Judaism is a religion of words. The holy words of the Torah are the basis of all Jewish tradition and life. As is well known, words can come in many forms - poetry, narrative prose, declamations, commands, essays and statements. All of these types of combinations of words appear in the Torah. Though most rabbinic scholarship focused on the statements and commandments of the Torah, the rabbis were always aware of the innate beauty of the poetry of the Hebrew language.
This awareness was not limited to the actual poetic portions of the Torah, such as the Song of Moses and Israel at the Red Sea or the blessings of Balaam, but even the more prosaic forms of the Torah such as the blessings of Jacob and of Moses were understood in their poetic meter and language. Thus from the infancy of Israel, poetry and an appreciation of language became an integral part of Jewish life and rabbinic study.
Naturally, certain books of the Bible were viewed as poetic works, foremost being the Book of Psalms. But all of us realize that the prose of Isaiah or Amos is really also Hebrew poetry in its most exalted form. And since these books were part of the synagogue service on a daily or weekly basis, the Jewish ear became easily attuned to the majesty of the poetry of the Hebrew language. Thus poetry was and is a constant and important component of Jewish liturgy and life.
The Torah itself refers to its contents as shira - poetry, song. Following this lead, all forms of poetry - liturgical, general, personal - became common in Jewish life from the times of the Talmud onward. The acknowledged master of liturgical poetry was Rabbi Elazar Hakalir, whose liturgical poems still form the basis of many parts of Jewish prayer services. There are those who identify him with a scholar of the Mishna, while most scholars place him in seventh-century Babylonia or other Mediterranean communities.
In the Middle Ages, the use of poetry was common and became exalted in both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewries. The great poets of the Jewish people, such as Shlomo ibn Gvirol, Yehuda Halevi, Moshe and Avraham ibn Ezra, Shimon of Mainz, all contributed to the development of Hebrew poetry. Most of the poetry was devoted to prayers, such as slihot, kinot and piyutim (penitential prayer, elegies and liturgical poetry). However we do find a variety of general poetry as well authored by these great wordsmiths. Yehuda Halevi's "Songs of the Sea" remains a classic example of Hebrew poetry at its finest.
Songs of nature and of love were widely popular in the Jewish world of Spain and North Africa, and the composition of special and unique poems to mark a special life-cycle event, such as marriage, circumcision and funerals, was considered to be the norm of good manners and proper etiquette.
Many rabbinic works over the centuries, even down to the 20th century, contained introductions written in the form of poetry. It seemed to be almost obligatory for rabbinic authors to try their hand at composing poetry in introducing their scholarly tomes. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Hebrew and Yiddish poetry became very popular. As the times changed rapidly, an entire genre of poems of nostalgia appeared, rich in memory, pathos and sadness. Concurrent with the rise of Zionism and nationalism, Hebrew poems describing the necessary return to Zion and the rise of a nascent Jewish state abounded. Our generation is witness to an explosion of poetry regarding the Holocaust and the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel.
It is obvious that most forms of prose speak to the brain and intellect, while poetry speaks to one's heart and emotions. Since Judaism always deals with one's soul and the workings of one's inner spirit - God after all "wants our hearts" - it goes without saying that poetry has and deserves a place of high honor within Jewish life. Poetry reflects our inner longings and hopes and helps deflect our fears and trepidations. Perhaps this is why the Torah chose to describe itself in terms of being a poem - a poem of eternity and godliness. The American poet Joyce Kilmer once wrote: "Poems are made by fools like me,/But only God can make a tree." He was wrong. God also makes poetry.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.