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  • The Book of Tahkemoni: Jewish Tales from Medieval Spain
  • Yair Mazor
The Book of Tahkemoni: Jewish Tales from Medieval Spain, by Juda Alharizi, translated and explicated by David Simha Segal. London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001. 710 pp. $77.00.

The paramount character of the large volume in focus stems from the fact that it introduces to the enlightened, learned English reader one of the most splendid accomplishments of Hebrew literature in medieval, Muslim Spain. That literary period in the long and equally formidable evolution of Hebrew literature (starting at Biblical times) is justly entitled Tor hazahav, the Golden Age.

Both genres of Hebrew secular and liturgical poetry had reached at that period of time (notably from the 10th century to the 13th century) their glorious zenith while being prolifically inspired and fruitfully influenced by Arabic poetry. Although the genres of Hebrew secular and liturgical poetry were undoubtedly the most prominent and leading trend of Hebrew literature of the Golden Age, there was one more literary genre that displayed excellent aesthetic achievements. That literary genre is entitled maqama, and consists of rhymed prose fiction that preserves partially practiced metrical systems. In terms of content the maqama remotely echoes the literary genre of the picaresque novel as it portrays the wanderings, adventures, and social meetings of the narrator. In the maqama, however, the narrator is commonly a poet.

Next to his peer, Emanuel Haromil of Rome, Juda Alharizi is the most celebrated maqama writer of the Golden Age Hebrew literature in Muslim, medieval Spain. Alharizi (1170, Toledo?-1235) came from an affluent family that lost its wealth. He wandered most of his life in Southern France, Egypt, the Land of Israel, and Syria. It is not quite certain whether eventually he returned to Spain. He was supported by Jewish communities and individuals who admired his literary talent as both poet and translator. It is more than evident that Alharizi’s extensive wanderings inspired and influenced his literary creation and even propelled some of its prominent poetic proclivities. His most celebrated aesthetic work is undoubtedly the maqama book Tahkemoni that was composed after 1220 and was influenced by the maqama or the Arab poet El-Khariri.

Two main characters that act in the “literary arena” of Tahkemoni (etymologically associated with “wisdom” in Hebrew) are first, Haiman Ha-Ezrhi, and second, Hever Hakeimi. Both display the typical characteristics of similar characters in Arabic maqama: they are educated, witty, and mischievous and command a considerable talent for creating rhymes.

The book may be metaphorically portrayed as a mosaic of deception, shrewdness, morally oriented instructions, fanciful stories, adventures, whimsical proverbs, accolade-oriented narratives, and romance. The Hebrew poet of Yemen, Zecharia Altzhari (16th century) followed the footprints of Tahkemoni by composing Sefer Hamusar (Book of Morality) while mirroring Tahkemoni’s picaresque, adventurous characteristics.

David Simha Segal’s work of scholarship is of a singularly excellent nature. It opens with a brief and effective introduction in which he draws the leading characteristics of [End Page 179] Tahkemoni and his own scholarly/poetic policy upon translating the book. The concluding chapter is a series of useful, illuminating commentaries dedicated to each chapter (“gate”) of Tahkemoni. However, the most praiseworthy part of Segal’s book is the laudable translation of Tahkemoni. In this spectacular piece of poetic translation, Segal retains Tahkemoni’s delightfully witty language and other patterns of aesthetic devices. Hence, the gifted translator cleverly finds linguistic and stylistic equivalents to the original metrical and rhyme systems. Correspondingly, Segal’s translation of Tahkemoni delivers to the English reader the content and the style, the structure and the “aesthetic spirit” of the original book.

Yair Mazor
Hebrew Studies Program
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

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