The Medieval Review 11.11.09

Yeshaya, Joachim J.M.S. Medieval Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Egypt: The Secular Poetry of the Karaite Poet Moses ben Abraham Dar'i. Karaite Texts and Studies, É tudes sur le Judaïsme Médiéval. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2011. Pp. 345. $179. ISBN 978-90-04-19130-3. . .

Reviewed by:

Esperanza Alfonso

From the 10th to the 12th century, Jewish poets from al-Andalus--the Iberian Peninsula under Islamic control--adhering to conventions and techniques current in Arabic poetics, wrote collections of poetry that would cause the period to be deemed a Golden Age in later Hebrew literary history. Andalusi Jewish poets portrayed themselves as inherently superior to their Eastern counterparts, who also wrote poetry following Arabic models, and later generations of Jewish poets in North Africa, Egypt, Syria and Iraq added to this aura by claiming to be true inheritors of the Andalusi legacy.

This self-perception and the status achieved by Andalusi Hebrew poetry in later Jewish imagination was replicated by 19th and 20th-century European Jewish scholars who, while celebrating the accomplishments of the Andalusi school with great enthusiasm, tended to neglect the study of the poetical production of the Eastern Jewries, which they described as a mere sequel to the literature of the Andalusi classical period. Some isolated meritorious attempts to bring to light the work of Eastern Jewish poets were made in the early 20th century, but it was not until the second half of the century that a steadily increasing number of voices began to call for a decentralization of the study of medieval Hebrew poetry and a shifting of the focus from al-Andalus to the Eastern Arabo-Islamic world. The transfer of Jewish studies as a field from Central Europe to Israel by mid-century and the thousands of new documents coming out of the Cairo Geniza and, beginning in the 1990s, from the collections held in the former Soviet Union, were decisive in that shift. Henceforth, cultural developments in the East which propitiated innovations in Andalusi poetics were brought under focus and the dīwān-s of poets such as Joseph ben Tanḥum Yerushalmi, El'azar ben Ya'aqov ha-Bavli, and others, were either partially or totally edited. While much remains to be done, the efforts made in recent years have helped to put the Eastern poets on the map.

Sharing in that spirit, the book under review constitutes a significant addition to this scholarly trend, in that it focuses on the work of Moses ben Abraham Darʻī, a renowned 12th-century Egyptian poet of Maghribi descent.

Like some other medieval poets, Moses Darʻī seems to have made compilations of his own poems, which total more than five hundred, and which he divided into two volumes: Firdaws azhār al-qaṣāʼid wa-l-ashʻar ("The Garden of Flowers of Qaṣīda-s and Poems") and Al-mulḥaq li-dīwānihi-l-asbaq ("Supplement to the Preceding Dīwān"). Selections of his work were first published by S. Pinsker (Lickute Kadmoniot: Zur Geschichte des Karaismus und der karäischen Literatur [in Hebrew] [Vienna, 1860]) and I. Davidson ("The Dīwān of the Karaite Moses Darʻī," [in Hebrew] Ḥorev 3 [1936]: 28‒42). More recently, L. Weinberger edited Moses Darʻī's complete dīwān (Jewish Poetry in Muslim Egypt: Moses Darʻī' Hebrew Collection [Leiden, 2000]). In all likelihood, modern interest in Darʻī's work not only derives from the fact that he was a prolific author, roughly contemporary to Judah Halevi, one of the most reputed, emblematic Andalusi poets, who temporarily settled in Egypt at this time, but also from the fact that he was a Karaite. In the present book, Joachim Yeshaya edits anew (Chapter 10) the first one hundred and fifty two secular poems in the first part of Darʻī's dīwān.

Yeshaya argues for the need for a new edition of these one hundred and fifty two poems by Darʻī based on the differences between his editorial method and that of Weinberger. Unlike the latter, who describes the manuscripts he uses for his edition in vague terms, but seems basically to rely on 19th-century copies, Yeshaya provides a clear description of all extant manuscripts transmitting Darʻī's work (Chapter 2) and bases his edition on a codex optimus, namely MS Evr. I 802, from the First Firkovich collection in St. Petersburg. Yeshaya's diplomatic edition is justified in that this codex, which dates back to the 15th century, represents the earliest surviving copy of Darʻī's dīwān and generally provides the best readings. Another 15th-century copy exists, but it is not complete, and it does not reproduce Darʻī's original order. Unlike Weinberger, who eliminated the Judaeo-Arabic headings of the poems and disregarded the ordering of the latter, rearranging them thematically, Yeshaya includes the Judaeo-Arabic headings and respects the original order of the dīwān. All these editorial decisions make Yeshaya's edition more reliable vis-à-vis Weinberger's. Yeshaya's use of MS Evr. I 802 results in significant variances with respect to Weinberger's edition (for a sample of amendments see p. 25 in Yeshaya's book, and for a complete list of variant readings, see pp. 301–18); and his maintenance of both headings and ordering are in accordance with modern critical editorial standards which strive to provide the reader with a final text as close to that reproduced in the codex as possible. Yeshaya also provides more extensive annotations in Hebrew to help clarify the text, as well as translations into English of the Judaeo-Arabic headings and a short abstract for each poem.

In addition to the edition of the poems, Yeshaya's book provides a study of them, which moves from the philological-historical method he employs as an editor to a more formalistic approach to the text. After a historical survey of Fāṭimid and Ayyūbid Egypt in Chapter 3, Yeshaya uses Darʻī's dīwān's and a maqāma-style work attributed to him, and published by I. Davidson in 1926, to reconstruct the poet's life and whereabouts as a professional poet and physician amidst the 12th-century Karaite Egyptian community and in his journeys through the Middle East. In Chapter 5, he provides a historical-literary analysis, which covers the Arabic poetical tradition, Hebrew poetry in Islamic Spain, and the Hebrew poetical tradition in the Islamic East, and asks whether Karaite poetry was different from that written by the Rabbanites. In Chapters 6, 7, and 8, Yeshaya focuses more closely on the text, and looks at Darʻī's poetry from a formal viewpoint, discussing its genres, themes, language and style. Yeshaya's study maintains throughout a comparative dimension as he often describes Darʻī's poetry in contrast to that of the Rabbanites, by relationship to that produced by Eastern Jewish poets, the poetry of al-Andalus and Arabic poetry in general. This multi-level comparative framework allows him to evaluate judiciously Moses Darʻī's significance within a web of historical and literary relationships.

It should be borne in mind that the one hundred and fifty two poems edited and studied by Yeshaya only constitute a third of Darʻī's dīwān, which includes various Hebrew verse introductions and Judaeo-Arabic prose introductions preceding the main divisions in both volumes. As Yeshaya indicates, U. Melammed is currently working on a critical edition of the Judaeo-Arabic introductions. The reader will have to bear these different sections in mind as it is their interaction which gives sense to the dīwān as a unified literary body.

This learned book displays sound, rigorous scholarship in the best tradition of the philological-historical method. It supplies a reliable edition of the poems, adds new data regarding the dīwān's date and the poet's biography, and establishes the literary and historical context in which the poems where shaped. It also provides solid ground for further work by scholars with different agendas, different scholarly interests and different methodologies in the study of medieval Hebrew poetry. On all accounts, it is a welcome and most valuable addition to the field.