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Lebensohn, Micah Joseph


LEBENSOHN, MICAH JOSEPH (also known as Mikhal ; 1828–1852), one of the foremost Hebrew poets of the *Haskalah. Born in Vilna, the son of Abraham Dov *Lebensohn (Adam ha-Kohen), who was a leading intellectual of the time and one of its outstanding poets, Micah Lebensohn received a thorough Hebrew education including intensive study of the Bible. Unlike other youths of his day who had to struggle in order that they might study secular subjects, Lebensohn was privately tutored in German, Polish, Russian, and French. In early childhood he already showed great interest in literature and began his literary endeavors by translating German poetry. His translation of most of the second book of Vergil's Aeneid from Schiller's German version (97 stanzas), at the age of 19, established Lebensohn's reputation in the Vilna literary world. A year later, he translated Vittorio Alfieri's play Saul under the title Aḥarit Sha'ul. (In all extant copies parts of the translation are missing.) At the age of 17 Lebensohn was severely stricken with tuberculosis and was sent to Berlin for medical treatment. Upon advice of his doctors he tried the Salzbrunn spa in 1849, but returned to Berlin in the winter. The following summer he spent at the Reinerz spa where his condition improved, and it was there that he wrote his best work. With the coming of winter, he suffered a relapse and returned to his father's home in Vilna, where he died. While in Berlin, Lebensohn read and studied. He regularly attended Schelling's lectures in philosophy, visited cultural institutions, and acquainted himself with contemporary literary movements. He was influenced by Shneur *Sachs, and by Leopold *Zunz, who encouraged him to write epic poetry. His father published the poems in a collection entitled Shirei Bat Ẓiyyon (1851). Kinnor Bat Ẓiyyon (1870), a compilation of his remaining works comprising 41 original and translated poems, was edited, annotated, and published by his father posthumously.

Lebensohn was influenced by the Romantic movement. The intimate youthful freshness of his lyrical poetry, depicting personal emotions and experiences, sharply deviates from the rationalism, moralizing, and elaborate rhetorical phrases of the earlier Haskalah literary tradition. "Shelomo ve-Kohelet," a poetic work comparable in structure to his father's "Ha-Mitonen ve-ha-Meshorer," is composed of two poems representing two phases in King Solomon's life: in "Shelomo," Solomonis the young lover of the Songs of Songs, a bard who loves life and beauty; in "Kohelet," he is the old man who says that all is vanity. An aged king in "Kohelet," Solomon is weary of life, having grown old before his time through too much meditation and wisdom. "Shelomo" culminates in a love idyll by moonlight, whereas "Kohelet" is consummated in an epiphany – a vision of God. "Kohelet" thus transcends the burden of life. In "Nikmat Shimshon," the once mighty Samson, now blind and helpless, is brought before the altar of Dagon to amuse the Philistine foe. Delilah's betrayal, his blindness, and his humiliation, which also represent the national disgrace, leave Samson with but one desire – revenge. It keeps him alive, and restores to him his power to act. In "Ya'el ve-Sisra," Jael has to choose between her humane duty to give sanctuary to a defeated man, and her patriotic duty to destroy a national enemy. In the end she fulfills her duty to her people, convinced by Deborah the prophetess that national morality is also human morality. "Moshe al Har ha-Avarim" depicts the prophet, on the verge of realizing his vision, taking leave of his people and of the destined land. The theme of death before fulfillment reflects the fate of the poet who suffered and died of tuberculosis; it is repeated in "R. Yehudah ha-Levi." Judah Halevi reaches the Promised Land, and, as he kisses its sacred dust, he is attacked and murdered by an Arab. On the verge of death, he envisions the dead inviting him to join them, and he departs this life with an expression of "sweet grace" upon his face. Other well-known poems of Lebensohn are the lyrical ones: "Ha-Tefillah," "El ha-Kokhavim," "Ḥag ha-Aviv," and "Al ha-Ḥoli-Ra be-Ir Berlin" (all published in Kinnor Bat Ẓiyyon). While "Shelomo ve-Kohelet" is written under the influence of his father's work, Lebensohn's other poems constitute a new departure in Hebrew poetry. In the tradition of the romantic poet, he focuses the poem on a tragic and crucial moment in his hero's life; as a lyric poet, he knows how to portray the battle that rages in his hero's divided soul. The themes of his epic poetry are life and death, the visionary and his fate, the poet and his mission, and the moral conflict between human feelings and patriotic duty, when these are antithetical. His poetry is stamped with the fate of the author who, standing on the threshold of life, both as a man and as a creative genius, must die. His epic poetry shows the influence of Milton and Shakespeare and his lyric poetry that of Heine, whom he read in his youth. Lebensohn translated Goethe's "Erlkoenig" from German, Mickiewicz's "Farys" from Polish, Arnault's "La Feuille" from French (known in Hebrew under the title "Daliyyah Niddaḥat" and generally published under Lebensohn's name without giving the origin of the poem), and other poems whose origin is unknown (see Fichmann's introduction to Shirei Mikhal on the problem of translation in Micah Lebensohn). Lebensohn's poetry was first collected in Kol Shirei Adam u-Mikhal (1895).


Waxman, Literature, 3 (1960), 226–34; Lachower, Sifrut, 2 (1943), 115–33; Klausner, Sifrut, 3 (1953), 228–68; J. Fichmann, Shirei Mikhal: Iggerotav ve-Targumav (1962), 7–39; Zeitlin, Bibliotheca, 194; Shunami, Bibl, 3843. add. bibliography: A. Cohen, Mikha Yosef Lebenzon: Ha-Meshorer vi-Yeẓirato (incl. bibl.; 1967); A. Lubin-Tsifroni, Shirat Yemei ha-Beynayim ve-ha-Haskalah: RaShBag, RIHaL, MIKhal, YaLaG (1964); Y. Friedlander, Siḥah al Tefillah Aḥaronah, in: Rosh, 4 (1979), 8–10; A. Zeitlin, Sheloshah Meshorerim ve-Emunatam, in: Ha-Do'ar, 58:9 (1979), 143; T. Cohen, Ereẓ lo Noda'at, in: Zehut, 2 (1982), 145–153; S. Yaniv, Ha-Im Mikhal Hu Meshorer ha-Baladah? in: Alei Siaḥ, 21:14, (1982), 318–327; A. Holz, in: Tarbiz, 52:3 (1983), 469–496; idem, in: Tarbiz, 53:3 (1984), 431–464; R. Shoham, Halakhah u-Ma'aseh ba-Poetikah shel Shirei Bat Ẓiyyon le-Mikhal, in: Nekudot Mifneh ba-Sifrut ha-Ivrit (1993), 87–94; S. Werses, Shirat ha-Haskalah ha-Ivrit be-Maḥlaẓot shel Leshon Yidish, in: Ḥuliyot, 7 (2002), 9–44.

[Elieser Kagan]

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