ABITUR, JOSEPH BEN ISAAC BEN STANS IBN:
By: H. Brody
Talmudist and liturgical poet, who, according to statements made by Moses ben Ezra, and according to one of Abitur's own acrostic poems, was born in Merida about the beginning of the tenth century. He died in Damascus about the year 970. The word Abitur is most probably derivable from the Arabic Abi Thor; yet it also appears in a variety of shapes, such as and , which Meiri distorts into . The name Stans also occurs in different forms. It is found in the older authorities and in Moses ben Ezra's "Kitab al-Muḥadarah" as , and is also written , . The identification of Abitur with Jose ben Jose, a poet earlier than Saadia, has long been recognized as erroneous.Contest with Ḥanok.
From Merida, Abitur went to Cordova, which was destined to become his dwelling-place, where he sat at the feet of Rabbi Moses, "the prisoner of Bari," and became one of his most distinguished pupils. Upon Rabbi Moses' death, the congregation elected his son, Rabbi Ḥanok, as his successor; but Abitur, who had a following, though a smaller one, also aspired to the position. In the struggle which ensued the calif Al-Ḥakim favored Ḥanok, who, in order to silence and intimidate his opponents, excommunicated them. A further attempt to secure the calif's favor resulted in an intimation to Abitur that it was advisable that he should leave the country. Embittered by these experiences and by the burden of excommunication, Abitur went abroad to seek repose and, if possible, consolation and vindication; but nowhere did he seem to find favor: Rabbi Samuel Cohen of Fez would not even see him. In a letter written in Aramaic the homeless wanderer in vain set forth that the sentence of excommunication was both unjust and illegal: Samuel was not to be moved. Even the gaon then in office at Babylon—the tradition that it was Rab Hai is chronologically impossible—considered that Rabbi Ḥanok's sentence must be respected, and accordingly denied Abitur an interview. Abitur's last effort having failed, he lost all hope of obtaining the position at Cordova; but this harsh treatment served only to make him more resigned to his fate. At this time, however, a change took place in his prospects; for a certain silk manufacturer of Cordova, Jacob ibn Gau, a friend and former patron of the exile, was appointed supreme head of the Jewish communities from "Segelmesa unto the Douro." He hastened to depose Ḥanok and to cause the heads of the congregation to invite Abitur to return and become the rabbi of Cordova. But Abitur declined the invitation and vigorously condemned the wrong intended to Ḥanok, "a man whose equal could not be found from Sepharad [Spain] to Babylonia."Abitur's Literary Work.
Unfortunately, very few of the literary productions of Abitur have been preserved, owing in some degree, no doubt, to the sentence of excommunication under which he suffered. There is a tradition recorded by Abraham ibn Daud that he translated into Arabic part of the six Orders of the Mishnah for the library of the calif Al-Ḥakim, a lover of culture. The few responsa which have been preserved show us that Abitur was considered by his contemporaries an authority in Talmudic law. His diction is tinged with Aramaic, of which language he seems to have been very fond; for example, his commentary on the Psalms is full of Aramaisms. Of this commentary only a few fragments are known, and these resemble the Midrash in style.
But it was in the field of poetry that Abitur especially distinguished himself. Al-Ḥarizi relates that Abitur was the first in Spain to compose a Ma'amad. There exist a few fragments of it, to which the printed 'Abodah (poem on the sacrificial service for the Day of Atonement) belongs. In contents, the poem resembles other piyuṭim or liturgical poems. After an introduction declaring the praise of God, the poet rehearses, in the 'Abodah proper, the Biblical history from the Creation down to Aaron, and adds a description of the sacrificial services in the Temple on the Day of Atonement, according to the descriptions of the Bible and the Talmud. The distinguishing features of Abitur's 'Abodah—features in which he far excels other poets—are the skilfully involved form and the manifold rimes and acrostics which he employs. The poem consists of twenty-three strophes, each of four stanzas; each stanza of two halves, again divided into halves: the strophe thus contains eight verses, and each stanza four half-verses, which rime on the plan a—c, b—d. The strophes may properly be said to proceed in alphabetical order, since each strophe with its eight verses or lines begins with one of the twenty-two letters (see the strophe printed below, which begins with Aleph), while the last strophe (the twenty-third) contains the author's name, given acrostically. This system is further complicated by the internal arrangement of the verses, their words, and the system of rimes. As to the former, the first, third, and fifth verses contain the strophe-letter twice; that is, initially in its first two words; whereas in the second, fourth, sixth, and seventh, the strophe-letter appears only once, initially. The letter of the next strophe is indicated initially in the second word of the seventh verse and in the first word of the eighth. The rime is set by the second word of the first half-verse (a), for the ending of the second half-verse (b), and the end of the stanza (d), while the riming of the third half-verse (c) is left open. Thus the second word of each stanza rimes with the last word of the same and with the first word of the next stanza.
The climax of the whole system is reached in the manipulation of the fourth half-verse of every stanza, which not only rimes but consists of a Biblical quotation of the required number of feet. The whole 'Abodah (omitting the introduction) is preceded by two verses, which are constructed on the same plan. In illustration of the foregoing description the opening of the 'Abodah is here presented:
All these self-imposed shackles of the rime are borne by the poet with the greatest ease: all difficulties are admirably surmounted. Novel word-formations and comparatively few instances of harshness of expression are peculiarities inherent in thepiyuṭic style, and are not the results of any straining after artificial form.
Strange, often interesting, expressions are found in the less artificial poems of Abitur, and indeed even in his prose commentary on the Psalms. Of other pieces by Abitur, the introduction to the prayer in the morning service for the Atonement Day is most notable; it begins . This poem, which is also a fragment of the "Ma'amad," was made the subject of a commentary by Simon ben Ẓemaḥ Duran, written for a pupil, David ben Samuel Ḥalajo. Besides the "Ma'amad," Abitur composed a large number of piyuṭim for Sabbaths, New-year's Day, and the three Festivals, a lengthy set of Hosh'anot for the Tabernacles festival, as well as propitiatory prayers (seliḥot) for the days of penitence. His productions are embodied in the Provençal, Catalonian, African, and many other liturgies.
- Lebrecht, Litteraturblatt des Orients, 1844, col. 702;
- Frankel's Monatsschrift, 1848, p. 430;
- Jost, Gesch. der Israeliten, vi. 128-130;
- Sachs, Religiöse Poesie, pp. 248-255;
- Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. cols. 1437, 1438;
- Kämpf, Nicht-Andalusische Poesie Andalusischer Dichter, ii. 185-189;
- Zunz, Literaturgesch, pp. 178-186, 573;
- Landshuth, 'Ammude ha-'Abodah, pp. 92-94;
- Grätz, Gesch. der Juden, 2d ed., v. 345, 354-361;
- Mueller, Die Responsen der Spanischen Lehrer des Zehnten Jahrhunderts, in Siebenter Bericht der Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums, especially p. 23;
- Harkavy, in Monatsschrift, 1885, pp. 285, 286;
- Bacher, in Winter and Wünsche, Die Jüd. Litteratur, ii. 258;
- Abitur's Seder 'Abodah, together with a commentary by Ḥyyim Galipapa, is printed in Rosenberg's , ii. 19-25, 117-122.
- The poem , wrongfully ascribed to Isaac ben Giat, is printed with Duran's commentary in Goldberg's , pp. 85-92.