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Shrine of Shalom Shabazi, Ta'izz, Yemen

Yemen

Summary

Site of the shrine of Shalom Shabazi, who is widely considered one of Yemen’s greatest poets. The shrine is located in Ta'izz (תעיז, Taiz, تعز), the poet's place of birth, and was the destination of thousands of Muslims pilgrims as well as Jewish pilgrims of all genders, who came in hopes of obtaining remedies for their ills—sickness, sterility, poverty, misery, and the like. 

Description

Im nin'alu dal thaey na di vim
Dal thaey ma rom lo nin'alu

If they are locked, the doors of the generous ones
The doors of the sky (heaven) won't be locked
-Shalom Shabazi, "Im Nin'alu"1


Shalom Shabazi: Born in 1619 in Najd al-Walid near Ta‘izz in southern Yemen, Shalom Shabazi is considered Yemen’s greatest Jewish poet and is popularly referred to as Mori Sālim (Rabbi or Master). By profession, Shabazī was a weaver, and he lived in poverty in his youth. He studied with local rabbis, including his relative Israel Safra, but also spent time in Sanʿa, where he studied with the leading scholars of the Jewish community there and became a close associate of some of them, such as David Durayn.2 Some of his poems mention the yeshivot of Sanʿa with a strong sense of yearning. Later in life, Shabazi became a venerated figure in the Jewish community of Yemen, probably because of his enormous corpus of poetry and his recognized scholarship, and on at least one occasion he represented the Jewish community of Yemen before the Muslim governor.3 He had two sons, Judah and Simeon; the latter was also a religious leader and a poet.

In addition to the numerous works of poetry he produce, Shabazi produced short works that are still in manuscript, such as Kitāb al-Raml (The Sand Book), a work on geomancy, and Kitāb al-Zīj (The Book of the Astronomical Table), a work on astronomy. As the historical figure most admired by the Jews of Yemen, he is the most popular protagonist of Jewish-Yemenite folklore. Many folktales present him as a national hero who fought to protect the Jews against the spells of the evil Muslim wizard Ibn ʿAlwān (d. 1267), who actually lived hundreds of years before his time.4

Shabazī’s reputation as a poet derives from the sheer quantity of his poetry, the variety of genres in which he wrote, covering virtually every aspect of annual festival cycle and the individual life-cycle, his mastery of the three languages used in Jewish Yemenite verse (Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic), his linguistic originality and ability to coin new words, his erudition in Jewish and Arab knowledge, including Arabic poetry, his development of the muwashshaḥ (strophic) form to an extent never previously attested, and his giving voice to the suffering of Jewish existence under Muslim rule.5 According to a popular tradition, Shabazī wrote fifteen hundred poems, but only between eight and nine hundred are recorded, and many of his poems are quite long, frequently more than 150 lines. His poetry constitutes a substantial documentation for the history of Yemenite Jewry in his time. Some 550 of his poems and hymns are extant, written in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Arabic. In all of them, his name appears in acrostic form either at the beginning of the stanzas or in the poem itself. His poetry deals primarily with the religious themes of exile and redemption, the Jewish people and God, wisdom and ethics, Torah, and the life to come. Many of his poems deal with the glorious past of the Jews in their own land, from which the author draws faith and hope for renewed greatness in the future.6 He wrote poems dedicated to the Sabbath and festivals, marriage, and circumcision. His ethical poems are outstanding for their teaching and gentle moralizing. His poems are not confined to any one theme, but combine several subjects in one and the same work. Their style, comparable to that of rabbinical literature, is prosaic and easy, making his poetry readily accessible to the masses. About half the poems in the Yemenite diwan, published in many editions, are by him. Shabazī is unquestionably one of the most important figures in post-exilic traditional Jewish poetry.7

Ta'izz: Taʿizz is the most important city in southwestern Yemen as the country’s economic and industrial capital.8 It is located on an important historical crossroads with Ibb, Yarim, Dhamar, and Sanʿa, 195 kilometers (121 miles) to the north, Mocha to the southwest, and Aden, 140 kilometers (88 miles) to the southeast. Taʿizz sits on the northern foot of Mount Sabir, at an altitude of 1,400 meters (4,593 feet), in the center of a highly productive agricultural area.9 The city of Taʿizz had a Jewish quarter called al-Maghraba and Jewish travelers from the 18th to the 20th century who passed through make some mention of its Jewish community.10 One source states that twenty Jewish families lived in the city, although the true size of the city's Jewish population is difficult to estimate.11 Shabazi's grave attracted pilgrims “all year round and particularly around Shavuʿot, many Jews from all parts of Yemen with wives and children to pray at his tomb; they would bathe in a pool and make vows.”12 No Jews remained in Taʿizz after Operation on the Wings of Eagles (Magic Carpet), which brought almost the entire Yemeni Jewish community to the newly established State of Israeli in 1949 and 1950.13 Since then the exact site of Shabazī’s grave has been lost.14 However, the well has been identified and is apparently cared for by a local woman of Jewish origin.15

"Im Nin'alu," performed by Ofra Haza

 

Suggested Further Reading: 

  • "Like Joseph in Beauty: Yemini Vernacular Poetry and Arab-Jewish Symbiosis" by Mark S. Wagner
  • "Folktales of the Jews, V. 3 (Tales from Arab Lands)" edited and with commentary by Dan Ben Amos
  • "The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition" by Peter Cole and Aminadav Dykman
  • "Fifty Gates of Wisdom: Yemenite Songs" (available on CD) performed by Ofra Haza

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