Note on the Systems of Hebrew Versification

 by Benjamin Harshav


The Hebrew poetry that flourished in Spain from the tenth to the fifteenth century was based on the Arabic system of poetics adapted to the Hebrew language. In secular poetry the metre was quantitative, i.e. there was a pattern of long and short syllables throughout a line repeated in all the lines of a poem (similar to the system used in classical Greek poetry). Under Arabic influence the Hebrew language here emphasized a difference between ‘short’ vowels (shva, hataf, and the conjunction u) and the regular vowels, considered as ‘long’. This distinction disregarded the stress which was the major rhythmical factor in biblical poetry. The typical secular poem was a long poem (qasida) consisting of a chain of lines, each composed of two metrically equivalent versets (the delet, ‘door’, and soger, ‘lock’). Each poem had only one rhyme repeated throughout its dozens of lines as a string of beads (the metaphor used by the theoreticians; the Hebrew word for ‘rhyme’ means literally ‘bead’).

It should be noted that the schemes of such quantitative metres were of two types: the regular type, in which a short syllable [U] alternates with a fixed number of long ones [—] throughout the line except at the end of each delet and soger. For example, the most widespread metre was (from left to right)

U — — — / U — — — / U— — // U— — — / U— — — / U— —

and the alternating type, . . . where two basic feet alternate:

— — U — / — U — /— — U — / — U — // — — U — / — U—/ — — U — / — —

There was also a kind of free metre, with an irregular order of short and long syllables, which was, however, fixed in a permanent scheme and repeated in all the lines of a poem, as in many of the girdle poems (see below).

The Hebrew poets also employed a metre of ‘long’ syllables, avoiding the short ones altogether (mishkal hatenu’ot). On the other hand they developed a syllabic metre, based on a regular number of syllables per line (6 or 8), which allowed the free use of short vowels but disregarded them as syllables.

At the same time, however, Hebrew poets in Spain favoured a new form that had developed in Spanish-Arabic poetry and was possibly based on Romance strophic songs. This was the so-called muwashshah or girdle poem, comprising two kinds of strophes: (1) each basic strophe had its own rhyme (or rhyme pattern), but was alternated with (2) girdles, strophes of a separate form (and metre) repeating one rhyme (or rhyme pattern) throughout the whole poem. . . . The last girdle usually employed colloquial Arabic or colloquial Romance, thus indicating the melody to be used for the poem.

The girdle poem combined the effects of the string which unified the whole poem in a refrain-like manner with the love for variation in rhyming typical of European poetry as well as of the earlier Hebrew piyut. . . .

Excerpted from Benjamin Hrushovski, “Notes on the Systems of Hebrew Versification,” in T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (Allen Lane 1981). Copyright © 1981 by Benjamin Hrushovski. Reprinted by permission of Benjamin Harshav.

Copyright @ 1981 by Benjamin Hrushovski