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. from Gates to Jewish
Heritage by David E. Lipman
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.
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
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 1055–56 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
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
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
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
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
I Lodged in a Heavy Fortress
I billeted a
heavy fortress overnight in a citadel laid waste in former days by other
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
And where are the many people born after the others
had died, in days gone by, after other days and years?
lodged upon the earth; now they are lodged within it.
from their palaces to the grave, from pleasant courts to dust.
they now to raise their heads and emerge, they would rob us of our lives
Oh, it is true, my soul, most true: tomorrow I
shall be like them and all these troops as well.
is at first like a beautiful girl with whom all men long to
but in the end like a repulsive hag whose suitors all weep
Av Has Died
Av has died and Elul has died, and
so has their warmth.
Tishri, too, has died and been gathered to
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.
frost and the tongues of fire;
One falls down as the others rise
Arise, drink from the cup, and then again out of the
Drink night and day."