Sefardic Literature

"Beware when the ignoramous quotes Scripture."{Sephardic saying} (Lazar 148).


The literature of the Jews changed dramatically during the Golden Age. Authors often based their works on the Bible or spiritual themes. "Of him our Holy Scriptures relate…"(Lazar 77). Nature was also an important theme, as were love and death, often celebrating the beauty of creation. The writings of Maimónides, who wrote prose in Arabic with Hebrew letters, often included God, philosophy and theology (Muñiz-Huberman 36-7).

The Jewish writers mixed the poetic styles of the Arabs with their language to create the first Jewish Hispanic poetry (Romero 85). In the past the Jews had been very closed to the influence of other cultures. Although they learned the languages of the other cultures, they rarely embraced their customs. In these centuries, they began to unite their culture with certain aspects of the Arabic culture, as can be seen in their literature. For example, they adapted the rhythm, rhyme, and structure of the Arabic poetry (Romero 85-6).

One very distinctive form of the Hebrew poetry is the Jarcha. This poetic style is an example of the development of Arabic poetry, mixed with Jewish themes, to create a new poetry. The Jarcha is a lyrical poem that repeats the final verses of an Arabic structure. Yosef the writer's Jarcha, dated 1042, is considered not only the oldest text of Romance Spanish, (The Poema de Mio Cid is dated 1140), but the oldest lyrical text of any European Romance language (Muñiz-Huberman 52). Consequently it becomes evident that Sephardic poetry is very important for all of Romance literature, as well as for its own culture. Below is a translated quartet from a Jarcha, which tells the Biblical story of Joseph:

"Joseph always feared the mighty Lord of Hosts

And was with his brothers a shepherd of the flocks.

At that time it was that he sinned one of the sins,

Causing them to quarrel with their father over Joseph."(Lazar 77).

Some poets wrote with a Muslim structure, while writing in Hebrew. Other poets, like Ibn Gabirol (below), wrote in many forms, with different rhymes and rhythms. The Sephardim remained faithful to their Biblical education and often used images and stanzas from the Torah (Romero 120). Much of their poetry was direct quotation from the Bible, which they adapted into original formats. You can see this format in the above example of the Poem of Joseph, which is a fine example of the mixing of Spanish and Jewish styles (Lazar 77). These styles and themes were also used in the Sephardic music (see the music page).

Other poets wrote in an almost modern style. Below is my translation of a poem by Ibn Gabirol, whose desperation is palpable although, supposedly, he lived a prosperous time.

This Miserable World

Vain is the mind, intelligence obscure;

the body is visible, but the soul hidden;

the world, who you look for reveals nothing but ill.

And man finds no happiness in the earth.

These days the vassal kills the lord,

the servant and the slave reprimand the queen,

the son rises against the father and mother

the same as the daughter against her father and mother.

Friend, my gazes contemplate the world,

the good in everyone's eyes: saw only confusion!

While he lives, fatigue sustains man

and finally he get only mounds of maggots.

Earth, returns to the earth

and the soul flies (Sola-Solé 73).

As you can see, the image the Gabirol creates is very sad. He appears to live without hope nor God, a very different picture than is normally painted by most history books. Perhaps he was a depressed man. Perhaps there was something negative in the Sephardic life that we can't see in the other facts we have. But, without a doubt, his poetry is developed, simple and profound.

One very important characteristic of Spanish society during that time was the presence of a strong upper class. It was the rich that creating the atmosphere where poets could survive on their art. Poets, who were mostly courtesans, sold their services to the rich (Romero 120). Also, their poetry was for educated Jews, because many times it was written in Hebrew and many Jews for Al-Andalus did understand Hebrew, but Arabic. Consequently, it is possible that this literature does not represent all the social classes of that time.


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