Not far from The Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, you’ll find a street called Solomon ibn Gabirol. It’s a fabulous location – not only in terms of real estate (if you have never been inside The Great Synagogue, rectify that as soon as possible – it’s impressive, to say the least) but also in terms of the company Solomon ibn Gabirol Street keeps. Just west are Abarbanel and Ramban Streets, just west lies ibn Ezra, just north and east wind Al-Harizi. It’s a neighborhood named for medieval scholars and poets, biblical commentators and essayists, vaunted philosophers and theologians. And Solomon ibn Gabirol – who was composing gorgeous psalms and dirges before Abarbanel and Ramban were even gleams in their grandparents’ eyes – stands as the ranking elder among them. In this exalted community, Solomon ibn Gabirol belongs.
Among the streets of Jerusalem, Solomon ibn Gabirol has come home.
It has been a long journey.
Solomon ibn Gabirol was born in 1021. His father Judah, once a renowned member of the prestigious Jewish community of Cordoba, had fled when war erupted in the area, and sought shelter in Malaga, where Solomon was born. After the deaths of his parents, Solomon – still a child – turned to Talmud, languages, philosophy, and science for comfort – and then to Hebrew poetry for expressing his piety and – it must be said – his pride.
Solomon ibn Gabirol composed his first known poem, “Azharot,” when he was sixteen. Based on the 613 commandments of the Torah, “Azrahot” won wide praise, was included in services for Shavuot, and brought the teenager great fame. It – and later poems – also, however, brought resentment and antagonism from his contemporaries.
Why? Perhaps because of lines like these:
“I am the Master and Song is my slave. . . .
Though I am but sixteen, I have the wisdom of a man of eighty”
“My song is as polished as pearls, and through it I am exalted above all men in all times.”
That his talent rendered these claims not the idle boasts of a vain teenager but simple truths did not help Solomon ibn Gabirol find friends – nor did his tendency to chastise community leaders for their lack of devotion, or the violent death of his patron. Lonely and angry, Solomon was tormented and finally banished from his hometown – and though he flourished as a highly-regarded poet and psalmist, he lived also as an outcast and a wanderer. He never married, and wrote with apparent pride (but perhaps also defensiveness) that “I have spent my life in search after truth while others have wasted their substance on love.”
Nor was it only Solomon ibn Gabirol who lived in a sort of exile from his Jewish contemporaries. In an odd parallel, so did one of his great works – the authorship of his most famous philosophical essay “The Source of Life” was until 1846 misattributed to a Christian or Muslim philosopher known as “Avencebrol” – and so did his name.
Solomon sometimes referred to himself as “Malagan” when signing his poems – it was a nod to his birthplace, and a name by which others knew him as well. However, the city was commonly known by its Arabic pronunciation – Malaqa – which meant that phonetically, Solomon’s signature “Solomon the Malaqi” might be misread as “Solomon the King.” At least, it happened that way for an Arab philosopher who lived a century after Solomon’s death, and who as a result attributed no less than seventeen of Solomon ibn Gabirol’s works to the ancient King Solomon. Three hundred years later, a Jewish philosopher accepted these ascriptions, and even mistook four additional essays of Solomon ibn Gabirol for the writings of King Solomon.
It is only centuries later in Jerusalem that everything has been set right. Solomon ibn Gabirol’s works have been properly ascribed. His place among his contemporaries has been properly restored. His wanderings have ended.
And perhaps his burning anger and yearning have also been sated – perhaps he feels vindicated that at last, as he wrote so long ago:
“My light is diffused through the world,
It has reached the confines of Shinar and Elam.”