The Book of Tahkemoni (Hebrew Maqamat)

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The Book of Tahkemoni (Hebrew Maqamat)

by Judah al-Harizi


Three of 50 tales set in Middle Eastern cities, primarily during the early thirteenth century; completed between 1216 and 1225; published in Hebrew (as Sefer Tahkemoni) in 1952, in English from 1965 to 1973.


A rogue swindles an unsuspecting country bumpkin in the “Maqamah of Rehovot,” upbraids Iraqi Jewish aristocrats in the “Maqamah of Babylonia,” and is the object of a mob’s scorn in the “Maqamah of the Astrologer.”

Events in History at the Time of the Tales

The Tales in Focus

For More Information

For more than 700 years Islamic dynasties ruled over a swath of the Iberian Peninsula designated as al-Andalus, which, though dominated by Muslims, was also peopled by minority groups. Christian Spain meanwhile engaged in a gradual conquest of al-Andalus (commonly called the Reconquest), during which the centers of Jewish life moved from areas under Islamic domination to areas under Christian control. Even after the Arabic-inspired Golden Age of Hebrew poetry in al-Andalus (c. 960–1147), Arabic currents continued to be felt in the Hebrew literature written in Christian Spain. Hebrew fictional narratives were grounded in the Arabic maqamah, an anecdotal short story in rhymed prose. Most famous among the collection of Hebrew maqamat is the Book of Tahkemoni by Judah al-Harizi (11667–1225), an author who composed works in Hebrew and Arabic and ultimately left Christian Spain to settle in the Islamic lands to the east. Born in Toledo, Spain, al-Harizi grew into an accomplished writer. He created his maqamat in the tradition of the Arabic masters Badr al-Zaman al-Hamadhani (967–1007) and al-Hariri (d. 1122). Writing in Hebrew, al-Harizi spun 50 short pieces, many of them stories centering on the encounters of a narrator and a protagonist rogue. He had begun his career as a translator of Arabic and Judeo-Arabic legal, philosophical, and belletristic works into Hebrew. He composed a fluid translation into Hebrew of Dalalat al-ha’irin (The Guide for the Perplexed), which had been written in Judeo-Arabic by the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135–1204). Commissioned by the notables of Provence to write the translation in simple and clear language, al-Harizi complied. He also composed an artful Hebrew translation of al-Hariri’s Arabic Maqamat, probably a response, as he claims, to a challenge that their perfection could not be imitated. For reasons that are not altogether clear, al-Harizi left Spain to wander the Islamic East, ultimately settling in Aleppo, Syria, where he died. He produced an account of his Eastern journeys in Arabic rhymed prose and spent his final years composing Arabic poetry in honor of Muslim patrons. It was during his travels in the East that he composed the Tahkemoni. Although not the first of the Hebrew maqamat, it became the rhetorical model to which all subsequent narratives would have to conform.

Events in History at the Time of the Tales

The Jews in Christian Spain

Throughout the medieval period, the Iberian Peninsula stood at the crossroads between the Islamic and Christian worlds, between the Middle East and Europe. Toledo was a premier city of al-Andalus, or Islamic Spain, from the time of the Islamic conquest of 711 until 1085 when the city fell to Christian forces. Significantly the establishment of Christian hegemony did not entail the immediate dissolution of Arabic intellectual and literary culture in the city. Arabic literature retained its prestige, and great works of Arabic philosophy, mathematics, and medicine were translated into Latin for Christians (sometimes through a collaborative effort of Jews and Christians).

Although scholars of medieval history generally view Jewish life under Islam as better than under Christendom, Christian Toledo remained a leading Jewish intellectual center after the Christian takeover. In the twelfth century, the city served as a surrogate soil for the regeneration of the Jewish courtier class of al-Andalus once Jewish life there became untenable because a new set of intolerant rulers, the Almohads, established hegemony (1146–47). After centuries of Jewish culture flourishing under Islamic aegis in al-Andalus, the Almohad invasion forced many Jews to convert to Islam or flee to Christian Spain, to other parts of Europe, or to the Islamic East.

Wherever they settled, these Jews and their descendants maintained the intellectual traditions of al-Andalus and often viewed their contemporaries as culturally inferior. The issue of the regeneration of Andalusian Jewish culture is at the heart of al-Harizi’s Tahkemoni.

The Jews in the Islamic East

Before al-Andalus became a significant intellectual center, the intellectual jewel of the Islamic world (both for Muslims and for Jews) was the Iraqi city of Baghdad. In the pre-Islamic period, ancient Babylonia had been home to two great Jewish learning academies (yeshivot) in Sura and Pumbeditha, both in modern-day Iraq. About a century after the Abbasid dynasty moved the capital to the new city of Baghdad (in 751), these two yeshivot relocated there. In the mid-tenth century, the Abbasid empire began to crumble, yielding to local dynasties (in Persia, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Spain), yet Baghdad remained an important intellectual center for Jews as well as Muslims.

Although Jewish culture in the Islamic East during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries did not compare in general brilliance with that of al-Andalus, the East was home to a successful and stable Jewish community. Throughout the Islamic world, Jews retained a status that was relatively secure, if second-class, thanks to protections inherent in The Quran and Islamic doctrine (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). After the Almohad conquest of al-Andalus, numerous Jewish (and Muslim) intellectuals chose the East for resettlement, likely in search of linguistic and cultural continuity. For example, Abraham ibn Ezra’s son Isaac went to Baghdad (though his father went to Europe) to study with the philosophical teacher Abu al-Barakat. Both teacher and student participated in Baghdad’s interconfessional intellectual culture and, for reasons of conviction, ultimately converted to Islam. Although Jews were tolerated in the Islamic East, religious difference remained significant; the masses of Muslims, if not the elite, viewed Jews with suspicion as a potential subversive element, a people whose beliefs stood at odds with the Islamic worldview.

In al-Harizi’s day Iraq continued to decline while Syria and Palestine were contested territories, both among competing Muslim dynasties and between Muslims and Christians. Earlier, in 1099, Latin kingdoms were established from the Sinai Peninsula to Syria, and Jerusalem was captured by the Christian Crusaders after a five-week siege. In the mid-twelfth century, the Islamic Ayyubid dynasty arose in Egypt under the leadership of Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub (known in the West as Saladin [1138–93]), who supplanted the Fatimid dynasty in 1171. Saladin extended his power from Egypt to Syria, fighting numerous wars against competing Muslim dynasties and wresting Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187.

Several generations of Ayyubid rulers fostered an environment of economic prosperity and intellectual openness. Trade was established with distant (including European) kingdoms, schools (called madrasahs) were founded to educate the masses, and poets found ample patronage at the royal court. Numbering among them, al-Harizi dedicated Arabic panegyric poetry to the Ayyubid ruler al-Malik al-Ashraf ibn Abu Bakr Ayyub (d. 1237). All the while, Ayyubid territories continued to be threatened by Christian advances. Al-Harizi was undoubtedly aware of the skirmishes that ensued. He was probably less aware that he was living during the final years of Ayyubid reign; Aleppo (and Damascus) would fall to the Mongols only five years after al-Harizi’s death.


The fall of Jewish centers in cities such as Lucena, Seville, and Cordoba is commemorated in a moving lament by Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164):

Woe for calamity has descended upon Spain from the heavens!
My eyes, my eyes flow with water.
Without guilt, the Exile dwelled there untroubled,
Undisturbed for one thousand and seventy years.
I shave my head and cry bitterly over the exile from Seville,
Over noble ones, now fallen ones, their sons in captivity,
Over refined girls gone over to the strange faith.
How the city of Cordoba was abandoned
                    (Levin, pp, 101–03; trans. J. Decter)

The Tales in Focus

Plot overview

The Tahkemoni is the collection of Hebrew maqamat most faithful to the classical Arabic maqamat. Suggesting might and wisdom, the collection’s title derives from the tribe to which a warrior of the biblical King David belonged (II Samuel 23:8); the root (hkm) signifies “wisdom.” The collection conforms to the maqamah form—a loose rhymed prose with rhymed, metered poems interspersed. As in the classical maqamat, each of the 50 episodes involves an encounter between a narrator (named Heman the Ezrahite) and a rogue protagonist (named Hever the Qenite). The episodes often incorporate fine rhetoric, the ruse motif, and a conclusion in which the narrator recognizes the protagonist through a disguise. As in the Arabic maqamat, the narrator is traveling in search of learning, culture, and rhetorical excellence. The protagonist is a mercurial master of eloquence. A sort of anti-hero, his disregard for social convention makes him entertaining. He is a master of disguise and chicanery who earns a living through petty scams, duping unsuspecting citizens with his eloquent tongue as he secretly flouts social mores.

In the introduction to the Tahkemoni, al-Harizi relates a near-prophetic experience in which his intellect charges him to fight zealously on behalf of the Hebrew language:

Open the eyes of your thought, marshal the troops of your intellect and the warriors of your tongue… for the Holy Tongue, the language of prophecy that has declined appallingly.

(al-Harizi, Sefer Tahkemoni, p. 8; trans. J. Decter)

Once the author pursues this vocation, the Hebrew Tongue itself appears to him in the form of a lovely maiden who further petitions al-Harizi to restore her lost luster. Al-Harizi states explicitly that he wrote the book to restore the status of the Hebrew language, which had been eclipsed ever since the appearance of al-Hariri’s Arabic maqamat.

Now I will tell you what moved me to compose this book: A certain Arab sage, the pride of his age, master of incision, who turned rivals to a mockery and derision, whose mouth was an open vision, one known as al-Hariri, who left all rivals panting and weary, composed a stunning work in Arabic, rhymed prose wed with metric stich…. Hence I wrote this book to raise Hebrew’s holy tower, to show our holy folk her suppleness and power.

(al-Harizi, Booh of Tahkemoni, p. 14)

As the collection progresses, al-Harizi undertakes many literary feats, such as the inclusion of an epistle that read forward is panegyric but read backward is invective (Maqamah 8), or a trilingual poem (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic) in a single rhyme and meter (Maqamah 11), or the maqamah that has two speeches structured such that every word in the first speech includes the Hebrew letter resh but every word in the second omits the same letter (Maqamah 11). In didactic episodes, the learned protagonist imparts practical information, such as the rules for the composition of poetry (Maqamah 18), and serves as a mouthpiece for the author’s diatribes, such as a diatribe against the Karaites (a non-Rabbinic Jewish sect, Maqamah 17). At other times, particularly in episodes of deceit, the protagonist’s speech is meant to mislead; a dissembling swindler out to make a profit, he cannot be trusted.

The narrator, who reveals his native land to be Spain, is Heman the Ezrahite, a name that appears in the Bible as the author of Psalm 88. There is also a wise Heman in the Bible to whom King Solomon is compared (1 Kings 5:11) and another Heman called “Heman the poet” (1 Chronicles 6:18). The protagonist, Hever the Qenite from Alon Tza’ananim, has the name of a character from the biblical text Judges 4. The place Tza’ananim derives from a root signifying “wandering,” which befits the protagonist’s itinerant spirit.

“Maqamah of the Astrologer.”

At the beginning of the maqamah, Heman the Ezrahite encounters an undisguised Hever the Qenite. Hever relates a story in which he and a band of Hebrew youths come to the gate of an unnamed city. A throng of people has gathered there around an Arab astrologer, a master interpreter of the stars, planets, and constellations and their influence on individuals’ lives. The astrologer predicts the future with the aid of an astrolabe (used for studying the movement of heavenly bodies).

Doubting the efficacy of the astrologer’s predictions, Hever and his friends conspire to test him, saying “Let us see what will become of his dreams!”—words that echo those of Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 37:20) just before casting Joseph into the pit (Sefer Tahkemoni, p. 216; trans. J. Decter). Like Joseph’s dreams, the astrologer’s predictions turn out to be true. The youths challenge the astrologer to guess a certain question that they are keeping hidden in their minds. Their question is perhaps the most enduring question of the Jewish people in exile, concerning when the Messiah will come to inaugurate an age of Jewish autonomy: “When shall Salvation come to the sons of our scattered nation?” (Book of Tahkemoni, pp. 207–08).

Without so much as a hint, the astrologer makes calculations in the sand, tinkers with his astrolabe, and finally declares,

I swear, he said, by Him who fashioned the earth and air, moon and sun, the planets every one, who set the Zodiac turning and the whirling constellations burning, yes, who put each star in place: you be not of us nor do you the Nazarene embrace; no—you are of the accursed Jewish race…. You ask if a scattered folk, laughed to scorn, can be ingathered in a world reborn? You seek the dead’s rejuvenation and the nation’s devastation; by God and His revelation, you ask Earth’s ruination! Sons of death, you would see our kingdom destroyed; you would hurl us to the void!

(Book of Tahkemoni, pp. 208–09)

Assuming that Jewish salvation would entail Islamic downfall, the angry mob seizes and beats the youths, then drags them bloodied through the streets to stand before the city’s magistrate. Rather than punishing them, the magistrate, who himself is a “righteous man among the gentiles,” offers them asylum, promises their security, and lets them spend the night in the protection of a cell (Book of Tahkemoni, p. 209).

The youths’ initial disbelief in the astrologer’s ability reflects a broad debate in medieval Islamic and Jewish society concerning the efficacy of astrology, which was accepted by some as a hard science, condemned by others as superstition and idolatry. Another dimension of medieval reality the story conveys is that the Jewish minority risked maltreatment at the hands of the Muslim populace for even thinking of subversion in medieval Islamic society. At the same time, as suggested in the tale, the guarantee of protection by Muslim authorities remained a stabilizing force for Jews.

“Maqamah of Babylonia.”

Another of the Tahke-moni’s maqamat is known for its literary history of the Hebrew poets of al-Andalus. While traveling in Iraq, Heman the Ezrahite is invited to a feast where aristocrats consume wine and delicacies.

Around that courtyard sprang golden towers myriad as flowers, housing frescoed chambers rich with streams…. And the banquet—a dream, a fable: table upon groaning table whose wealth I would describe if I were able. And round about—rugs plush and spacious, lush and capacious.

(Book of Tahkemoni, p. 39)

Glad to stumble upon such abundance, Heman rejoices and recites a Hebrew wine poem in the traditional Arabic style. Among the well-mannered guests is a gluttonous old man in tattered clothes, whose eating habits shock the other guests.

He honoured the cup like his father and mother, smothered it with kisses like a longlost brother. Slavering, slurping, belching, burping, he careened like a mad sloop through salads, vegetables and soup. On, on he raced: before him lay like Eden; after him a waste.

(Book of Tahkemoni, p. 41)

While the other guests discuss the history of Hebrew poetry in al-Andalus, the glutton inhales every morsel in sight as he glares at the aristocrats with a disapproving eye. Finally he speaks up, upbraiding the aristocrats for scorning his appearance and dismissing their conversation as uncultured banter. He rebukes them for their ignorance in matters of poetry: “As for the poets you have mentioned, 1 was there when they fought their battles; I am come from the battlefield. My heart is a scroll for their themes, I am a book of remembrance for their poems” (Sejer Tahkemoni, p. 43; trans. J. Decter). After waxing eloquent about the poetry of the former age, he identifies himself (as Hever the Qenite) and storms out in frustration at these second-rate “connoisseurs” of poetry.

From this maqamah, modern scholars have recovered important information about the history of Hebrew poetry including the names of otherwise unknown poets.

“Maqamah of Rehovot.”

This tale is based entirely on al-Hamadhani’s “Maqamah of Baghdad” (see Maqamat, also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). In both stories, the main character swindles an unsuspecting country bumpkin by inviting him to a meal at a public place, consuming succulent meats and other viands, then sneaking off and leaving the rustic to settle the bill. In the parent text, the narrator rather than the rogue plays the trickster, an unusual turn of events for a maqamah. But the Hebrew maqamah normalizes the structure by making Hever the Qenite the trickster.

Apart from the difference in the frame narrative, the plot of the “Maqamah of Rehovot” is virtually identical to that of the “Maqamah of Baghdad.” Heman the Ezrahite encounters Hever the Qenite, who is laughing with self-congratulation after having pulled off his latest scam. While cruising the marketplace in a state of hunger and penury, Hever encountered a country “Arab,” whom he duped into becoming an unsuspecting victim. As in Arabic, “Arab” is used to signify his rustic, non-cosmopolitan background more than his ethnicity. Feigning friendliness, Hever pretends the rustic is a long-lost friend and calls him by an invented name, which he continues to use despite the bumpkin’s protestations that the name is wrong. At the inn, Hever orders a sumptuous feast for himself and the rustic, who thinks that he is dining at Hever’s gracious expense. After gorging himself, Hever takes leave of the rustic, on the excuse that he will fetch some ice-cold water and return shortly. Of course, the swindler does not return, leaving the moneyless rustic to suffer a beating inflicted by the angry innkeeper. The account of Hever’s cunning impresses Heman the Ezrahite.

Al-Harizi translates from one cultural discourse into another, coloring the text with witty biblical references. When acting as if the bumpkin is his long-lost friend, Hever addresses him as “Abidan son of Gideoni” instead of his real name, which Hever could not possibly know since in truth he has never seen this “friend” before. The name strikes a humorous chord through biblical allusion; a generous character, the biblical Abidan, son of Gideoni, brings a bountiful offering to the Tabernacle in Numbers 7:60–65:

One silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver basin of 70 shekels… both filled with choice flowers… for a meal offering… one goat for a sin offering; and for his sacrifice of well-being: two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling lambs. That was the offering of Abidan son of Gideoni.

For the educated Hebrew reader, the name immediately brings to mind this long list of valuable vessels with expensive contents and, most importantly, meat. It is as though Hever walks up to the bumpkin and says, “Hello, sucker!” through an allusion that goes right over the head of his unlettered victim, an Abidan who is about to contribute a great “offering” to the rogue’s appetite rather than the Tabernacle. In this way, al-Harizi adds a level of humor that is not present in the Arabic original.

No place like home

The Tahkemoni is remarkable for its ironic exploitation of traditional texts, including the Bible, the Talmud, and the traditional prayer book. In Maqamah 24, Hever the Qenite relates that he attended a synagogue of imbeciles where the cantor distorted the traditional liturgy into a blasphemous garble by mispronouncing select words:

Lo, the cantor entered and took his honoured seat, and in tones dulcet sweet began the daily blessings, as is meet. According to the practice of our nation, he begged God’s rumination, thundering, Make the words of Thy Torah pheasant in our mouth, rather than pleasant in our mouth; and May the Lord flavour you and grant you peas, instead of May the Lord favour you and grant you peace.

(Book of Tahkemoni, pp. 216–17)


If one assumes that the “Maqarnah of Babylonia” takes place during the author’s lifetime, one must conclude that Hever the Qenite, who plays the part of the glutton-critic, has been alive for more than a century because he claims to have encountered Hebrew poets such as Judah Halevi and Moses ibn Ezra, who were active in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. A relic from a bygone age, he is condemned to wander the earth without an equal. His knowledge of that age makes him a conduit of a lost, idyllic culture. The present, in his view, is lacking a refined circle of luminaries as once existed in al-Andalus.

While Heman the Ezrahite is grateful to happen upon a gathering of intellectuals conversant in matters of poetry, reflecting, perhaps, al-Harizi’s longing for literary peers, Hever the Qenite’s rebuke at the same gathering may reflect the author’s frustration at and disdain for the available intellectual culture. Although it is impossible to confirm, al-Harizi may have left Spain for the Islamic East in search of a Hebrew literary scene set within an Arabic-Islamic context similar to that which formerly existed in al-Andalus; his parody of intellectual life in the East is likely an expression of disappointment.

Although the scene is certainly intended to be humorous, its setting in a real city of the Islamic East, Mosul of Iraq, suggests that al-Harizi, the wanderer, may have found Jewish learning to be substandard in the lands of his journey.

Nostalgia for the refined literary culture of Spain is a recurring theme of the Tahkemoni. Already in the book’s introduction, the author is introduced as one whose “land was the garden of God though he was banished, exiled from its dwellings…. His name is Judah son of Solomon and the name of his homeland is Spain” (Sefer Tahkemoni, p. 3; trans. J. Decter). In one episode, Hever the Qenite recalls that in former days “Spain was a delight to the eyes, her light was like the sun in heaven, her air was the life of souls, the flowers of her gardens were like the stars in the heavens” (Sefer Tahkemoni, p. 345; trans. J. Decter). As already noted, the “Maqamah of Babylonia” also suggests nostalgia for the past.

Literary context

It has been established that al-Harizi’s first Hebrew compositions were not original creations but were translations of renowned Arabic texts. In his translation of al-Hariri’s Maqa-mat, which he titled Mahberot Iti’el (Iti’el’s Notebooks, after a wise man in Proverbs 30:1), al-Harizi strives to capture the sense of the original but also to create a new work that is fine literature in its own right. Al-Harizi transforms the maqamat into a thoroughly Jewish text. Arabic names are changed to biblical names, cities around the Islamic world are replaced with biblical place names, and ironic uses of biblical allusions abound at every turn. For example, in al-Hariri’s twelfth maqamah, set in Ghutah (the plain near Damascus), a (drunk) preacher in the guise of a Sufi mendicant teaches a prayer for protection that opens with the first surah of the Quran and includes blessings for the Prophet Muhammad. In al-Harizi’s rewriting, the story is set in the “Heights of Naphtali and Asher” in the land of Israel, praise for Muhammad is replaced with praise for Moses, and the Quranic Surah is replaced with Psalm 91, which appropriately is a prayer for protection.

When possible, al-Harizi preserves the literary, sometimes orthographic, conceit around which al-Hariri structures a maqamah. For example, al-Hariri builds his seventeenth maqamah around an epistle that can be read either forwards or in reverse. Rather than translating the story literally, al-Harizi creates a reversible epistle of his own, thus translating its central conceit rather than its precise meaning.

In retrospect, al-Harizi felt a certain amount of remorse for having translated al-Hariri into Hebrew because Mahberot Iti’el was a derivative work that promoted the Arabic author’s celebrity as much as it advanced the cause of Hebrew revival. In the introduction to the Tahkemoni, al-Harizi writes,

But after I had translated the treasure of this all-but-prophet to my readers pleasure and profit, I left the west, dared mountain peaks and the wave’s curled crest, and eastward came—where I was struck with shame. Forgive me, Lord, I


Although al-Harizi was an unflagging champion of the Hebrew language, he also remained a dedicated author of Arabic literature. In 1996, Joseph Sadan published a remarkable eight-page section from the Arabic biographical dictionary by Ibn al-Sha‘ar al-Mawsili (1197–1256) that shed new light on the life and work of al-Harizi. The section begins:

Yahya ibn Suleiman ibn Sha’ul Abu Zakariya al-Harizi the Jew from the people of Toledo. He was a poet of great talent and prolific creation who composed poems in the area of panegyric and invective. He composed numerous works in the Hebrew language such as the “Book of Maqamot” (i.e. the Tahkemoni); (he also composed) a single maqamah in the Arabic language that he titled “The Elegant Garden.”

(Sadan, p. 52; trans. J. Decter)

From this document, we learn vital information about the author, such as the place and year of his death, and curious facts, such as his uncommon height, his inability to grow a beard, and his Maghrebi accent. Importantly the dictionary preserves six Arabic poems by al-Harizi that adhere to the literary tastes of his day. The following example, describing a fover’s secret visit to his beloved beneath the gaze of her disapproving family, is based on a verse by the Andalusian poet and prince al-Mu‘tamid ibn Abbad (d. 1095):

A night when I visited the tribe in a garment of gloom,
When the garments of the horizon were adorned with bright stars,
I came to her in stealth when her family dozed off
(around her) like bubbles around a wine cup.
Surrounding her were cutting swords and lances.
Heroic lions with their bloodied claws.
While the mouth of Fate laughed (showing) its teeth.
Unveiling the cheek of a reddened sword.
I emerged in golden vestments as the flowers
Of the stars became entwined with the full moon.
I picked her flowers in the garden of beauty.
She is fertile in the behind but barren at the waist
I kissed her: thin of body, a long-necked young gazelle.
Lips Wood-red and a mouth (white) with saliva.
                      (Sadan, pp. 53–54; trans. J. Decter)

cried, for I am much to blame! Alas my name and my father’s name, that I diverted the Bible’s crystal brook to fructify a foreign book. I mistook my purpose. Look: I tended strangers’ vineyards and my own forsook [from Song of Songs 1:6]. (Book of Tahkemoni, p. 18)

It was, in part, because of al-Harizi’s compunctions over his earlier work that he composed the Tahkemoni

Al-Harizi claims that his book is entirely original: “I took nothing from the book of the Ishmaelite [al-Hariri]” (Sefer Tahkemoni, p. 14; trans. J. Decter). However, it is well known that he borrowed plots liberally from al-Hamadhani, al-Hariri, and other Arabic sources, as illustrated by the “Maqamah of Rehovot.” These he rewrote with allusions pulled from Hebrew sources over which he had a command, creating new texts that were also, in a sense, “original.” Other plots are indeed of al-Harizi’s own design, such as the “Maqamah of the Astrologer” and the “Maqamah of Babylonia” (though the later has parallels in al-Hariri’s maqamat).

Al-Harizi, as noted, laments what he sees as the appalling decline of the Hebrew language. He is probably concerned here with the decline of poetic writing in the style of the great Andalu-sian poets. This low estimation of the state of Hebrew letters in the early thirteenth century is somewhat exaggerated. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries, even before the composition of al-Harizi’s tour de force, were extremely fruitful for Hebrew writing, continuing the poetic tradition of al-Andalus and expanding into several areas of prose writing. Hebrew was used for writing expositions on topics previously treated in Arabic only, such as philosophy, science, mathematics, and biblical exegesis.

The first Hebrew fictional narrative in rhymed prose was Judah ibn Tzakbel’s Asher Son ofjudah Spoke (c. 1100–50), the story of a bumbling lover’s humiliating quest for his beloved. Not sophisticated enough to play the game of courtly love, Asher is led to a veiled figure he believes to be his beloved only to discover “a long beard and a face like death” when the veil is lifted (Ibn Tzakbel, pp. 266–67). Other Hebrew narratives that precede the Tahkemoni include Joseph ibn Zabara’s Sefer sha’ashu’im (Book of Delights) and Judah ibn Shabbetai’s Minhat Yehudah sone ha-nashim (Gift of Judah the Misogynist). Of all the early Hebrew rhymed prose narratives, only Asher Son ofjudah Spoke merits mention in al-Harizi’s review of literary history in the “Maqamah of Babylonia.”


The Tahkemoni was popular among patrons and survives in many manuscripts. In Christian Spain, the collection was followed by several original works in rhymed prose including the Book of Stories (thirteenth century) by al-Harizi’s younger contemporary Jacob ben Eleazar, The Tale of the Ancient One (thirteenth century) by Isaac ibn Sahula, The Debate Between the Pen and the Scissors (fourteenth century) by Shem Tov ibn Ardutiel, and the allegorical love story The Eloquent Tale ofEfer and Dinah (fifteenth century) by Don Vidal Benveniste. Hebrew authors in Italy, Egypt, Yemen, Turkey, and Greece continued to utilize the rhymed prose form for centuries to come. The Tahkemon’s influence reached as far as India, where a verse from the book adorned the dedication plaque of an ornate synagogue in Cochin (built 1544). More than any other rhymed prose author, al-Harizi has been recognized by modern readers as a literary genius whose verve and wit have transcended the ephemeral.

—Jonathan P. Decter

For More Information

Brann, Ross. “Power in the Portrayal: Representations of Muslims and Jews in Judah al-Harizi’s Tahkemoni Princeton Papers in Near Eastern Studies, no. 1. Princeton, N.J.: Darwin Press, 1992.

Cohen, Gerson D. Sefer ha-Qabbalah: The Book of Tradition by Abraham Ibn Daud: A Critical Edition with Translation and Notes. New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1967.

Drory, Rina. “Al-Harizi’s Maqamat: A Tricultural Literary Product?” Medieval Translator 4 (1994): 66–85.

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The Book of Tahkemoni (Hebrew Maqamat)

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