Joseph ben Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi

(ca. 1261 to before 1330)


Biography of Joseph ben Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi
The Poems
About the Translator


Biography of Joseph ben Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi

Joseph b. Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi, one the most talented Hebrew poets living outside of Spain in the thirteenth century, was born in 1261/62 and died about 1300 (but not later than 1330). Probably born in Jerusalem, he was the son of the famous biblical commentator, grammarian, and lexicographer Tanchum b. Joseph ha-Yerushalmi, who sometime between 1276 and 1291 was a rabbi in the Egyptian capital.

We know that at least after 1276 Joseph lived in Fustat (Old Cairo), where he enjoyed the patronage of the Egyptian nagid (head of the Jews) Rabbi David b. Abraham Maimuni, the grandson of Maimonides, whose family he served as a court poet. Between 1285 and 1289 Joseph was involved in pro-Maimonist activities.

During the years 1276 to 1291 he wrote most of his poetry and rhymed prose, which are preserved in two books: a divan (a collection of his poetry and works in rhymed prose known as makamot and the Sefer Arugot ha-Besamim (a collection of short poems with homophone rhymes). Joseph himself wrote a commentary to his last book.

Joseph adopted the technique of the Spanish school of medieval Hebrew poetry and excelled in all genres fashionable in his period, especially the muwashshah, or “girdle” poem, and he was the most significant Eastern poet using this typical Spanish strophic form. He composed liturgical poems (piyyutim), dirges—lamentations—(kinot) for the 9th of Av, dirges on the dead, and penitential prayers (selichot), but the greater part of his work consists of secular poetry, including praise poems, love poems, wine poems, friendship poems, garden poems, and riddles. He also translated a number of Arabic poems into Hebrew.

The works of Joseph b. Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi are only partially published. My Ph.D. dissertation was a first attempt to introduce the poet and his works to the community of literary scholars. Since my publications on the poet, several additional publications have appeared. However, no additional literary research has been done on the works of this poet. This selection of his poems in English translation is either the first or largest such selection published to date.

Bibliography and Further Reading

An Introduction to the Poetry of Joseph Ben Tanhum Ha-Yerushalmi and to the History of Its Research: A Study Based Primarily upon Manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1988.

—Collected and translated by Dr. Hayim Y. Sheynin.


The Poems

The following are laudatory and congratulatory
poems from the Diwan, Chapter IV.

2. Diw IV:2

And he said one praise poem more:

Rivers of blessings encircled Egypt,
and Egypt wore magnificent ornaments pleasing to the eye;

Bright stars glowed in her gloriously,
after they had darkened in the twin rivers’ waters.

This poem praises the notable dwelling in Egypt’s borders,
Even though the abundance of his kindness flies to Shinar and Sepharvaim

He is the lord David, God’s chosen, most generous of all
the generous, head of Ephraim’s sons.

He has united high office, Torah, and humility;
his eminence is high as the heavens.

If in his generosity he would lay his hand upon a rock,
the rock would immediately flow with water;

Every poor man would grow rich through his generosity and kindness;
to everyone who asks his assistance, his hands are two open palms.

The matters of Cain’s brother are low in him, but
lofty as heaven are the matters of Ham’s brothers.

Wisdom, ingenuity, and perfection join in his heart,
standing out like a tree by the waters.

With his goodness he has revived lost branches of knowledge
and exchanged their darkness for the midday light.

His steps are always guarded from evil,
but he runs swiftly to do kindness.

His words are smooth as oil, sweet as honey,
more precious than Parvaim gold.

These words strengthen the heart of the wise
but weaken the knees of wicked ones and fools;

Wise men delight in these words,
but they corrode the fool’s teeth like vinegar;

On the fool’s palate these words will taste bitter as the water of Marah,
but on the wise man’s palate they will taste sweet.

These words illuminate the sphere of knowledge,
but their splendor makes the sun and moon ashamed.

He inherited from his forefathers all desirable traits
and enriched them sevenfold.

His soul greatly desired perfection; his abundant
wisdom is like the vast and wide sea.

Ask those who think they have counted his praises
whether they could weigh mountains on a balance.

May God set his fame high up to the awesome
heaven and glorify his majesty twofold.

May God grant him long life so that he is privileged to see
the Redeemer of Israel and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

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3. Diw IV:3

And he wrote to the Nagid David—may his Rock guard him—
on the wedding of his son:

Praises were created only for you;
therefore tongues are unable to praise you.

Which of your praises shall I declare?
They exceed the glories of the world.

Your beauty is unblemished, your excellence perfect,
and my words are like jewels on a necklace.

My praises struggle but fail to describe
your splendor, and fear to approach you,

David, who uplifts souls sick
from sorrow until they soar to the limits of joy.

His honey-sweet words and radiant face
are the splendor of the lightning.

Before this radiance I do not ask
whether the luminaries are present or absent.

Humility masks an excellent reputation,
but can human hand obscure the light?

Days harness the stars to his chariot—
they are proud of his sons.

When his sons are away, it is as if
the gates of knowledge had been shut.

The standards of fate have been raised high,
carried joyously in the bosom.

Truly, can anyone who has tasted the sons’ delicacies be hungry?
can anyone who has drunk the wine of their speech be thirsty?

How good and pleasant the name of the first son,
named for “the father of a multitude of nations.”

Were his fame in the world not like flowing myrrh
the residents would be spewed forth from of their lands.

Had he had not by his benefactions erected forts
for knowledge, its towers would have been destroyed in a moment.

The second son is called Solomon, and people call,
“Come here, wise people; do not keep looking at one another.”

Do not ask wisdom of Mahol’s sons;
we have Solomon’s words.

The third son is called Isaac,
and the mighty lions hide from his sight.

Even if his right arm were uncovered in the battle of wisdom,
the giants would stay away.

Oh, bridegroom so radiant:
all the stars have gathered to borrow some of his splendor.

May God sprinkle bounteous rain upon him:
for His rain clouds are filled with mercy.

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5. Diwan IV:16

And more by him like this:

Because of your illness, O Lord, our illness
is so great; our illness, misery and pain;

Our hearts moaned over you;
the blood of our hearts broke out on our cheeks.

Tears almost wasted our souls
had not God dispersed the clouds of our weeping.

We shall request nothing from Time; it is enough
that your illness was removed, enough,

For in your company we never feared the worst trouble,
and without that company our life would be contemptible.

The days of our happiness are the days in your company,
while the days of your absence are the days of our suffering,

For our joy is in the wine of your teaching,
and when we are ill, your generosity is our balm.

The generosity of your right hand demands repayment,
but our tongues cannot pay.

Rejoice forever, be great, and adorn yourself with glory’s garments,
O crown of our honor, adornment’s diadem!

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6. Diwan IV:17

And more by him a praise poem:

Did heaven’s gates open into the universe
or did earth touch the celestial lights,

Or did the brilliance of the face of a certain notable
shame the luminaries,

Or is it his glory or the pomegranate juice
or the nectar or pure gold or his precious words,

Or is it the aroma of his praises or the bundle of
myrrh or is it his words or scattered crystals?

The prince has pitched the tents of wisdom
in his heart, and in them his heart is guarded.

He accumulated the scattered knowledge, and his
generous contributions are renewed each morning.

He is slow of tongue when listening to empty words
but a man of words in the battle of the testimony.

He is slow when running to race but quicker
than young stags when time to do gracious deeds.

By the goodness of his teaching he heals hearts,
and his words revive the dead.

His words are as if cut out from trees of life
and carved from the choicest of perfumes.

Compares his mighty greatness to someone else’s
is like comparing young lions to young goats.

He uncovers the sealed secrets of wisdom
and restores their destroyed towers.

He is a diadem on the heads of the Nazirites
and excels other notables in wisdom.

Under the cloak of humility he
tries to hide his pure virtues.

But can sunlight be concealed
unless the people’s eyes are deceived?

And how can man hide the aroma of perfumes?
They soar as if on eagles’ wings.

His name is known to the ends of the world; he is unique
in this generation, the mightiest among noblemen and rulers.

May God glorify also the names of his
darlings who illumine the limits of the world.

They are truly the offspring of the blessed ancestors,
straight and upright stocks in their own right.

May God extend to the prince his favors flowing
like rivers and cause his glorious light to shine.

And may God humble the pride of his foes,
making crooked their paths and twisted their roads.

During the prince’s life, may God recall to his holy nation,
in his abundant kindness, his covenant with their unblemished forefathers,

So that their foes, in amazement, will respond in song:
“Were the gates of heaven opened into the universe?“

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Numbers 9 and 10 are amorous introductions to
two laudatory poems, from the Diwan, Chapter IV.

9. [Introduction to poem] Diw IV:7

And he wrote again to one of the chiefs
after he returned to Egypt [or to Cairo] from his journey:

She dances and pours forth her song,
waves the fragrant crown of spices, and drips honey.

She glares angrily at her lovers
so that their tears of torment flow like the sea.

They weep, while she at their weeping
bares rows of wet crystal and hail.

They rest between the two thin scarlet threads, and with them she
pierces the temples of everyone who has fallen for her.

She has wounded the casing of my heart; her cheek
has wounded my eyes. But why is she so enraged?

Hell and snow are joined on her cheek;
Tears are on mine and hell in my heart.

Were I to draw too near her splendor,
I would find a fiery brandished sword.

Were she to raise her face up to heaven, the sun
would not look upon her light

Her saliva is the balm healing the illness of
sorrow inflicted by fiery flame that scorches a man’s heart.

10. [Introduction to poem Diw IV:26]

And he said again, praising one of the chiefs:

Deal gently with me, gazelle who tears lions to pieces,
gazelle with curled locks like snakes….

Poisonous serpents from whose bites the bitten cannot be cured
except from themselves; there are no healing charms.

Swords drawn, angels guard
the garden of grace and beauty,

Her breasts bruise hearts;
her eyes torture souls.

Her breasts are like pomegranates grown on shoots;
they are spears in the hands of a warrior.

Their shape resembles that of the red
pearls in which water and fire join.

The rows are filled with crystal
dipped in rivers of honey;

The seal of the scarlet silk covers them
so as not to shame the light of the sun;

They are a bough of the fragrant tree that bends and
sways like a drunkard on the new wine that turns the poor into princes;

And truth will be perverted when it bends because it
is not drunk merely from wine but from the wine of the condemned.

Deal gently with me, you with the eyes of the gazelle,
the lion heart, the height of high trees,

Who captures the heart of her lover
with heavy hips and slim loins.

The rest of the senses envy
each eye with the pleasure of seeing her.

O sun! Move gently on the ground,
treading under foot the hearts of the mortally stricken,

Who pasture at night the host of heaven,
losing hope and despairing of dawn’s approach.

All their days in confusion they seek
their loss in the surroundings of your courts.

Their eyes pour out on their cheeks the blood
of their liver and heart, usually separated from each other. . . .

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Following is a homonymous mikhtam from the
Book of the Beds of the Spices (BBS), Garden Bed IV.

14. BBS IV:6

Make no oath to torture me, my love,
for how I will turn you away.

But if you reject me, immediately kill me;
if you don’t, I am your slave.


Following are homonymous mikhtamim from the
Book of the Beds of the Spices, Garden Bed II.

17. BBS II:15

Look at the apple that will swiftly bring
the joy slow in coming to your heart,

For when seeing the red and the green in it
you will see the faces of the beloved and the shy lover.

18. BBS II:16

Remove any of the delicacies in the world,
and give me the blood of the grape as my water and bread,

For with it, the weakling will turn into a hero,
the old man into a suckling, and the ill will be healed

21. BBS II:26

Quench your heart’s fire with grapes’ blood
when swallow and turtledove rejoice over the seeds.

Drink and ignore the warning voice,
for stupid are those who say, “This is unseemly.”

23. BBS II:36

My friends, hurry to the tavern, where you will find
a cure for every sickness, healing for every injury.

This cure has aged like spiced wine, but its glory is intact,
its aroma unchanged, its color undimmed.

24. BBS II:40

Was the goblet cut from the moon’s back
or taken from frozen water?

As soon as the wine is poured into it,
I see fire flashing in the midst of hail.

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Following is a debate poem muwashshah
in the wine genre from the Diwan, Chapter V.

25. Diw V:14

And more by him…a wine muwashshah:

The man who desires to acquire joy of hearts,
let him listen to the record

Of the lawsuit between a jug and a goblet,
when they stood arguing in the court of wine.


The goblet said, “Beauty, majesty,
glory, and charm are attached to me;

My throne is close to the friend and the beloved,
and all the people are subjects of my discipline.

Tell the sons of Rechab, “You were
very foolish for betraying me.”

My horse’s hooves are hard as rock;
with them I can sadden hosts of sorrows.

The jug was detained on the sunny side,
while I am a shield for the darling.


The jug asked, “Is it not so, that
only in my company can you be supreme?

Although your magnificence is considered abundant,
without me you might be filled with poison.

All my days I am your father,
but your heart plots evil against me.

I will withhold wine from every stranger
and destroy sorrows with my sword.

Only your eye will gossip about me,
and my source will run dry.”


The goblet said, “Foolish one, open
your eye before you answer

And see, whether your body is clear and bright.
Or, do you have a place close to the beloved?

All your days you are humble and bowed,
but on a joyful day you dare to answer.”

O miser, you withhold your wealth until
some kind-hearted man removes your headdress

And commands me, “Subdue him
and destroy the dwelling of sorrow.”


The jug said, “Shut your mouth,
in order not be ashamed of your blemish.

You may boast with my praises,
but prepare yourself to be my slave.

You delight in the peace of my king
but conspire to harm him.

I will hide it in the sanctuary,
until the flame of its light shines forth.

I will make its stars shine,
but with the help of your blessing they will grow dim.


Said the wine, “I swear
by my honor and good taste

Do not argue in my camp,
for you are those who eat my bread;

And in your numerical values I appear
to those who love me and esteem my name:

When the jug will be beheaded and the
goblet’s head held high, how will any adversary stand?

For when the secret is disclosed to people,
the rain will pour from the cloud of joy.

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Following are wine poems (homonymous mikhtamim)
from the Book of the Beds of the Spices, Garden Bed II.

26. BBS 11:2

How can I abandon the daughter of vines? There is
a brotherly love between her and the heart of every man.

She is sweet as the flowing honey in the meeting of
friends: with her inspiration, one speaks; another orates.

27. BBS 11:5

How pleasant to drink wine, listening to the song
sung by the stag who combines beauty and grace.

His beauty shames the daughter of Abihail;
his song confounds Asaph.

28. BBS II.7

Come, beautiful gazelle, and I will make
the clusters of henna your sky and the branches of myrtle your earth.

Then I will fill my goblet with the wine of your love,
because in the whole world I desire only you.

32. BBS II:39

The goblets are ashamed of themselves before the light of
your cheek, my beloved, so cover your lot with your lock,

Let the nectar of your mouth be my great lot.
Upon their balm and myrrh I lot.

Drink and give me a lot of drink until my lot
is to take a fall from the drunkenness of Lot.

33. BBS II:45

Truly man was called a man when Noah
planted a vineyard,

For the embittered of his sons
always found relief in it.

35. BBS II:50

They said, “The blood of the choice red wine in summer burns
the body; therefore abandon it and find rest.”

But they are foolish, since the wine can extinguish
the flame of the suffering, while we pour its fire into our mouths.

With hosts of joy, we will destroy the chariots of any
mighty enemy and deal its hosts a mighty blow.

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Following are garden poems (homonymous mikhtamim)
from the Book of the Beds of the Species, Garden Bed III.

38. BBS III:5

Build an abode for yourself among the myrtles;
be happy with the oriole’s song and the wave’s chant.

Let the wave break angrily on the sand, made as if from the gold of Ofir;
drive sorrow’s misery from the heart.

39. BBS III:7

If the hand of the rains has ruined the flowers,
oh, you beds, refrain from complaint,

For it can change your garments in the same day,
so that you will lack nothing.

40. BBS III:8

Rise early and come to the garden. All kinds of birds are there.
They are joined to one another as companions

To drink the wine of friendship in the shade of the bushes,
when they embrace as lovers.

41. BBS III:10

Hurry, friends; seek the gardens;
rush to the luxuriant, well-tended orchard,

Winter has passed;
it’s time to sing.

42. BBS III:15

The bushes sway, the feathered birds
sing, the dew has spotted them all with pearls;

One cries, the second prays, the third bows so that
I see them all as worshippers of God.

43. BBS III:18

How sweet is my sleep on the river
bank outstretched under the moonlight;
All ‘round are garden beds embroidered with roses
red as scarlet alongside the white.

44. BBS III:21

Sit by the garden bed of myrrh
hedged with myrtles and flowers;

Your sorrow will be
banished from your heart.

45. BBS III:23

The morning breeze opened a bundle of myrrh
when it blew on the flowers in their beds.

It leads them slowly like a shepherd gently
guiding his flock with his staff.

46. BBS III:24

How can I dwell inside and abandon the garden
in which canals are tangled as veins.

They flow over pebbles and creep
furtively: so quickly that I see them as deserters.

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About the Translator

Hayim Y. Sheynin (MA, St Petersburg University, 1965; Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, 1987) has worked at the Gratz College library since 1986 and before that was professor of Hebrew Literature at Dropsie College and director of the Dropsie College Library.

In Russia he was a curator of Bibliotheca Friedlandiana, one of the largest collections of Hebrew and Hebrew script books in Jewish Languages, in the library of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). One of his projects there was the preparation of the printed catalog of the Hebrew Incunabula in the Collections of the USSR and also of Qohelet Mosheh: Printed Catalog of Hebrew Books in Bibliotheca Friedlandiana, Letters Mêm-Tâw.

Dr. Sheynin has been a member of the editorial board of Jewish Quarterly Review and was responsible for the special issue of JQR honoring Leon Nemoy. His many scholarly publications have been on Hebrew literature, Semitic linguistics, Jewish languages, Jewish manuscripts, the Cairo Genizah, Jewish librarianship, and booklore. He also has served as a reviewer for Jewish Quarterly Review, Linguist List, Studies in Linguistics, Library Journal, AJL Newsletter, and other periodicals.