Thursday, August 04, 2011

Justice in the murder of Ibn Gabirol

Summary: Was R' Eleazar HaKallir killed by a scorpion in the sandal, planted by his jealous teacher Yannai. Was Ibn Gabirol such a good poet that he was murdered by a jealous Arab poet, who was caught by miraculous means of early-ripening figs? And what impact this has on how one should regard piyutim. This appears in Kav Hayashar on Devarim.

Post: I saw the following rather interesting idea, and story, in Kav Hayashar on parashat Devarim:

The Piyutim have wondrous secrets within them, and the obligation to say them2. And it is stated in Zohar, parashat Emor: When Israel praises Hashem first, with praises and songs, in the synagogues and study halls, and afterwards come to their houses and arrange their houses and their tables, and say that all this is in honor of Shabbat or in honor of Yom Tov, then the malachei hasharet begin and say, "Ashrei HaAm sheKacha Lo." Therefore, the saying of the piyutim of קרובץ {=Kol Rinah Viyshua Be'Ohalei Tzadikim} should not be light in your eyes, and the obligation is upon every person to say the piyutim with joy, intent of the heart, and clear speech. For within each piyut are wondrous secrets. and the piyutim should not be upon you like a burden, for the piyutim were written via the counsel of the angels above, who were revealed to Rabbi Eliezer HaKalir, who arranged the piyutim, that he arranged the piyutim in aleph bet acrostics and based on tashrak {backwards aleph-bet}, for so do they sing and praise On High. And it is a tradition from zekeinim and chasidim that one who is lenient with saying קרובץ and says that they are not such an obligation, his days are not lengthened, chas veshalom. For all the individuals who composed the piyutim were Gedolei Hador and Anshei Maaseh, for whom was performed great miracles in their life and in their death.
An impressive incident concerning Rabbi Shlomo Gabirol 
3. And as we find by one Gadol HaDor called Rabbi Shlomo Gabirol, za'l, who was an expert in the wisdom of the kabbalah and in dikduk, and who composed many piyutim. Due to his great wisdom {/skill}, the anti-Semites was jealous of him and a certain Ishmaelite laid in wait for him, killed him, and buried him in his garden next to a fig tree. And the fig tree had its fruit speedily ripen before their time, and produces extremely large and beautiful figs, astonishing all the residents of the city. 
4. And the matter came to the king of the Ishmaelites, and the king saw the fruits and was astonished. And the king sent after the aforementioned Ishmaelite and inquired of him how he was so clever to perform such a feat, to ripen fruits before their time. And due to his great fear, the Ishmaelite was unable to the king, for this was the cause from Hashem. And the king commanded to torture him with grievous and bitter tortures, until the Ishmaelite was forced to admit, and he admitted that from that day that he killed the Jew, Rabbi Shlomo Gabirol, the tree began to produce fruits before its time. and the king commanded to hand the murderous Ishmaelite upon that very tree.
I am generally against scare tactics / intimidation to compel a religious point of view, and the idea that one's life is in danger for questioning the importance of saying particular piyutim strikes me as intimidation. As to the stories proving the importance of the piyutim, I confess that I don't really believe them. (Similar to this apocryphal story about the rape of the Ramban's wife.) They strike me as urban legend-ish.

Consider the story regarding Rabbi Eleazar HaKalir. He was similarly murdered by someone jealous of his poetic gifts, according to legend. Via Wikipedia:
It was related that heavenly fire surrounded him when he wrote the "Ve'hachayos" in Kedushah for Rosh Hashanah [1]; that he himself ascended to heaven and there learned from the angels the secret of writing alphabetical hymns; and that his teacher Yannai, jealous of his superior knowledge, placed in his shoe a scorpion, which was the cause of his death.
Yannai was an earlier paytan, and we now have Machzor Yanai from the Cairo Geniza. This story might be a way of casting R' Eleazar HaKalir and his skill in a more positive light, by showing the jealousy of his teacher. One would think that, with all these nissim performed on behalf of paytanim, Hashem would send a miracle or two before they were brutally murdered.

Given how the Jewish poets, such as Ibn Gabirol, worked at a time when Arabic poetry was flourishing -- the story of his murder may simply be to establish Ibn Gabirol's poetic skill as better than that of Arabic poets. See here for an example of Ibn Gabirol's poem is patterned after an Arabic model. I suppose that murder at the hands of a jealous rival is the sincerest form of flattery.

We see that Rishonim were willing to criticize both R' Eleazar HaKallir and R' Shlomo Ibn Gabirol. Thus, Ibn Ezra criticized R' Eleazar HaKallir's poetry. See here for a summary of his objections. And see this parshablog post, as well as this one, for answers to specific objections.

As to Ibn Gabirol, it is unclear if he was an early kabbalist or simply an early Jewish philosopher. But his philosophy, at least was criticized by the Raavad:
Abraham ibn Daud of Toledo, in the twelfth century, was the first to take exception to Gabirol's teachings. In the "Sefer ha-Kabbalah" he refers to Gabirol as a poet in complimentary phrase. But in order to counteract the influence of Ibn Gabirol the philosopher, he wrote an Arabic book, translated into Hebrew under the title "Emunah Ramah", in which he reproaches Gabirol with having philosophized without any regard to the requirements of the Jewish religious position, and bitterly accuses him of mistaking a number of poor reasons for one good one.
This would not be in line with Kav Hayashar's assertion that Ibn Gabirol was an expert in the wisdom of kabbalah, and that we should therefore assume that there are deep secrets in his poetry that we should agree to, and thus treat as sacrosanct.

Some people appreciate piyutim. Others do not. I think one 'problem' is the flowery language which is drawn from arcane words in Shas. When we encounter them in study, we can figure it out from context, or else look up that one word in a dictionary. But often in piyutim, it is word after word like this, one after the next, taken from all over Shas, such that it is not intelligible. And often they are newly minted words, constructed from other forms. Chazal did not make davening unintelligible. But piyutim often are. Make people say gibberish, and it takes away from the overall davening experience.

Whether it is critical to say piyutim strikes me as a halachic matter, rather than a hashkafic matter. And threats and appeals to what are likely fairy-tales or urban legends will fail to convince me.

(See also DovBear on inspired poetry and the power of piyutim.)


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

This is why the Sephardic liturgy is so much better for the hamon am - we primarily use piyutim of R' Yehuda Halevi and Ibn Ezra, and as a rule all of the piyutim we recite are intelligible to the average person.

jake said...

Ibn Gabirol's masterpiece, Keter Malchut, is written in simple, mostly Biblical-phrase-borrowing Hebrew and is very intelligible to the average Jew.


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