The Gadol of Gaza: Rabbi Yisrael Najara

BY ODELIA GLAUSIUSZ

My heart races when I see / my enemy stabbing me with his eyes
Gnashing his teeth full of rage / to disperse the multitude of my troops.
Hasten, answer me mightily / G-d of Hosts. / How long until the end of awful things,

That I may rejoice and my honor triumph?

This poet seems to be talking to us directly. As I write this, it has been 85 days since the October 7th massacre. Hostages are still trapped in Gaza, soldiers are still engaged in a bitter battle, the country is still reeling. We’re all asking, how long until the end of awful things? When can we rejoice again? Yet these words were written some four hundred years ago by Rabbi Yisrael Najara, a prolific poet, who, for much of his life, served as the rabbi of Gaza.

A fascinating figure, he was born in Tzfat around 1550 to a family of rabbinic scholars of Spanish origin. His grandfather, Rabbi Levi Najara, was among those exiled from Spain in 1492, and resettled in Constantinople. His father, Rabbi Moshe Najara, was hired as rabbi by the Jewish community in Damascus, before relocating to Tzfat, where he became a close friend and student of the Arizal. Rabbi Yisrael Najara himself spent long periods in Tzfat and Damascus, while also visiting Istanbul, Salonika and Bursa. This diverse background greatly informed his unique approach as a paytan.    

Rabbi Najara was well-versed in Torah and halacha. But his true fame rests on his enormous poetic oeuvre. Scholars have identified some 1,000 poems composed by him, and, according to Professor Tova Beeri, evidence of his enormous popularity are the three editions of his early collected poems entitled Zemirot Yisrael that were printed during his lifetime. This was extremely unusual for his time and place. Indeed, the first edition, published in Tzfat in 1587, was the second book ever printed in Eretz Yisrael. It spread like wildfire. From as early as the seventeenth century, his poems were sung from Morocco to Persia, and his poetry became a model for paytanim who followed in his footsteps.

Najara’s poems reached the Ashkenaz world as well, first appearing in 1702 in Frankfurt, when a little booklet entitled Zemirot Yisrael was published by a group of mystics from Bohemia and Moravia. The mystical poetry of Tzfat likely entered central Europe through Italy (where Jewish circles were in contact with Sephardi communities of the Middle East), before extending east to Poland and Russia. Today, his most well-known poem, Kah Ribon, is sung at Shabbat tables around the world.

Why was he so influential, and why did his poetry reach so many people? The primary source of his work is the Tanach; his poetry is infused with verses of prophecy. In this vein, Najara was following in the tradition of medieval Sephardic poets like Yehuda HaLevi, Avraham Ibn Ezra and Shlomo Ibn Gevirol. His own contribution to the genre was to adapt musical models from the Ottoman empire in which he lived. He learnt the versifications, techniques and forms of the Turkish and Arabic poetry and songs of his time and skillfully combined them with devotional Hebrew text. His poems were designed to be sung, and he designated a melody to almost every poem. By borrowing melodies of popular foreign songs sung by the local Jewish populace, and making them, in his own words, ‘kosher,’ he displayed a willingness to interact with and uplift popular culture that greatly bolstered his widespread popularity. To quote Professor Edwin Seroussi, it takes a real talmid chacham to make magic from combining texts. Najara was able to weave two remote verses together and imbue them with a renewed sense in song, dancing between Tanach and Talmudic allusions, and borrowing a wealth of different poetic forms to infuse his poetry with deeper meaning.

His genius also lies in his crystal-clear Hebrew that is a pleasure to listen to and is still easily understood today. He clothed lofty ideas in beautiful language, yet his language was accessible to the general populace. His words have withstood the most difficult test – the test of time – and his poems are still performed by modern Israeli singers. Yet not only his language, but also his ideas, still speak to us today.

Despite the despair in the opening stanza I quoted above, the same poem continues: “Rock, with You, I can rush barriers. / To You I shall sing as long as I live.” This too, is still our response, hundreds of years later. With our rallying cry, Am Yisrael Chai, with our deeply ingrained awareness that “every generation they rise against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands,” we too continue to sing, to “rush barriers,” to do extraordinary things.

Back in November, Lt. Col. (Res.) Rabbi Yoel Rechel returned to the site of Najara’s shul in Gaza and sang Kah Ribon there before Shabbat. Charles Dickens once called the sea “that old image of Eternity that I love so much.” Watching Rabbi Rechel sing with the bright blue sea glistening behind him, it becomes easier to imagine Rabbi Najara standing in the same spot, gazing out at the same sea, marveling at the beauty of G-d’s world. The city facing the sea may have changed beyond recognition, but the same waters lap gently onto the shore.

Kah Ribon captures the effervescent sense of awe and incredulity at the wondrous nature of G-d’s handiwork and the pure joy and inner peace that accompanies that profound gratitude. In flowing Aramaic, in terminology that appears to be borrowed from Daniel, Rabbi Najara writes that it is “beautiful” to declare G-d’s “mighty deeds and wonders” before Him, that His great and mighty deeds “humble the proud and raise the humble.” To the proud, it is enough to gaze out at the vast expanse of sea and realize that we are but a speck on the face of the universe. To the humble, it is enough to gaze out at sea to be instilled with a profound sense of purpose, to realize that we dwell in a beautiful world, and we are privileged to have been chosen to call that world home.

Kah Ribon ends with a plea to save us “from the lions’ jaws,” another allusion to Daniel. This time the lions’ jaws are Hamas, but their steely clamp is loosening. Daniel survived to tell the tale, and so will we. When singing Kah Ribon, we can imagine a future where the Gaza of Rabbi Najara returns to life, a Gaza of poetry and song.

 

Odelia Glausiusz lives in Jerusalem where she works as a freelance writer and content curator.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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