About Eleazar "Sa'adya" ibn Hibat Allāh (al-Baghdādī al-Baladī)
Eleazar ben Jacob ha-Bavli
Eleazar ben Jacob ha-Bavli, known as Eleazar the Gnostic, lived in Baghdad in the first half of the thirteenth century. He was a productive poet during the years before the Mongol invasion, but only recently has scholarly interest in his oeuvre revived. Eleazar’s impressive poetic output consisted of more than four hundred secular compositions, with a striking preponderance of panegyrics, laments, epigrams, and homonymic poems. Other genres, such as gnomic aphorisms and girdle poems, are virtually absent, perhaps because a censor considered certain compositions too frivolous or too distant from a conventional conception of Hebrew verse. However, manuscript Firkovitch Heb. IIA, 210.1, includes a remnant of Eleazar’s macaronic verse: five short Hebrew/Judeo-Arabic poems in which the switching of language in every hemistich allows the poet to employ different rhyme endings, but with no metrical difference in the transition from one language to the other. Eleazar offers ingenious Hebrew renderings of Arabic verse, as in the following instance, in which the holy cities of Islam are replaced by the two holy places of Judaism. In Arabic: “They set up their tents in the middle of the road, where I descended to the two holy cities [Mecca and Medina], my most noble dwelling.” In Hebrew: “They encamped in the middle of the road, and I encamped at the House of God [Jerusalem] and pitched my tent in Zion.” The Judeo-Arabic prose formulae introducing each composition often refer to dignitaries who held high office in Baghdad, either as government officials or as leaders of the Jewish community in relation to the gaonate and the academy. The names mentioned cannot all be identified, but some famous personalities are known from references in sources outside Eleazar’s diwan (e.g., the Muslim historian Ibn al-Fuwaṭī).
Although Eleazar commemorated joyous and sorrowful events in the lives of his patrons, he was much more than just a house or family poet. The depth of his interest in Arabic and Hebrew poetry is reflected in his Judeo-Arabic treatise on poetics. Eleazar’s theoretical work certainly fills a gap, since not many medieval writings on Hebrew literary theory have survived. He organized the text of the treatise according to four major topics: (1) the thirteen kinds of meters, (2) the uses of rhyme, (3) the mistakes of poets and the deficiencies of their poetry, (4) rhetorical devices. The treatise shows that he was familiar with Andalusian-Hebrew poetry, but he seems to have been primarily interested in validating and legitimizing his own poetry and that of his colleagues in the East.
Judah al-Ḥarīzī very explicitly and in strong terms belittled the Eastern poets and complained about the deplorable situation of the Baghdadi community, once great and glorious but now devoid of intellectual and poetic qualities. Nevertheless, he found reason to praise Eleazar, as shown by the epithet he applied to him: “In the city of Alexandria I saw E[leazar] ha-mevin, whose poetry leans on emptiness, and is girded on the belt of vainness, though there one can sometimes find things that are apt and fine.” The meeting between al-Ḥarizi and the young Eleazar probably took place in Alexandria around the year 1215. An anonymous Karaite from Damascus, who wrote a description of renowned Hebrew linguists and their works, classified Eleazar ha-mevin among the “the elders of the Holy Language.” The term ha-mevin or al-mevin, here translated as “the savant,” or "the adept," is a specific reference to Eleazar’s familiarity with Jewish pietism and Sufism. His religious compositions are occasionally associated with the themes and concepts of the pietistic movement. He knew the teachings of Abraham Maimonides, and showed great admiration for him in the laments he wrote on the occasion of his death.
Most of Eleazar’s spiritual poetry has been forgotten, but close to one hundred liturgical poems have now been identified as his. Substantial parts of his religious oeuvre are found in the maḥzorim of Persia, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, India, China, Greece, Italy, and other European countries. Most of his compositions await proper publication.
Wout van Bekkum
Mann, Jacob. Texts and Studies in Jewish History and Literature, vol. 1 (New York: Ktav, 1972; repr. of 1931), pp. 263–303.
Yarden, Dov (ed.). Sefune Shira (Jerusalem: the author, 1967) [Hebrew].
Yahalom, Joseph. “Andalusian Poetics and the Work of El’azar ben Ya’aqov of Baghdad,” Hispania Judaica Bulletin 4 (2004), pp. 5–21.
———. Judaeo-Arabic Poetics: Fragments of a Lost Treatise by Elazar ben Jacob of Baghdad (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute and Hebrew University, 2001) [Hebrew and Arabic].
van Bekkum, Wout Jac. The Secular Poetry of El’azar ben Ya’aqov ha-Bavli, Baghdad, Thirteenth C., on the Basis of Manuscript Firkovicz Heb. IIa, 210.1 (Leiden: Brill, 2007).
Citation Wout van Bekkum. " Eleazar ben Jacob ha-Bavli." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2013. Reference. Jim Harlow. 29 January 2013 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world/eleazar-ben-jacob-ha-bavli-SIM_0007210>