From now on I am going to publish a series of articles about the Kabbalah and the jewish tradition. Most of the texts are written in English, Spanish or Italian. My decision has to do with the fact that the Kabbalh did not come into the scene until medieval period in Spain- my country. Because of the derorioration of the political and social situation of the Jews o that time, some jews of the era looked inward to deal with the outside cultural crisis and social persecution that suddenly overtook them, and this is perhaps why Kabbalah florished during the 13th Century onwards. Crisis typically brings change, and like the crisis we are living right now all over the world, the Kabbalah can be used by many to find their way out. Good luck in your search.
Sergio Calle Llorens
Ibn Gabirol was the greatest of the Spanish-Jewish poets, philosopher and a mystic. His Arabic name was Abu Ayyud sulaiman ibn Yahya ibn Jebirul and in Hebrew Shlomo ben Yehuda ibn Gabirol. In his acrostic signature he sometime added ha-malagi indicating his origin from Malaga, which was later, confused with elmelech (the king) hence the title ‘King Solomon, The Jew’.
Solomon Ibn Gabirol was born in Malaga in 1021 (or 1022). His family was of refugees who had fled Cordoba during a political upheaval of 1013 when an army of wild Berbers conquered and sacked Cordoba ending the Ummayad dynasty.
The Jews of Al-Andalus, as Muslim Spain was called, were an integral part of a wider Mediterranean Jewish civilisation. Settled in Spain since Roman times, (some claim even as early as the Phoenician), were well integrated into the society around them. Persecution and mass baptism of the Jews by the Catholic left no professing Jews by the time of the Arab conquest that begun in 661. The Arabs were welcomed by the Jews as liberators and helped them in their struggle against the Catholic Visigoths. On the whole, religious tolerance was accepted as the way of life, providing Muslims were on top. Berber, Arab or Slav prince’s split al-Andalusia up to independent states. All of which welcomed the presence of the talented Jews at their courts. It was the Golden Age of the Jews of Al-Andalusia, a time when they managed to combine significant advances in religious learning with broad secular cultural and real political power. They shared a common culture and language.
An Arab empire stretching from India to the Atlantic Ocean ended the isolation of the Jews and established links with its centre of Jewish learning (Talmudic) in Baghdad and its academies of Sura and Pumbeditha. Communications and trade throughout the wide expanse of the Islamic realm made the exchange of leanings between Babylon and Al-Andalus via the centre in Cairo possible. Arab philosophy influenced and modified Jewish mysticism. The ‘Faithful Brothers of Basra’ and the translation of Neoplatonic and Aristotelian in the 9th century kindled spiritual awakening in both religions. Jewish literature, philosophy, science and theology were also revived and quickened similarly. This new intellectual openness meant, for both Muslims and Jews, the gradual integration of writing and teachings from the culture centre of Baghdad into the Andalusian culture. The cultural growth in al-Andalus produced great literary figures, Muslim and Jews alike, in the field of poetry, science, philosophy and religious sciences.
Ibn Gabirol was the first Jewish Neoplatonic in Spain. Gabirol was greatly influenced by earlier Jewish philosophers among them Isaac Ben Solomon Israeli who was born in Egypt around 855 and is known as the first Jewish Neo-Platonist. Israeli composed works in philosophy and medicine. In his philosophical work, Israeli developed his doctrine of emanation. Another philosopher of the same period was Sa’adiah Ben Yusuph, Gaon of Sura academy and is known as the greatest Jewish scholar of the Abbasid period. In the development of Kabbalah and particularly the Toledano line, Gabirol marks the period of transition from the intense mystical experience of the Merkava tradition to one that reconcile reason and revelation. A line that was carried on by numerous Kabbalists throughout history to the present time. Gabirol’s contribution to Kabalah was that God is an Absolute unity, in whom form and substance are identical. Therefore no attributions can be ascribed to God, and man can comprehend God only by means of the beings emanating from him. Gabirol mentioned the four worlds as Beriah, Yetzira and Asiya, while he considered Atzilut to be identical with the will.
Cordoba in the 10 century was the centre of the Islamic civilisation of the new Khalifate. Hisdai ibn Shaprut, who was born in Jaen 910, transferred the Jewish learning centre over time from Baghdad to Cordoba. With the decline of Babylonian Academies, Hisdai and his agents bought up unused copies of the Talmud and any other books they could find in Sura and elsewhere for use in Cordoba. The relations between the two centres remained close as affirmed by the lament written by Solomon Ibn Gabirol in 1038 on hearing of the death of Rav Hai, Gaon of Pumbeditha.
Even the revival of the Hebrew language was a direct influence from Muslim Arabs who were obsessed with Arabic, the language of their holy Qur’an, with poetry as the Queen of the Arts. With the introduction of papermaking from China, books were more affordable. Islamic linguistic scholarship had influenced poetic innovation in Hebrew, a language not spoken for more than a thousand years, and stimulated the development of the study of the grammar and vocabulary of biblical Hebrew as discipline in their own right. Dunash ibn Labrat was born Fez 920, studied in Iraq under Sa’adiah Ga’on, a poet who introduced Arabic metrical schemes who also revived Hebrew grammar.
Solomon Ibn Gabirol’s parents took him to Saragossa in the north while he was still young and both died there. First his mother, from a broken heart on seen her son’s sufferings and of poverty, then his father from exhaustion of the daily grind of bare existence. Saragossa became the main political and cultural centre in Muslim Spain and was one of the greatest and most prosperous of the Muslim-kingdom-cities alongside Granada in the south. In Saragossa, Jews living in the large Jewish quarter managed an orderly community life within and without its walls.
Alone from the age of 12, Gabirol was dependent on the community for his welfare. At first, his neighbours provided for his needs later on financial support was provided by local Jewish community services. The community’s support dwindled as soon as Gabirol’s poetry received public acclaims for his youthful ingenuity. Gabirol did not lack artistic rivals whom he accused of stealing his poetry and writing it with some changes as their own. He ridiculed the poverty of their ideas and talent and praised his own. His enemies demanded to put a stop to his allowance claiming he was old enough to find a paid work rather than depend on charity. Ibn Gabirol often found refuge in the house of Ibn Ga’nach, a local doctor and a grammarian from whom Gabirol received parental love, Jewish leanings and treatment for his skin disease that afflicted him. Ibn Gabirol suffered from a painful and disfiguring disease, most likely caused by a nervous disposition. His skin conditions caused him great social embarrassment that all he could do was to hide away and avoid the disgust expressed on people’s faces on seen him. He often wrote about the torment of his fleshy wounds, the burning sensations taking over his soul.
In Zaragoza Gabirol acquired his Jewish education training (Bible, early Midrashim, Heichalot and Merkava-chariot mysticism) in the use of philosophical sources in Arabic. He created an original style infusing Biblical Hebrew with images and idioms from Arabic poetry. His scientific knowledge, especially of astronomy and his neoplatonic learning are evident in his poems. Many of Gabirol’s liturgical poetry have been preserved in Sephardi, Ashkenazi and even Karaits prayer books. He had a phenomenal capacity to compose poetry in Hebrew from a very young age as expressed in his poem ‘Ani ha-sar’.
I am the Master singer and Song is my slave…