Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
15.09.31, Yeshaya, Poetry and Memory in Karaite Prayer

15.09.31, Yeshaya, Poetry and Memory in Karaite Prayer

Joachim Yeshaya's second monograph joins a 2011 publication dedicated to the Hebrew poetry of Moses Dar'I, a Moroccan-born Karaite who lived and wrote in Egypt. [1] The first volume, based on a 2009 dissertation, treated Dar'I's secular poetry, making a case for Dar'I's stature and significance on the Eastern literary scene (3, n. 7). The sequel treats Dar'is sacred verse. Yeshaya's goal is "to make the corpus of Dar'I's liturgical poems more accessible to an English readership" ranging from Judaica specialists to other scholars and "interested persons" (7). He fails to meet this goal on several counts.

Yeshaya's achievement in Poetry and Memory is to provide those of us who can read medieval Hebrew with an edition of the sacred poetry of a major poet, based on the earliest and presumably most reliable copy of his collected works. Some poems are translated in excerpt, and a non-Hebrew reader may derive some sense of Dar'I's themes and preoccupations. As Yeshaya claims, Moses Dar'I is an important figure, all the more because he was a Karaite, the rival "party" to Rabbanite Judaism. (Karaite Jews repudiated rabbinic authority and the Oral (post-biblical) Law, the foundations of Rabbanite praxis and belief. Today a small minority among world Jews, they constituted a formidable counter-weight to medieval Rabbanite communities, especially in Egypt, the Balkans and the Crimea.

Yeshaya dates Dar'I early to the mid-to-late twelfth century, and begins his study with a chapter on Karaite liturgy. In contrast to Rabbanite liturgy, which is mainly rabbinic or medieval in origin, formal Karaite prayer consisted chiefly of biblical verses from Psalms and Lamentations, commemorating the Sabbath as a day of mourning. Early Karaite liturgy did not embrace poetic additions, although the tenth-century "Mourners of Zion" were known for their laments. Dar'I's liturgical poems thus represent an innovation inspired by Rabbanite practice and the superb liturgical poetry of al-Andalus. Following the Karaite annual cycle of scriptural readings, Dar'I composed one or more hymns for each portion, or parasha. The texts survive in one fifteenth-century and two nineteenth-century copies; an edition by Leon Weinberger relied only on the latter and rearranged the poems thematically. Yeshaya stresses that Weinberger eliminated the poems' Judeo-Arabic superscripts and introduction, which he restores with an unfortunate mistranslation (4-5, full text on 85, and see below).

The book's introductory chapters cover "language, rhetoric and prosody" as well as "thematic elements." We learn that Dar'I is fond of structuring his hymns as dramatic dialogues between God and Israel, or between God, Israel and a "poet/precentor." Many poems have refrains and acrostics, a technique found ubiquitously in Rabbanite piyyutim. The strophic poems reflect familiarity with Andalusian exemplars, sometimes acknowledging a model explicitly in an incipit. Yeshaya warns us that these indications of rhythmic or melodic contrafaction should be taken cautiously, as they may have been later additions (46). However, in his conclusion, he declares that these same indications, often to poems by Judah HaLevi (d. 1141), "provide a considerable body of evidence" for Dar'I's interest in HaLevi (283). Using Yeshaya's tables (51-53), I examined the sixteen Dar'I hymns contrafacted to HaLevi's "Sigh, O Jerusalem." The sixteen hymns range in strophic format. They are calibrated to a quantitative syllabic meter (counting only long syllables) of 6 to 8 beats per hemistich, at times a crude match for the 6:6 meter of HaLevi's model. Some include an introductory madrikh/ matla', which Yeshaya repeatedly confuses with an actual strophe. Poem no. 11, "Cast into exile's pit," invokes HaLevi's text explicitly; others, by contrast, seem almost randomly tagged to this model. Some of the contrafactions, in other words, were surely of the author's choosing, but some may have been assigned later. Pursuing this question could surely teach us something about use and reception, but disappointingly, Yeshaya slights the questions of music and text, text and text, or text and practice, raised by these poems.

The thematic chapter covers praise of God, the Sabbath, biblical Covenant, the Giving of the Law at Sinai, the Destruction of the Temple, Exile, Repentance, and Christian and Muslim "Others." "Esau" or "Edom" eats pork and desecrates Judaism's holy places; Ishmael the "servant's son" torments the Jews and rules them unjustly. In poem no. 45, Dar'I derides the foolish Christians and Muslims who mistakenly celebrate their Sabbath on weekdays (60-61 and 176-177). The source of this motif, which Yeshaya does not identify, is the HaLevi poem Dar'I has contrafacted, which mocks those who "compare their [Sabbath] days to my sacred day/ Edom advancing to Sunday while Arav retreats to Friday." [2] Other poems anticipate eventual vengeance against gentile foes, and their vehemence is sometimes startling.

Certainly, Rabbanite liturgy included a controversial curse on "heretics" widely understood by medieval Jews to refer to apostates and Christians. [3] Hebrew prose chronicles that detail Crusade attacks on Jewish Rhineland communities routinely refer to Christianity, Jesus and Mary with vulgar epithets, and Hebrew commemorative laments are not stingy with imprecations either. Significantly, the European texts attack aspects of Christian belief; Dar'I's insults emphasize political sovereignty and social difference. I think Yeshaya is wrong to read Poem 60's armon shiqqutz ben amatkha as the Dome of the Rock. The word armon recurs elsewhere in Dar'I's poetry, including five verses below this use, and always describes a palace, fortress or stronghold (compare poems 66, 69). Yeshaya's failure to interpret is unfortunate, because how you curse your neighbor says a lot about what matters to or threatens you. He does ask why the Karaite hymns do not attack Rabbanites, but we might as well ask why Rabbanite hymns never mention Karaites. Comparably, Reform Jewish liturgy today does not criticize Orthodoxy, or vice versa. That battle goes on outside of the synagogues. Before God--ostensibly to God--Jews all look like Jews.

Yeshaya hypothesizes that references to Jewish "suffering in Exile" may allude to refugees in Egypt from the 1099 Crusader conquest of Jerusalem (70). Although much of the Jerusalem Karaite community had emigrated prior to the conquest (70, n. 26 ), he suggests that these hymns retain authentic "memories" of expulsion shared by the community's remnant. This single paragraph, it turns out, is the "memory" of the volume's title. The conclusion proposes that Dar'I "'remembered' the expulsion therapeutically, "not personally," as a way of comforting exiled Karaites in his congregation (284). In so doing, he introduced into Karaite prayer a "vehicle of medieval Jewish memory" in the mode of Yosef Yerushalmi's famous distinction (285). The argument is insubstantial and barely developed. It ignores much of the work done on Jewish memory and group identity in recent years, and the vast quantities of print devoted to the subject in other fields. If anything, Dar'I seems to be aiming for something else entirely, for which we must turn to the texts themselves.

Sandwiched between the introduction and conclusion are ninety-six of Dari's 100 known liturgical hymns. Dari's Judeo-Arabic preface tells us they are based on the weekly scriptural readings. According to Yeshaya's translation, they should be recited on Friday evenings by qualified, distinguished cantors, "surrounded by poetical meters and attached to keeping the literal wordings..." (4-5). I perused the Judeo-Arabic and concluded that the critical sentence said nothing of the sort. A colleague kindly retranslated so that the cantors chanted "in quantitative meters that encompass and determine [the meaning of] related difficult [scriptural] passages..." [4] In other words, Dar'I was indeed an innovator in composing piyyutim for the Karaite liturgy. His justification was that his hymns should not be considered primarily as such; their function--in form and content--was to explicate difficult passages of Scripture. If we take him seriously, this is a very different context for the poems from the one Yeshaya offers.

Dar'I's poems unsurprisingly incorporate a lot of citations from Psalms, which Yeshaya cites according to Hebrew psalm and verse numbers; non-Hebrew translations, following the Septuagint, may differ. The translations, while often literally fair, unthinkingly swallow the language of English-language Bibles. Thus, poem 59, verse 23 appears as: "in Your mercy be pleased with the poem of a mourner, like a withering leaf (Isa. 34:4) from Aaron, and accept it as a prayer of Moses (Ps. 90:1)" (210). What can this mean? Isa. 34:4 predicts that God's enemies will drop like a leaf. The expression, however, was connected by Rabbanite commentators to a ripened (wrinkled) date that falls from the tree. Let's say that even if he was not reading Rashi and Radaq, Dar'I made a similar connection, which seems likely because that is how I read the same expression in poem 81, verse 35--"I shall...declare a jubilee for you, O people I have made like a fallen leaf" (250). In that case, Dar'I is asking God to accept a grief-ripened poem on behalf of Aaron (the priest), with prayer on behalf of Moses (the prophet). Sometimes Yeshaya's language is clunky, as when the poet thanks God "who surrounds His enemies with the anger that remains, while his friends have access forever to the pleasures in His right hand" (183). In other words, God arms himself with wrath for his foes and with delight for those who love him. Sar ha-shalom, a favorite messianic image for Dar'I, is repeatedly translated as "the peaceable Ruler," perhaps an attempt to avoid the Christological echoes in "Prince of peace," but odd. For Dar'I's concluding poem on the parshiyyot of Deuteronomy, Yeshaya translates:

"Pay attention, reviewers, to the poetry of a servant who wishes to come first among poets; However, he is like the [gently flowing waters of ] Siloam (Isa. 8:6), whilst the poems of the ancients/major [poets] are like the [mighty] waters of the Jordan and Pishon rivers; He is wearied facing the stream of stylistic devices, since it is an ancient stream, [the river] Kishon (Judg. 5:21); He is like an eyelid to the eye of poetry, whilst every respected poet is the pupil and the eyeball; A man can only try as hard as he can, but what he says depends on the Lord (Prov. 16:1)."

Pay attention, reviewers: there is no biblical, late Antique or medieval term connoting a modern "reviewer." Dar'I's expression, metei musar, is not biblical, although it combines two perfectly good biblical words and refers to men of decency or rectitude, the word musar today corresponding to "ethics." The precise phrase, moreover, was used by Andalusian poets whose work Dar'I would have known. [5] I think he is saying, "Pay attention, O critics, to the poetry of a servant who tried to do something new." The water analogy tells us that the old poets were like mighty rivers, while Dar'I is a little stream. Dar'I's ophthalmological metaphor compares those poets of glory or worth to men whose verses hit the mark, while Dar'I hugs his target's perimeter. Perhaps, "He is like a lid to poetry's eye, while the poets of glory [are] its apple and core." Am I quibbling with someone who is not a native English speaker? I don't think so, because his translation does not convince me that he understands the poetry of the poem. Look at the cumulative force of Dar'I's metaphors, which leave the poet lagging wearily behind other poets, the poetic art, finally poetry itself, only to blame God for his failings! As for those poets of glory, Yeshaya writes "it is unclear" whether Dar'I refers to biblical poets or the Andalusians. Could that be intentional?

What am I really asking of a young scholar and author? Here we have a major corpus of poetry by a medieval Hebrew poet. Why did the author fail to situate either the poet or his poetry in a larger context? Why did he fail to turn his lists of motifs and citations toward any meaningful insights about the way this poet worked, or what kind of beauty and purpose he admired? Why did he not ensure that his translations were coherent, the citations accurate, the relationship of form to content something we could reasonably ponder for the ways it is unique to this poet or part of a larger system of meanings? For that matter, where were the fellow scholars who might have prodded him, in conversations and conferences, to think about the rich material in his hands? And, here I go again, but dear Brill: did you send this manuscript out to blind readers, and could they not read Hebrew or Judeo-Arabic? [6] Why did you publish a book that asked no question, let alone journeyed toward an answer? Why do your copy-editors not notice when a translation makes no sense? Dear Brill: even American university libraries are not buying books anymore. At €139, my university library will just laugh if I ask. So whom does it serve to produce books that are unfinished and poorly edited? And what about poor Dar'I? Will we read him now?



1. Joachim Yeshaya, Medieval Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

2. Judah HaLevi, Yeqar Yom haShabbat, verses 3-4, my translation, Hebrew text in Simon Bernstein, ed., Shir'ei Yehudah haLevi (New York: Ogen Publishing, 1944), poem 135, p. 144.

3. Ruth Langer, Cursing the Christians? A History of the Birkat ha-Minim (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

4. Ross Brann, email communication, July 13, 2015.

5. See, for example, Aaron Mirsky, ed., Shirei Yitzhaq Ibn Khalfun (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1961), 144, poem 63.

6. I have played this chord before. See my review of Yosef Tobi, Between Hebrew and Arabic Poetry: Studies in Spanish Medieval Hebrew Poetry (Leiden: Brill, 2010), TMR 12.05.01.