Oct 092012

I really wish there were some way to reproduce this poem’s rhythm and alliteration, particularly the effect it builds by ending almost every line with an “m” sound (a fairly easy trick in Hebrew, in which a final “mem” is often a third person plural possessive or object marker), but that, I fear, is beyond my abilities. Instead I’ve chosen to render the translation in iambic tetrameter, with the occasional metrical digression. Please don’t hate me.

It’s also interesting to ponder whether what we have here is something of a precocious acknowledgment of what we might call “animal rights,” or whether the poet is merely investing the animals with “hearts and souls” in order to emphasize the fundamental absurdity of human existence. After all, this poem is part of a poetic response to the book of Ecclesiastes, and it mirrors that book’s bemused approach to life: we’re born, we die – often violently – and none of it seems to have much in the way of purpose. In Granada too there is nothing new under the sun.

Shmuel ha-Nagid (993 – 1056?)
I Passed the Slaughterers’ Market

I passed the slaughterers’ market,
With sheep and oxen all around,
And fatted calves who numbered more
than all the fish in all the seas,
And hosts of birds whose end had come,
Where blood would float atop more blood
The blood the many butchers spilled
And nearby were the fishermen
Their harvest seemed like grains of sand
And nearby was the bakers’ shop,
By day they bake, no rest at night.
And some were baking, others eating,
And some were bringing in their game
while others bore it home
My heart divined their secret then.
I said to all those standing by
“Why must these all thus pass away
since time itself began?
How are they not the same as you
In birth or even death,
Or when they sleep, or when they wake
Or when they lie, or when they stand?
If God had not permitted them
They’d surely not be killed,
If he would only grant them power
They’d butcher you, their butchers!
They’ve souls, like you, and also hearts
Like you they walk the land,
Yet not a moment passes by
In which one does not perish or
Give birth to yet one more.
The pure of heart should heed this well
And proud and noble princes too
If they would only understand
the secret of the world,
then maybe they might recognize
That this is all men’s fate.”

שמואל הנגיד / إسماعيل بن النغريلة
עברתי על שוק טבחים

עָבַרְתִּי עַל שׁוּק טַבָּחִים
בּוֹ צֹאן וּשְׁוָרִים עַל-יָדָם
וּמְרִיאִים רַב כִּדְגַת הַיָּם
וָעוֹף לָרֹב בָּא יוֹם אֵידָם
בּוֹ דָם קָפָא עַל גַּב דָּם, בּוֹ
שׁוֹחְטִים רַבִּים יָרִיקוּ דָם
וּלְצִידּוֹ צָדִים וּדְגַת הַיָּם
כַּחוֹל בִּכְלֵי כָל אִישׁ צָדָם
וּלְצִדָּם שׁוּק מַאְפֵה בַּיּוֹם
אוֹפֶה וּבַלַּיְלָה לֹא רָדַם
מִזֶּה אוֹפִים מִזֶּה אוֹכְלִים
מִזֶּה מוֹלִיכִים אֶת צֵידָם
בָּזֶה נוֹשְׂאִים אֶל-בָּתֵּיהֶם
וַיָּבֶן לִבִּי אֶת סוֹדָם
וָאֹמַר לָעוֹמְדִים: עַל מַה
בָּהּ יִכְלוּ אֵלֶּה מֵעוֹדָם
מָה הֶבְדֵּל בֵּין אֵלֶּה לָכֶם
בִּגְוִיעָתָם וּבְמוֹלָדָם
וּבְנוּמָתָם וּבְהַעִירָם
וּבְמוֹשָׁבָם וּבְמַעְמָדָם
לוּלֵי כִי צוּר הוּא הִטְעִימָם
לָכֶם, אָכֵן לֹא הִשְׁמִידָם
אִלּוּ נָתַן בָּהֶם רוּחַ
הֵם הֶאְבִידוּ אֶת-מַאְבִידָם
לָהֶם נֶפֶשׁ כָּכֶם גַּם לֵב
כָּכֶם עַל אֶרֶץ לַהְנִידָם
לֹא נִמְצָא עֵת לֹא מֵת בּוֹ מֵת
אוֹ עֵת לֹא יוֹלִיד מוֹלִידָם
לָזֹאת יָשִׂימוּ לֵב זַכִּים
וּנְסִיכִים גָּאוּ בִּכְבוֹדָם
אִם יָבִינוּ סוֹד הָעוֹלָם
יֵדְעוּ כִּי זֶה כָּל הָאָדָם.


ʕavárti ʕal shuk tabaḥím
Bo tzon u-shvarím ʕal yadám
U-meri’ím rav kidgát ha-yám
Va-ʕóf la-róv ba yom ‘eidám
Bo dam kafá ʕal gav dam, bo
Shoḥetím rabím yaríku dam
U-le-tzidó tzadím udgát ha-yám
Ka-ḥól bikhléi khol ‘ish tzadám
U-le-tzidám shuk ma’féh ba-yóm
‘Oféh u-va-láilah lo radám
Mi-zéh ‘ofím mi-zéh ‘okhlím
Mi-zéh molikhím ‘et tzeidám
Ba-zéh nos’ím ‘el bateihém
Va-yáven libí ‘et sodám
Va-‘ómar la-ʕomdím: ʕal mah
Bah yikhlú ‘éileh meiʕodám
Mah hevdéil bein ‘éileh lakhém
Bigviʕatám u-ve-moladám
U-ve-numatám u-ve-haʕirám
U-ve-moshavám u-ve-maʕmadám
Luléi khi tzur hu hitʕimám
Lakhém, ‘akhén lo hishmidám
‘Ílu natán bahém rúaḥ
Heim he’evídu ma’avidám
Lahém néfesh kakhém gam leiv
Kakhém ʕal ‘éretz lehanidám
Lo nimtzá ʕeit lo meit bo meit
‘O ʕeit lo yolíd molidám
La-zót yasímu leiv zakím
U-nesikhím ga’ú bikhvodám
‘Im yavínu sod ha-ʕolám
Yeidʕú ki zeh kol ha-‘adám.

  4 Responses to “Shmuel ha-Nagid, “Avarti al Shuk Tabaḥim””

  1. Hey!

    Thank you so much for this. I was wondering if you could try to paraphrase the lines וּלְצִידּוֹ צָדִים וּדְגַת הַיָּם
    כַּחוֹל בִּכְלֵי כָל אִישׁ צָדָם.

    I´m incredibly confused with the pun וּלְצִידּוֹ צָדִים – צָדָם. Does וּלְצִידּוֹ mean “and on their/his side”? I thought the yod indicates the presence of the root tz-i-d, which means hunt. And what does צָדִים mean? Do we get fisherman from אִישׁ צָדָם, the men who hunt them [the fish]?

    I hope that I’m not being a nuisance. I’m more than an amateur at this, and I’d love to understand what’s happening.



  2. Hi Aslan,

    Not a nuisance. Asking questions is a much better way to learn than the alternative.

    The whole phrase can be parsed as “And at its [the market’s] side, trappers and the fish of the sea like sand, in the nets of every man their [the nets’] quarry.”

    So, yes, as you guessed, לצידו means literally “at its [the market’s, in this case] side,” or more broadly, “next to it/him, nearby.” The actual root of צד as in “side” is צ-ד-ד, whereas the root of צד as in “hunt” is צ-ו-ד – the rules of how “hollow” root vowels and radicals change in different verb forms and noun inflections are esoteric, and you can either beat your head against a Hebrew grammar trying to memorize them, or just sort of osmose the basic principles over time, which I think works better.

    צדים does mean “hunters,” but the verb can also more broadly mean to trap or capture, and here ha-Nagid uses it to mean fishermen, which we can understand because he immediately starts talking about fish and nets.

    כלי of course narrowly means “vessel” or “utensil,” but he’s talking about the vessels of fishermen, which are clearly meant to be nets. צדם is “their quarry,” using an alternate form of the noun “ציד,” which is game or quarry or that which is hunted, along with the third person masculine plural possessive suffix.

    Hopefully that helps.

  3. Dear Michael,

    This is such a helpful and generous answer.
    I really can’t thank you enough.
    And thank you, incidentally, for a wonderful and thought-provoking website.

    All best,


  4. Hey man, don’t worry about it. Thanks for the kind words too. If you ever find yourself needing a Hebrew poetry consult again, you know where to find me.

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