10 Things You Need to Know About… Yehudah Alharizi

Rabbi, translator, poet and traveler

1. Little is known about the early life of Judah ben Solomon AlHarizi. He was born about 1165 in Spain to a family that boasted at least one scholar and one poet of note. He became one of the last great personalities of the Golden Age of Jewish culture in Spain.

2. The first 25 years of his life were spent in study. He was fluent in Arabic, Aramaic, French, Latin and Greek, in addition to Hebrew.

3. At about the age of 25, he began to travel: to France, Italy, Greece, Syria, Palestine, Persia and Egypt. And he began to write poetry; his works are suffused with impressions from his journeys. For the rest of his life, he traveled, rarely spending a long time in any one place. After some lean years, he was comfortably supported by patrons.

4. He translated the Guide to the Perplexed of Maimonides from its original Arabic into Hebrew. His translation is considered more readable and understandable than the standard translation by Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibon, though less precise, less faithful to the original. It was his aim to prove that Hebrew had the grace and elegance of Arabic. He wrote, “They serve foreign tongues and despise their own.”

His medical treatise, Refuath Geviyah

His medical treatise, Refuath Geviyah

5. A thorough rationalist, he also translated Artistotle’s “Ethics” and “Politics.” He translated several Greek and medical treatises and wrote a treatise of his own in Hebrew – leading scholars to propose that he may have been trained as a physician, though there is no record of his having practiced as one.

6. It is his poetry that made him famous, and among his works the Tahkemoni, composed 1218-20. Written in Hebrew, it takes an Arabic form called “makama,” a rhyming unmetrical style full of wit, fancy, and flowery language. AlHarizi added to this by interweaving Biblical style and sometimes whole sentences of text that were both incongruous and fitting in their new setting.

7. The Tahkemoni has two main characters: Heber the Kenite, called the Jewish Don Quixote because of his exploits; and Heman the Ezrahite, the narrator and interlocutor. The episodes are widely varied, containing philosophical discussions and tributes to past poets, but also a humorous debate between an ant and a flea.

8. His linguistic virtuosity is staggering, as demonstrated in his “Song of the Three Languages.” Each of its 23 lines is written one-third in Hebrew, a third in Arabic, and a third in Aramaic. The Arabic portion rhymes with the Hebrew throughout; the Aramaic portions have one, two-syllabled rhyme throughout.

9. He could be scathing about other poets of his time. Of a certain Syrian poet, he wrote,” When he a ditty writes or eke an ode – it sounds as if some pot or kettle did explode.”

10. AlHarizi died in 1225, but his writing lives on. A new edition of Tahkemoni, translated into English by David Segal, was published in 2003, and a critical-philological text by Joseph Yahalon came out in 2010.

“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!”

In Tel Aviv, Alharizi Street runs just south of Arlosoroff between Adam Ha-Cohen and Ibn Gevirol.

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