Timely Thoughts

This 9th of Av: Do We Sing with Yehudah Ha-Levi, or on Account of Yehudah Ha-Levi?

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Yaakov Jaffe

This essay is the second in a series of essays on the Liturgical Poetry of Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi, the 12th-century poet of Muslim Spain. The first essay in the series appears here.

I

Each Ninth of Av, as the morning begins to turn to midday and the recitation of the dirges of the Kinnot nears its end, the service concludes in many congregations with Yehudah Ha-Levi’s Kinnah poem about Jerusalem and Israel destroyed, “Tziyon Halo Tishali.” Written in the highest form of Andalusian poetry, the song contains 34 rhyming lines, each half-line containing 13 syllables, with a very specific poetic meter of alternating long and short vowels.[1] It stands out among the Kinnot as one of the few that focus on the beauty of the the rebuilt Jerusalem and not the mournful stories of the destroyed city, and as one which weaves together midrashic references with uplifting poetic depictions of natural beauty.

This essay will begin with a survey of the poetic content of the Kinnah, highlighting its feelings about Zion, Israel, and Jerusalem. Afterward, we contextualize how this Kinnah stands apart from the majority of liturgical poetry, and the tension a reader would feel when reading this unusual Kinnah in a synagogue on the Ninth of Av.

Before turning to the ways this Kinnah is unique, there are many themes and ideas that are familiar and which echo what is found in the other Kinnot. In particular, many lines in the song focus on Jerusalem’s role as the ritual and liturgical center for the Jewish people, which is a theme discussed on multiple occasions in the Kinot. This Kinnah makes reference to:

  • the talmudic dictum that the Aron is hidden in Jerusalem, until this day (Yoma 53b: line 18 – “the place of the Ark that was hidden, and the place of your Keruvim that dwell in your innermost rooms”)
  • the legal principle that all Jews pray towards Jerusalem (Berakhot 30a: line 26 – “from the pit of captivity, they turn towards you, and bow – each person from his own place – towards your gates”)
  • the philosophical ideal that the gates of heaven are found opposite the gates of Jerusalem (Hulin 91b, as interpreting Bereishit 28:17; see Rashi: line 6 – “there is the Divine presence, and your Creator opened your gates opposite the gates of Heaven”)
  • that Jerusalem is the place of God’s throne (Mekhilta to Shemot 15:17: line 9 – “You are the capital, and you are the throne of the Lord;” Tehilim 65:5: line 32 – “Praiseworthy is the one who chooses to come close and dwell in your courtyards”)
  • the fact that Israel is the country of prophecy (See Rashi Bava Batra 15a, Yonah 1:3, Yehezkel 1:2: line 10 – “If only I could travel in the places where God revealed Himself to your prophets and leaders”)

After a quick, first reading of the Kinnah, the reader focuses on the special role Jerusalem plays for Jewish ritual including sacrifice but also prophecy and prayer.

While this Kinnah is similar to other Kinnot in its use of midrashic principles, there are other aspects of it which make it unique. Few of the Kinnot describe what Jerusalem was like before its destruction, and even fewer do so using exaggerated, dramatic, or poetic language. This song, on the other hand, uses a vast array of literary techniques and elements to capture the real-world greatness of Jerusalem. The short poem is replete with metaphors capturing the awesome nature of Jerusalem in vivid, accessible terminology that appeals to the physical senses. It creates an idyllic, almost “larger than life” depiction of Jerusalem and Israel. For example, the Kinnah appeals to:

  • the senses of smell and taste (line 16: “The air of your land enlivens souls, and better than spices is the dust of your dirt, and better than honey is your rivers”)
  • vision, light, and sight (line 7: “And the Glory of the Lord alone was your light, and sun, moon,[2] and stars do not provide your light”)
  • sound (line 4: “I am a jackal to cry for you, and when I dream for the return of your captives, I am a harp for your songs”)
  • beauty: (line 23: “Zion! With a crown of beauty, you adorned yourself with love and grace from old, and with you the souls of your comrades have become attached”[3])
  • light and brightness are even used to capture the great leaders associated with Jerusalem and Israel (line 15: “Har Ha-Avarim[4] and Hor ha-Har, where there your two great lights are [buried], your teachers who give you light”[5])
  • wealth and song (lines 29-31: “Babylon and Egypt, can they compare to you in their greatness? And could their futile false gods compare to your Urim and Tumim? And to what can be compared your Messiahs, your prophets, your Levites, and your singers? The gold crowns of the other kingdoms might be debased, but yours last forever”)

Beyond the use of midrashim and the appeal to the religious spirit, and beyond the use of metaphors and descriptive language to appeal to the senses, Yehudah Ha-Levi also uses the language of pining and longing to appeal to the emotions. He speaks of Jewry’s awestruck and lovestruck connection to Jerusalem and the holy land; the feelings of Diaspora Jewry and their desire to return to Jerusalem.

  • Line 1: In the memorable first line, Diaspora Jewry are referred to as “those that seek out your peace” through their daily prayers, and as “your captives,” as we are metaphorically captive in exile and separated from our land and holy city.
  • Line 8: “I chose that my soul should pour forth in the place where the Spirit of God is poured upon your chosen places.”
  • Line 11: “Who can make me wings, that I could fly far, that I could move the chambers of my hearts between your parts.”[6]
  • Lines 17 and 19: “It would be pleasant to my soul, to walk unclothed and barefoot[7] upon the destroyed places that were once your temple…. I must cut my hair, and cast away the length of my nazir growth, and set a new time for the uncleaned land has defiled your nazir
  • Lines 25, 27, and 28: “They are happy in your tranquility, and pained upon your desolateness, and cry on your ruin… the flock of your multitude that have been exiled and spread from mountain to valley… who grasp at your hems and strengthen themselves to go up and hold the edges of your date trees.”

II

These appeals to emotions, exaggerated poetic language, and unique tone suggest that Yehudah Ha-Levi’s Kinnah is less a special or unique example of the Kinnah genre and more an example of an entirely different genre. Rather than a Kinnah bemoaning what was lost after the destruction, it is a love song in which the speaker pines to be reconnected with the beloved, and is willing to walk barefoot to reach the object of his affection.

Of course, there are subtle shifts from the typical romantic genre: the beloved is a place and not a person, and midrashic references pervade the poem. But at its core, Tziyon Halo Tishali is as much an Andalusian Hebrew love poem as it is a rabbinic, liturgical one. In typical rabbinic liturgical Hebrew poetry and most of the Kinnot, Jerusalem is described in real-world or supernatural religious terms, but not with metaphors for physical, conventional notions of beauty or pleasure. And thus the experience in the synagogue of the 9th of Av begins with rabbinic prayer poems, but ends with a love poem for Jerusalem.

Yehudah Ha-Levi’s poetic corpus is full of examples of both liturgical poems and wine or love poems, and he often followed the conventions of Andalusian Hebrew poetry.[8] It therefore should not surprise us that this Kinnah uses many of the conventions of this poetic style with which Ha-Levi was familiar: rhyme, meter, lack of acrostic, and the description of Jerusalem in glowing, this-worldly terms.[9]

Understanding the true genre of this poem leads the astute reader to pause over a few lines that stand out given this backdrop. The last two lines of the Kinnah (33-34) are particularly striking: “Praiseworthy is the one who comes and sees the dawning of your light… to rejoice[10] in your happiness, when you return to your original youth.” Whereas in the rabbinic convention, old age and a return to a better future are favored,[11] this Kinnah focuses on a return back to a better past. The tension between the focus on youth in Andalusian poetry and the virtues of age in rabbinic poetry has already been explored,[12] and Yehudah Ha-Levi’s aspirations in this Kinnah could be called into question for breaking with the talmudic view.

Another example in which the poetic conventions of the genre complicate the message of the song appears at lines 20-24, which carry great irony on the fast of Tishah be-Av, as they juxtapose the spiritual desire for Jerusalem with physical desires: “How should it be pleasant to me to eat and drink while I see… Or how should the light of day be sweet to my eyes.”[13] The poetry is beautiful, but liturgical Hebrew poetry is generally ambivalent regarding the pleasantness of food and drink. Rare is the rabbinic poem that talks about the pleasure of eating, rarer still the one which bemoans the inability to enjoy pleasurable food because of mourning. The Kinnah proceeds to speak of drinking wine, a major motif in Andalusian Arabic poetry but largely absent from rabbinic poetry: “Cup of woe, slow down, for my soul and intestines are already full of your bitterness. When I recall Ahola I will drink from your foam, and when I recall Aholiva[14] I will suck your dregs.”

Besides youth and wine drinking, a third example of foreign elements is the focus on desire. The Kinnah’s third line reads, “And the peace of the captive of desire,[15] shedding his tears like the dew of Hermon, pining to cry on your mountains.” Again, this is beautiful poetry befitting a love song, but an unusual element for the genre of Hebrew liturgical poetry.

The imagery of spices, light, sweet honey, desire, dew, and harps appears often in Arabic poems but not in the wider Jewish tradition.

Participating in Arabic poetic conventions is not problematic in and of itself, unless it causes the reader to cynically question whether the Kinnah actually depicts the reality of Jerusalem, or if all of the virtues bespoken of the land and the city are supplied by the conventions of the genre and not by the poet’s experience of the land itself. Given that Yehudah Ha-Levi had never visited Israel when he composed Tziyon Halo Tishali, we might wonder whether Jerusalem is sweet because the poet knows it is so, or because the conventions of the genre dictate that the object of the poet’s desire must be depicted as sweet, beautiful, and bright. How much of this poem is about Jerusalem and Israel, and how much is about love more generally?

The reader is left asking: Is the air fresher than spices and the water sweeter than honey? Was the gold of Jerusalem truly greater than that of Egypt and Babylon in their greatness? What are the lions of Israel, and does it matter that they have been eaten by dogs? How should we take the lines: “I fall to my face concerning your land, greatly desire your stones, and pray concerning your dust.[16] Even when I stand upon my ancestors’ graves, I wonder in Hebron about your best graves. I pass in your forest and Carmel, I stand at your Gilad and I wonder by your riverbed mount.”[17] Are the graves of Israel better than those of the rest of the world? Is the sun more bright?

When a poem operates solely on a spiritual dimension, the reader answers in the affirmative that Jerusalem far exceeds any other city and any other kingdom. But each time this poem operates in physical terms instead of spiritual ones, the reader is forced to either read each and every one of these physical terms as mere metaphors for spiritual excellence, or to accept the false proposition that the air, dust, graves, and mountains of this land are radically different from those of any other land.

III

Tishah be-Av is a day to mark exile and all its effects, including the loss of life, national unity, the Temple, and the sacrificial order. Yet it is also a day to reflect on the loss of a uniquely Jewish culture, as Diaspora Jews became spread across the globe and adopted cultural elements of the dominant culture within which they lived. With that in mind, we can see how this Kinnah operates on two levels, both as a detached depiction of what exile represents, and also as a piece of primary source evidence as to some of the effects of exile.

Yehudah Ha-Levi is perhaps the greatest poet in the history of our nation, and this Kinnah has led more tears to be shed than the dew of Mount Hermon. But like all of us, he sees Jerusalem through the lenses of the culture in which he lived, and his thoughts of Jerusalem are colored by his experience as a Diaspora Jew within a foreign culture. The Kinnah causes us to cry for having lost Zion, Israel, and Jerusalem, but perhaps it causes us to cry also for having lost a culture that was uniquely ours; instead we participate in the cultures of the lands in which we live.

The thought question for us all this Tishah be-Av is, for what shall we cry at the end of this Kinnah? Do we cry wishing that Jerusalem return to the glory of its former youth? Or do we cry over ourselves, for the very fact that we wish Jerusalem to return to the glory of its former youth, instead of to the wisdom and greatness of her old age? Perhaps it is we, living in the “unclean land,” who have been led to see things incorrectly, differently from the way we might have when we lived in the land where “the spirit of God is poured upon your chosen ones.”


[1] More precisely Long-Long-Short-Long, Long-Short-Long, Long-Long-Short-Long, Long-(short)-Long.

[2] Using “sahar” the way the moon is referred to in biblical poetry; see Shir Ha-Shirim 7:3. This line also features an unusual enjambment [when a phrase spans the pause between the two halves of the lines], highlighting the gap or absence of the word “ein,” “not.”

It is worth noting that in the original biblical vision (Yeshayahu 60), God’s light brightens the Messianic Jerusalem, not present Jerusalem.

[3] This line also puns, using “kesher” both to describe human connection and as a verb for the adornment of jewelry.

[4] The site of Moshe’s grave, Har Nevo, is called Har Ha-Avarim here for poetic reasons; see Devarim 32:49. The meaning of this line is somewhat unclear, given that the simple sense of Tanakh is that Moshe is buried outside of Israel. Similarly, line 5 speaks of Mahanayim and Peniel, places that are either outside of Israel, or on the outskirts of the country such that they should not figure in conventional discussions of the land.

[5] Also a pun: “morayikh” means your teachers, and “me’irayikh” means the ones who give you light.

[6] It is difficult to translate the final word of this line “betarayikh,” or your parts. Some translate “betarayikh” as ruins, although the best translation is probably “your parts,” based on the covenant between the parts in Bereishit chapter 15 which uses the same word, “betarim,” for the animals that were cut into parts.

“Chambers,” earlier in the line, and “parts” use the same Hebrew word, betarim. This indicates the preferred translation would use betarim the same way in both parts of the line: as chambers or parts of the heart and as parts of the land.

[7] Normally, this would be a depiction of mourning; see Yeshayahu chapter 20. But in this case, it bespeaks a love bordering on madness, such that reuniting with Jerusalem would be pleasant even if the speaker would need to be unclothed or barefoot to do so.

[8] See Raymond Scheindlin, Wine, Women, and Death (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1986). Ha-Levi is a large presence in the book. A number of his secular poems are analyzed on pages 118-127.

[9] Many of the other Zionides share many of these properties, but none do to the extent of Yehudah Ha-Levi’s. Additionally, many of the later Zionides are designed to echo Ha-Levi’s, and thus are variations on the theme which is typified by Ha-Levi’s writing.

[10] La’aloz instead of La’alot, to go up for a pilgrimage.

[11] See Hagai 2:9 as applied to the Beit Ha-Mikdash.

[12] Bernard Septimus, “Nahmanides and the Andalusian Tradition,” discussing Nahmanides’ relationship with the Andalusian poets in general, and Ezra Fleischer, “The Gerona School of Hebrew Poetry,” both in  Rabbi Moses Nahmanides – Ramban: Explorations in His Religious and Literary Virtuosity, ed. Isadore Twersky (Harvard University Press, 1983) discuss this topic. Fleischer, specifically discusses the tension between the value of youth in Andalusian poetry and the value of old age in rabbinic literature (44).

[13] The poet describes his pain upon witnessing dogs and ravens eating Zion’s lions and eagles. The description of the dog and raven as negative animals is one typical in the midrashic tradition (see Sanhedrin 108b). The description of eagles and lions as praiseworthy animals is also typical (see first chapter of Yehezkel). The former also are scavengers, while the latter two are regal and royal.

[14] Poetic terms for Jerusalem and the Northern capital Shomron, based on Yehezkel chapter 23. It is surprising that Shomron appears in a poem otherwise devoted to Jerusalem and the Southern kingdom.

The concept of “cup of woe” appears later in that chapter and in Yeshayahu 51, and the poetic line borrows from Tehilim 75:9; still, the image of the speaker imbibing wine is a prevalent convention in the Arabic poetry but not in Hebrew poetry.

[15] There are multiple versions of this word. Some versions read “hope” based on Zekhariah 9:12. The word “ta’avah” appears only twice in Humash, and each time it connotes sinful action (Bereishit 3:6 and Bamidbar 11:4).

[16] Perhaps echoing Tehilim 102:5.

[17] This line is missing in some editions, but is found in Daniel Goldschmidt, The Order of the Kinnot for the Ninth of Av (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1972), 125.

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Yaakov Jaffe
Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Jaffe serves as the rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, founded by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1963, and as the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School. He received his ordination and doctorate from Yeshiva University, where he holds graduate degrees in Bible, Jewish History, and Jewish Education.