Jan 102013

A loose sonnet in Ashkenazi Hebrew, relying on slant rhymes rather than perfect rhymes. Since it adopts its main character and its plot from the Song of Songs, I love it. Like crazy. I’m so easy.

Really. The one problem with being a Hebrew poet is that the bar was set very high, very early. As Rabbi Akiva said, “the entire world itself is not as worthy as the day the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the Writings are holy, and the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.”1 Every Hebrew poet since, in a way, has been going on after Hendrix at Monterey. Anyway. Yaakov Fichman!

Yaakov Fichman (1881 – 1958)

You are the Shulamite. A bird lost in the vineyard,
a heart that has blossomed in a land long abandoned,
on the mountains of spices, astray on your road,
you seek out your lover, afflicted.

Your brothers did shame you – is that why you’re stirred?
A few shepherds teased you, and so you’re dejected?
Unique in your innocence, as with a sword
you cleave the world’s heart. You’re beloved.

The day’s tanned your cheeks, and night has made riper
in shadows your chalice, a dizzying flower,
and poured out delight in the clefts of your garden.

How has your lover, among the rocks wandering,
not yet found your path – when the scent of your spring
is flowing like myrrh over Judah and Zion?

יעקב פיכמן

אַתְּ שׁוּלַמִּית. צִפּוֹר שְׁכוּחָה בַּכֶּרֶם.
אַתְּ לֵב פָּרַח בְּאֶרֶץ עֲזוּבָה.
וּבֵין הָרֵי־בְשָׂמִים, אוֹבֶדֶת דֶּרֶךְ,
אַתְּ לְדוֹדֵךְ שׁוֹאֶלֶת כּוֹאֲבָה.
הַעַל כִּי הִכְלִימוּךְ אַחַיִךְ אַתְּ נִסְעֶרֶת,
כִּי הָרוֹעִים סָנְטוּ בָךְ אַתְּ דָּוָה —
וְאַתְּ אַחַת בְּתֹם־חִנֵּךְ כִּבְחֶרֶב
גּוֹזֶרֶת לֵב עוֹלָם. אַתְּ אֲהוּבָה.
הַיּוֹם שָׁזַף לֶחְיֵךְ וְלֵיל בִּכֵּר
בַּצֵּל גְּבִיעֵךְ, כְּפֶרַח מְשַׁכֵּר,
בְּכָל סִתְרֵי גַנֵּךְ יָצַק חֶמְדָּה.
אֵיךְ לֹא מָצָא בַּסֶּלַע נְתִיבֵךְ
דּוֹדֵךְ עַד כֹּה — וְרֵיחַ אֲבִיבֵךְ,
כְּמוֹר עוֹבֵר כָּל אֶרֶץ יְהוּדָה!


At shulámis. Tzípoyr shkhúkhoh ba-kérem.
At leiv pórakh be-éretz azúvoh.
U-véin hórei vesómim, oyvédes dérekh,
At le-dóydeikh shoyéles koyávah.

Ha-ál ki hikhlímukh akháyikh at niséres,
Ki ha-róyim sóntu vokh at dóvoh —
Ve-át ákhas be-sóym khíneikh kivkhérev
Goyzéres leiv óylom. At ahúvoh.

Ha-yóym shózaf lékhyeikh ve-léil bíkeir
Ba-tzéil geví’eikh, ke-férakh meshákeir,
Be-khól sísrei gáneikh, yótzak khémdoh.

Eikh loy mótzo ba-séla nesíveikh
Dóydeikh ad koy — ve-réiakh avíveikh,
Ke-móyr óyveir kol éretz yehúdoh!

  1. Mishnah Yadayim, 3:5.
Jan 102013

Turns out most of this blog is prohibited – and one of its favorite poets by name even – by no less an authority than R’ Yosef Karo himself! And I, your ever-faithful translator, am in special trouble!

…And also poetry and proverbs containing profane1 speech, such as the book of Immanuel, and – it goes without saying – “words of desire” are forbidden to read on Shabbat, and even considering them without reading [is also forbidden]! This is decreed for reasons of shitrei hedyotot.2 They are also forbidden during the week, for reasons of moshav leitzim,3 even if written in the Holy Tongue. Regarding “words of desire,” there is an additional prohibition, even if written in the Holy Tongue, for they arouse the evil inclination — and whoever composes them, or copies them, or (it goes without saying) prints them is among those who cause the public to sin.4

Shulḥan `Arukh, Oraḥ Ḥayim 307, paragraph 30.

Reader: I ask, from the depths of my afflicted soul, for meḥilah for having unwittingly led you down paths of sin. Rest assured I will be purging these pages of all filth and wickedness in the coming hours. To be safe, I will now translate only Psalms, and share particularly inspiring Shabbos table talks.

May we all merit our rightful portion in the World to Come,

  1. i.e., not holy.
  2. Secular, especially financial, writings, forbidden on Shabbat.
  3. Psalm 1:1. “Blessed is the man who does not…sit in the company of jesters (“moshav leitzim”).
  4. Maḥti’ei rabim, a more severe category of sinner than one who sins by himself.
Jan 102013

Immanuel lays down incredible amounts of smack on a fellow poet for composing in Italian rather than Hebrew. Did the Gedud Meginei ha-Safah know about this guy? Seriously. This man is my hero. Just think about it for a minute: this poem was composed in a milieu in which (at least among a certain class) Hebrew knowledge was expected, backwards-and-forwards knowledge of the Bible was expected, and the ability to harness that knowledge creatively was seen as laudable. Now we live in a Jewish world in which, despite an ever-growing class of kartziyot holy avreikhim devoting their lives to “study,” the Tanakh itself is almost completely neglected, and the ability to employ Jewish textual material creatively – especially, God forbid, in poetry – is seen as nigh-heretical.1 Indeed, this nation is grass.

Uch. Anyway. I’m sorry, but if you can’t read Hebrew, you’re really missing out on this one. It doesn’t work well as an English poem (in fact, translating it seems almost perverse, considering), but in Hebrew (with the help of some pretty deep delving into the Bible) he manages to end every couplet with “-shon”. It’s pretty impressive.

Immanuel Frances (1618? – 1710?)
Who Set You as a Keeper

Who set you as a keeper o’er the vines of foreign poems,2
  Which you keep like the apple of your eye?
The vineyard of the Holy Tongue you have forsaken,
  In Eden to the first forefather given.
This treasure unto you the Rock has granted —
  How could you toss it on the dungheap with a pitchfork?
You have a name within the tents of Shem,3
  How can you sit among the tents of Etzer and Dishon?4
With Pegasus and Helicon, what business do you have
  If you’ve Euphrates, Gihon and Pishon?5
How has your mind been swept off by their waves?
  You’re like the host of Yavin in the waters of Kishon!6
What have you with the poetry of Marino and Maron?7
  Sing a song of Merari, the poems of Gershon!8
How could nettles grow in place of myrtles?
  How could the cypress be replaced by thorns?
You equate the sparrow’s chirp and the crane’s glad song
  To the lowing of an addax and a buffalo!
Is foreign song like Hebrew poetry?
  Is Shlomit 9 like the sister of Nahshon? 10
Why, my friend, go crazy for a foreign girl?11
  Why would you want to sleep within her bosom?
Wake up, my noble friend, from your deep sleep!
  If she’s Delilah, don’t you dare be Samson!
Sing a song of Zion and let no other song
  Rise into your heart or to your tongue.

עמנואל פראנשיס
מי שמך נוטר

מִי שָֹמְךָ נוֹטֵר לְכַרְמֵי־שִׁיר
 לַעַז אֲשֶׁר תִּצֹּר כְּמוֹ אִישׁוֹן
כִּי תַעֲזֹב כֶּרֶם לְשׁוֹן קֹדֶשׁ
 נָתוּן בְּגַן־עֵדֶן לְאָב רִאשׁוֹן
חֵפֶץ אֲשֶׁר הַצּוּר חֲנָנְךָ אֵיךְ
 תַּשְׁלִיךְ לְאַשְׁפּוֹת עִם שְׁלשׁ קִלְּשׁוֹן
לָךְ שֵׁם בְּאֹהֶל שֵׁם וְאֵיךְ תֵּשֵׁב
 עִם אָהֳלֵי־אֵצֶר וּבֵין דִּישׁוֹן
מַה־לָּךְ לְפֵיגַאזוֹ וְאֵילִיקוֹן
 אִם לָךְ פְּרָת גִּיחוֹן וְלָךְ פִּישׁוֹן
אֵיךְ בִּינְךָ נִגְרַף בְּגַלֵּיהֶם
 הָיִית כְּחֵיל יָבִין בְּמֵי קִישׁוֹן
מַה־לָּךְ לְשִׁיר מָארִין וְשִׁיר מָארוֹן
 שִׁירַת מְרָרִי שִׁיר וְשִׁיר גֵּרְשׁוֹן
בִּמְקוֹם הֲדַס אֵיךְ יַעֲלֶה סִרְפָּד
 תַּחַת בְּרוֹשׁ אֵיךְ יַעֲלֶה קִמְּשׁוֹן
צִפְצוּף דְּרוֹר תַּשְׁוֶה וְרֹן עָגוּר
 אֶל־קוֹל תְּאוֹ אֶל־גַעֲיַת דִּישׁוֹן
הַאִם זְמִיר נָכְרִי כְּשִׁיר עִבְרִי
 הַאִם שְׁלֹמִית כַּאֲחוֹת נַחְשׁוֹן
לָמָּה יְדִיד תִּשְׁגֶּה בְנָכְרִיָּה
 מַה־זֶּה בְחֵיקָהּ חֶפְצְךָ לִישׁוֹן
עוּרָה גְּבִירִי מִתְּנוּמָתְךָ
 אִם הִיא דְלִילָה אַל־תְּהִי שִׁמְשׁוֹן
זַמֵּר זְמִיר צִיּוֹן וְזוּלָתוֹ
 לֹא יַעֲלֶה עַל־לֵב וְעַל־לָשׁוֹן.


Mi samkhá notéir le-kharméi shir
Láʕaz ‘ashér titzór kemó ‘ishón?
Ki taʕazóv kérem leshón kódesh
Natún be-gán ʕéiden le-‘áv rishón
Ḥéifetz ‘ashér ha-tzúr ḥanankhá ‘eikh
Tashlíkh le-‘ashpót ʕim shelósh kilshón
Lakh sheiim be-‘óhel sheim ve-‘éikh teishéiv
ʕim ‘ohaléi ‘éitzer u-véin dishón?
Mah lakh le-feigázo ve-‘eilikón
‘Im lakh perát giḥón ve-lákh pishón?
‘Eikh binkhá nigráf be-galeihém
Hayít ke-ḥéil yavín be-méi kishón
Mah lakh le-shír marín ve-shír marón
Shirát merarí shir ve-shír geirshón
Bimkóm hadás ‘eikh yaʕaléh sirpád?
Táḥat berósh ‘eikh yaʕaléh kimshón?
Tziftzúf derór tashvéh ve-rón ʕagúr
‘El kol te’ó ‘el gaʕayát dishón
Ha-‘ím zemír nokhrí ke-shír ʕivrí?
Ha-‘ím shelomít ka-‘aḥót naḥshón?
Lámah yedíd tishgéh ve-nokhriyáh?
Mah zeh ve-ḥeikáh ḥeftzekhá lishón?
ʕúrah gevirí mi-tenumatkhá
‘Im hi deliláh ‘al tehí shimshón
Zaméir zemír tziyón ve-zulató
Lo yaʕaléh ʕal leiv ve-ʕál lashón.

  1. And that poem just talks about it in the context of the dati-le’umi camp!
  2. Song of Songs 1:6.
  3. Genesis 9:27. Ohalei shem, which can also be understood as “the tents of the Name” (i.e., God) is used an epithet for Jewish houses of learning, or the Jewish community as a whole.
  4. 1 Chronicles 1:38. Horites, the supposed original inhabitants of Edom in the Bible. Basically, “not Israelites.”
  5. Three of the four rivers said to flow out from Eden in Genesis 2.
  6. Judges 4, Psalm 83:9.
  7. Virgil. “Publio Virgilio Marone.”
  8. Merari and Gershon are two of Levi’s three sons. See Genesis 46:11, and a whole lot of other places.
  9. Leviticus 24:10-11.
  10. Numbers 2:3.
  11. Proverbs 5:19-20