The Book of Delight and Other Papers

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THE BOOK OF DELIGHT

AND
OTHER PAPERS

BY

ISRAEL ABRAHAMS, M.A.

Author of “Jewish Life in the Middle Ages,” “Chapters on Jewish

Literature,” etc.

1912

PREFACE

The chapters of this volume were almost all spoken addresses. The author
has not now changed their character as such, for it seemed to him that to
convert them into formal essays would be to rob them of any little
attraction they may possess.

One of the addresses—that on “Medieval Wayfaring”—was originally spoken
in Hebrew, in Jerusalem. It was published, in part, in English in the
London Jewish Chronicle, and the author is indebted to the conductors of
that periodical for permission to include this, and other material, in the
present collection.

Some others of the chapters have been printed before, but a considerable
proportion of the volume is quite new, and even those addresses that are
reprinted are now given in a fuller and much revised text.

As several of the papers were intended for popular audiences, the author is
persuaded that it would ill accord with his original design to overload the
book with notes and references. These have been supplied only where
absolutely necessary, and a few additional notes are appended at the end of
the volume.

The author realizes that the book can have little permanent value. But as
these addresses seemed to give pleasure to those who heard them, he thought
it possible that they might provide passing entertainment also to those who
are good enough to read them.

ISRAEL ABRAHAMS

CAMBRIDGE, ENG., September, 1911

CONTENTS

I. “THE BOOK OF DELIGHT”

II. A VISIT TO HEBRON
III. THE SOLACE OF BOOKS
IV. MEDIEVAL WAYFARING
V. THE FOX’S HEART
VI. “MARRIAGES ARE MADE IN HEAVEN”
VII. HEBREW LOVE SONGS
VIII. A HANDFUL OF CURIOSITIES

i. George Eliot and Solomon Maimon
ii. How Milton Pronounced Hebrew
iii. The Cambridge Platonists
iv. The Anglo-Jewish Yiddish Literary Society
v. The Mystics and Saints of India
vi. Lost Purim Joys
vii. Jews and Letters
viii. The Shape of Matzoth

NOTES
INDEX

[Transcriber’s Note: Index not included in this e-text edition.]

“THE BOOK OF DELIGHT”

Joseph Zabara has only in recent times received the consideration justly
due to him. Yet his “Book of Delight,” finished about the year 1200, is
more than a poetical romance. It is a golden link between folk-literature
and imaginative poetry. The style is original, and the framework of the
story is an altogether fresh adaptation of a famous legend. The anecdotes
and epigrams introduced incidentally also partake of this twofold quality.
The author has made them his own, yet they are mostly adapted rather than
invented. Hence, the poem is as valuable to the folklorist as to the
literary critic. For, though Zabara’s compilation is similar to such
well-known models as the “Book of Sindbad,” the Kalilah ve-Dimnah, and
others of the same class, yet its appearance in Europe is half a century
earlier than the translations by which these other products of the East
became part of the popular literature of the Western world. At the least,
then, the “Book of Delight” is an important addition to the scanty store of
the folk-lore records of the early part of the thirteenth century. The
folk-lore interest of the book is, indeed, greater than was known formerly,
for it is now recognized as a variant of the Solomon-Marcolf legend. On
this more will be said below,

As a poet and as a writer of Hebrew, Joseph Zabara’s place is equally
significant. He was one of the first to write extended narratives in Hebrew
rhymed prose with interspersed snatches of verse, the form invented by
Arabian poets, and much esteemed as the medium for story-telling and for
writing social satire. The best and best-known specimens of this form of
poetry in Hebrew are Charizi’s Tachkemoni, and his translation of Hariri.
Zabara has less art than Charizi, and far less technical skill, yet in him
all the qualities are in the bud that Charizi’s poems present in the
fullblown flower. The reader of Zabara feels that other poets will develop
his style and surpass him; the reader of Charizi knows of a surety that in
him the style has reached its climax.

Of Joseph Zabara little is known beyond what may be gleaned from a
discriminating study of the “Book of Delight.” That this romance is largely
autobiographical in fact, as it is in form, there can be no reasonable
doubt. The poet writes with so much indignant warmth of the dwellers in
certain cities, of their manner of life, their morals, and their culture,
that one can only infer that he is relating his personal experiences.
Zabara, like the hero of his romance, travelled much during the latter
portion of the twelfth century, as is known from the researches of Geiger.
He was born in Barcelona, and returned there to die. In the interval, we
find him an apt pupil of Joseph Kimchi, in Narbonne. Joseph Kimchi, the
founder of the famous Kimchi family, carried the culture of Spain to
Provence; and Joseph Zabara may have acquired from Kimchi his mastery over
Hebrew, which he writes with purity and simplicity. The difficulties
presented in some passages of the “Book of Delight” are entirely due to the
corrupt state of the text. Joseph Kimchi, who flourished in Provence from
1150 to 1170, quotes Joseph Zabara twice, with approval, in explaining
verses in Proverbs. It would thus seem that Zabara, even in his student
days, was devoted to the proverb-lore on which he draws so lavishly in his
maturer work.

Dr. Steinschneider, to whom belongs the credit of rediscovering Zabara in
modern times, infers that the poet was a physician. There is more than
probability in the case; there is certainty. The romance is built by a
doctor; there is more talk of medicine in it than of any other topic of
discussion. Moreover, the author, who denies that he is much of a
Talmudist, accepts the compliment paid to him by his visitor, Enan, that he
is “skilled and well-informed in the science of medicine.” There is, too, a
professional tone about many of the quips and gibes in which Zabara
indulges concerning doctors. Here, for instance, is an early form of a
witticism that has been attributed to many recent humorists. “A
philosopher,” says Zabara, “was sick unto death, and his doctor gave him
up; yet the patient recovered. The convalescent was walking in the street
when the doctor met him. ‘You come,’ said he, ‘from the other world.’
‘Yes,’ rejoined the patient, ‘I come from there, and I saw there the awful
retribution that falls on doctors; for they kill their patients. Yet, do
not feel alarmed. You will not suffer. I told them on my oath that you are
no doctor.'”

Again, in one of the poetical interludes (found only in the Constantinople
edition) occurs this very professional sneer, “A doctor and the Angel of
Death both kill, but the former charges a fee.” Who but a doctor would
enter into a scathing denunciation of the current system of diagnosis, as
Zabara does in a sarcastic passage, which Erter may have imitated
unconsciously? And if further proof be needed that Zabara was a man of
science, the evidence is forthcoming; for Zabara appeals several times to
experiment in proof of his assertions. And to make assurance doubly sure,
the author informs his readers in so many words of his extensive medical
practice in his native place.

If Zabara be the author of the other, shorter poems that accompany the
“Book of Delight” in the Constantinople edition, though they are not
incorporated into the main work, we have a further indication that Zabara
was a medical man. There is a satirical introduction against the doctors
that slay a man before his time. The author, with mock timidity, explains
that he withholds his name, lest the medical profession turn its attention
to him with fatal results. “Never send for a doctor,” says the satirist,
“for one cannot expect a miracle to happen.” It is important, for our
understanding of another feature in Zabara’s work, to observe that his
invective, directed against the practitioners rather than the science of
medicine, is not more curious as coming from a medical man, than are the
attacks on women perpetrated by some Jewish poets (Zabara among them), who
themselves amply experienced, in their own and their community’s life, the
tender and beautiful relations that subsist between Jewish mother and son,
Jewish wife and husband.

The life of Joseph ben Meïr Zabara was not happy. He left Barcelona in
search of learning and comfort. He found the former, but the latter eluded
him. It is hard to say from the “Book of Delight” whether he was a
woman-hater, or not. On the one hand, he says many pretty things about
women. The moral of the first section of the romance is: Put your trust in
women; and the moral of the second section of the poem is: A good woman is
the best part of man. But, though this is so, Zabara does undoubtedly quote
a large number of stories full of point and sting, stories that tell of
women’s wickedness and infidelity, of their weakness of intellect and
fickleness of will. His philogynist tags hardly compensate for his
misogynist satires. He runs with the hare, but hunts energetically with the
hounds.

It is this characteristic of Zabara’s method that makes it open to doubt,
whether the additional stories referred to as printed with the
Constantinople edition did really emanate from our author’s pen. These
additions are sharply misogynist; the poet does not even attempt to blunt
their point. They include “The Widow’s Vow” (the widow, protesting undying
constancy to her first love, eagerly weds another) and “Woman’s
Contentions.” In the latter, a wicked woman is denounced with the wildest
invective. She has demoniac traits; her touch is fatal. A condemned
criminal is offered his life if he will wed a wicked woman. “O King,” he
cried, “slay me; for rather would I die once, than suffer many deaths every
day.” Again, once a wicked woman pursued a heroic man. He met some devils.
“What are you running from?” asked they. “From a wicked woman,” he
answered. The devils turned and ran away with him.

One rather longer story may be summarized thus: Satan, disguised in human
shape, met a fugitive husband, who had left his wicked wife. Satan told him
that he was in similar case, and proposed a compact. Satan would enter into
the bodies of men, and the other, pretending to be a skilful physician,
would exorcise Satan. They would share the profits. Satan begins on the
king, and the queen engages the confederate to cure the king within three
days, for a large fee, but in case of failure the doctor is to die. Satan
refuses to come out: his real plan is to get the doctor killed in this way.
The doctor obtains a respite, and collects a large body of musicians, who
make a tremendous din. Satan trembles. “What is that noise?” he asks. “Your
wife is coming,” says the doctor. Out sprang Satan and fled to the end of
the earth.

These tales and quips, it is true, are directed against “wicked” women, but
if Zabara really wrote them, it would be difficult to acquit him of
woman-hatred, unless the stories have been misplaced, and should appear, as
part of the “Book of Delight,” within the Leopard section, which rounds off
a series of unfriendly tales with a moral friendly to woman. In general,
Oriental satire directed against women must not be taken too seriously. As
Güdemann has shown, the very Jews that wrote most bitterly of women were
loud in praise of their own wives—the women whom alone they knew
intimately. Woman was the standing butt for men to hurl their darts at, and
one cannot help feeling that a good deal of the fun got its point from the
knowledge that the charges were exaggerated or untrue. You find the Jewish
satirists exhausting all their stores of drollery on the subject of
rollicking drunkenness. They roar till their sides creak over the humor of
the wine-bibber. They laugh at him and with him. They turn again and again
to the subject, which shares the empire with women in the Jewish poets. Yet
we know well enough that the writers of these Hebrew Anacreontic lyrics
were sober men, who rarely indulged in overmuch strong drink. In short, the
medieval Jewish satirists were gifted with much of what a little time ago
was foolishly styled “the new humor.” Joseph Zabara was a “new” humorist.
He has the quaint subtlety of the author of the “Ingoldsby Legends,” and
revelled in the exaggeration of trifles that is the stock-in-trade of the
modern funny man. Woman plays the part with the former that the
mother-in-law played a generation ago with the latter. In Zabara, again,
there is a good deal of mere rudeness, which the author seems to mistake
for cutting repartee. This, I take it, is another characteristic of the
so-called new humor.

The probable explanation of the marked divergence between Zabara’s stories
and the moral he draws from them lies, however, a little deeper. The
stories themselves are probably Indian in origin; hence they are marked by
the tone hostile to woman so characteristic of Indian folk-lore. On the
other hand, if Zabara himself was a friendly critic of woman, his own
moralizings in her favor are explained. This theory is not entirely upset
by the presence even of the additional stories, for these, too, are
translations, and Zabara cannot be held responsible for their contents. The
selection of good anecdotes was restricted in his day within very narrow
limits.

Yet Zabara’s reading must have been extensive. He knew something of
astronomy, philosophy, the science of physiognomy, music, mathematics, and
physics, and a good deal of medicine. He was familiar with Arabian
collections of proverbs and tales, for he informs his readers several times
that he is drawing on Arabic sources. He knew the “Choice of Pearls,” the
Midrashic “Stories of King Solomon,” the “Maxims of the Philosophers,” the
“Proverbs of the Wise”; but not “Sendabar” in its Hebrew form. His
acquaintance with the language of the Bible was thorough; but he makes one
or two blunders in quoting the substance of Scriptural passages. Though he
disclaimed the title of a Talmudic scholar, he was not ignorant of the
Rabbinic literature. Everyone quotes it: the fox, the woman, Enan, and the
author. He was sufficiently at home in this literature to pun therein. He
also knew the story of Tobit, but, as he introduces it as “a most
marvellous tale,” it is clear that this book of the Apocrypha was not
widely current in his day. The story, as Zabara tells it, differs
considerably from the Apocryphal version of it. The incidents are
misplaced, the story of the betrothal is disconnected from that of the
recovery of the money by Tobit, and the detail of the gallows occurs in no
other known text of the story. In one point, Zabara’s version strikingly
agrees with the Hebrew and Chaldee texts of Tobit as against the Greek;
Tobit’s son is not accompanied by a dog on his journey to recover his
father’s long-lost treasure.

One of the tales told by Zabara seems to imply a phenomenon of the
existence of which there is no other evidence. There seems to have been in
Spain a small class of Jews that were secret converts to Christianity. They
passed openly for Jews, but were in truth Christians. The motive for the
concealment is unexplained, and the whole passage may be merely satirical.

It remains for me to describe the texts now extant of the “Book of
Delight.” In 1865 the “Book of Delight” appeared, from a fifteenth century
manuscript in Paris, in the second volume of a Hebrew periodical called the
Lebanon. In the following year the late Senior Sachs wrote an
introduction to it and to two other publications, which were afterwards
issued together under the title Yen Lebanon (Paris, 1866). The editor was
aware of the existence of another text, but, strange to tell, he did not
perceive the need of examining it. Had he done this, his edition would have
been greatly improved. For the Bodleian Library possesses a copy of another
edition of the “Book of Delight,” undated, and without place of issue, but
printed in Constantinople, in 1577. One or two other copies of this edition
are extant elsewhere. The editor was Isaac Akrish, as we gather from a
marginal note to the version of Tobit given by Joseph Zabara. This Isaac
Akrish was a travelling bookseller, who printed interesting little books,
and hawked them about. Dr. Steinschneider points out that the date of Isaac
Akrish’s edition can be approximately fixed by the type. The type is that
of the Jaabez Press, established in Constantinople and Salonica in 1560.
This Constantinople edition is not only longer than the Paris edition, it
is, on the whole, more accurate. The verbal variations between the two
editions are extremely numerous, but the greater accuracy of the
Constantinople edition shows itself in many ways. The rhymes are much
better preserved, though the Paris edition is occasionally superior in this
respect. But many passages that are quite unintelligible in the Paris
edition are clear enough in the Constantinople edition.

The gigantic visitor of Joseph, the narrator, the latter undoubtedly the
author himself, is a strange being. Like the guide of Gil Bias on his
adventures, he is called a demon, and he glares and emits smoke and fire.
But he proves amenable to argument, and quotes the story of the
washerwoman, to show how it was that he became a reformed character. This
devil quotes the Rabbis, and is easily convinced that it is unwise for him
to wed an ignorant bride. It would seem as though Zabara were, on the one
hand, hurling a covert attack against some one who had advised him to leave
Barcelona to his own hurt, while, on the other hand, he is satirizing the
current beliefs of Jews and Christians in evil spirits. More than one
passage is decidedly anti-Christian, and it would not be surprising to find
that the framework of the romance had been adopted with polemic intention.

The character of the framework becomes more interesting when it is realized
that Zabara derived it from some version of the legends of which King
Solomon is the hero. The king had various adventures with a being more or
less demoniac in character, who bears several names: Asmodeus, Saturn,
Marcolf, or Morolf. That the model for Zabara’s visitor was Solomon’s
interlocutor, is not open to doubt. The Solomon legend occurs in many
forms, but in all Marcolf (or whatever other name he bears) is a keen
contester with the king in a battle of wits. No doubt, at first Marcolf
filled a serious, respectable rôle; in course of time, his character
degenerated into that of a clown or buffoon. It is difficult to summarize
the legend, it varies so considerably in the versions. Marcolf in the
best-known forms, which are certainly older than Zabara, is “right rude and
great of body, of visage greatly misshapen and foul.” Sometimes he is a
dwarf, sometimes a giant; he is never normal. He appears with his
counterpart, a sluttish wife, before Solomon, who, recognizing him as
famous for his wit and wisdom, challenges him to a trial of wisdom,
promising great rewards as the prize of victory. The two exchange a series
of questions and answers, which may be compared in spirit, though not in
actual content, with the questions and answers to be found in Zabara.
Marcolf succeeds in thoroughly tiring out the king, and though the
courtiers are for driving Marcolf off with scant courtesy, the king
interposes, fulfils his promise, and dismisses his adversary with gifts.
Marcolf leaves the court, according to one version, with the noble remark,
Ubi non est lex, ibi non est rex.

This does not exhaust the story, however. In another part of the legend, to
which, again, Zabara offers parallels, Solomon, being out hunting, comes
suddenly on Marcolf’s hut, and, calling upon him, receives a number of
riddling answers, which completely foil him, and tor the solution of which
he is compelled to have recourse to the proposer. He departs, however, in
good humor, desiring Marcolf to come to court the next day and bring a pail
of fresh milk and curds from the cow. Marcolf fails, and the king condemns
him to sit up all night in his company, threatening him with death in the
morning, should he fall asleep. This, of course, Marcolf does immediately,
and he snores aloud. Solomon asks, “Sleepest thou?”—And Marcolf replies,
“No, I think.”—”What thinkest thou?”—”That there are as many vertebrae in
the hare’s tail as in his backbone.”—The king, assured that he has now
entrapped his adversary, replies: “If thou provest not this, thou diest in
the morning!” Over and over again Marcolf snores, and is awakened by
Solomon, but he is always thinking. He gives various answers during the
night: There are as many white feathers as black in the magpie.—There is
nothing whiter than daylight, daylight is whiter than milk.—Nothing can be
safely entrusted to a woman.—Nature is stronger than education.

Next day Marcolf proves all his statements. Thus, he places a pan of milk

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