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Sahula, Isaac ben Solomon Abi


SAHULA, ISAAC BEN SOLOMON ABI (b. 1244), Hebrew poet, scholar, physician and kabbalist. Sahula, who had relatives in Burgos and in the town of Guadalajara in Castile, was a disciple of the kabbalist Moses of Burgos and was acquainted with *Moses b. Shem-Tov de Leon, his fellow townsman. He was also trained in traditional rabbinic studies and in medicine. He lived during the reign of Alfonso the Wise of Castile, and traveled from one place to another practicing medicine and avowing not to be dependent upon his patrons. In 1281 he was in Egypt, when he decided to consecrate his life to writing with a clearly moral purpose. His major work, Meshal ha-Kadmoni (between 1281 and 1284), was a book of fables expressly written to displace, with an original Hebrew work, such light literature as Kalila and Dimna and the Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, which were read extensively by Jews in the Middle Ages in Hebrew translations. Hence Ibn Sahula introduced in his book a similar structure and mode of presentation, and even added illustrations to his book, as was prevalent in non-Jewish literature. The manuscripts and all the printed editions of the work are embellished with extremely interesting miniatures or woodcuts. Divided into five chapters, Meshal ha-Kadmoni contains a large collection of parables, stories, and tales, all written in maqāma-like form with pedagogical purpose. He declares his sorrow for the way his contemporaries use Hebrew. The author's mastery of language and exceptional talent as a storyteller are revealed in this work, obscured, however, by the large amount of popular scientific material woven into the narrative. Each section starts with the words of a Cynic against one of the main virtues (wisdom, penitence, sound counsel, humility) that are conveniently refuted by the Moralist; the fifth section, on "reverence," is a diatribe against astrology and determinism. The book contains three quotations of one of the oldest components of the Zohar, the Midrash ha-Ne'lam, but it is closer to Maimonides than to the doctrines of the Kabbalah. The Meshal ha-Kadmoni enjoyed a wide circulation in the Middle Ages. Some fragments of another maqāma, discovered and commented upon by Schirmann, in which the author calls himself "Isaac," could also be by Ibn Sahula.

Meshal ha-Kadmoni was reprinted eight times, first by Soncino in Brescia (c. 1491); in 1953 I. Zamora published it in Tel Aviv with a fully vocalized text and with the woodcut illustrations from the Venice edition (c. 1547); in 2004 Raphael Lowe published it with an English translation. Its Yiddish version (1st, Frankfurt on the Oder, 1693), the editions of which outnumbered the Hebrew (nine are known), also appeared with woodcuts. M. Steinschneider and M.Y. Bin Gorion translated some of the stories into German. In addition, Sahula wrote a commentary on the Song of Songs (still in manuscript) in a kabbalistic vein, and a commentary to some Psalms.


G. Scholem, Perakim be-Toledot Sifrut ha-Kabbalah (1931), 59–68; M. Marx, in: Sefer ha-Yovel… A. Marx (1943), i–viii (Eng. pt.); A.M. Habermann, in: yivo Bleter, 13 (1938), 95–101; idem, in: ks, 29 (1953/54), 199–203; idem, in: Aresheth, 3 (1961), 106 n. 12; Waxmann, Literature, 2 (1960), 596–7. add. bibliography: Schirmann-Fleischer, The History of Hebrew Poetry in ChristianSpain and Southern France (Hebrew; 1997), 345–65; P.F. Fumagalli, in: Rassegna Mensile di Israel, 69:1 (2003), 31–48; R. Loewe, Meshal Haqadmoni: Fables from the Distant Past; A Parallel Hebrew-English Text (2004).

[Abraham Meir Habermann /

Angel Sáenz-Badillos (2nd ed.)]

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