History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Israel in the Moslem Orient

Let us now turn from Europe to Asia. By the time Charlemagne was Emperor the Mohammedan faith had spread with great strides and already had Caliphates in three continents—at Bagdad, Cairo and Cordova. (Caliph means successor: "prince of the faithful" was another title given to the successors of Mahomet.) The Jews gladly settled under their sway, for they found that increase of power which made the Christian despotic left the Moslem tolerant. So Jerusalem, now under the rule of the Church, had a declining Jewish population of but mediocre learning, telling only of glory that had been.

Bagdad, on the Tigris, enlarged and beautified by Haroun Al Raschid, became a centre of commerce and learning and housed a thousand Jewish families, with a college; Aleppo in Syria had half as many again. The seat of old Babylonia, between the Euphrates and the Tigris, was their densest centre and the academies of Sora and Pumbeditha still had a couple more centuries of life — with the "Prince of the Exile" as much a grandee as ever. "Exile" was a general term for all those lands of sojourn in which Israel took refuge after they lost Judaea. Some of our brethren had drifted as far as India. (A small native group of black Jews, called Beni-Israel, are still found there).

Though the first Caliphs were somewhat masterful in forcing forward the new Faith they were, on the whole, both tolerant and broad. More than that, they were lovers of culture, and some were more deeply interested in Arabic poetry than in the Koran. They became patrons of literature and helped to usher in a new era of scholarship and letters that may be compared with the Alexandrian era of Greek culture, some eight centuries earlier. As the Jew had contributed toward the former, so likewise he shared in the latter. Arabic became what Greek had been then — the language of learning and culture. Now studied by the Jew, it was later to bear fruit in a splendid Arabic-Jewish literature.

Revival of Hebrew Poetry.

This favorable environment also brought about a renaissance of Hebrew. A school of Jewish poetry sprung up once more. Israel was again to take up the lyre that he had disconsolately hung on the willows of Babylon. The poetry that began to flow from Jewish pens still made religion its main theme: "I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live." Much of this poetry was of a liturgical character, that is, it went to enrich the service of the synagogue. They wrote particularly for the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur service. These solemn days offered opportunities for a grand survey of Israel's past and for hopeful visions of God's enduring providence. We might say that the Jews contributed poetry to the divine service as enthusiastically as Christian artists painted the "holy family."


The most prolific writer of liturgical poetry was Kalir of Palestine. There still exist over two hundred of his poems in festival prayer-books and in chants for fast and penitential days. The Midrashim furnished much of the material not only for his prayers, but also for his acrostics and his riddles. (Midrash was the expounding of the Scriptures in a homiletic way.) Rut Kalir was only an advance herald of greater poets to come.

With the steady additions of poems of this and later days, the Jewish Liturgy not only hecame amplified, but the earlier simple prayer-book grew into a very complex ritual. The rhymed acrostics and metrical compositions—piyutim as they were called—lacked both the grandeur and the simplicity of the Psalms. They failed to quicken the spirit of worship. Ingenious and artificial twists impede devotion. The tendency today has been to simplify the Ritual by omitting them.

Prayer in Song.

These metrical prayers gradually fostered a custom that has taken deep root in the Jewish service. The prayers were chanted, so that musical rendition came to be a dominant feature. Music, it is true, ever since the days of the Second Temple and before, was an integral part of Jewish worship. Two hundred singers returned from Babylon to sing again the songs of Zion The Psalms are grouped as song services. Yet this was somcthing very different from the chanting of these later days. The Chazan was an overseer who at first fulfilled humble duties for the Synagogue and the community; but later he recited the prayers. Still later he chanted them and was styled a "cantor." This cantellation was called Chazanuth after his original title, Chazan. For the sake of a melodious voice many faults of character were overlooked. This was detrimental to the influence this office should wield. Occasionally, too, the cantor would introduce melodies from sources not in high esteem.

Let us hasten to add, this by no means characterized all the Chazanim of the olden time. Some wrote the Piyutim they intoned. Some were learned in the Law. At his best, the Chazan was styled "the messenger of the congregation," who had to wrestle in prayer on its behalf.

We will close this chapter with Alice Lucas' translation of one of Kalir's poems:

Palms and Myrtles.

(Hymn for the first day of Tabernacles.)

Thy praise, O Lord, will I proclaim

In hymns unto Thy glorious name.

O Thou Redeemer, Lord and King,

Redemption to thy faithful bring!

Before Thine altar they rejoice

With branch of palm, and myrtle-stem,

To Thee they raise the prayerful voice —

Have mercy, save and prosper them.

May'st Thou in mercy manifold,

Dear unto Thee Thy people hold.

When at Thy gate they bend the knee,

And worship and acknowledge Thee:

Do Thou their heart's desire fulfill,

Rejoice with them in love this day,

Forgive their sins and thoughts of ill,

And their transgressions cast away.

They overflow with prayer and praise

To Him, who knows the future days.

Have mercy Thou, and hear the prayer

Of those who palms and myrtle bear.

The day and night they sanctify

And in perpetual song adore,

Like to the heavenly host, they cry:

"Blessed art Thou for evermore."

We shall see presently that the great poetry of Israel was not produced in Asia, but in Europe, where their life interest was gradually centering.


Piyutim.—Jose ben Jose of Palestine was one of the earliest of thi's school of liturgical poets, taking us back to the sixth century. That Passover Hagada poem, "And It Happened in the Middle of the Night," is ascribed to him.

The ritual chant is much older than what are called the traditional melodies, which are German.

A favorite theme of early Jewish poets was the 613 precepts, alphabetically arranged. See Zunz in his Literatur Geschichte der Synogagalen Poesie, pp. 29-64.

Kalir.—The involved Piyutim of Kalir are found in the Ashkenaz (German) ritual; the simpler Spanish Piyutim are found mostly in the Sephardic ritual.

See prayer book for New Year and Atonement, for which special translations have been made, published by the Routledge Co., London. Those Reform communities that no longer use the Orthodox ritual for worship should still use it for study.

A Hebrew Josephus.—To this period, about 940, also belongs a rather inferior summary of Jewish history, from the Exile to the Temple's fall. Largely based on Josephus, the Apocrypha and other works in Greek, it was later translated from the Arabic into Hebrew and expanded. It was styled Josippon. It is rather a pity that the Jews studied it to the neglect of its more historic prototype. Christian Europe read it, too.

Theme for Discussion:—The function of music in religion.