Samuel Ha-Nagid

Poet, Vizier, and General

The incredible career of Samuel Ha-Nagid marks the highest achievement of a Jew in medieval Muslim Spain. Samuel was born in Cordoba to a prominent family. He received an excellent Jewish and general education, including training in Arabic and the Koran, and studied halachah under Chanoch ben Moses of Cordoba. He believed that he was of Davidic descent which inspired his confidence in his rise to power and his career.

In 1013 CE Samuel was among those forced to flee Cordoba in the wake of the Berber conquest. According to the 12th-century historian, Abraham ibn Daud, he opened a spice shop in Malaga. He apparently wrote poetry on the side. He was approached by a maidservant of the secretary to the vizier of Granada, who asked him to write letters to her master. The vizier was so favorably impressed by Samuel's Arabic style that he advised the Berber ruler of Granada to appoint Samuel to his staff.

Samuel advanced from tax collector to secretary to assistant-to-the-vizier in 1020 CE. Incredibly, he himself later became vizier.

In 1027 the Jews conferred upon him the title Nagid of Spanish Jewry. The Muslim king of Grenada died in 1038, and his sons struggled over who would become king. Samuel Ha-Nagid supported the right son, and became the new king's top adviser.

Much of Samuel's work as vizier entailed leading the army of Granada, which was occupied in constant warfare with Arab Seville. It was indeed remarkable that a Jew stood at the helm of a Muslim army, which from 1038 to 1056 (the span of Samuel's command) knew only two years of respite from fighting. His triumphs were viewed by the Jews as national victories. The constant travel weakened him considerably and in 105556 he died on a campaign.

In 11th-century Granada no one was considered educated unless he could compose poetry. Children copying the poems of their father also characterized Arabic culture at that time. For these and other reasons Samuel educated his children to value and study poetry. He charged his sons with the copying and arranging of his poems and paid them for each completed work. When they performed their task well he praised them.

He was also the patron of several young Jewish poets. He was one of the patrons of Solomon ibn Gabirol, who addressed the Nagid as "my father, my rider, my chariot," and dedicated several poems to him.

Samuel's poems have come down in three works: Ben Tehillim, Ben Mishlei, and Ben Kohelet. The poems are refined and reflect profound worldly wisdom, as well as the many facets of his life as Jew, father, intellectual, nagid, vizier, and military commander. Samuel's poetry was more developed and diversified than that of his contemporaries, the first generation of Hebrew poets in Spain. His war poems, which evince great skill in creating epic, were unique in Hebrew poetry. The pleasures and vanities of life, which he knew well, stimulated his poetic inspiration. Besides poems devoted to love and wine, he composed poems of praise and glory, friendship and polemic, mourning and holiness, wisdom, morality, and meditation. Just as he wrote of wine and victory, he wrote of the illnesses of his children, and of the death of his brother Isaac. A literary artist of high order, his sure command of language is demonstrated by the great variety of subjects he chose for poetic expression.

Just as he influenced the poets of his day so too they influenced him. He translated poems from Arabic and also composed in that language. The boasting and self-exaltation traditional to medieval Arabic and Hebrew poetry are recognizable in Samuel's poems. Samuel's poems were read at gatherings of poets, some of whom found them faulty in grammar and style, while others praised their novelty and inventiveness. Samuel bestowed gifts on his favorite poets who then praised him in their poems; those from whom he withheld his generosity deprecated his poetry.

In addition to being a poet, Samuel was both a halachist and a communal leader. At a time when the Babylonian geonim still viewed themselves as the ultimate authorities, his "Sefer Hilcheta Gavrata" was viewed as a direct challenge. In fact, he does criticize some of the geonic decisions. Its appearance was viewed by some, including the poet Solomon ibn Gabirol, as the victory of Spanish Jewry over Hai Gaon of Pumbedita. Accused of insulting the gaonate, Samuel wrote a poetic apology acknowledging its supremacy.

Abraham ibn Daud, however, cites Samuel as one of "the first of the generation of the rabbinate" who marked the end of the geonic predominance in talmudic and halachic scholarship. The Nagid was also the author of criticism of the Koran, which was cited by a contemporary Muslim author. After reading the latter's version of Samuel's critique, the Arab historian-philosopher, Ibn Chazm, wrote a bitter polemic against it.

Despite his halachic writings, Samuel's relationships with the Babylonian gaonate were generally good. While no correspondence between Hai Gaon and the Nagid has been discovered, Hai's successor, the exilarch Hezekiah b. David, was a friend of Samuel. He also maintained friendly relations with the Palestinian communities, supplying the synagogues in Jerusalem with olive oil

Some of Samuel Ha-Nagid's Poetry

I Lodged in a Heavy Fortress

I billeted a heavy fortress overnight in a citadel laid waste in former days by other generals.

There we slept upon its back and flanks, while under us its landlords slept.

And I said to my heart: Where are the many people who once lived here?

Where are the builders and vandals, the rulers and paupers, the slaves and masters?

Where are the begetters and the bereaved, the fathers and the sons, the mourners and the bridegrooms?

And where are the many people born after the others had died, in days gone by, after other days and years?

Once they lodged upon the earth; now they are lodged within it.

They passed from their palaces to the grave, from pleasant courts to dust.

Were they now to raise their heads and emerge, they would rob us of our lives and pleasures.

Oh, it is true, my soul, most true: tomorrow I shall be like them and all these troops as well.


War

War is at first like a beautiful girl with whom all men long to play,

but in the end like a repulsive hag whose suitors all weep and ache.


Av Has Died

Av has died and Elul has died, and so has their warmth.

Tishri, too, has died and been gathered to them.

The cold days have come, the wine has grown red and is now silent in the barrel.

Therefore, my friend, go and find companions, and let each man fulfil his own desire.

They said, "Behold the clouds pouring down, listen to the heavens thundering.

See the frost and the tongues of fire;

One falls down as the others rise and swirl.

Arise, drink from the cup, and then again out of the jug;

Drink night and day."

from Gates to Jewish Heritage by David E. Lipman