Judah Halevi:
Sweet Singer of Zion

Judah Halevi, known as the "Sweet Singer of Zion" was a poet and philosopher who lived from 1075 until 1141. He was born in Toledo, Spain, lived much of his life in Cordova, Spain, but died in Egypt, attempting to reach the Land of Israel. His primary occupation throughout his life was as a physician to the king of Spain. In his free time he wrote magnificent poems, many of which were paeans to the Land of Israel and mourning the loss of the Land to Jews. In Halevi's day, Jews were caught in the incessant wars between Christians and Muslims for control of the Iberian Peninsula. Halevi became convinced that the safest and most appropriate place for Jews to live was in the Land of Israel where they could lead a full and meaningful Jewish life. He himself felt constrained to remain in Spain most of his life, however, because of family attachments. His poems extolling the virtues of Eretz Yisrael remain a beautiful legacy, and in particular "Ode to Zion" is chanted in many synagogues on Tisha B'Av, which commemorates the destructions of the First and Second Temples on the 9th of Av each summer. The poem speaks both of the poet's sorrow over Jerusalem's destruction and his hope for its resurrected future. The popular Israeli song "Yerushalayim shel Zahav" (Jerusalem of Gold), composed by Naomi Shemer in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, echoes Halevi's poem by employing the refrain "Halo le'chol shir-a-yich ani kinor" (I am a harp for your songs).

In addition, Judah Halevi penned a philosophical work entitled "The Kuzari" which claims to recount an actual event. The king of the Khasars sought to choose a religion for himself and his people and therefore invited a philosopher, a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew to visit him at court and describe their traditions. Whichever provided the most compelling presentation and arguments which win the honor of having his tradition as the one to which the entire Khasar nation would convert. Halevi begins with the particular experience of the Jewish people at Sinai and the uniqueness of the Jewish people. He talks about the special capacity to receive prophecy, which he understands as philosophical truth. Halevi parts company with many other medieval Jewish philosphers in elevating the experience at Sinai as the criterion for truth and for proving the existence of God. For him, historical experience is more powerful than reason. Halevi distinguishes between Elohim, the God one discovers through the use of reason and logic (in the mode of the philosophers) while Adonai is the God people experience in their lives. Halevi used the Kuzari as a format to describe the unique characteristics of the Land of Israel and the Jewish people, the importance of Hebrew as a holy tongue, and the gift of prophecy which is intimately connected to both the Land of Israel and the Hebrew language. He further explains the special relationship between Jews and God and the elevated spiritual state obtained through observance of God's commandments. At the end of the book, the king of Khasar decides to convert to Judaism and teaches his people about Judaism so that they, too, can convert. The Jewish scholar explains to the king that he will soon depart for Eretz Yisrael. Halevi did, in fact, set out for the Land of Israel, sailing first to Egypt and intending to travel by land from there. His ship landed in Alexandria in May of 1140, where Halevi was warmly welcomed by the Jewish community of Alexandria and treated as a dignitary. Sadly, he never reached the land of his dreams; he died in Egypt in July of 1141. Perhaps the passion of his desire to reach Israel is what gave rise to the legend that he did, in fact, succeed. As legend has it, upon reaching Eretz Yisrael, he removed his shoes in order to walk barefoot in the sand of the Holy Land. Appropriately enough, he began to recite his poem, and Ode to Zion, when an Arab horseman killed him with a sword. It may be that this legend derives from the Kuzari, itself, in which the Khazar king warns the Jewish scholar that his life will be endangered if he travels to Eretz Yisrael. Perhaps the legend derives from the desire of those whose passions for the Land of Israel he inspired to see his life's dream fulfilled. In either case, it is certainly a dramatic tale.

Ode to Zion

Zion! will you not ask if peace is with your captives
That seeks your peace -- that are the remnant of your flocks?
From west and east, from north and south -- the greeting
"Peace" from far and near, you take from every side;
And greeting from the captive of desire, giving his tears like dew
Of Hermon, and longing to let them fall upon your hills.
To wail for your affliction I am like the jackals; but when I dream
Of the return of your captivity, I am a harp for your songs.
My heart to Bethel and Peniel yearns sore,
To Machanaim and to all the places where your pure ones have met.
There the Presence abides in you; yea, there your Maker
Opened your gates to face the gates of heaven.
And the Lord's glory alone was your light;
No sun nor moon nor stars were luminants for you.
I would choose for my soul to pour itself out within that place
Where the spirit of God was outpoured upon your chosen.
You are the house of royalty; you are the throne of the Lord, and how
Do slaves sit now upon your princes' thrones?
Would I might be wandering in the places where
God was revealed to your seers and messengers.
O who will make my wings, that I may fly afar,
And lay the ruins of my cleft heart among your broken cliffs!
I would fall, with my face upon your earth and take delight
In your stones and be tender to your dust.
Yea, more, when standing by my fathers' tombs
I would marvel, in Hebron, over the chosen of your graves.
I would pass into your forest and your fruitful field, and stand
Within your Gilead, and wonder at your mount beyond--
Mount Avarim and Mount Hor, where are the twain
Great lights -- your Luminaries, your Teachers.
The life of souls is the air of your land, and of pure myrrh
The grains of your dust, and honey from the comb your rivers.
Sweet would it be to my soul to walk naked and barefoot
Upon the desolate ruins where your holiest dwellings were;
In the place of your Ark where it is hidden and in the place
Of your cherubim which abode in your innermost recesses.
I will cut off and cast away the splendor of my crown of locks and curse the fate
That desecrated in unclean land the heads that bore your crown...
God will change, God will wholly sweep away all the realms of idols;
Your splendor is for ever, from age to age your crown.
Your God has desired you for a dwelling-place; and happy is the man
Whom God chooses and brings near that he may rest within your courts.
Happy is he that waits, that comes close and sees the rising
Of your light, when on him your dawn shall break--
That he may see the welfare of your chosen, and rejoice
In your rejoicing, when you turns back unto your olden youth.

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