The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492

By Peter Cole | Go to book overview

MOSHE IBN HABIB
(second half of the fifteenth century)

Portugal's small Jewish community played virtually no part in the renaissance of Hebrew poetry in Iberia. The first evidence of a Portuguese dimension to the canon comes at the beginning of the fourteenth century, when David Ben Bilieh writes a treatise called “How to Rhyme.” After the Expulsion we find Yehuda Abravanel (Leone Hebreo), perhaps the most famous of Portuguese Jewish writers, in Italy composing a long poem of complaint about his Iberian trials. Also of interest among the part-time Portuguese-Hebrew poets is Moshe Ibn Habib, who was known primarily as a grammarian and philosopher. Born and raised in Lisbon, at some point he left Portugal for Italy. (The Jews were expelled from the country in 1497, but Ibn Habib, it seems, emigrated no later than the middle of the 1480s.) The impoverished writer settled in the Apulian town of Bitonto, and then moved on to Naples and Otranto. While hardly a poet of note, he composed a valuable, if distorted, guide to verse; Darkhei No'am (Pleasant Paths), written in Bitonto, surveys the poetics of the Spanish Hebrew school—which, as he sees it, derive from the Bible. In it Ibn Habib demonstrates the prosodic practice of the period through short didactic poems of his own, two of which are translated here. Of the six types of poetry that he says existed previously, he is willing to discuss just three: uplifting sacred verse, poetry of reproof, and poetry of moral guidance. “Of the other three “types”,” he says, “it is forbidden to speak, let alone write them down in a book, for only a person whose soul has been sullied with such things and whose mind is muddied would employ them.”

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