Samuel Hanagid and the “Law of Man”

by Henry Rasof

One of the most enduring symbols of the so-called Golden Age of Spain—at least for Jews-in-the-know—is the poet, statesman, warrior, Talmudic scholar, and patron Samuel Hanagid—Samuel the Prince. Born in Cordoba in 993, he went on, as is usually described, to become one of the first and most prolific Spanish-Hebrew poets, vizier to the ruler of Granada, and commander of the army. He wrote about many subjects, including love, loss, and war, and dispensed a great deal of wisdom.

My experience of Samuel the Nagid is of a passionate, emotional, sensitive, thoughtful, religious man. All of this is summed up especially well in the beginning of “On Fleeing His City,” the first poem in Peter Cole’s fine collection of poems by the Nagid (all quotes here are drawn from this book, and the complete poems are on this web site):

Spirit splits in its asking,

and soul in its wanting is balked;

and the body, fattened, is vital
and full—

its precious being uneasy . . .

But the modest man
walks on the earth with his
thought drawn toward sky.

What good is the pulse of man’s flesh
and its favors
when the mind is in pain?

Here are splitting, wanting, balking, vitality, fullness, preciousness, uneasiness, modesty, and pain—a broad spectrum of human qualities—and in addition a reflective, carefully observant narrator interpreting what he sees and offering indirect advice: “the modest man/walks on earth with his/thought drawn toward the sky.” We must simultaneously have our feet on the ground and our thoughts in heaven. And we must recognize that mind and body cannot be separated—we can try to lose ourselves in the pleasures of the flesh but will never succeed when our “mind is in pain.”

The Nagid’s times were difficult times, for even in the midst of the Golden Age, the kingdom of Granada seemed constantly at war. Jews, Muslims, and Christians mingled, but beneath the surface was the potential for conflict. One might imagine him caught up in the battle of life, in his responsibilities, yet yearning for a quieter life, perhaps a life of contemplation, study, and poetry. In a way he resembles the mythical kings David and Solomon, also embroiled in the battles of life and also poets and dispensers of wisdom. Even the casual observer might think the Nagid styled himself after these leaders, as evidenced in the poetry collections assembled by his son: “After Psalms,” “After Ecclesiastes,” “After Proverbs.” The biblical psalms are full of poetry, love of God, and bloodshed; Ecclesiastes, of astute if sometimes cynical wisdom; Proverbs, of catchy phrases distilling higher wisdom into a form suitable for the masses.

A self-seriousness and tiredness permeate many of the Nagid’s poems. We lead a life of toil and trouble and then, toward the end, try to figure out what we have learned from life and, if we are lucky, how to condense this learning into sayings.

“The Market” is the most striking, or one of the most striking, of the poems, a graphic description of the marketplace as a metaphor for life. In addition, the poem surveys his various genres and modes—the blood and guts of Psalms, the concise wisdom of Proverbs, the cynicism of Ecclesiastes. Above the fray stands the Nagid, dispensing judgment in the form of the “law of man.” Or is this meant to be the voice of God, projecting through the Nagid? One can almost hear a refrain at the end: “For I am the Lord, your God.”

In the first stanza the poet, in the first person, describes a walk through the meat and fish markets. This is the marketplace of life, a hot, brutal, bloody place where people do what they need to do and divide the spoils accordingly.

I crossed through a souk where the butchers
hung oxen and sheep at their sides . . .
as blood congealed over blood
and slaughterers’ knives opened veins.

The poet asks, “What separates you from these beasts?”? and then introduces God: “If He wanted this instant/He’d easily put you in their place.” He continues with a nod to Ecclesiastes, saying “there was never a time when the living didn’t die,/nor the young that they bear not give birth.” At the end comes a proverb of sorts:

Pay attention to this, you pure ones,
and princes so calm in your fame,
know if you’d fathom the worlds of the hidden:
This is the law of man.

If the Nagid offers any answer to these questions, it is that this is the way things are; it is a medieval statement of Darwin’s concept of the survival of the fittest, also a “law of man.”

When I was in Granada several years ago, I searched for a memorial to the Nagid that I had read about in a book. I had a vague sense of where the Jewish quarter had been, and I knew that the Jews in those days often lived near the castles of the Muslim rulers.

I wandered up and down the streets of where I thought the Jews had lived, sniffing the air, “dowsing,” at it were, for the location of the memorial or square. I thought I might stumble on this memorial in an aha! experience. No such luck. Only when I returned home to the States and did more research did I learn where the memorial is located; but even then I could never find it on a street map of Granada.

As with the memorial to the Nagid, locating the reality of the man is challenging. Was Samuel Hanagid an original poet, or did he follow the stylized conventions of his day, emulating Arabic poetry? Did he attend all-night drinking parties and make passes at young boys and girls, as intimated by his poems? How could a Jew become so highly favored by a Muslim ruler when Jews in general were still treated as second-class citizens? Was he everything he said he was, that we think he was, and did he do everything he said he did and that we think he did or would like him to have done? Was there really a Golden Age of Spain and of Hebrew literature, or was this, too, overblown, as is the view of some scholars today? Why would the Spanish build memorials to long-dead Jews, five hundred years after burying twenty thousand Jewish children alive? Then, why are some of these memorials so hard to find?

Scholars deal with such questions but not necessarily or always in relation to Samuel Hanagid. Still, in spite of some very convincing answers, as with poetry itself, perhaps clear and final answers are not the order of the day. And perhaps “precise” truth is less interesting or important than myths. Yes, knowing the truth about the Nagid would have value, but at the same time, in today’s world, which in spite of its riches seems almost the opposite of a Golden Age, there is some value as well to a myth, to a metaphor, based not on the reality of the marketplace but instead on a deeper reality, “the worlds of the hidden,” for “this [too] is the law of man.”

Brann, Ross. The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain. Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Pagis, Dan. Hebrew Poetry of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974.

Scheindlin, Raymond P. Wine, Women, and Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1986 (paperback: New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

go to Samuel HaNagid page