Judah Ha-Levi

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Judah Ha-Levi, also Yehudah Halevi, or Judah ben Samuel Halevi (Hebrew רבי יהודה הלוי) (c. 1075-1141 C.E.) was a Jewish Spanish philosopher and poet. His most famous work, the Kuzari, defended Judaism against philosophy, saying that deductive reasoning cannot replace direct experience of God. He also mounted a strong defense of oral tradition and revelation in response to the Karaite movement, pointing out that oral tradition was necessary for the interpretation of the Scriptures.

Judah Ha-Levi is regarded as one of the greatest Hebrew poets. More than 800 secular and liturgical poems are attributed to him; many of these are used in Jewish liturgical services. The union of religion, nationalism, and patriotism, characteristic of post-exilic Judaism, reached its height in Judah Ha-Levi and his poetry. He believed the Jewish nation had a special role in God's plan for the redemption of the world, and composed a number of "Zionides" in praise of the Holy Land.


Judah Ha-Levi was born in Toledo, Spain, around 1075-1085. It is thought that Judah's father, Samuel "the Castilian," sent Judah, who was his only son, to Lucena to be educated in the various branches of Jewish learning at the school of Isaac Alfasi; upon Alfasi’s death he composed an elegy to his master (Brody, Diwan des Abul-Hasan Jehuda ha-Levi, ii., 14, 100). It was probably in Lucena that Judah won the friendship of Alfasi's most prominent pupils, Joseph ibn Migas and Baruch Albalia. From his poetry it is evident that as a youth, Judah Ha-levi enjoyed a life of pleasure.

Judah chose medicine as his profession; but he quickly displayed an aptitude and love for poetry. The early ripening of his poetic talent aroused the admiration of his friend and senior, the poet Moses ibn Ezra, who accorded him enthusiastic praise. He was familiar with the works of Arabic and Castilian poets, but chose to write his poetry in Hebrew, in which "he sang for all times and places, soon becoming the favorite of the people." His earliest writing followed the structures of Arabic poetry, and dealt with popular Arabic themes: wine, women, and song. Judah Ha-Levi was also well-versed in Greco-Arabic philosophy. His personal style was characterized by wit, irony, humor and inventiveness with language. His fluid and lively verse reads as though Hebrew was a living language (which was not the case in the Middle Ages).

After completing his studies, Judah returned to Toledo, where he soon acquired so large a practice that he complained, in a letter to his friend David Narboni, of a lack of tranquility and leisure. He married in Toledo; from allusions in some of his poems it is evident that his only child was a daughter, through whom he had a grandson, also named Judah. He later moved to the Muslim city of Córdoba. His primary occupation was as a physician to the king of Spain, but he continued to write exceptional poetry throughout his life.

In his later years, his religious feelings appear to have deepened, and he wrote the Kuzari, a strong defense of Judaism against Aristotelian philosophy, Islam and Christianity. The Jews in Spain were caught up in the constant warfare between Muslims and Christians on the Iberian peninsula, and he felt the intolerance of the Almoravid fanatics towards his people. Ha-Levi became convinced that the most appropriate place for Jews to live was in the land of Israel, and he wrote numerous poems, including the famous Ode to Zion, praising the virtues of Eretz Yisrael. Following the death of his wife, he decided to set out on a journey to the Land of Israel, wishing “to do away with the contradiction of daily confessing a longing, and of never attempting to realize it" (Kaufmann, Jehuda Halevi).

After a stormy passage, he arrived in Egyptian Alexandria, where he was enthusiastically greeted by friends and admirers. At Damietta, he had to struggle against the promptings of his own heart, and the pleadings of his friend Halfon ha-Levi, that he remain in Egypt, which was also Jewish soil and free from intolerant oppression. He resisted the temptation to remain there, and started on the tedious land route. Sources report that he was seen, worn-out, with broken heart and whitened hair, in Tyre and Damascus. He never reached the Holy Land; some sources report that he died in Alexandria in 1141. A famous but wholly unsubstantiated Jewish legend relates that as he came near Jerusalem, over-powered by the sight of the Holy City, he sang his most beautiful elegy, the celebrated "Zionide," "Zion ha-lo Tish'ali." At that instant, he was ridden down and killed by an Arab, who dashed forth from a gate (Gedaliah ibn Yahya, Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah, ed. Venice, 40b).

Thought and Works

Judah Ha-Levi is best known as a lyricist and a religious poet. His 800 known poems include 350 piyyutim (liturgical poems intended for use in religious services), but even his secular poetry reflects a deeply religious attitude.

His philosophical work, Kitab al Khazari, (The Book of Argument and Proof in Defense of the Despised Faith), known in Hebrew as the Kuzari, or Cuzari, was written in the form of a dialogue between the pagan king of the Khazars and a rabbi. It was a defense of Judaism against Islam and Christianity, and against the Aristotelian philosophers who attempted to rationally dissect and define religious experience.

Three of the most influential ideas in Ha-Levi’s works contributed to their being widely read, particularly in Kabbalist circles: the Hebrew language contains mysterious divine attributes and the words themselves help connect to God; the Torah, a “gift from God,” has a supernatural character and contains not just "words" or "laws" or "teachings," but the very "presence of God"; the Jewish people have a special role in helping to bring about God’s plan of a Messianic kingdom and redemption of the whole world.


Secular poetry

The first place in his secular, or non-liturgical, poetry is occupied by poems of friendship and eulogy. Judah must have been a charismatic personality, for even in his youth he gathered around him a large number of illustrious friends, including Levi al-Tabban of Saragossa; the aged poet Judah ben Abun; Judah ibn Ghayyat of Granada; Moses ibn Ezra and his brothers Judah, Joseph, and Isaac; the vizier Abu al-Hasan; Meïr ibn Kamnial; the physician and poet Solomon ben Mu'allam of Seville; and Samuel ha-Nagid of Malaga, besides his schoolmates Joseph ibn Migas and Baruch Albalia. He was associated also with the grammarian Abraham Ibn Ezra. In Córdoba, Judah addressed a touching farewell poem to Joseph ibn Zaddik, the philosopher and poet. When he traveled to Egypt near the end of his life, the most celebrated men vied with one another in entertaining him. Among his particular friends there were Aaron ben Jeshua Alamani in Alexandria, the nagid Samuel ben Hananiah in Cairo, Halfon ha-Levi in Damietta, and an unknown man in Tyre. Judah Ha-Levi sympathetically shared in their sorrow and joy, in the creative spirit and all that moved the souls of these men, as he says in the beginning of a short poem (Brody, l.c. i., No. 45): "My heart belongs to you, ye noble souls, who draw me to you with bonds of love."

The tone of Judah's elegies is especially tender and plaintive. (Brody, l.c. ii. 67 et seq.). Many of them are dedicated to friends. Besides those composed on the deaths of the brothers Judah (ib. Nos. 19, 20), Isaac (ib. No. 21), and Moses ibn Ezra (ib. No. 16), R. Baruch (ib. Nos. 23, 28), Meïr ibn Migas (ib. No. 27), his teacher Isaac Aifasi (ib. No. 14), and others, one of the most affecting is that on Solomon ibn Farissol, who was murdered on May 3, 1108. The news of this friend's death suddenly changed Judah's poem of eulogy (Nos. 11, 22) into one of lamentation (ib. Nos. 12, 13, 93 et seq.), which has been compared to David's lament over Jonathan for its loftiness and grandeur.

Joyous, careless youth, and merry, happy delight in life find their expression in Judah’s love-songs. Many of these are epithalamia; and are characterized by a brilliant near-eastern coloring, as well as by a chaste reserve. In Egypt, where the muse of his youth was revived in the circle of his friends, he wrote his "swan-song":

Wondrous is this land to see, With perfume its meadows laden, But more fair than all to me Is yon slender, gentle maiden. Ah, Time's swift flight I fain would stay, Forgetting that my locks are gray. (Geiger, l.c., 168.)

Drinking-songs and enigmas in rime by Judah have also been preserved.

Religious poetry

After living a life of worldly pleasures, ha-Levi experienced an "awakening" that changed his outlook on the world; he abandoned frivolous pleasure, and his poetry turned to religious themes. His profound experience may have been the consequence of his sensitivity to the events of history that were unfolding around him. During the first Crusade, and other wars, a new kind of religio-political fanaticism emerged in the Christian and Muslim worlds. Judah ha-Levi recognized the danger to the Jewish community in Spain.

The religious poetry of Judah ha-Levi is regarded as among the greatest produced by medieval Judaism. He struck a chord in Jewish believers by eloquently expressing the religious and mystical feelings of drawing near to God, clinging to Him, feeling safe in His shadow. In some of his poetry he said that the physical body is too narrow: the soul yearns for its Father in Heaven, and to break through the earthly shell (S. D. Luzzatto, Diwan, No. 14; Heller, Die Echten Melodien, 227). Without God, the soul would wither away. (Luzzatto, l.c. No. 57; Heller, l.c., 135). Ha-Levi’s poems told how the thought of God allowed him no rest; early and late. God was his best beloved, and his dearest concern (Heller, l.c. p. 82; Hal Orot, No. 12); He occupied the mind of the poet waking and sleeping; and the thought of Him, the impulse to praise Him, roused Judah from his couch by night (Luzzatto, l.c. No. 81; Heller, l.c. p. 229).

Over 300 of these poems have been adopted into the liturgy; they were carried as far as India (Zunz, Ritus, 57); and they influenced the rituals of the most distant countries. Even the Karaites incorporated some of them into their prayer-book. The longest, and most comprehensive poem is Kedushshah, which summons all the universe to praise God with rejoicing. Judah was recognized by his contemporaries as "the great Jewish national poet," and in succeeding generations, by all the great scholars and writers in Israel.

The following comment on Judah's synagogal poems is made by Zunz (ib.): "As the perfume and beauty of a rose are within it, and do not come from without, so with Judah word and Bible passage, meter and rime, are one with the soul of the poem; as in true works of art, and always in nature, one is never disturbed by anything external, arbitrary, or extraneous."

Judah by his verses has also beautified the religious life of the home. His Sabbath hymns should be mentioned here; one of the most beautiful of which ends with the words:

On Friday doth my cup o'erflow, What blissful rest the night shall know, When, in thine arms, my toil and woe Are all forgot, Sabbath my love!

Tis dusk, with sudden light, distilled From one sweet face, the world is filled; The tumult of my heart is stilled—For thou art come, Sabbath my love! Bring fruits and wine and sing a gladsome lay, Cry, 'Come in peace, O restful Seventh day!

Judah successfully used complicated Arabic meters in his poems, but later repented having used the new metrical methods, and declared he would not again employ them. That Judah felt them to be out of place, and that he opposed their use at the very time when they were in vogue, shows his desire for a national Jewish art, independent in form, as well as in subject.

Jewish nationalism

The remarkable, and apparently indissoluble, union of religion, nationalism, and patriotism, characteristic of post-exilic Judaism, reached its acme in Judah ha-Levi and his poetry. Like the authors of the Psalms, he immersed himself in the wider identity of the people of Israel; their sufferings and hopes were his. Often Judah's poetic fancy found joy in the theme of the "return" of his people to the Promised Land. He believed that perfect Jewish life was possible only in the Land of Israel, and the fact that Islam was losing political ground before the Christians in Spain gave Judah reason to hope for such a return in the near future. Judah never lost faith in the eventual deliverance of Israel, and in "the eternity" of his people. On this subject, he expressed himself in the poem:

Lo! Sun and moon, these minister for aye; The laws of day and night cease nevermore: Given for signs to Jacob's seed that they Shall ever be a nation—till these be o'er. If with His left hand He should thrust away, Lo! with His right hand He shall draw them nigh. (Luzzatto, l.c. No. 61; transl. by Nina Davis in Songs of Exile, 49.)

Judah Ha-Levi wrote numerous variations on this theme, the "Zionides," poems which voice the deepest "soul-life" of the Jewish people and of each individual Jew. The most celebrated of these, with its remarkable monotony, is found in every Jewish liturgy, and is usually repeated in the synagogue on the Ninth of Ab:

Zion, wilt thou not ask if peace's wing Shadows the captives that ensue thy peace, Left lonely from thine ancient shepherding? Lo! west and east and north and south—world-wide—All those from far and near, without surcease, Salute thee: Peace and Peace from every side. (English translation by Nina Davis. l.c., 37)


The Kuzari is divided into five essays ("ma'amarim"), and takes the form of a dialogue between the pagan king of the Khazars and a Jew who had been invited to instruct him in the tenets of the Jewish religion. The book is loosely based on a historical event and some scholars believe that Judah Ha-Levi had access to Khazar documents. After a short account of the incidents preceding the conversion of the king, and of the conversations of the latter with a philosopher, a Christian, and a Muslim concerning their respective beliefs, a Jew appears, and by his first statement startles the king; for, instead of giving him proofs of the existence of God, he explains the miracles performed by Him in favor of the Israelites. The king expresses his astonishment at this speech, which seems to him incoherent; but the Jew replies that the existence of God, the creation of the world, and other principles being taught by religion, do not require any speculative demonstrations. He asserts that revealed religion is far superior to natural religion, because the aim of ethical training, which is the object of religion, is not to create good intentions in man, but to cause him to perform good deeds. This cannot be attained accomplished by philosophy, which is undecided as to the nature of good, but can be achieved through religious training, which teaches what is good. Science is the sum of all truth discovered by successive generations; in the same way religious training is based upon a set of cultural traditions which have proved effective in promoting goodness. History and tradition are important factors in the development of human culture and science.

Creatio ex Nihilo

Halevi writes that as the Jews are the only depositaries of a written history of the development of the human race from the beginning of the world, the superiority of their traditions can not be denied. He asserts that no comparison is possible between Jewish culture, which in his view is based upon religious truth, and Greek culture, which is based upon science only. He holds that the wisdom of Greek philosophers lacked that divine support with which the Israelite prophets were endowed. If Aristotle had known of a trustworthy tradition that the world was created out of nothing, he would have supported it by at least as strong arguments as those advanced by him to prove the eternity of matter. The concept of the eternity of matter, however, is not absolutely contrary to Jewish religious ideas; for the Biblical narrative of the Creation refers only to the beginning of the human race, and does not preclude the possibility of preexistent matter.

Still, relying upon tradition, the Jews believe in "creatio ex nihilo" ("creation out of nothing") a theory which can be sustained by arguments just as powerful as those advanced in favor of the eternity of matter. The Neoplatonic objection to "creatio ex nihilo ,” that the Absolutely Infinite and Perfect could not have produced imperfect and finite beings, is not removed by attributing the existence of all mundane things to the action of nature; nature is only a link in the chain of causes having its origin in the First Cause, which is God.

Superiority of the Jewish faith

Halevi now attempts to demonstrate the superiority of his religion, Judaism. The preservation of the Israelites in Egypt and in the wilderness, the delivery to them of the Law on Mount Sinai, and their later history are evident proofs of their superiority. He impresses upon the king the fact that the favor of God can be won only by accomplishing the precepts in all their detail, and that those precepts are binding only on the adherents of Judaism. The question of why only the Jews were thus favored with God's instruction is as little worthy of consideration as would be the question of why the animals had not been created men. The Jew then shows that the immortality of the soul, resurrection, reward, and punishment are all implied in Scripture and are referred to in Jewish writings.

Question of attributes

In the second essay Judah rejects entirely the doctrine of essential attributes which had been propounded by Saadia Gaon and Bahya ibn Paquda, saying that there is no difference between essential and other attributes. Either the attribute affirms a quality in God, in which case essential attributes can not be applied to Him more than can any other, because it is impossible to predicate anything of Him, or the attribute expresses only the negation of the contrary quality, and in that case there is no harm in using any kind of attributes. Accordingly Judah divides all the attributes found in the Bible into three classes: active, relative, and negative, with the last class comprising all the essential attributes expressing mere negations. (See also: Divine simplicity; Negative theology)

The essay includes a lengthy discussion of anthropomorphism. While Judah opposes the conception of the corporeality of God, as being contrary to Scripture, he would consider it wrong to reject all the sensuous concepts of anthropomorphism, as there is something in these ideas which fills the human soul with the awe of God.

The remainder of the essay is made up of discussions on the following subjects: the excellence of Palestine, the land of prophecy, which is to other countries what the Jews are to other nations; the sacrifices; the arrangement of the Tabernacle, which, according to Judah, symbolizes the human body; the prominent spiritual position occupied by Israel, whose relation to other nations is that of the heart to the limbs; Jewish opposition toward asceticism, on the grounds that the favor of God is to be won only by carrying out His precepts, and that these precepts do not command man to subdue physical desires, but to use them in their due place and proportion; the excellence of the Hebrew language, which, although sharing now the fate of the Jews, is to other languages what the Jews are to other nations and what Palestine is to other lands.

The third essay refutes the teachings of Karaism and relates the history of the development of the oral tradition, the Talmud. Judah Ha-Levi shows that there is no means of carrying out the precepts without having recourse to oral tradition; from many passages of the Bible it can be inferred that such tradition has always existed. The very reading of the Bible is dependent upon tradition, since there were no vowels and accents in the original text.

Names of God

The fourth essay opens with an analysis of the various names of God found in the Bible. According to Judah, all these names, with the exception of the Tetragrammaton, are attributes expressing the various states of God's activity in the world. The multiplicity of names does not imply a multiplicity in His essence any more than the multifarious influences of the rays of the sun on various bodies imply a multiplicity of suns. The intuitive vision of a prophet perceives the actions proceeding from God under the images of the corresponding human actions. Angels are God's messengers; and either they exist for a length of time, or they are created only for special purposes.

From the names of God and the essence of angels Judah moves on to his favorite theme and shows that the views of the Prophets are a purer source for a knowledge of God than the teachings of the philosophers. Although he professes great reverence for the "Sefer Yeẓrah," from which he quotes many passages, he hastens to add that the theories of Abraham elucidated therein had been held by the patriarch before God revealed Himself to him. The essay concludes with examples of the astronomical and medical knowledge of the ancient Hebrews.

Arguments against philosophy

The fifth and last essay is devoted to a criticism of the various philosophical systems known at the time of the author. Judah attacks by turns the Aristotelian cosmology, psychology, and metaphysics. To the doctrine of emanation, based, according to him, upon the Aristotelian cosmological principle that no simple being can produce a compound being, he objects in the form of the following query: "Why did the emanation stop at the lunar sphere? Why should each intelligence think only of itself and of that from which it issued and thus give birth to one emanation, thinking not at all of the preceding intelligences, and thereby losing the power to give birth to many emanations?"

He argues against the theory of Aristotle that the soul of man is his thought and that only the soul of the philosopher will be united, after the death of the body, with the active intellect. "Is there," he asks, "any curriculum of the knowledge one has to acquire to win immortality? How is it that the soul of one man differs from that of another? How can one forget a thing once thought of?" and many other questions of the kind. He shows himself especially severe against the Motekallamin, whose arguments on the creation of the world, on God and His unity, he terms dialectic exercises and mere phrases.

However, Judah ha-Levi objects to philosophical speculation only in religious matters such as the Creation, and the nature of God. He follows the Greek philosophers in treating of the creation of the material world, and admits that every being is made up of matter and form. The movement of the spheres formed the sphere of the elements, from the fusion of which all beings were created. This fusion, which varied according to climate, gave to matter the potentiality to receive from God a variety of forms, from the mineral, which is the lowest in the scale of creation, to man, who is the highest because of his possessing, in addition to the qualities of the mineral, vegetable, and animal, a hylic intellect which is influenced by the active intellect. This hylic intellect, which forms the rational soul, is a spiritual substance and not an accident, and is therefore imperishable.

The discussion concerning the soul and its faculties leads naturally to the question of free will. Judah upholds the doctrine of free will against the Epicureans and the Fatalists, and endeavors to reconcile it with the belief in God's providence and omniscience.

Influence of the Kuzari

Judah Ha-Levi’s philosophical work, Kitab al Khazari, (The Book of Argument and Proof in Defense of the Despised Faith), known in Hebrew as the Kuzari, did not diminish the philosophical tendencies which were inundating Judaism at that time, but it exercised a great influence upon theologians. Traces of it are to be found in all the theological and Kabbalistic writings of the Middle Ages, not excluding even the Zohar, which borrowed from it several passages, among them the saying, "Israel is among the nations as the heart among the limbs" (Zohar, iii. 221b.)

Originally written in Arabic, the book was translated by numerous scholars into Hebrew and other languages. Besides the Hebrew translation of Judah ibn Tibbon, which passed through eleven editions (1st ed. Fano, 1506), another rendering into Hebrew was made by Judah ben Isaac Cardinal, in the beginning of the thirteenth century. The study of the Kuzari seems to have become very popular in the fifteenth century. No less than six commentaries on it appeared in the first half of that century. Many translations and commentaries on this work, both religious and critical, have been written since then. It has had a resurgence of popularity in the Orthodox Jewish community in the modern era.

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Primary sources

  • Ha-Levi, Judah, and N. Daniel Korobkin. The Kuzari: In Defense of the Despised Faith. Jason Aronson, 1998.
  • Halevi, Judah. Kuzari an Argument for the Faith of Israel. Schocken, 1987.
  • Halevi, Yehuda, and Gabriel Levin, (translator). Poems from the Diwan. Poetica, 32 London, England: Anvil Press Poetry, 2002. ISBN 0856463337

Secondary sources

  • Doron, Avivah. Yehudah ha-Leví: Repercusión de su obra. (Biblioteca Nueva Sefarad). Riopiedras Ediciones, 1985 (Spanish)
  • Johnson, Paul. A History of the Jews. New York: Harper & Rowe, 1987
  • Silman, Yochanan. Ben filosof le-navi: Hitpathut haguto shel R. Yehudah ha-Levi be-Sefer ha-Kuzari. (Hebrew) Universitat Bar-Ilan, 1985
  • This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

All links retrieved October 4, 2022.

General Philosophy Sources


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