirrored the lifestyle and mentality of the elite, but also participated in forging its identity. In Hebrew.

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