Talking to G-d?: Jewish Poetry Throughout the Ages
By Rachel Ledeboer
Poetry has long remained an enduring part of Jewish culture. It can be found across different time periods, in different regions, and even in different languages; it can be secular or religious, metrical or non-metrical, personal or impersonal. Oftentimes, Jewish poetry will make reference back to its roots in the Hebrew Bible, which contains, among other things, the book of Psalms. This essay aims to closely examine and compare three different Jewish poems spanning across Judaism’s vast history: the biblical Psalm 13, an untitled poem by Dunash Ben Labrat from Medieval Spain, and “Shema” by Primo Levi. These poems all look very different from one another, and despite being written at different points in time, they all display some sort of relationship (or lack thereof) with G-d, and are representative of Jewish experiences in times of joy and in times of hardship.
In Psalm 13, the speaker begins in despair. He cries out to G-d, asking Him “How long, O LORD, will You forget me always?” (Alter, Psalm 13:2). At the opening of this Psalm, the speaker is alone and afraid, struggling through hard times and worrying that G-d has abandoned him. This Psalm is spoken in the first person, bringing in a sense of immediacy and intimacy with the speaker transforming it into a prayer directly to G-d— if one speaks this poem out loud, it is as if they are having their own conversation with G-d. The imagery in the Psalm is timeless, often non-specific, helping to give it the enduring quality that has allowed it to survive and be read over and over again throughout history. It can easily be applicable to any time period, to anyone struggling or hoping for G-d’s presence in their life.
At the start of the poem, the speaker repeats the phrase “how long” three times, signifying his doubt and uncertainty, as well as a kind of impatience— he is frustrated that G-d has not come to his aid already. The speaker conjures up sinister images of the “enemy loom[ing] over me,” and asks for G-d’s help to “light up my eyes, lest I sleep death” (Alter, Psalm 13:3-4). He views his life as being in G-d’s hands, and without His presence, not only will he be killed by his enemies, but he worries his “enemy [will] say, ‘I’ve prevailed over him,’” taunting the speaker even after death (Alter, Psalm 13:5). Characterized by fear and sorrow, the speaker in the first part of the poem seems to even be upset with G-d, asking Him questions over and over again. The speaker is uncertain and does not know how to help himself, even specifying that he is “cast[ing] about for counsel” from G-d (Alter, Psalm 13:3).
In the last few lines of the poem, there is a major tone shift, where the speaker moves from uncertainty to absolute trust. The Psalm ends with the lines: “But I in Your kindness do trust, / my heart exults in your rescue. / Let me sing to the LORD, / for He requited me” (Alter, Psalm 13:6). He takes what he knows to be true about G-d— that He is kind, and allows himself to believe that G-d will be there to help him. Thus, this Psalm contains the same underlying message that can be found in many of the other Psalms— that in times of uncertainty, one must place their trust in G-d. Portrayed in the Psalms, G-d is almighty and powerful, He knows intimately the struggles of His people, and He will protect them. Even in the Psalms where the speaker is full of despair, they still contain a tone of hope that better times will come once G-d rescues them from their struggles. This Psalm also provides an example of the changing inner monologue of the speaker, who does not remain fixed in one mindset, but who rather changes and develops as the Psalm continues. It begins as a Psalm of lamentation, but ends as a Psalm of praise and thanksgiving, celebrating and singing to G-d.
Unlike the timeless poetry of the Psalms, the Jewish poetry of medieval Spain can clearly be associated with the time period in which it was written. At this point in history, Jews in Spain were able to prosper while under Muslim rule, and Jews experienced a level of religious and political freedom that allowed them to take high positions in society, as well as participate in the luxurious culture of the region. The poetry of Dunash Ben Labrat acts as an example of this period— it is rife with rich sensual imagery, taken from the lavish community he was surrounded by. Although it is written in Hebrew, Dunash adopts Arabic form and meter to his poem, exemplifying the kind of cultural exchange that was occurring throughout life in Medieval Spain, whereas the Psalms contain no metrical pattern.
Dunash’s poem can be characterized primarily by its vivid, sensual imagery. Every stanza appeals to at least one of the five senses, and together it portrays the picturesque and abundant world of Medieval Spain, where people have plenty to eat and live in luxury. The first stanza proclaims to “drink wine at morning’s break,” and while wine can often have religious connotations in Judaism, here, it refers to drinking as part of “a feast of all your hours,” a way to relax and indulge in the worldly atmosphere (Scheindlin, 41). The next stanza references being “mid pomegranate trees,” another object which in Judaism is considered to be symbolic— it is said that each pomegranate has 613 seeds, the same number of commandments in the Torah (Scheindlin, 41). Again, however, rather than being in a religious context, the pomegranates here are only part of the beautiful garden atmosphere— large outdoor gardens were a prominent feature of the rich homes and palaces during this period in Medieval Spain. In stanzas 3 through 5, the sense of sound is most emphasized, often involving different types of singing. Spain is “where lilting singers hum,” where “all the birds in glee / sing among the bowers,” and where “the cooing of the dove / sounds like a song of love,” with humans and animals and nature all coming together (Scheindlin, 41). The imagery of the medieval garden continues to be present, the place “where gentle viols thrum / to the plash of fountains’ showers” and “we’ll drink on garden beds / with roses round our heads” (Scheindlin, 41).
This lavish, immersive imagery continues, as the poet then appeals to the senses of taste and smell. He describes the rich meals eaten in the gardens, primarily focusing on meats: “when morning’s first rays shine / I’ll slaughter of the kine / some fatlings; we shall dine / on rams and calves and cows” (Scheindlin, 42). This stanza again brings in a kind of biblical connotation, reminding the audience of the animal sacrifices that used to be performed in the time of pre-rabbinic Judaism. However, in this context, the animals being slaughtered are not meant for G-d or for absolving sin, but instead, they are part of the luxurious diet that the poet gets to indulge in. In the ninth stanza, the first two lines call upon the readers’ sense of smell: “scented with rich perfumes, / amid thick incense plumes,” finishing off the picture of the pleasant garden banquet (Scheindlin, 42).
At the end of the poem, however, there is a tone shift, as the poem goes from being joyous and indulgent to ominous and disapproving. The ninth stanza finishes off with the lines “let us await our dooms, / spending in joy our hours” (Scheindlin, 42). The poem then changes to be about enjoying luxury while it is available, but knowing that it will not last forever. The speaker laments the loss of the Jewish homeland, “when lost is Zion hill / to the uncircumcised,” and recognizes that while Jews may be doing well in Spain now, they are a people to which “by all men are we / rejected and despised” (Scheindlin, 42). In contrast to Psalm 13, which begins on a despairing note and ends on a hopeful one, this poem goes from a lighthearted tone to a much darker one. Dunash was not wrong either— the golden age for Jews in Muslim Spain would not last forever, and in fact the Jews in Spain would end up greatly suffering later on in history. In the Psalms, the speaker calls to G-d and can trust that He will answer, whereas in Dunash’s poem, he worries that “in G-d’s last judgement you’ll / for folly be chastised” (Scheindlin, 42). Living outside the holy land in a secular place full of temptations has left him uncertain about where he stands with G-d, and how he will be judged by Him.
In Primo Levi’s poem, “Shema,” his relationship to G-d is pointedly absent. Unlike the previous two poems, which were written in Hebrew, Levi’s poem was written in Italian. Levi was an Italian Jew who lived during the Holocaust and survived being a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp, and his poetry was produced as a result of his traumatic experiences there. Although Levi was Jewish, he was also an atheist, which is reflected in his poetry— in the case of “Shema,” the poem is based off of the passage from Deuteronomy 6, but changed from its religious context into one about the Holocaust. The poem rewrites these verses, which comprise the most well known prayer in Judaism, and also are incorporated into other areas of Jewish spiritual life— it is from these passages that Jewish people derive the biblical commandments for hanging mezuzot in their homes and wearing tefillin. Levi changes the original text of the poem, which commands people to remember G-d, and instead commands them to remember the Holocaust, and all the horrific acts that came along with it, so that such an event never happens again.
Levi’s poem begins by directly addressing the reader, as the whole work is meant to cut through to the audience and open their eyes to the atrocities of the Holocaust. He accomplishes this by reminding the readers of their privilege— “you who live safe / in your warm houses, / you who find, returning in the evening / hot food and friendly faces” (Levi, 11). Throughout the rest of the poem, he creates a brutal contrast, comparing the comfortable lives of the readers to the hardships that people such as himself had to face. He details how they were trapped in a hostile environment, struggling to stay alive and trying to provide the bare minimum for themselves. His sentences are simple, declarative, and to the point— he does not try to sugarcoat the experience, merely just stating the plain truths that people dealt with. The reader hears about the man “who dies because of a yes or a no,” and the woman, with “her eyes empty and her womb cold” (Levi, 11). This man and woman do not have names, which might be a reminder of how people in the Holocaust were stripped of their names entirely, as well as signify that these experiences happened to countless men and women who will never be recognized.
After describing these brutal experiences, Levi begins to even more closely mirror the biblical counterpart that his poem is based upon. In Deuteronomy, the command is to remember G-d, and remember He is One. People are instructed to take these messages and “bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,” which becomes the reason why Jewish people wear tefillin and hang mezuzot respectively— to remember the commands they were given, and to remember the importance of G-d in their everyday lives (Deuteronomy 6:8-9). By contrast, Levi’s poem commands the reader to remember his words about the atrocities of the Holocaust, and that people must “carve them in your hearts / at home, in the street, / going to bed, rising; / repeat them to your children” (Levi, 11). If people do not follow this command, he issues a kind of curse upon them at the end of his poem: “or may your house fall apart, / may illness impede you, / may your children turn their faces from you” (Levi, 11). This chilling ending adds to the overall severe tone of the poem.
Levi uses this highly memorable passage from Deuteronomy to convey his own powerful message, imploring people that the cruelties that human beings faced at the hands of others in the Holocaust are of paramount importance and cannot be brushed aside or ignored. In contrast to the Psalms and Dunash’s poem, Levi doesn’t even worry about what G-d thinks on this matter. He instead puts the responsibility on all of his readers to make sure that an atrocity like this is remembered, and that it will not be repeated. While the other poems contain tonal shifts between hope and despair, Levi’s poem remains steadily sombre throughout, an unforgiving barrage of horrors that reflects the traumatic experiences he was forced to endure.
Through Psalm 13, the poetry of Dunash, and Primo Levi’s “Shema,” readers can see how they are each indicative of the time period in which they were written, and their relationships to Judaism can all be observed, even if not in immediately obvious ways. The poetry of the Psalms and the Hebrew Bible as a whole created an important foundation from which many later Jewish poets took inspiration from. Even poets like Levi who did not believe in G-d, or poets like Dunash who lived in a secular culture outside of the Jewish homeland could still find a way to connect to this biblical tradition, or transform it to create new meanings and messages. These three poems are not indicative of the entire Jewish experience, but rather they provide a glimpse at three different fractions of it. The Jewish people, being spread out across the diaspora and undergoing many hardships during their long period of existence, have created many different identities, and poetry continues to be an important outlet of expression for individuals’ own unique relationships with their cultural and religious identities.
Alter, Robert, translator. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. 1st ed., W.W. Norton, 2007.
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. First Collier Books Trade Edition., Collier Books, 1993.
Scheindlin, Raymond P., translator. Wine, Women, & Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life. 1st ed., Jewish Publication Society, 1986.
Tanakh = [Tanakh]: the Holy Scriptures: the New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. First edition., Jewish Publication Society, 1985.