Page 77 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

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Yemenite Jewish poetry o f the 17th century is firmly rooted in
kabbalistic literature. It served to enliven and strengthen the
spirit and commitment o f Yemenite Jews and inspired nationalist
and religious feelings in the community. When the kabbalistic
poetry o f Safed and the mystical piyyutim came to be included in
the collections o f poetry known as the “Diwans,” their influence
began to be felt in the Yemenite wedding ceremony and friend­
ship poetry. During this period poetry abandons its original sim­
plicity and takes on the subtlety o f hidden meaning. The major
preoccupation o f the poet moves from a consideration o f the hu ­
man condition to a contemplation o f God and his relationship to
man. God is the bridegroom and Israel is His bride. The subject
o f the poetry is the beloved bridegroom, while the poetic style is
permeated by a spirit o f mysticism. The motifs of friendship and
the ‘beloved’ are used extensively, both in this poetry and in the
poems o f redemption. Both rely on the style and imagery o f the
Song o f Songs. Much of the sense of the poems may be lost in a
cursory first reading, but after a close and attentive perusal the
true meaning is revealed.
In the 17th century a new convention was established in Yem­
enite poetry. Poems beginning with the question “Who kissed
me?” were first composed by Yosef b. Yisrael, who was to be not
only the initiator but also the foremost exponent of this conven­
tion. Subsequently, Shalem Shabazi also used this form. Such
poems are suffused with supplications and prayers of the bride
(the congregation o f Israel) to the bridegroom (God). Typically,
the poems begin with a monologue which is dramatic and vivid
and which leads the reader to construct an image o f the beloved.
The “action” of this genre is unfolded as the speaker describes his
personal experience. The poetry is generally allegorical in pres­
enting its view o f the love between God and His people. There
are also major esoteric elements involved in that the intimacy of
the lover and the beloved is achieved only on the level o f the
, the highest sphere from which the emanations o f God
flow. The act o f the lover’s ascension also bespeaks his striving to
reach his source. In achieving this goal he becomes sublime and
extended not in any physical sense but in a spiritual one.
Much o f the literature produced by Yemenite Jews was cen­
tered around the holy writings, poetry being no exception. Yem­