A look at the women in Shmuel Hanagid’s family

Historian Eliyahu Ashtor has unearthed some information on medieval Spanish poets.

Poem by Shmuel Hanagid (photo credit: Courtesy)
Poem by Shmuel Hanagid
(photo credit: Courtesy)
What do we know about the women in the lives of the medieval Spanish poets? Historian Eliyahu Ashtor has unearthed some information, which he included in his two-volume work, The Jews of Moslem Spain (JPS, 1973). Shmuel Hanagid (993-1056) and his family interested him in particular.
It seems that this poet had his heart set on marrying the daughter of Rabbi Yehuda, a judge in the Jewish court of Granada, whose brother was a royal bailiff.
According to Ashtor, although he was an eminent poet and minister, Hanagid was not the bride’s family’s first choice. Her parents had planned for this (anonymous) daughter to wed one of their nephews. As fortune or misfortune would have it, however, her father and this favorite nephew were murdered before the nuptial arrangements were finalized. As a result, Hanagid, their second choice, was chosen to be her groom, but the marriage did not occur until he had made a name for himself in the royal service.
The historian informs us that once married, Hanagid “delighted in the felicity of his homelife.” His wife bore him three sons and one daughter; his firstborn, Yehosef, was destined to be his favorite.
The reader then encounters a romanticized version of this home life: “He treasured that warming shelter of the family which strengthens man against the storms of life, and even in the difficult years... Shmuel dedicated much of his time to his household and to his loved ones.” The poet was attentive to his sons’ education, especially his eldest.
He mentioned his wife only once, when writing to Yehosef, instructing him to honor his mother. Very little is known about his second son, Yehuda, or about his daughter. There are no dates of birth or death for these children; both died prematurely. His unnamed daughter probably died around 1044. Ashtor explains that because Hanagid was busy with a military campaign, he was unable to bury her and had to make do with writing a dirge.
This elegy (see inserted text) appears in the diwan containing the collection of his poetry that Yehosef later organized. In it, he consoles this beloved son who is sitting shiva for his older sister, clearly upset at having to part from her and worried about what will happen to her. He advises the nine-year-old boy not to grieve or mourn in excess for his sister, but instead to direct his energies to praying for his father to succeed in battle. He explains that while one overcomes and heals from the aftereffects of a loved one’s death, losing a sibling is in a category of its own. He adds that the fact that she died young means she will never experience evil in the world. He never mentions his daughter’s name, age or cause of death.
In his lament, Hanagid mentions mothers and maidservants – perhaps a reference to his daughter’s nanny – but there is no specific mention of her mother, who, despite eventually losing two of her four children, seems to have remained extremely silent. Hillel Halkin, who translated a number of Hanagid’s poems, refers to a short piece in which “she” extends wishes for his 50th birthday, which was celebrated in 1043. If “she” was Hanagid’s wife, this would be a rare occasion of his mentioning her in his poems.
When Hanagid died in 1056, we learn, his two sons and additional family members were at his bedside. Did they include his wife? Why does she play such a silent role in the family dynamics? In contrast, Yehosef’s spouse received more attention than his mother did. The historian informs us that Hanagid, “dedicated to Yehosef’s welfare and anxious for him to have a worthy wife, arranged to have him marry the daughter of his friend Rabbi Nisim, head of the renowned Talmud school at Kairawan.” The wedding that transpired is described as a highlight in Hanagid’s life.
Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, Ashtor recounts that it was an unsuccessful marriage.
Rabbi Nisim’s daughter was apparently learned and possessed fine qualities, but she lost Yehosef’s favor after the novelty of the newlywed phase wore off. Ashtor conjectures that once Yehosef, perceived to have been an exceptionally handsome man, had been initiated into what the historian calls “sensuous pleasure,” he “became obsessed by his passions.”
How Ashtor knows the following is a mystery, but he proceeds with his tale: “Tall, shapely women excited him; his tiny wife – ‘the midget’, as he called her – could not gratify him.”
On first reading, one assumes that his spouse was simply short of stature, but it seems that Ashtor relied on Ibn Daud’s report in the Book of Tradition, where the author declared that she was a dwarf. This wedding was presumably the result of long-distance negotiations in which the match was arranged by correspondence between the two fathers. This groom probably did not see his intended (or a portrait of her) until she arrived for the wedding in Granada; by this point, any objections would have been in vain.
Yehosef was deeply involved in court intrigues and often turned to women for help: upon one occasion, he turned to those in the harem who favored Yehosef’s candidate for heir to the throne. Unfortunately for him, these machinations did not succeed; in the pogrom that ensued in 1066, he was murdered, Jewish women were raped and the community of Granada suffered considerably.
Among those who successfully found refuge during the pogrom were Yehosef’s widow and their son Abu Nasr Azaria. The two subsequently fled to Lucena. Ashtor describes their life transition: Rabbi Yitzhak Ibn Gayat, who had enjoyed the support and encouragement of Yehosef and his father for many years, welcomed the two survivors, considering it his duty to care for them. Due to his efforts, the Jewish community of Lucena provided them with funds befitting their status.
This rabbi’s daughter, sent away from her own family and home in Kairawan to marry an eminent man in Granada who did not care for her, was again uprooted after her husband was murdered. In essence, she and her son became welfare cases – and as it turns out, her son was not destined to live a long life, either.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and the academic editor of the journal Nashim.