Apr 212014

Alright, actually this poet is not strictly anonymous, since we know her identity at least by relation, but her name is unknown, and I have to keep my categories in order. The poet is the wife of the brilliant and hopelessly rootless poetic innovator Dunash ben Labrat, and this poem was introduced to me by dear friend of Soul and Gone and all-around scholar and gentleman Noam Sienna. With Noam’s kind permission, I’ll let him explain the poem’s provenance:

Recovered in pieces from the Cairo genizah, this poem was not completely published until 1971, and even then the author remained unknown. The heading of the poem was finally found in 1984 by the scholar Ezra Fleischer: “By the Wife of Dunash ibn Labraṭ, Addressed to Him,” making this the only medieval Hebrew poem known to be authored by a woman. Details of the life of Dunash’s wife, including her name, remain unknown; from the context of the poem it appears Dunash was forced to leave Spain, leaving behind his wife and son, for reasons unknown; it appears likely that it was due to friction with Ḥasdai ibn Shaprut. It is also unknown whether they were ever reunited, although new evidence from the Geniza suggests not.

Endless are the Genizah’s treasures. There are no shortage of poems from this era, in both Hebrew and Arabic, built around this theme (parting), and even no shortage of poems that seem to use these stock forms and topics to express very real emotion (and genuine biographical detail) on the part of the poet – but to find one from a woman’s perspective is a rare and wonderful thing indeed. The poignancy of the poem speaks for itself.

The Wife of Dunash ben Labrat (late 10th century)
Will Her Love Recall

And will her love recall his graceful doe
  Cradling her son and left alone?
Who set his right hand’s seal on her left
  Is not his arm wrapped with her precious stones?
That day she made a keepsake of his cloak
  And he made hers a keepsake of his own —
Would he remain in all the land of Spain
  If he’d been given half her prince’s throne?

אשתו של דונש בן לברט / زوجة دناش بن لبراط
היזכור יעלת החן ידידה

הֲיִזְכּוֹר יַעֲלַת הַחֵן יְדִידָהּ
 בְּיוֹם פֵּירוּד וּבִזְרוֹעָהּ יְחִידָהּ
וְשָׂם חוֹתַם יְמִינוֹ עַל שְׂמֹאלָהּ
 וּבִזְרוֹעוֹ הֲלֹא שָׂמָה צְמִידָהּ
בְּיוֹם לָקְחָה לְזִכָּרוֹן רְדִידוֹ
 וְהוּא לָקַח לְזִכָּרוֹן רְדִידָהּ –
הֲיִשָּׁאֵר בְּכָל אֶרֶץ סְפָרַד
 וְלוּ לָקַח חֲצִי מַלְכוּת נְגִידָהּ?


Ha-yizkór yaʕalát ha-ḥéin yedidáh?
Be-yom peirúd u-vizroʕáh yeḥidáh?
Ve-sam ḥotám yeminó ʕal semoláh
U-vizroʕó ha-ló sámah tzemidáh?
Be-yóm laqḥáh le-zikarón redidó
Ve-hú laqáḥ le-zikarón redidáh —
Ha-yisha’éir be-khól ‘éretz sefarád
Ve-lú laqáḥ ḥatzí malkhút negidáh?

May 202013

The central joke of this satirical poem, describing a voyage made by a French Jew into the wilds of Ashkenaz (Jewish Germany), is a cross-linguistic pun. Each stanza ends with two quotes from Jeremiah; the pun is in the first, ki lo ‘alman yisra’eil. ‘Alman, “forsaken” (or widowed) just so happens to be a near homophone of the French Allemand, “German.” What the refrain actually says, then, is “for a German [Ashkenazi] is not a Jew.”

I did this poem in calligraphy as a parting gift for a French Sephardi friend going back to France after a long sojourn in the current Ashkenazi heartland, these blessed United States of America. He appreciated the thought.

Anonymous (late Middle Ages?)
The Day That I Went Out from France

The day that I went out from France
And towards German lands made my advance
I found cruel people at first glance
Like ostriches in the wild plain
For Israel is not forsaken 1
What has straw to do with grain? 2

I had hoped to find salvation
A day of rest and relaxation
Yet their offerings lacked consideration 3
My heart was cleft in twain
For Israel is not forsaken
What has straw to do with grain?

I searched the breadth of all Alsace
No man knew its worth I came across
Oh, would that its ways were not such chaos —
Overriding men, the women reign
For Israel is not forsaken
What has straw to do with grain?

I’ve grown utterly sick of Ashkenazim
For each one is fierce of face, I deem
Even their beards like goats’ beards seem
Heed not their words, all said in vain
For Israel is not forsaken
What has straw to do with grain?

משורר עלום שם
יום מצרפת יצאתי

יוֹם מִצָּרְפַת יָצָאתִי
אֶל אֶרֶץ אַשְׁכְּנַז יָרַדְתִּי
וְעַם אַכְזָר מָצָאתִי
כַּיְעֵנִים בַּמִּדְבָּר
כִּי לֹא אַלְמָן יִשְׂרָאֵל
מַה לַּתֶּבֶן אֶת הַבָּר?
צִפִּיתִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה
יוֹם נֹפֶשׁ וּמַרְגוֹעַ
וּמִנְחָתָם בְּלִי שָׁעָה
לְבָבִי הָיָה נִשְׁבָּר
כִּי לֹא אַלְמָן יִשְׂרָאֵל
מַה לַּתֶּבֶן אֶת הַבָּר?
חִפַּשְׂתִּי אֶלְזוּשׂ אָרְכָּהּ
וְלֹא יָדַע אֱנוֹשׁ עֶרְכָּהּ
לוּלֵי שֶֹלֹא כְּדַרְכָּהּ
הָאִשָּׁה עַל אִישׁ תִּגְבַּר
כִּי לֹא אַלְמָן יִשְׂרָאֵל
מַה לַּתֶּבֶן אֶת הַבָּר?
קַצְתִּי מְאֹד בְּאַשְׁכְּנַזִּים
כִּי הֵם כֻּלָּם פָּנִים עַזִּים
אַף זְקָנָם כְּמוֹ עִזִּים
אַל תַּאֲמֵן לָהֶם דָּבָר!
כִּי לֹא אַלְמָן יִשְׂרָאֵל
מַה לַּתֶּבֶן אֶת הַבָּר?


Yom mi-tzarfát yatzáti
‘El ‘éretz ‘ashkenáz yarádeti
Ve-ʕám ‘akhzár matzáti
Ka-yeʕeiním ba-midbár
Ki lo ‘almán yisra’éil
Mah la-téven ‘et ha-bár?

Tzipíti li lishuʕáh
Yom nófesh u-margóaʕ
U-minḥatám belí shaʕáh
Levaví hayáh nishbár
Ki lo ‘almán yisra’éil
Mah la-téven ‘et ha-bár?

Ḥipásti ‘elzús ‘orkáh
Ve-ló yadáʕ ‘enósh ʕerkáh
Luléi she-ló ke-darkáh
Ha-‘isháh ʕal ‘ish tigbár
Ki lo ‘almán yisra’éil
Mah la-téven ‘et ha-bár?

Kátzti me’ód be-‘ashkenazím
Ki heim kulám paním ʕazím
‘Af zekanám kemó ʕizím
‘Al ta’améin lahém davár!
Ki lo ‘almán yisra’éil
Mah la-téven ‘et ha-bár?

  1. Jeremiah 51:5.
  2. Jeremiah 23:28.
  3. Genesis 4:5.
Sep 242012

A central part of the Yom Kippur liturgy, this piyut was composed by an anonymous poet, most likely in the Land of Israel. Some credit it to one of the two most well-known Palestinian paytanim, either Yannai or his student Eleazar ben Kallir.

חלק מרכזי מסדר התפילות של יום הכיפורים, פיוט זה נכתב על ידי משורר אלמוני, כנראה בארץ ישראל. יש סוברים שניתן לזקוף אותו לזכותו של אחד מהפייטנים הארץ-ישראליים הידועים ביותר, או ינאי או תלמידו אלעזר בן קליר.

Anonymous (6th – 7th century CE?)
Shall We Recount the Power?

Shall we recount the power of this day’s sanctity?
For it is a day of awe and dread
On which your kingship shall be exalted
And your throne established
To sit upon in truth.

Truly: you are judge and inquisitor, knower and witness
Writer and sealer, scribe and counter;
You remember all that is forgotten,
And open the book of memories,
Which by itself is read,
Containing the seal of every man’s hand.
And with the blast of the great shofar
A small sound of silence is heard,
And haste seizes the angels
Fear and trembling take hold,
And they say, “Behold the Day of Judgment –
Visiting judgment upon the heavenly host!”
For not even they are worthy in your eyes.

And all those who walk upon this earth pass before you like a flock;
As the shepherd counts his herd,
Letting each pass beneath his rod,
So shall the souls of all life be gathered and counted, numbered and reckoned.
And you cut out a portion for all your creations
And write each judgment’s sentence:
On Rosh Hashanah are they written,
On the fast of Yom Kippur are they sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be created?
Who shall live and who shall die?
Who at his appointed time, and who before?
Who by water, and who by fire?
Who by sword, and who by beast?
Who by hunger, and who by thirst?
Who by storm, and who by plague?
Who by choking, and who by stoning?
Who shall be still, and who shall stir?
Who shall be at peace, and who shall be devoured?
Who shall know serenity, and who suffering?
Who shall be impoverished, and who made rich?
Who shall be brought low, and who raised up?
But repentance, prayer and charity –
Only they may alter the decree’s severity!

To name you is to praise you,
Hard to anger, easy to please,
For you have no wish that the dead should die,
But rather that he might return to the path and live;
Until the day he dies you await him,
If he would return you would embrace him.

Truly, it was you who created men,
And you know well their ways,
For they are flesh and blood,
Dust is man’s beginning, and dust his end,
At the risk of his soul he brings home his bread.
Man is as shattered clay
As dry straw, as withered blossoms
A passing shadow and a fleeting cloud
Blowing wind and scattered dust
Flitting away as a dream.

You are King, the living and eternal God
Your years are limitless, your days without end
The dimensions of your glory are beyond estimation;
The mysteries of your name beyond discernment.
Your name befits you; you befit your name,
And our name is part of yours.
Act for the sake of your name; let those who sanctify it make it holy
For the glory of your holy, admired name
Like the secret of the holy seraphs’ speech
Who sanctify your name in holiness;
Those who dwell above and those below
Call out and triple its sanctity.*

פייטן אלמוני
ונתנה תוקף

וּנְתַנֶּה תֹּקֶף קְדֻשַּׁת הַיּוֹם
כִּי הוּא נוֹרָא וְאָיוֹם
וּבוֹ תִנָּשֵׂא מַלְכוּתֶךָ
וְיִכּוֹן בְּחֶסֶד כִּסְאֶךָ
וְתֵשֵׁב עָלָיו בֶּאֱמֶת
אֱמֶת כִּי אַתָּה הוּא דַיָּן וּמוֹכִיחַ וְיוֹדֵעַ וָעֵד
וְכוֹתֵב וְחוֹתֵם וְסוֹפֵר וּמוֹנֶה
וְתִזְכֹּר כָּל הַנִּשְׁכָּחוֹת
וְתִפְתַּח אֶת סֵפֶר הַזִּכְרוֹנוֹת
וּמֵאֵלָיו יִקָּרֵא
וְחוֹתָם יַד כָּל אָדָם בּוֹ
וּבְשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל יִתָּקַע
וְקוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה יִשָּׁמַע
וּמַלְאָכִים יֵחָפֵזוּן
וְחִיל וּרְעָדָה יאֹחֵזוּן
וְיֹאמְרוּ הִנֵּה יוֹם הַדִּין
לִפְקֹד עַל צְבָא מָרוֹם בַּדִּין
כִּי לֹא יִזְכּוּ בְעֵינֶיךָ בַּדִּין
וְכָל בָּאֵי עוֹלָם יַעַבְרוּן לְפָנֶיךָ כִּבְנֵי מָרוֹן
כְּבַקָּרַת רוֹעֶה עֶדְרוֹ
מַעֲבִיר צֹאנוֹ תַּחַת שִׁבְטוֹ
כֵּן תַּעֲבִיר וְתִסְפֹּר וְתִמְנֶה וְתִפְקֹד נֶפֶשׁ כָּל חָי
וְתַחְתֹּךְ קִצְבָה לְכָל בְּרִיּוֹתֶיךָ
וְתִכְתֹּב אֶת גְּזַר דִּינָם:
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן
וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן
כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן
מִי יִחְיֶה וּמִי יָמוּת
מִי בְקִצּו וּמִי לֹא בְקִצּו
מִי בַמַּיִם וּמִי בָאֵשׁ
מִי בַחֶרֶב וּמִי בַחַיָּה
מִי בָרָעָב וּמִי בַצָּמָא
מִי בָרַעַשׁ וּמִי בַמַּגֵּפָה
מִי בַחֲנִיקָה וּמִי בַסְּקִילָה
מִי יָנוּחַ וּמִי יָנוּעַ
מִי יִשָּׁקֵט וּמִי יִטָּרֵף
מִי יִשָּׁלֵו וּמִי יִתְיַסָּר
מִי יֵעָנִי וּמִי יֵעָשֵׁר
מִי יִשָּׁפֵל וּמִי יָרוּם
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה
מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה
כִּי כְּשִׁמְךָ כֵּן תְּהִלָּתֶךָ
קָשֶׁה לִכְעֹס וְנוֹחַ לִרְצוֹת
כִּי לֹא תַחְפֹּץ בְּמוֹת הַמֵּת
כִּי אִם בְּשׁוּבוֹ מִדַּרְכּוֹ וְחָיָה
וְעַד יוֹם מוֹתוֹ תְּחַכֶּה לּוֹ
אִם יָשׁוּב מִיַּד תְּקַבְּלוֹ
אֱמֶת כִּי אַתָּה הוּא יוֹצְרָם
וְאַתָּה יוֹדֵעַ יִצְרָם
כִּי הֵם בָּשָׂר וָדָם
אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר
בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ
מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר
כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ וּכְצִיץ נוֹבֵל
כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה
וּכְרוּחַ נוֹשָׁבֶת וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵחַ
וְכַחֲלוֹם יָעוּף
וְאַתָּה הוּא מֶלֶךְ אֵל חַי וְקַיָּם
אֵין קִצְבָה לִשְׁנוֹתֶיךָ וְאֵין קֵץ לְאֹרֶךְ יָמֶיךָ
וְאֵין לְשַׁעֵר מַרְכְּבוֹת כְּבוֹדֶךָ
וְאֵין לְפָרֵשׁ עֵלוּם שְׁמֶך
שִׁמְךָ נָאֶה לְךָ וְאַתָּה נָאֶה לִשְׁמֶךָ
וּשְׁמֵנוּ קָרָאתָ בִּשְׁמֶךָ
עֲשֵׂה לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ וְקַדֵּשׁ אֶת שִׁמְךָ עַל מַקְדִּישֵׁי שְׁמֶךָ
בַּעֲבוּר כְּבוֹד שִׁמְךָ הַנַּעֲרָץ וְהַנִּקְדָּשׁ
כְּסוֹד שִׂיחַ שַׂרְפֵי קֹדֶשׁ
הַמַּקְדִּישִׁים שִׁמְךָ בַּקֹּדֶשׁ
דָּרֵי מַעְלָה עִם דָּרֵי מַטָּה
קוֹרְאִים וּמְשַׁלְּשִׁים בְּשִׁלּוּשׁ קְדֻשָּׁה בַּקֹּדֶשׁ

* This final part of “Unetaneh Tokef” is a lead-up to the recitation of the Kedushah (“Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh…” / “Holy, holy, holy…”), thus the references to the seraphim tripling the sanctity of God’s name.


U-netanéh tókef kedushát ha-yóm
Ki hu norá ve-‘ayóm
U-vó tinaséi malkhutékha
Ve-yikón be-ḥésed kis’ékha
Ve-teishéiv ʕaláv be-’emét

‘Emét ki ‘atáh hu dayán u-mokhíaḥ
Ve-khotéiv ve-ḥotéim ve-soféir u-monéh
Ve-tizkór kol nishkaḥót
Ve-tiftáḥ ‘et séifer ha-zikhronót
U-mei’eiláv yikaréi
Ve-ḥotám yad kol ‘adám bo
U-ve-shofár gadól yitakáʕ
Ve-kól demamáh dakáh yishamáʕ
U-mal’akhím yeiḥaféizun
Ve-ḥíl u-reʕadáh yoḥéizun
Ve-yomrú hinéi yom ha-dín
Lifkód ʕal tzevá maróm ba-dín
Ki lo yizkú ve-ʕeinéikha ba-dín

Ve-khól ba’éi ʕolám yaʕavrún lefanéikha kivnéi marón
Ke-vakarát roʕéh ʕedró
Maʕavír tzonó táḥat shivtó
Kein taʕavír ve-tispór ve-timnéh ve-tifkód néfesh kol ḥai
Ve-taḥtókh kitzváh le-khól briyotékha
Ve-tikhtóv et gezár dinám
Be-rósh ha-shanáh yikatéivun
U-ve-yóm ha-kipurím yeiḥatéivun
Kámah yaʕavrún ve-khámah yibaréi’un
Mi yiḥyéh u-mí yamút
Mi ve-kitzó u-mí lo ve-kitzó
Mi va-máyim u-mí va-‘éish
Mi va-ḥérev u-mí va-ḥayáh
Mi va-ráʕav u-mí va-tzamá
Mi va-ráʕash u-mí va-mageifáh
Mi va-ḥanikáh u-mí va-sekiláh
Mi yanúaḥ u-mí yanúʕa
Mi yishakéit u-mí yitaréif
Mi yishaléiv u-mí yityasár
Mi yeiʕaní u-mí yeiʕashéir
Mi yishapéil u-mí yarúm
U-teshuváh u-tefiláh u-tzedakáh
Maʕavirín et róʕa ha-gezeiráh

Ki ke-shimkhá kein tehilatékha
Kashéh likhʕós ve-nóaḥ lirtzót
Ki lo taḥpótz be-mót ha-méit
Ki ‘im be-shuvó mi-darkó ve-ḥayáh
Ve-ʕád yom motó teḥakéh lo
‘Im yashúv miyád tekabló

‘Emét ki ‘atáh hu yotzrám
Ve’atáh yodéiʕa yitzrám
Ki heim basár ve-dám
‘Adám yesodó mei-ʕafár ve-sofó le-ʕafár
Be-nafshó yaví laḥmó
Mashúl ke-ḥéres ha-nishbár
Ke-ḥatzír yavéish u-khe-tzítz novéil
Ke-tzéil ʕovéir u-khe-ʕanán kaláh
U-khe-rúaḥ noshévet u-khe-‘avák poréiaḥ’
Ve-kha-ḥalóm yaʕúf

Ve-‘atáh hu mélekh ‘eil ḥai ve-kayám
‘Ein kitzváh lishnotékha ve-‘éin keitz le-‘órekh yamékha
Ve-‘éin leshaʕéir markevót kevodékha
Ve-‘éin lefaréish ʕeilúm shmékha
Shimkhá na’éh lekhá ve-‘atáh na’éh lishmékha
U-shméinu karáta bishmékha
ʕaséh le-máʕan shmékha ve-kadéish et shimkhá ʕal makdishéi shmékha
Baʕavúr kevód shimkhá ha-naʕarátz ve-ha-nikdásh
Ke-sód síaḥ sarféi kódesh
Ha-makdishím shimkhá ba-kódesh
Daréi máʕlah ʕim daréi mátah
Kor’ím u-meshalshím be-shilúsh kedusháh ba-kódesh