Joseph ben Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi

Joseph ben Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi


Joseph ben Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi
(ca. 1261-before 1330)

Biography of Joseph ben Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi
The Poems
About the Translator

Biography of Joseph ben Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi
Joseph b. Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi, one the most talented Hebrew poets living outside of Spain in the thirteenth century, was born in 1261/62 and died about 1300 (but not later than 1330). Probably born in Jerusalem, he was the son of the famous biblical commentator, grammarian, and lexicographer Tanchum b. Joseph ha-Yerushalmi, who sometime between 1276 and 1291 was a rabbi in the Egyptian capital.

We know that at least after 1276 Joseph lived in Fustat (Old Cairo), where he enjoyed the patronage of the Egyptian nagid (head of the Jews) Rabbi David b. Abraham Maimuni, the grandson of Maimonides, whose family he served as a court poet. Between 1285 and 1289 Joseph was involved in pro-Maimonist activities.

During the years 1276 to 1291 he wrote most of his poetry and rhymed prose, which are preserved in two books: a divan (a collection of his poetry and works in rhymed prose known as makamot and the Sefer Arugot ha-Besamim (a collection of short poems with homophone rhymes). Joseph himself wrote a commentary to his last book.

Joseph adopted the technique of the Spanish school of medieval Hebrew poetry and excelled in all genres fashionable in his period, especially the muwashshah, or “girdle” poem, and he was the most significant Eastern poet using this typical Spanish strophic form. He composed liturgical poems (piyyutim), dirges—lamentations—(kinot) for the 9th of Av, dirges on the dead, and penitential prayers (selichot), but the greater part of his work consists of secular poetry, including praise poems, love poems, wine poems, friendship poems, garden poems, and riddles. He also translated a number of Arabic poems into Hebrew.

The works of Joseph b. Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi are only partially published. My Ph.D. dissertation was a first attempt to introduce the poet and his works to the community of literary scholars. Since my publications on the poet, several additional publications have appeared. However, no additional literary research has been done on the works of this poet. This selection of his poems in English translation is either the first or largest such selection published to date.

25. Diw V:14
And more by him…a wine muwashshah:

The man who desires to acquire joy of hearts,
let him listen to the record

Of the lawsuit between a jug and a goblet,
when they stood arguing in the court of wine.


The goblet said, “Beauty, majesty,
glory, and charm are attached to me;

My throne is close to the friend and the beloved,
and all the people are subjects of my discipline.

Tell the sons of Rechab, “You were
very foolish for betraying me.”

My horse’s hooves are hard as rock;
with them I can sadden hosts of sorrows.

The jug was detained on the sunny side,
while I am a shield for the darling.


The jug asked, “Is it not so, that
only in my company can you be supreme?

Although your magnificence is considered abundant,
without me you might be filled with poison.

All my days I am your father,
but your heart plots evil against me.

I will withhold wine from every stranger
and destroy sorrows with my sword.

Only your eye will gossip about me,
and my source will run dry.”


The goblet said, “Foolish one, open
your eye before you answer

And see, whether your body is clear and bright.
Or, do you have a place close to the beloved?

All your days you are humble and bowed,
but on a joyful day you dare to answer.”

O miser, you withhold your wealth until
some kind-hearted man removes your headdress

And commands me, “Subdue him
and destroy the dwelling of sorrow.”


The jug said, “Shut your mouth,
in order not be ashamed of your blemish.

You may boast with my praises,
but prepare yourself to be my slave.

You delight in the peace of my king
but conspire to harm him.

I will hide it in the sanctuary,
until the flame of its light shines forth.

I will make its stars shine,
but with the help of your blessing they will grow dim.


Said the wine, “I swear
by my honor and good taste

Do not argue in my camp,
for you are those who eat my bread;

And in your numerical values I appear
to those who love me and esteem my name:

When the jug will be beheaded and the
goblet’s head held high, how will any adversary stand?

For when the secret is disclosed to people,
the rain will pour from the cloud of joy.


Hayim Y. Sheynin (MA, St Petersburg University, 1965; Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, 1987) has worked at the Gratz College library since 1986 and before that was professor of Hebrew Literature at Dropsie College and director of the Dropsie College Library.