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D’ror Yikra: Rites, Rhythms and Heresy

Trace the sound of Shabbat zemirot from Fez to the Spanish mountains.

Hugo Billen

D’ror yikra is one of the essential Sabbath songs in many Jewish homes. The poem, which is now sung with many tunes, is a plea to God to protect the Jewish people, destroy their enemies and bring peace and redemption to the world. The poem is unusual for its time as its language is entirely Biblical, rather than a mixture of Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew. However, what I want to talk about is the fascinating historical context that surrounds that poem, and more specifically the life and work of its author, Dunash ben Labrat.

Dunash was born in the Moroccan city of Fes, between 920 and 925 AD. He was a member of the Tobashim, the original Jewish population of Morocco, who later were outnumbered by the Megorashim, the refugees of the Spanish Inquisition. As a young man he moved to Baghdad in Iraq where he studied with Hacham Saadia Gaon, one of the leading Talmudic scholars of the time. He later returned to Morocco where he started teaching Hebrew grammar and poetry.

Hasdai ibn Shaprut, a Jewish ambassador for the Caliph Abd ar-Rahman, invited Dunash ben Labrat to the Spanish city of Cordoba, the centre of art and culture in the Islamic world. After he moved, Dunash met Menachem ben Saruq (920-970), the personal secretary of Haidai ibn Shaprut, fellow grammarian and poet, primarily remembered nowadays for writing the first complete dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, the Mahberet. This meeting led to the greatest controversy in Jewish arts.

What made Dunash ben Labrat a great poet of his era, and why he is remembered today, was his novel approach to Hebrew poetry. While all Hebrew poetry that preceded Dunash followed strict rules inherited from ancient times, he decided to incorporate the Hazaj Arabic-Persian meter into traditional Hebrew poetry to create a new Hebrew meter. All subsequent medieval Hebrew poetry was based on this meter.

For those who are not well versed in poetry, a metre is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse. The Hazaj metre structures verses on a repeated rhythm of one short syllable followed by three long syllables. Dunash’s innovation was to consider the Hebrew Sheva vowel and Hataf vowels as the equivalent of Arabic short vowels. For example, in order to preserve the rhythmic structure, the second verse of D’ror yikra reads as “N’im shimchem velo yushbat” despite the fact that “N’im” is grammatically incorrect in traditional Hebrew, and should be pronounced “Na’im” (Many publishers edit the poem to fit traditional Hebrew grammar rules).

Although many welcomed this novel form of Hebrew poetry, others were not pleased at all with this development. The leading voice of opposition was Menachem ben Saruq, presented earlier. He thought that Dunash was corrupting the Hebrew language by introducing Arabic forms, and changing the traditional Biblical styles to conform to the Arabic meter and rhyming schemes. This criticism led to a major dispute between Dunash ben Labrat and Menachem ben Saruq.

Now it may be seen from our perspective as a minor event, with two grammarians arguing back and forth about counting vowels in a verse, but this event was really significant at the time. Poetry was very important to both the social and cultural life of Sephardic Jewry. Sephardim truly loved poetry, it was common at that time to have poetry gatherings where poems were shared and recited. Poets were the medieval equivalent of contemporary movie stars. So when the controversy between Dunash ben Labrat and Menachem ben Saruq emerged, the poetry-savvy Sephardim quickly chose a side to support. The controversy reached its peak when followers of Dunash ben Labrat and Menachem ben Saruq would have poetry competitions, what we know nowadays as rap battles, that would often end in fist fights.

The hostilities ended when Dunash ben Labrat accused Menachem ben Saruq of being a secret Karaite, a Jewish heretic that does not recognize the authority of the Talmud. The validity of this accusation remains debated today, but Hasdai ibn Shaprut (presented previously) believed this accusation and exiled Menachem ben Saruq out of Cordoba, to northern Spain, and his influence on Sephardic poetry vanished. Dunash ben Labrat on the other hand continued a very successful life as a poet and grammarian until he passed away in 990.

A lot can be learned from that event. First, I am amazed how much incredible history is hidden in seemingly trivial Jewish practices. Behind a song sung every week hides a major controversy that shaped the Hebrew language. But more importantly, this dispute is representative of many other disputes that occurred in Jewish history: how much change is acceptable in Jewish traditions? To what extent can or should foreign ideas and practices be incorporated in our beliefs and rituals? These questions remain very controversial to this day. Some claim that the Judaism they practice is of the purest form: eternal, unchanged and not influenced by anything foreign. Yet behind this veneer of purity lies a Judaism shaped by centuries of growth and strife, bringing to the world a rite that sings in many melodies.

About the author

Hugo Billen

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