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Philology, Poetry and Belles-Lettres

Medieval Hebrew literature encompassed both religious and secular writing. Besides grammatical and linguistic treatises, Hebrew letters were cultivated in liturgical and secular poetry (especially in Spain and Italy), in collections of fables, and even in romances. In addition to Hebrew, much literature was written, translated, and eventually printed in other Jewish languages, most notably Yiddish, before the 19th century. Oriental and occidental literature, in Arabic and the European languages, often influenced Jewish writing, and was in turn influenced by it. The literary exchange between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds, which characterizes more than a millennium of writing, is evident in the selection here, extending from India to Halifax.

David b. Joseph Kimhi, of Narbonne
(Provence), 1160?-1235?
Graphical element
[ Sefer ha-Shorashim ]
Naples: Joshua Solomon Soncino (and
Isaac b. Judah ibn Katorzo?),
10 February 1491.

Kimhi's Book of Roots, or Compendium, is a reworking of the Spanish grammarian Ibn Janah's fundamental work on Hebrew philology. This third incunabular edition is the first in which biblical references are printed in the text in cursive characters. It is perhaps one of only two books printed by Katorzo.

Ya'arat ha- Devash 1890
Ezekiel Jacob Rahamim, of Bombay
fl. 1890
Graphical element
[ Sefer Ya'arat ha-Devash ]
Sepher Yaarath Haddebash. or The
Compendium of Hebrew Dictionary ...
Bombay: Anglo-Jewish and Vernacular
Press (Aaron Jacob), 1890.

The first work of its kind published in India, Sepher Yaarath Haddebash is an unfinished dictionary of the Bible, Talmud, Targums, Midrashim and Zohar, with introductions and renderings in Judeo-Arabic and English.

Book of Jashar
Graphical element
[ Sefer ha-Yashar ]
Venice: Giovanni Caleoni, 1625.

An anonymous aggadic work probably written in Spain in the 11th century, Sefer ha-Yashar combines biblical motifs, midrashic fables and classical mythology in a profuse retelling of the Pentateuch story. This first edition was edited by Joseph b. Samuel, of Livorno and Fez.

Meshal ha- Kad- moni
Isaac b. Solomon Abi Sahula,
of Guadalajara, born 1244
Graphical element
[ Meshal ha-Kadmoni ]
Venice: Meir b. Jacob Parenzo,

Sahula's "Fable of the Ancient," the first work to quote the Zohar, is filled with parables and tales, popular scientific information, and puns. The Venetian edition contains 80 woodcuts, mostly portraying the disputing animals, all of whom are learned in traditional rabbinic literature as well as in logic, biology, and grammar.

Printer's mark (J. Shalit)
Abraham b. Samuel Ibn Hasdai,
of Barcelona, fl. early 13th cent.
Graphical element
[ Ben ha-Melekh ve-ha-Nazir ]
Mantua: Joseph b. Jacob of Padua,
for Venturin Ruffinello, 1557.

"The Prince and the Hermit" relates the story of a prince who, on the counsel of a Christian monk, becomes an ascetic. Incorporating extracts from an unknown neoplatonic work, it is an original prose-and-verse Hebrew version of a lost Arabic text of Barlaam and Josaphat, based on a Hindu romance about the youth of Buddha.

Sefer ha- Mah- barot
Immanuel b. Solomon, of Rome,
ca. 1261-ca. 1330
Graphical element
[ Sefer ha-Mahbarot ]
Brescia: Gershom b. Moses Soncino,
30 October 1491.

In part an imitation of Dante's Divina Commedia, Immanuel's erotic poetical compositions were later banned as trivial by rabbinic interdiction. The first book of secular Hebrew poetry ever printed, this volume is also the first Hebrew book in which the zodiacal signs appear, and among the first to contain illustrations at all.

Sefer ha- Mah- barot 1491

Jacob b. Joab Elijah de Fano,
of Cento, Ferrara, and Bologna,
fl. 16th cent.
Graphical element
[ Shiltei ha-Giborim ]
Ferrara: Abraham Usque, 1556.

Together in this short book are a rhythmical satire against the female sex and a verse elegy on the Marranos martyred in Ancona in 1555. Complaints about this work seem, in the spirit of the Counter-Reformation, to have led to the closing of Usque's press.

Robert Browning, of London and Italy,
Rabbi Ben Ezra
Halifax [Yorkshire]: Milner & Co., Raglan Works,

An English poet of deep Hebraic interests, Browning presents the optimistic philosophy of a Jewish sage, who may be identified with Ibn Ezra, in this verse soliloquy. The poem was first published in 1865 in the volume Dramatis Personae, from which this edition was reprinted.

Judah Asahel b. David Eliezer
Del Bene, of Ferrara, 1615?-1678
Graphical element
[ Kis'ot le-Veit David ]
Verona: Abraham Ortona & co., for
Francesco de' Rossi, 1646 (1649?).

In this philosophical work, "Thrones of the House of David," Del Bene (Me-ha-Tov in Hebrew) quotes from a poetical composition of his own, and discusses inter alia Hebrew style, praising the language's wealth of synonyms. A sample of the sporadic Hebrew printing in Verona (where a Yiddish epic was printed in 1594), this was one of the last Hebrew books printed there in the 17th century.

Ma'yan Ganim 1553
Samuel b. Elhanan Jacob Archivolti,
of Cesena and Padua, 1515-1611
Graphical element
[ Ma'yan Ganim ]
Venice: Alvise Bragadin, 1553.

The grammarian Archivolti's "Fountain of Gardens," embellished with woodcuts of fountains of cupids, consists of 50 moral and ethical epistles in metrical form, intended as models for students of this literary genre.

Berechiah b. Natronai ha-Nakdan,
of Normandy and England,
fl. 12th-13th cent.
Graphical element
[ Mishlei Shu'alim ]
Prague: Katzische Buchdruckerey,

The "Fox Fables" of Berechiah (perhaps Benedictus le Puncteur of Oxford?) comprise over 100 fables translated mostly from the French collection by Marie de France, from a lost Latin version of Aesop, and from other oriental collections. This edition, with a rhyming Yiddish translation by Jacob Koppelman of Freiburg, was the first bilingual edition in Hebrew and Yiddish.

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