History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Ibn Gabirol, Poet and Philosopher

"I will engrave my songs indelibly upon the heart of the world, so that no one can efface them."— Gabirol.

Genius needs only a favorable environment to reveal itself. The Spanish period was a golden age in Jewish literature, because it was a golden age in Jewish history.

"No one star sets before another rises," says a sage. But here the constellations shone side by side in luminous prodigality. In Solomon Ibn Gabirol we meet one of the most original minds among Jews or Arabs.

Ibn Gabirol's Youth.

Of Gabirol the man we know little. Born in Malaga about 1021, the early loss of his parents gave a serious bent to a disposition naturally pensive. This may have been intensified by struggle with poverty. Driven to Saragossa by the same civil war that also brought Nagdela there, he was later compelled to leave, to escape the enemies he made through his morose, perhaps haughty, and highly sensitive character. Genius is often misunderstood. Yet he found kind patrons — first in Yekuthiel Hassan, the Jewish vizier, and later in Ibn Nagdela.

His strange temperament may be indicated in these lines from his "Night Thoughts":

"I follow fortune not, where'er she lead.

Lord o'er myself, I banish her, compel.

And though her clouds should rain no blessed dew.

Though she withhold the crown, the heart's desire.

Though all deceive, though honey change to gall,

Still am I lord, and will in freedom strive."

Translated by Lazarus.

The poet was already revealed in the youth and his fame soon spread to French Provence in the west and as far as Babylonia in the east. Some verses were written by the lad in praise of his friend Yekuthiel; but soon the eulogy was changed to an elegy, for the vizier was slain.

Adapting the Arabic poetic canons, he brought Hebrew poetry to its highest stage of development. The Hebrew tongue was moulded into new rhyme and rhythm in the hands of this young master, who, at nineteen, dexterously treated in verse so unpromising a subject as Hebrew grammar, and who put into rhyme the 613 precepts, arranged alphabetically and acrostically.

His poems have been translated into many tongues. We append some translated extracts: —

From "Meditation on Life."
{Used in Yom Kippur Memorial Service.)

Forget thine anguish,

Vexed heart, again.

Why shouldst thou languish

With earthly pain?

The husk shall slumber,

Bedded in clay

Silent and sombre,

Oblivion's prey!

But, Spirit immortal,

Thou at Death's portal,

Trembles with fear.

If he caress thee.

Curse three or bless thee.

Thou must draw near,

From him the worth of thy works to hear

Life is a vine branch;

A vintager, death;

He threatens and lowers

More near with each breath.

Then hasten, arise!

Seek God, oh my soul!

For time quickly flies,

Still far as the goal.

Vain heart praying dumbly,

Learn to prize humbly,

The meanest of fare.

Forget all thy sorrow,

Behold, death is there!

Translated by Emma Lazarus.

What Is Man?

Almighty! what is man?

The haughty son of time

Drinks deep of sin,

And feeds on crime

Seething like waves that roll,

Hot as a glowing coal.

And wilt thou punish him for sins inborn?

Lost and forlorn,

Then like the weakling he must fall,

Who some great hero strives withal.

Oh, spare him, therefore! let him win

Grace for his sin!

Almighty! what is man?

A withered bough!

When he is awestruck by approaching doom

Like a dried blade of grass, so weak, so low,

The pleasure of his life is changed to gloom.

He crumbles like a garment spoiled with moth;

According to his sins wilt Thou be wroth?

He melts like wax before the candle's breath,

Yea, like thin water, so he vanisheth.

Oh, spare him, therefore, for Thy gracious name,

And be not too severe upon his shame!

Almighty! what is man?

A faded leaf.

If thou dost weigh him in the balance — lo!

He disappears — a breath that thou dost blow.

His heart is ever filled

With lust of lies unstilled.

Wilt bear in mind his crime

Unto all time?

He fades away like clouds sun-kissed,

Dissolves like mist.

Then spare him! let him love and mercy win,

According to Thy grace, and not according to his sin!

Translated by Emma Lazarus.

From "Happy He Who Saw of Old"

Happy he who saw of old

The high priest, with gems and gold

All adorned from crown to hem,

Tread thy courts, Jerusalem,

Till he reached the sacred place

Where the Lord's especial grace

Ever dwelt, the centre of the whole.

Happy he whose eyes

Saw at last the cloud of glory rise.

But to hear of it afflicts our soul.

Happy he who saw the crowd,

That in adoration bowed.

As they heard the priest proclaim,

'One, Inefifable, the Name,'

And they answered, 'Blessed be

God, the Lord eternally.

He whom all created worlds extol.'

Happy he whose eyes

Saw at last the cloud of glory rise;

But to hear of it afflicts our soul.

Translated by Nina Davis.

Verses from "A Song of Redemption.'"

Captive of sorrow on a foreign shore,

A handmaid as 'neath Egypt's slavery:

Through the dark day of her bereavement sore

She looketh unto Thee.

Restore her sons, O mighty One of old!

Her remnant tenth shall cause man's strife to cease.

O speed the message; swiftly he she told

Good tidings, which Elijah shall unfold,

Daughter of Zion, sing aloud! behold

Thy Prince of Peace!

Wounded and crushed, beneath my load I sigh,

Despised and abject, outcast, trampled low;

How long, O Lord, shall I of violence cry.

My heart dissolved with woe?

How many years, without a gleam of light,

Has thraldom been our lot, our portion pain!

With Ishmael as a lion in his might

And Persia, as an owl of darksome night,

Beset on either side, behold our plight

Betwixt the twain.

Translated by Nina Davis.

The "Royal Crown"

A poem, partly religious and partly philosophical, called "Kether Malchuth" (The Royal Crown), depicts the sublimity of God and His relation to the world and to man, and in turn man's responsibility to his Maker.

Portions of his work are incorporated in our Ritual for Atonement. We quote some translated extracts:

My God, I know that mine iniquity

Is heavier than my feeble words express.

And to recount my trespasses to Thee

Doth memory fail, for they are numberless.

Yet some do haunt my mind, but these indeed

Are as a drop of water from my sea

Of' sin, whose roaring billows may recede,

And by confession, calm'd and silenced be.

O Thou in Heav'n, pray list, and pardon me.

Though great the sorrows that o'erwhelm my brow.

These sorrows issue from Thy righteous hand,

Where mercy ever dwelleth; hence I bow

And court the shaft that sped at Thy command.

My God, I mourn for self-accusers rise;

'Thou hast thy Maker grievously defied;

Has acted graceless folly in His eyes,

For mercies when His judgment bade Him chide.

Thou need'st no service at my humble ban

Yet gav'st me life and blessed my happy birth;

Thy spirit bade my budding soul expand

To blossom on Thy fair and wondrous earth.

And Thou hast reared me with a father's care,

Strengthen'd my limbs and nursed the tender child;

Lull'd on my mother's gentle bosom, where

Thine all-protecting wing and blessing smiled.

And when I grew and all erect could stand,

Thou did'st enfold me in Thy fostering arms

Guiding my tott'ring steps with Thy right hand

To manly strength which scorneth all alarms.

The ways of wisdom did'st Thou then command

To shield my heart 'gainst sorrow and distress,

Conceal'd within the shadow of Thy hand,

When fear and wrath did all the land oppress.

How many an unseen danger have I pass'd!

Before the wound the balm is yet prepared;

A remedy before thear is cast.

The foeman vanquished ere the war's declared.

When plenty reign'd, my share of wealth I won,

But when I roused wtih provocation sore

Thy wrath, as doth a father to his son.

Thou did'st chastise, that I should sin no more.

I am unworthy of the saving love

Thou hast to me Thy servant ever shown.

So must I waft my song of praise above.

And unto Thee my gratitude make known.

My soul, Thy gift divine, was pure as light;

Alas! no more, my sin hath stain'd its crest.

I wrestled with the Yezer-Ra (evil inclination) in might,

But all too weak I sank — yet not to rest.

Contrite Thy saving pardon I entreat,

I feel Thy glory flood my yearning soul;

Vanquish'd proud sin is helpless at my feet,

And I, Thy servant, reach Thy radiant goal.

Translated by Elsie Davis.

Ibn Gabirol as Philosopher and Moralist.

Later the poet ripened into the philosopher. His profound mind wrestled with the deepest problems in life—God, the soul and immortality.

His philosophy has been likened to that of Philo. First, because both belonged to the Neo-Platonic school (see notes); second, both linked Greek and Oriental philosophy; and, third, both exercised a great influence on Christian thought.

There is, however, an important point of divergence. Philo adapted his philosophy to the theology of Judaism — it was, therefore, a Jewish philosophy. Gabirol evolved his system independent of its relation to his Faith or to theology in general.

In his great work, "Source of Life," he presented all existence in three principles:— (a) God; (b) the world, composed of matter and form; (c) the will, the intermediary between spiritual God and the material world. Everything came into existence as emanation from God.

Like many philosophers before and after him, Gabirol declared, we cannot know any attribute of God; we can declare only that He exists.

Now to consider this versatile man as teacher of of morals. Passing by his early attempt of a comparative treatment of the ethics of Jewish (biblical) and Arabic moralists and a later compilation of maxims styled "Choice of Pearls," we turn at once to his great ethical work, his "Improvement of the Moral Qualities." Following the same principle as in his Fons Vitae, "Source of Life," of which it may be considered supplementary, he does not seek to present the ethics of Judaism, but ethics per sc, though it contains copious quotations from the Bible.

The outline of his ethical theory is as follows:— Man is the highest creation in the visible world, being gifted with speech and reason. Hence the use of that reason to acquire knowledge must be his first aim, as far as his finite mind can reach. Knowledge of himself must be his chief concern. The improvement of his character, following 'the middle path" of virtue — which with the gift of free-will is within his power — should be man's next ideal. Indeed the two powers, intellectual and moral, are united, for the more he throws off the sensual and the unworthy, the higher his mental vision can soar. So he advances and each spiritual and intellectual attainment brings new joy, until at last, having divested himself of all impurity, he attains the immortal bliss of God-like nature. It was the belief of Gabirol that the soul is always in the exalted state before it descends into earthly life.

It is remarkable how the greatest thinkers of the Middle Ages were hampered by ignorance of natural science. Gabirol accepts a popular concept of a "world soul." There is all the difference between our teaching today that Nature teems with life and that Nature is itself alive. Again, we find him believing that the stars determined the quality and quantity of man's talents! For astrology was still accepted by scholars as a real science. He also followed an accepted notion then that man is a little world. We may call hirn that, too, at times, but only as a figure of speech. Supposing that there were but "four elements," he is led to make them correspond to four main parts of the body. This supposition leads to a classifying of the vices and virtues in groups of four. Elsewhere' he classifies them under the five senses.

These scientific limitations did not afifect the soundness of his moral views. He is keen to observe how qualities may shade off into defects — he sees that pride may become arrogance, modesty diffidence, that love may be cruel, anger righteous and bravery foolhardiness. There is good and bad joy. His cure for vice, "the sickness of the soul," as he styles it, is heroic — renounce temporal pleasure and give yourself up to exalted contemplation.

Little is left to be said of the rest of his career. After years of wandering, he died in Valencia, about 1070. Legend even says that he died by the hand of an Arabian rival. His early orphanage, his aloofness from companionship, his restless wandering from city to city, may be the unfortunate reasons why so little is known of this great man who earned the title of the Hebrew Plato, who brought back Greek philosophy to Europe from the Orient, where one of its most illustrious expounders had also been a Jew, Philo, a thousand years before.


Neo-Platonism:— This was the last attempt to bridge the dualism between subjective and objective — or, let us say, between God and the world. One of its great expounders was Plotinus of Egypt.

There is in it a touch of mysticism of which we will speak in a later chapter — for its teachers thought to reach the truth through a state of ecstasy or rapture and God by intuition. We are familiar through Philo with the theory that the world is an emanation or effluence from God, but we shall have more of this in treating the Kabala.

Scholasticism:—Scholasticism was an attempt to combine Christianity with philosophy. It sought to reconcile faith and knowledge.

In an article, "Ethics of Solomon Gabirol," by Rosin, Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. iii, will be found some of Gabirol's maxims and a few of the anecdotes with which he enlivened his ethics.

"Source of Life."—To the Jews, Gabirol is known for his poetry, not for his philosophy. It is for that reason that his great philosophic work, M'kor Chayini, "Source of Life," treated in the manner of Plato's Dialogues, while it powerfully influenced the theories of the three great scholastics — Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus in its Latin translation (Pons Vita)—was not suspected by them of being a Jewish production; for the name Ibn Gabirol in process of translation from Arabic to Latin came gradually to be transformed out of all recognition in the form—Avicebrol. This discovery was made by the Jewish scholar — Solomon Munk.

Choice of Pearls.—Published with translations and notes, by Rev. B. H. Ascher, London, 1859.

Poetry.—Translations will be found in Songs of a Semite, Emma Lazarus; Songs of Exile, Nina Davis, Jewish Publication Society; The Jewish Year, Alice Lucas, Macmillan & Co.; Jewish Quarterly Reviezv, vol. viii.

Ethics.—Improvement of the Moral Qualities, trans. S. S. Wise, Columbia University Press, N. Y.

Theme for Discussion:—Influence of our knowledge of nature and its laws on our philosophy of life.