A celebrated Hebrew poet of the early part of the thirteenth century, who lived in Spain and traveled in the Orient. Neither the date of his birth nor that of his death is known. Possessing a masterly knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic, he seems to have been appreciated as a poet at home and on the various journeys he made to southern France. His disposition was a genial one; he loved what was witty and sparkling.


His first introduction to the literary world was in the shape of a translation of the celebrated "Makamat" of the Arabic poet, Hariri of Bozra, in which, in inimitable style, he faithfully adhered to the sudden rimes and abounding quaint conceits of his original. But, while a master of witty poetry, he was a serious student as well, understanding and appreciating the value of such works as Maimonides' "Commentary on the Mishnah" and "Moreh Nebukim," both of which he likewise translated—the former only in part—from Arabic into Hebrew. In an evil hour for himself, he determined to travel to the Holy Land, as his distinguished predecessor, Judah ha-Levi, had done fifty years before. Unfortunately times had changed: Jewish poetry and the love for it had considerably declined since Ha-Levi had brought both to the highest pitch. This decline was not altogether without cause;there were many poets in his days, though of far inferior rank; hence there was a certain indifference in the hearts of the former patrons of Hebrew literature. Al-Ḥarizi was made to experience this painfully on his travels: he received no such welcome as Judah ha-Levi had; and he plaintively deplored the passing of the bygone times when Solomon Gabirol, Judah ha-Levi, and Moses ibn Ezra gained such valuable rewards from the lovers of literature. He found the well-springs of liberality closed to him; and thus he sang:

"The fathers of song, Salómo, and Judah, And Moses besides—all shone in the west, And rich men were rife then who purchased the pearls of their art; How sad is my lot now times are so changèd! The rich men have gone, and their glory hath set! The fathers found fountains—for me ne'er a fountain will start!"

The "Taḥkemoni."

But though his journey brought him disappointment and possibly suffering, it stimulated him to the production of his masterpiece, "Taḥkemoni." He gives the following account of its origin: Speaking of his previous work of translating Hariri, he says, "Thus I gave what was demanded—by the Andalusian rich commanded—and I brought home unto each Israelite—the work of that rare Ishmaelite." Leaving his home, he traveled eastward by sea; and then there dawned upon him the folly of having given his efforts solely to the translation of an Arabic author:

(Cant. i. 6).

"As if the word of the Lord of life—in Israel were no longer rife; like her of old—of whom we are told—'other vineyards I protected—my own, alas, that I neglected!'"

The Makama.

He therefore determined to write an original work in Hebrew (1218-20). He gave it the name of "Taḥkemoni," "the wise one" (?); see II Sam. xxiii. 8. As the "narrator" (see below) he selected Heman the Ezrahite, and as the "hero" of the narratives, Heber the Kenite. Although this was designed to be a wholly original work, he followed the model of his first favorite, Hariri, by adopting from him the peculiar form of the makama: that curious species of riming prose, with its desultory leaps and coincident assonances, its verbal quips and countless conceits. But what gave it exceptional zest for Jewish readers was Al-Ḥarizi's deft interweaving of whole Biblical sentences, the incongruity of which as to the circumstances described, but their witty fitness in their new application, could not fail to evoke a constant series of smiles in the scholarly reader who knew his Hebrew Bible well. The makama is quite an old and familiar form of Arabic poetry; as early as 1054, the Arabic poet, Aḥmad Abu al-Fadhl b. Husein, of Hamadan in Persia, composed several hundred makamas exactly in the style later adopted by Hariri. Concerning the makama, Kämpf says, "The Semites had no theater; but they had story-tellers, who related deeds and happenings in truly dramatic style." In this species of spoken drama, two personages were supposed to take part in constant dialogue: the hero who told of his doings, and the narrator who served as chorus to him, drawing him out, as it were, by interrogating him. Each episode described by the hero is the subject of a single makama (poem), and has no close connection with that which follows, but its rambling, riming prose is extended and diversified by the interpolation of smaller poems, in absolutely strict rhythm and rime, and generally of exalted strain. The manner of opening a makama may be understood from the following:

("Taḥkemoni," makama x., "The Chanticleer's Reproach").

"From Siddim's vale—to Chaldea's pale—went I—and when arrived—the thought revived—to try—all to see—that there might be—rising, growing—coming, going, of the worst and the best, east and west. As I strode on the road—one day I espied on—a stone—all alone—at the highway side—a stranger sitting—resting him. As befitting—I addressed him—aiming at interesting him—as travelers do—when a few—or two—chance to meet—in a country street. And I said, What cheer—neighbor dear?—Whence hast thou strayed—and what thy trade?—He said, From daring feat—to daring feat—as it chances—my roving pleasure ever glances.—A fox I chase—or run a race—with the mountain sheep; no hill too steep—or vale too deep—for me to pace. Said I, Tell me, since thou so much hast wandered—some wondrous thing that thou hast pondered. He answered," etc.

The episodes of the "Taḥkemoni" cover a wide field of remarkable experiences, varying from a banquet given to him in an important city of Babylonia (where, as the guest, Heman [Al-Ḥarizi] tells of all the noble poets he has known in Spain) to a battle between Arabs "in the tents of Kedar," a debate between an ant and a flea, or a reproof by a village chanticleer escaped from the butcher's knife.

If any purpose can be said to underlie Al-Ḥarizi's work, more serious than the one he himself alleges, namely, the entertainment and refreshment of wearied minds, it may possibly be discerned, as Kämpf suggests, in his constantly implied reminders to wealthy men that they are bound to patronize and protect those that make scholarship their wealth and art their worth. His own experience gave point and pith to these admonitions. But if his own sufferings served likewise as the inspiration of his song, one feels gratified to learn from himself that the bow of constant hope shone steadily for him. As he himself says, in a verse commonly ascribed to him:

"If heaven's clouds should weep as my poor eyes have done, Then were for man on earth no path that still were dry; But know, that e'en for me, as erst for Lamech's son, With all this deluge stood a rainbow in the sky!"

His Criticisms.

Al-Ḥarizi's journey seems to have led him first to Alexandria, then to Palestine. In 1218 he was in Jerusalem, as he states in the twenty-eighth makama of the "Taḥkemoni." He mentions at the same time that it was in 1199—on the recapture of the holy city by the Mohammedans from the Christians—that the Jews were again allowed to live there. From Palestine his path led him to Syria, and there Damascus held him for a time. He has no high opinion of the Damascenes: they are "lovers of the wine-cup." Of one of the poets of the city he says that "when he a ditty writes or eke an ode—it sounds as if some pot or kettle did explode." Again, "they are nothing but shallow rimesters whose flow of eloquence or diction soon runs dry, sirs!" As a general thing, however, Al-Ḥarizi's opinions concerning his rivals, Jewish or non-Jewish, were always more vehement than just (see Awani). Whether he visited Greece or not is not clear: he has no respect for Grecian poets, who, he says, "mingle roses and thorns" (of style) promiscuously. From the superscription of the last makama, it appears that in 1204, the year Maimonides died, he was back again in Toledo; but there is no intimation of his fate thereafter.

A remarkable illustration of his verbal dexterity may be mentioned: it is in the eleventh makama of the book which is entitled "Maḥberet Shirah bat Shalosh Leshonot" (The Song of the Three Languages). It contains an interpolated poem, twenty-three lines long, every line of which is written one-third in Hebrew, one-third in Arabic, and one-third in Aramaic.The Arabic portion rimes with the Hebrew throughout; the Aramaic portions have one rime, and that a two-syllabled one, maintained throughout the whole poem.

Al-Ḥarizi seems to have been a man of brilliant qualities, but a prey possibly to his impatience due to his trials and sufferings. Many of the better poems—those interpolated in the various makamas—betray a height of noble feeling which marks the true man of sentiment. Of his merits as a master of Hebrew versification there can be no doubt. Abraham b. Isaac Bedersi (end of the thirteenth century), in his "Ḥereb Hamithapeket" (Flaming Sword), mentions him together with Gabirol, Ibn Ezra, and Judah ha-Levi (Zunz, "Z. G." p. 463). The poet Immanuel of Rome speaks in the preface to his "Maḥberot" (Makamas), with reverence of him who wrote poetry and composed parables "diverse each one from the other," such as "the ancients knew not"; and he placed his poems, "taken with his sword and with his bow," in the names of other men, although he alone composed them; in the name of Heber the Kenite . . . thus he took in his hand "the rod" of his intelligence and "therewith performed the miracles." (The words in quotation-marks are Biblical phrases, in the mosaic style of writing then prevalent among Hebrew scholars.) In his twenty-eighth makama, he places Al-Ḥarizi in paradise, in the choice company of Maimonides and Mattathias, the high priest of the Hasmoneans.

The following is the list of his writings:

Original works: (1) Commentary on Job (Zunz, p. 213); (2) the "Taḥkemoni"; (3) "Sefer 'AnaḲ" (The Necklace), an imitation of Moses ibn Ezra's work of the same name (Zunz, in "Allg. Zeit. d. Jud." 1839, p. 388); (4) a small work, "Sefer Goralot" (Book of Lots); (5) "Refuat Gewiyah" (Healing of the Body), a poem on dietetics (Steinschneider, "Monatsschrift," 1846, p. 279; Zunz, "Z. G." p. 213); (6) an introduction to the Hebrew language (see Neubauer, "Notice sur la Lexicographie Hebraique," p. 208).

Translations: From the Arabic—(1) Maimonides' Mishnah Commentary: "Zera'im." (2) Maimonides' "Moreh Nebukim"; published by L. Schlossberg, London, 1851, with notes by Scheyer. (3) Makamat Al-Hariri (Hariri's Makamas), under the Hebrew title "Maḥberot Ithiel," ed. Chennery, London, 1872. From the Greek—(4) Aristotle's "Ethics" and "Politics"; reprinted in Leipsic, 1844. Graetz (l.c. note) mentions likewise (5) a translation of an essay by Galen against speedy interment, and (6) of a gynecological treatise by Sheshet Benveniste ("Segulah le-Harayon"; see also Kämpf, ii. 26); and (7) "Sefer ha-Nefesh" (Book on the Soul), also ascribed to "Galen, the prince of physicians," but translated from the Arabic (published by Jellinek, Leipsic, 1852). (8) "Musare ha-Filosofim" (Dicta of the Philosophers), done from Greek into Arabic by Ḥonain ben Isaac (but see H. Derenbourg, "Melanges Weil," Paris, 1898).

  • The fullest and best appreciation of Al-Ḥarizi is in Kämpf's Nicht-Andalusische Poesie Andalusischer Dichter, Prague, 1858;
  • Allg. Zeit. d. Jud. 1837, Nos. 81, 86; 1838, No. 7;
  • Krafft, Jüd. Sagen, Ansbach, 1839;
  • Literaturblatt des Orients, 1840, Nos. 9, 11, 12, 13, 14;
  • Lebrecht, ibid. 1845, p. 43;
  • Zunz, Z. G. pp. 213 et seq.;
  • Dukes, Ginze Oxford, 1851;
  • Monatsschrift, 1846, p. 279;
  • Grätz, Gesch. d. Juden, vii. 83;
  • Steinschneider, Hebr. Uebers., see index. The Taḥkemoni has been frequently edited: Constantinople, 1540, 1583, Amsterdam, 1729, Vienna, 1845, Berlin (part only), 1845, by Lagarde in 1883, Kaminka, 1899; but on this last, see adverse criticism in Zeit. f. Hebr. Bibl. iii. and iv. The Berlin edition (1845) was made by Kämpf, who revised, annotated, and vocalized the text, and translated it into German. A French translation was made by Carmoly (Brussels, 1843-44). Some portions of the Taḥkemoni were translated into Latin by Ure (London, 1772);
  • into French by Silvestre de Sacy (Paris, 1833);
  • and into English by F. de Sola Mendes in Jew. Chron. London, 1873. For Al-Ḥarizi's contribution to the liturgy, see Zunz, Literaturgesch. p. 471;
  • concerning his journey, see Kaminka, in Monatsschrift, 1900, pp. 217-220.
F. de S. M.
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