The question whether the literature of the ancient Hebrews includes portions that may be called poetry is answered by the ancient Hebrews themselves. A distinction between different classes of writings is evident in such a fact as that the section II Sam. xxiii. 1-7 is designated in the (later) heading as "the last words of David," although other utterances of this king are reported as late as I Kings ii. 9; it is not known, however, whether the words of David cited in II Sam. l.c. are called his "last words" on account of their substance or of their form. Again, the author of Ps. xlv. has designated it as a "ma'aseh," i.e., "a product"; and this expression corresponds in a remarkable degree with the Greek ποίησις, although he may have applied that term to the psalm only on account of its contents. But that the ancient Hebrews perceived there were poetical portions in their literature is shown by their entitling songs or chants such passages as Ex. xv. 1 et seq. and Num. xxi. 17 et seq.; and a song or chant ("shir") is, according to the primary meaning of the term, poetry. In the first place, therefore, these songs of the Old Testament must be considered if the qualities that distinguish the poetical products of the ancient Hebrews from their ordinary mode of literary presentation are to be determined.

Characteristics of Ancient Hebrew Poetry:
  • (1) Ancient Hebrew poetry contains no rime. Although the first song mentioned above (Ex. xv. 1 et seq.) contains assonance at the ends of the lines, as in "anwehu" and "aromemenhu" (ib. verse 2), such consonance of "hu" (= "him") can not well be avoided in Hebrew, because many pronouns are affixed to words. Furthermore, rime occurs only as sporadically in Hebrew poems as in Shakespeare; e.g., in "thing" and "king" at the end of the second act of "Hamlet." There is no poem in the Old Testament with a final rime in every line; although Bellermann ("Versuch über die Metrik der Hebräer," 1813, p. 210) alludes to an exception, meaning probably Ps. cxxxvi., the rime throughout which poem consists only in the frequent repetition of the word "ḥasdo." H. Grimme has stated in his article "Durchgereimte Gedichte im A. T." (in Bardenhewer's "Bibl. Studien," 1901, vi. 1, 2) that such poems are represented by Ps. xlv., liv., and Sirach (Ecclus.) xliv. 1-14; but he regards the consonance of final consonants as rime, e.g., "oznek" and "abik" (Ps. xlv. 11), while rime proper demands at least the assonance of the preceding vowel.
Unusual Forms.
  • (2) The employment of unusual forms of language can not be considered as a sign of ancient Hebrew poetry. In the sentences of Noah, e.g., (Gen. ix. 25-27) the form "lamo" occurs. But this form, which represents partly "lahem" and partly "lo," has many counterparts in Hebrew grammar, as, for example, "kemo" instead of "ke" (Ex. xv. 5, 8); or "emo" = "them" (ib. verses 9, 15); or "emo" = "their" (Ps. ii. 3); or "clemo" = "to them" (ib. verse 5)—forms found in passages for which no claim to poetical expressions is made. Then there are found "ḥayeto" = "beast" (Gen. i. 24), "osri" = "tying" (ib. xlix. 11), and "yeshu'atah" = "salvation" (Ps. iii. 3)—three forms that probably retain remnants of the old endings of the nominative, genitive, and accusative: "u(n)," "i(n)," "a(n)." Again, in Lamech's words, "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, harken unto my speech" (Gen. iv. 23), the two words "he'ezin" and "imrah" attract attention, because they occur for the first time in this passage, although there had been an earlier opportunity of using them. "He'ezin" = "to harḳen" could have been used just as well as its synonym "shama'" = "to hear" in Gen. iii. 8, 10 et seq., but its earliest employment is in the above-cited passage Gen. iv. 23. It occurs also in Ex. xv. 26; Num. xxiii. 18 (a sentence of Balaam), Deut. i. 45, xxxii. 1; Judges v. 3; Isa. i. 2, 10; viii. 9; xxviii. 23; xxxii. 9; xlii. 23; li. 4; lxiv. 3; Jer. xiii. 15; Hos. v. 1; Joel i. 2; Neh. ix. 30 (in a prayer); and in II Chron. xxiv. 19 (probably an imitation of Isa. lxiv. 3). Furthermore, "imrah" = "speech" might have been used instead of the essentially identical "dabar" in Gen. xi. 1 et seq., but its earliest use is, as stated above, in Gen. iv. 23. It is found also in Deut. xxxii. 2, xxxiii. 9; II Sam. xxii. 31; Isa. v. 24, xxviii. 23, xxix. 4, xxxii. 9; Ps. xii. 7, etc.; Prov. xxx. 5; and Lam. ii. 17. In place of "adam" = "man" (Gen. i. 26 et seq.) "enosh" is employed in Deut. xxxii. 26; Isa. viii. 1; xiii. 7, 12; xxiv. 6; xxxiii. 8; li. 7, 12; lvi. 2; Jer. xx. 10; Ps. viii. 5, ix. 20, x. 18, lv. 14, lvi. 2, lxvi. 12, lxxiii. 5, xc. 3, ciii. 15, civ. 15, cxliv. 3; Job iv. 17; v. 17; vii. 1, 17; ix. 2; x. 4; xiii. 9; xiv. 19; xv. 14; xxv. 4, 6; xxviii. 4, 13; xxxii. 8; xxxiii. 12, 26; xxxvi. 25; II Chron. xiv. 10 (comp. the Aramaic "enash" in Dan. ii. 10; Ezra iv. 11, vi. 11). For a systematic review of similar unusual forms of Hebrew grammar and Hebrew words occurring in certain portions of the Old Testament see E. König, "Stilistik,"etc., pp. 277-283. Such forms have been called "dialectus poetica" since the publication of Robert Lowth's "Prælectiones de Sacra Poesi Hebræorum," iii. (1753); but this designation is ambiguous and can be accepted only in agreement with the rule "a parte potiori fit denominatio"; for some of these unusual forms and words are found elsewhere than in the "songs" of the Old Testament, as, e.g., the "ḥayeto" of Gen. i. 24 mentioned above, which was probably preferred as an archaic form in the solemn utterance of God, while in the following sentences of the narrator (verse 25) the ordinary form "ḥayyat" is used.Again, these unusual forms and expressions do not occur in all songs (comp. Num. xxi. 17 et seq. and II Sam. iii. 33 et seq.), and there are several of the Psalms that have none of these peculiarities, as, for instance, Ps. cxlix., although the opportunity to use them existed. The present writer is of opinion that the use of these peculiar forms of expression is connected more with the tastes of a certain (earlier) period, when unusual, archaic, and dialectic forms were chosen to embellish the diction. The fact that "he'ezin" occurs also in II Chron. xxiv. 19 is explainable likewise on the theory that poetico-rhetorical expressions later became component parts of common speech, as, for example, "ḥammah" = "glowing one," a rare expression in Biblical Hebrew for the sun (Isa. xxiv. 23, etc.), but one which is frequently used in this sense in the Mishnah (Ber. i. 2; iii. 5, etc.).
  • (3) Not even the "parallelismus membrorum" is an absolutely certain indication of ancient Hebrew poetry. This "parallelism" is a phenomenon noticed in the portions of the Old Testament that are at the same time marked frequently by the so-called "dialectus poetica"; it consists in a remarkable correspondence in the ideas expressed in two successive verses; for example, the above-cited words of Lamech, "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, harken unto my speech" (Gen. iv. 23), in which are found "he'ezin" and "imrah," show a remarkable repetition of the same thought. See Parallelism In Hebrew Poetry.But this ideal curythmy is not always present in the songs of the Old Testament or in the Psalter, as the following passages will show: "The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation" (Ex. xv. 2). "Saul and Jonathan, the beloved and the lovely, in life and in death they were not divided" (H. P. Smith, in "International Commentary," on II Sam. i. 23). "Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in scarlet, and fine linen" (ib. 24). "And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season" (Ps. i. 3; comp. ib. ii. 12); "I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me. I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about" (ib. iii. 6-7 [A. V. 5-6]; see also ib. iv. 7 et seq., ix. 4 et seq.). Julius Ley ("Leitfaden der Hebräischen Metrik," 1887, p. 10) says therefore correctly that "the poets did not consider themselves bound by parallelism to such an extent as not to set it aside when the thought required it." This restriction must be made to James Robertson's view ("The Poetry of the Psalms," 1898, p. 160): "The distinguishing feature of the Hebrew poetry . . . is the rhythmical balancing of parts, or parallelism of thought."
Quantitative Rhythm.
  • (4) The poetry of the ancient Hebrews is not distinguished from the other parts of the Old Testament by rhythm based on quantity, though in view of Greek and Roman poetry it was natural to seek such a rhythm in the songs and Psalms of the Old Testament. William Jones, for example ("Poeseos Asiaticæ Commentarii," ch. ii., London, 1774), attempted to prove that there was a definite sequence of long and short syllables in the ancient Hebrew poems; but he could support this thesis only by changing the punctuation in many ways, and by allowing great license to the Hebrew poets. However, on reading the portions of the Old Testament marked by the so-called "dialectus poetica" or by parallelism (e.g., Gen. iv. 23 et seq.) no such sequence of long and short syllables can be discovered; and Sievers ("Metrische Untersuchungen," 1901, § 53) says: "Hebrew prosody is not based on quantity as classical prosody is."
  • (5) Hebrew poetic form is based on accent. Although Hubert Grimme recognizes this fact, he is in danger of recurring to the view that quantitative meter may be found in ancient Hebrew poetry, having recently formulated his rules in his "Mètres et Strophes" (1901, pp. 3 et seq.) and in "Psalmenprobleme" (1902, pp. 4 et seq.). Nivard Schloegl ("Ecclesiasticus," 1901, p. xxi.) also adopts this view. Although both admit that the Hebrew poet regarded the accented syllables as the chief syllables of the line, they hold that these syllables contained a certain number of moræ, only a certain number of which could occur between two accented syllables. This view is too mechanical, in the present writer's opinion; and Sievers also says (l.c. § 81): "Grimme's moræ are more than questionable."
Bickell's Reconstruction.

Gustav Bickell holds that the poetical rhythm of the Hebrews consisted in the regular succession of accented and unaccented syllables, saying distinctly: "The metrical accent falls regularly upon every alternate syllable" ("Z. D. M. G." 1881, pp. 415, 418 et seq.). This statement, however, does not agree with the nature of Hebrew poetry as it actually exists, as has nowhere else been more clearly proved than in Jacob Ecker's "Professor Bickell's 'Carmina Veteris Testamenti Metrice,' das Neueste Denkmal auf dem Kirchhof der Hebräischen Metrik" (1883). Ecker shows in this pamphlet that Bickell removed or added about 2,600 syllables in the Psalms in order to obtain the "regular succession of accented and unaccented syllables." As illustrating the shortcomings of Bickell's view it may be pointed out that he holds that the poetic portions of the Book of Job are composed in catalectic iambic tetrameters; hence he transcribes Job xxxii. 6 as follows: "Ca'ír aní lejámim, V'attém ṣabím jeshíshim; 'Al-kén zachált vaíra', Mechávvot dé'i ét'kḥem"—i.e., he adds the word "ẓabim," and suppresses the afformative "i" of "zaḥalti," although the "i" distinguishes this form from that ofthe second person singular feminine; hence it is not surprising that Sievers says (l.c. § 55): "I can do nothing further with Bickell's system."

Accentual Rhythm.

Most scholars now hold that the Hebrew poet considered only the syllables receiving the main accent, and did not count the intervening ones. Examples contrary to this are not found in passages where forms of the so-called "dialectus poetica" are used, as Ley holds in his "Grundzüge des Rhythmus, des Vers- und Strophenbaues in der Hebräischen Poesie," pp. 99, 116; and the present writer has proved (in his "Stilistik," etc., p. 333, for example) that the choice of "lamo" instead of "lahem" favors in only a few passages the opinion that the poet intended to cause an accented syllable to be followed by an unaccented one. Such passages are: Gen. ix. 26; Ps. xliv. 4, lxvi. 7; Job xxiv. 17, xxxix. 4; and Lam. i. 19. Ley has not noted that the choice of "lamo" disturbs the mechanical succession of unaccented and accented syllables in the following passages: Deut. xxxii. 32, 35; xxxiii. 2; Ps. ii. 4; xxviii. 8; xliv. 11; xlix. 14; lv. 20; lvi. 8; lviii. 5, 8; lix. 9; lxiv. 6; lxxiii. 6, 10, 18; lxxviii. 24, 66; lxxx. 7; lxxxviii. 9; xcix. 7; cxix. 165; Prov. xxiii. 20; Job iii. 14; vi. 19; xiv. 21; xv. 28; xxii. 17, 19; xxiv. 16; xxx. 13; Lam. i. 22; iv. 10, 15 (for other examples see König, l.c. pp. 333 et seq.). Hence most scholars now hold that the rhythm of Hebrew poetry is similar to that of the German "Nibelungenlied"—a view that is strongly supported by the nature of the songs sung to-day by the populace of modern Palestine. These songs have been described by L. Schneller in his "Kennst Du das Land?" (section "Musik") in the following words: "The rhythms are manifold; there may be eight accents in one line, and three syllables are often inserted between two accents, the symmetry and variation being determined by emotion and sentiment." Not less interesting are G. Dalman's recent observations in Palestine. He says: "Lines with two, three, four, and five accented syllables may be distinguished, between which one to three, and even four, unaccented syllables may be inserted, the poet being bound by no definite number in his poem. Occasionally two accented syllables are joined" ("Palästinischer Diwan," 1901, p. xxiii.).

Such free rhythms are, in the present writer's opinion, found also in the poetry of the Old Testament. Under the stress of their thoughts and feelings the poets of Israel sought to achieve merely the material, not the formal symmetry of corresponding lines. This may be observed, for example, in the following lines of Ps. ii.: "Serve the Lord with fear" ("'Ibdu et-Yhwh be-yir'ah," verse 11), "rejoice with trembling" ("we-gilu bi-re'adah," ib.). This is shown more in detail by König, l.c. p. 334; and Cornill has confirmed this view ("Die Metrischen Stücke des Buches Jeremia," 1901, p. viii.) by saying: "Equal length of the several stichoi was not the basic formal law of Jeremiah's metric construction." Sievers is inclined to restrict Hebrew rhythm by various rules, as he attacks (l.c. §§ 52, 88) Budde's correct view, that "a foot which is lacking in one-half of a verse may find a substitute in the more ample thought of this shorter line" ("Handkommentar zu Hiob," p. xlvii.). Furthermore, the verse of the Old Testament poetry is naturally iambic or anapestic, as the words are accented on one of the final syllables.

The Dirges.

A special kind of rhythm may be observed in the dirges, called by the Hebrews "ḳinot." A whole book of these elegies is contained in the Old Testament, the first of them beginning thus: "How doth the city sit solitary—that was full of people—how is she become as a widow—she that was great among the nations—and princess among the provinces—how is she become tributary!" (Lam. i. 1). The rhythm of such lines lies in the fact that a longer line is always followed by a shorter one. As in the hexameter and pentameter of Latin poetry, this change was intended to symbolize the idea that a strenuous advance in life is followed by fatigue or reaction. This rhythm, which may be designated "elegiac measure," occurs also in Amos v. 2, expressly designated as a ḳinah. The sad import of his prophecies induced Jeremiah also to employ the rhythm of the dirges several times in his utterances (Jer. ix. 20, xiii. 18 et seq.). He refers here expressly to the "meḳonenot" (the mourning women) who in the East still chant the death-song to the trembling tone of the pipe (ib. xlviii. 36 et seq.). "Ḳinot" are found also in Ezek. xix. 1; xxvi. 17; xxvii. 2; xxxii. 2 et seq., 16, 19 et seq. This elegiac measure, being naturally a well-known one, was used also elsewhere, as, for example, in Ps. xix. 8-10. The rhythm of the ḳinah has been analyzed especially by Budde (in Stade's "Zeitschrift," 1883, pp. 299 et seq.). Similar funeral songs of the modern Arabs are quoted by Wetzstein (in "Zeitschrift für Ethnologie," v. 298 et seq.), as, e.g.: "O, if he only could be ransomed! truly, I would pay the ransom!" (see König, l.c. pp. 315 et seq.).


A special kind of rhythm was produced by the frequent employment of the so-called anadiplosis, a mode of speech in which the phrase at the end of one sentence is repeated at the beginning of the next, as, for instance, in the passages "they came not to the help of the Lord [i.e., to protect Yhwh's people], to the help of the Lord against the mighty" (Judges v. 23; comp. "ẓidḳot" [ib. 11a] and "nilḥamu" [ib. 19a-20a, b]), and "From whence shall my help come? My help cometh from the Lord" (Ps. cxxi. 1b-2a, R. V.). Many similar passages occur in fifteen of the Psalms, cxx.-cxxxiv., which also contain an unusual number of epanalepses, or catch-words, for which the present writer has proposed the name "Leittöne." Thus there is the repetition of "shakan" in Ps. cxx. 5, 6; of "shalom" in verses 6 and 7 of the same chapter; and the catch-word "yishmor" in Ps. cxxi. 7, 8 (all the cases are enumerated in König, l.c. p. 302). As the employment of such repetitions is somewhat suggestive of the mounting of stairs, the superscription "shir ha-ma'alot," found at the beginning of these fifteen psalms, may have a double meaning: it may indicate not only the purpose of these songs, to be sung on the pilgrimages to the festivals at Jerusalem, but also the peculiar construction of the songs, by which the reciter is led from one step of the inner life tothe next. Such graduated rhythm may be observed elsewhere; for the peasants in modern Syria accompany their national dance by a song the verses of which are connected like the links of a chain, each verse beginning with the final words of the preceding one (Wetzstein, l.c. v. 292).


Alphabetical acrostics are used as an external embellishment of a few poems. The letters of the alphabet, generally in their ordinary sequence, stand at the beginning of smaller or larger sections of Ps. ix.-x. (probably), xxv., xxxiv., xxxvii., cxi., cxii., cxix., cxlv.; Prov. xxxi. 10-31; Lam. i-iv.; and also of Sirach (Ecclus.) li. 13-29, as the newly discovered Hebrew text of this book has shown (see Acrostics, and, on Ps. xxv. and xxxiv. especially, Hirsch in "Am. Jour. Semit. Lang." 1902, pp. 167-173). Alphabetical and other acrostics occur frequently in Neo-Hebraic poetry (Winter and Wünsche, "Die Jüdische Literatur seit Abschluss des Kanons," 1894-1896, iii. 10). The existence of acrostics in Babylonian literature has been definitely proved (H. Zimmern, in "Zeitschrift für Keilschriftforschung," 1895, p. 15); and alphabetical poems are found also among the Samaritans, Syrians, and Arabs. Cicero says ("De Divinatione," II., liv.) that the verse of the sibyl was in acrostics; and the so-called "Oracula Sibyllina" contain an acrostic in book 8, lines 217-250.

A merely secondary phenomenon, which distinguishes a part of the poems of the Old Testament from the other parts, is the so-called "accentuatio poetica"; yet it calls for some mention, because it has been much slighted recently (Sievers, l.c. § 248, p. 375). Although not all the poetical portions of the Old Testament are marked by a special accentuation, it is noteworthy that the Book of Job in iii. 3-xlii. 6 and the books of Psalms and Proverbs throughout have received unusual accents. This point will be further discussed later on.

Survivals of Rhythm.

Correct insight into the rhythm of the poetry of the Old Testament did not die out entirely in Jewish, tradition; for Judah ha-Levi says (in his "Cuzari," ed. in Arabic and German by H. Hirschfeld, 1885-87, ii., §§ 69 et seq.): "'Hodu le-Yhwh ki-ṭob' [Ps. cxxxvi. 1] may be recited 'empty and full' in the modulation of 'le'oseh nifla'ot gedolot lebaddo'" (verse 4), meaning that an "empty" line of the poem may be modulated in the same way as a "full" line, the rhythm consequently not being dependent on a mechanical correspondence of the number of syllables. It is true that Josephus says that Moses composed the song in Ex. xv. 2 et seq. ἐν ἑζαμέτρῳ τόνῳ ("Ant." ii. 16, § 4), but he probably found mere superficial resemblances to hexameters in the rhythm of Hebrew poetry. The same holds good of the statements of Jerome and other Christian writers (König, l.c. pp. 341 et seq.).

Division of the Poetical Portions of the Old Testament According to Their Contents:
  • (a) First may be mentioned poems that deal principally with events, being epic-lyric in character: the triumphal song of Israel delivered from Egypt, or the Sea song (Ex. xv. 1-18); the mocking song on the burning of Heshbon (Num. xxi. 27-30); the so-called Swan song of Moses (Deut. xxxii. 1-43); the song of Deborah (Judges v.); the derisive song of victory of the Israelitish women ("Saul hath slain," etc.; I Sam. xviii. 7); Hannah's song of praise (ib. ii. 1-10); David's song of praise on being saved from his enemies (II Sam. xxii.); Hezekiah's song of praise on his recovery (Isa. xxxviii. 9-20); Jonah's song of praise (Jonah ii. 3-10); and many of the Psalms, e.g., those on the creation of the world (viii., civ.), and on the election of Israel (xcix., c., cv.). A subdivision is formed by poems that deal more with description and praise: the so-called Well song (Num. xxi. 17 et seq.); the song of praise on the uniqueness of the God of Israel (Ps. xcv., xcvii.); and those on His eternity (ib. xc.); His omnipresence and omniscience (ib. cxxxix.); and His omnipotence (ib. cxv.).
Didactic Poems.
  • (b) Poems appealing more to reason, being essentially didactic in character. These include: fables, like that of Jotham (Judges ix. 7-15, although in prose); parables, like those of Nathan and others (II Sam. xii. 1-4, xiv. 4-9; I Kings xx. 39 et seq., all three in prose), or in the form of a song (Isa. v. 1-6); riddles (Judges xiv. 14 et seq.; Prov. xxx. 11 et seq.); maxims, as, for instance, in I Sam. xv. 22, xxiv. 14, and the greater part of Proverbs; the monologues and dialogues in Job iii. 3 et seq.; compare also the reflections in monologue in Ecclesiastes. A number of the Psalms also are didactic in character. A series of them impresses the fact that Yhwh's law teaches one to abhor sin (Ps. v., lviii.), and inculcates a true love for the Temple and the feasts of Yhwh (Ps. xv., lxxxi., xcii.). Another series of Psalms shows that God is just, although it may at times seem different to a short-sighted observer of the world and of history ("theodicies": Ps. xlix., lxxiii.; comp. ib. xvi., lvi., lx.).
  • (c) Poems that portray feelings based on individual experience. Many of these lyrics express joy, as, e.g., Lamech's so-called song of the Sword (Gen. iv. 23 et seq.); David's "last words" (II Sam. xxiii. 1-7); the words of praise of liberated Israel (Isa. xii. 1-6); songs of praise like Ps. xviii., xxiv., cxxvi., etc. Other lyrics express mourning. First among these are the dirges proper for the dead, as the ḳinah on the death of Saul and Jonathan (II Sam. i. 19-27); that on Abner's death (ib. iii. 33 et seq.); and all psalms of mourning, as, e.g., the expressions of sorrow of sufferers (Ps. xvi., xxii., xxvii., xxxix.), and the expressions of penitence of sinners (ib. vi., xxxii., xxxviii., li., cvi., cxxx., cxliii.).
  • (d) Finally, a large group of poems of the Old Testament that urge action and are exhortatory. These may be divided into two sections: (1) The poet wishes something for himself, as in the so-called "signal words" (Num. x. 35 et seq., "Arise, Yhwh," etc.); at the beginning of the Well song (ib. xxi. 17 et seq., "ali be'er"); in the daring request, "Sun, stand thou still" (Josh. x. 12); in Habakkuk's prayer ("tefillah"; Hab. iii. 1-19); or in psalms of request for help in time of war (xliv., lx., etc.) or for liberation from prison (cxxii., cxxxvii., etc.). (2) The poet pronounces blessings upon others, endeavoring to move God to grant these wishes. To this group belongthe blessing of Noah (Gen. ix. 25-27), of Isaac (ib. xxix. 28 et seq.), and of Jacob (ib. xlix. 3-27); Jethro's congratulation of Israel (Ex. xviii. 10); the blessing of Aaron (Num. vi. 24-26) and of Balaam (ib. xxiii. 7-10, 18-24; xxiv. 5-9, 17-24); Moses' farewell (Deut. xxxiii. 1 et seq.); the psalms that begin with "Ashre" = "Blessed is," etc., or contain this phrase, as Ps. i., xli., lxxxiv. 5 et seq., 13, cxii., cxix., cxxviii.It was natural that in the drama, which is intended to portray a whole series of external and internal events, several of the foregoing kinds of poems should be combined. This combination occurs in Canticles, which, in the present writer's opinion, is most correctly characterized as a kind of drama.The peculiar sublimity of the poems of the Old Testament is due partly to the high development of monotheism which finds expression therein and partly to the beauty of the moral ideals which they exalt. This subject has been discussed in a masterly way by J. D. Michaelis in the preface to his Arabic grammar, 2d ed., pp. xxix. et seq., and by Kautzsch in "Die Poesie und die Poetischen Bücher des A. T." (1902).
Relative Age of Poetry.

The more recent comparative study of the history of literature has brought out the interesting fact that the poetic portions of the several literatures date from an earlier time than the prose portions. This fact was even recognized by the Romans, as is shown by several sentences by Strabo and Varro that have been collected by E. Norden in his work "Antike Kunstprosa," 1898, p. 32. It therefore corresponds to the general analogy of the history of literature that the poetic narrative of the battle of the Israelites against the northern Cauaanites, which is usually called the song of Deborah (Judges v. 1 et seq.), is held by modern scholars to be an earlier account of this historic event than the prose narrative of the battle (found ib. iv. 14 et seq.). Modern scholars generally agree on this point in reference to the relative antiquity of prose and poetry. Wellhausen says expressly: "We know that songs like Josh. x. 12 et seq., Judges v., II Sam. i. 19 et seq., iii. 33 et seq., are the earliest historical monuments" ("Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels," viii. 2).

But now a new question has arisen as to the relation between prose and poetry in the Old Testament, which calls for brief discussion in the final section of this article.

Extent of Poetry in the Old Testament.

How much of the Old Testament is to be included under poetry? This is the most recent question regarding the Old Testament poetry; and several scholars are inclined to answer that the entire Hebrew Bible is poetry. Hence the following points call for examination:

  • (a) Can the prophetic books be considered as poetry? Setting aside the many modern exegetes of the Old Testament who have gone so far as to discuss the meters and verse of the several prophets, it may be noted here merely that Sievers says (l.c. p. 374) that the prophecies, aside from a few exceptions to be mentioned, are eo ipso poetic, i.e., in verse. But the fact must be noted, which no one has so far brought forward, namely, that every single utterance of Balaam is called a sentence ("mashal"; Num. xxiii. 7, 18; xxiv. 3, 15, 20, 23), while in the prophetic books this term is not applied to the prophecies. There "mashal" is used only in the Book of Ezekiel, and in an entirely different sense, namely, that of figurative speech or allegory (Ezek. xvii. 2, xxi. 5, xxiv. 3). This fact seems to show that in earlier times prophecies were uttered more often in shorter sentences, while subsequently, in keeping with the development of Hebrew literature, they were uttered more in detail, and the sentence was naturally amplified into the discourse. This view is supported by Isa. i., the first prophecy being as follows: "Banim giddalti we-romamti," etc. There is here certainly such a symmetry in the single sentences that the rhythm which has been designated above as the poetic rhythm must be ascribed to them. But in the same chapter there occur also sentences like the following: "Arẓekém shemamáh 'arekém serufot-ésh; admatekém le-negdekém zarím okelím otáh" (verse 7), or this, "When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?" (verse 12). In the last pair of lines even the translation sufficiently shows that each line does not contain three stresses merely, as does each line of the words of God (verses 2b, 3a, b). Hence the present writer concludes as follows: Although the prophets of Israel inserted poems in their prophecies (Isa. v. 1 et seq.), or adopted occasionally the rhythm of the dirge, which was well known to their readers (Amos v. 2 et seq.; see above), their utterances, aside from the exceptions to be noted, were in the freer rhythm of prose. This view is confirmed by a sentence of Jerome that deserves attention. He says in his preface to his translation of Isaiah: "Let no one think that the prophets among the Hebrews were bound by meter similar to that of the Psalms." Finally, the present writer thinks that he has proved in his pamphlet "Neueste Prinzipien der Alttestamentlichen Kritik," 1902, pp. 31 et seq., that even the latest attempts to find strophes in Amos i. 2 et seq. are unsuccessful.
  • (b) Some scholars have endeavored to include in poetry the historical books of the Old Testament also. Sievers includes, besides, the prologue and the epilogue of the Book of Job. The first line is as follows: "There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job," the Hebrew text of which has, according to Sievers, six stresses; the next line, which may be translated "and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God and eschewed evil," contains, according to the same writer, eight stresses. The next line has also six stresses, but then follow lines with 4 + 3, 3 + 3, 3, 4, 6, 4 + 3, 4 + 3 stresses. However, the form of these lines is not such as to justify one in removing the barrier that exists by virtue of the differences in the very contents of the prologue, the epilogue, and the dialogues of the book, between i. 1 et seq., xlii. 7 et seq., and iii. 3-xlii. 6. This view is furthermore confirmed by the remarkable circumstance, alluded to above, that not the entire Book of Job, but only the section iii. 3-xlii. 6, has the special accentuation that was given to the entire Book of Psalms and the Proverbs. Furthermore, Jerome, who knew something of Jewish tradition, says explicitly that the Book of Job is writtenin prose from the beginning to iii. 2, and that prose is again employed in xlii. 7-17.
Sievers' Views.

Sievers, finally, has made the attempt (l.c. pp. 382 et seq.) to show that other narrative portions of the Old Testament are in poetry. The first object of his experiments is the section Gen. ii. 4b et seq., "In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens," etc. He thinks that the Hebrew text has lines of four stresses each; but, in order to prove this statement, even at the beginning of verse 4b, he is forced to regard the expression "be-yom" as an extra syllable prefixed to "'asot." He is also obliged to strike out the word "ba-areẓ" at the end of verse 5a, although it has just as much meaning as has the word "'al ha-areẓ" at the end of verse 5c. Then he must delete the words "but there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground" (verse 6), which contains not four, but six stresses. He adds in explanation: "They do not fit into the context, as has long since been recognized." This refers to the view (Holzinger, in "K. H. C." 1898, ad loc.) that "ed" in Gen. ii. 6 can not mean "mist," because this "ed" is said to "water," while mist merely dampens the ground. But the metaphorical expression "to water" is used instead of "to dampen" just as "ed" is used in Job xxxvi. 27, and there are no grounds for the assertion that the statement made in verse 6 does "not fit into the context." On the contrary, verses 5a and 6 correspond in the same way as do 5b and 7. Sievers attempts similarly to construct other lines of four stresses each in Gen. ii. 4b et seq.; but perhaps enough has been said to show that his experiments do not seem natural, and can not extend the boundaries of poetry beyond those recognized heretofore.

  • For the bibliography of the earlier works dealing with the various questions in connection with Old Testament poetry, Ed. König, Stilistik, Rhetorik, Poetik, 1900, pp. 305 et seq.;
  • E. Sievers, Metrische Untersuchungen: I. Studien zur Hebräischen Metrik, 1901;
  • Nivard Schloegl Ecclesiasticus (xxxix. 12-xlix. 16) Ope Artis Metricœ in Formam Originalem Redactus, 1901;
  • Canticum Canticorum Hebraice, 1902;
  • Hubert Grimme, Psalmenprobleme, 1902. pp. 1-19.
E. G. H. E. K.—Didactic:

The oldest form of didactic poetry is mnemonic verse, which was often used in post-Biblical Hebrew even after the didactic poem was fully developed. Among the oldest examples of didactic poetry are mnemonic strophes on calendric topics and Masoretic rules. Soon, however, the circle widens and all poetry is absorbed in the didactic poem. In a general view there are first to be considered calendric calculation and everything connected with it.

Calendric Verses.

On conjunction and the leap-year there are works—sometimes mnemonic strophes, sometimes longer poems—by the following authors: Jose al-Naḥarwani ("Kerem Ḥemed," ix. 41-42; comp. Harkavy, "Studien und Mitteilungen," v. 116), Saadia Gaon (see Steinschneider, "Cat. Bodl." cols. 2170 et seq.; Berliner, in supplement to "Mafteaḥ," p. 15), Simson of Sens and Elijah b. Nathan (Steinschneider, "Cat. Berlin," section ii., p. 73), Abraham ibn Ezra (Kobak's "Jeschurun," iv. 222), Profiat Duran ("Ma'asch Efod," notes, p. 44), Moses b. Shem-Ṭob b. Jeshuah, David Vital (Steinschneider, "Jewish Literature," p. 244), and Eliab b. Mattithiah (Benjacob, "Oẓar ha-Sefarim," p. 578, No. 567). Two anonymous authors (Steinschneider, "Cat. Berlin," section ii., p. 72; Profiat Duran, l.c. notes, p. 45) wrote about the quarter-day; and Eliakim ha-Levi wrote verses on the determination of the feast-days (Steinschneider, "Cat. Berlin," section ii., p. 73).

Grammar: Mnemonic Verses.

Philology and the sciences related to it occupy a large space in the history of didactic poetry. Grammar was treated by Solomon ibn Gabirol in a didactic poem of 400 metrical lines, but only a part of it, ninety-eight lines, has been preserved (the latest, critical edition is that of Egers in the "Zunz Jubelschrift"). Ibn Gabirol was followed by many others, as Elijah Levita ("Pirḳe Eliyahu," first printed in 1520), Moses Provençal ("Be-Shem Ḳadmon," Venice, 1597). A. M. Greiding ("Shirah Ḥadashah," first ed., Zolkiev, 1764), Abraham Gemilla Atorgo (date uncertain; see Steinschneider, "Cat. Munich," Nos. 241-242). The collection of words with the "left sin" ("sin semolit"), which perhaps Joseph b. Solomon was the first to make, was worked over by Ḥayyim Caleb (Benjacob, l.c. p. 578, No. 569), by Aaron Hamon (in Isaac Tshelebi's "Semol Yisrael," Constantinople, 1723), and by Moses Pisa ("Shirah Ḥadashah" and "Hamẓa'ah Ḥadashah," first printed in "Shir Emunim," Amsterdam, 1793). The enigmatic poem of Abraham ibn Ezra on the letters י,ו,ה,א is well known; around it has collected a whole literature of commentaries in rime and in prose. A didactic poem on prosody by an anonymous writer has been published by Goldblum ("Mi-Ginze Yisrael," i. 51). Of Masoretic didactic poems, the well-known one on the number of letters of the alphabet in the Biblical books is by some attributed to Saadia Gaon; by others, to Saadia b. Joseph Bekor Shor (see Steinschneider, "Cat. Bodl." col. 2225). A didactic poem on the accents was written by Jacob b. Meïr Tam (Kobak's "Jeschurun," vol. v.), and, later, one by Joseph b. Kalonymus, who devoted a special poem to the accents in the books , i.e., Psalms, Proverbs, Job (see "Ṭa'ame Emet," ed. Berliner, Berlin, 1886).

Halakic Poems.

The halakic sciences, religious law, and Talmudic jurisprudence have employed the poets even more than has the linguistic sciences. Hai Gaon treated in metrical verse of property and oaths according to Talmudic law ("Sha'are Dine Mamonot we-Sha'are Shebu'ot," ed. Halberstam, in Kobak's "Ginze Nistarot," iii. 30 et seq.). An anonymous writer produced the whole of Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ in verse ("'En Mishpaṭ," 1620); Mordecai b. Hillel ("Hilkot Sheḥiṭah u-Bediḳah," commentated by Johanan Treves, Venice, c. 1545-52), Israel Najara ("Shoḥaṭe ha-Yeladin," Constantinople, 1718), David Vital (supplement to "Seder Berakah," Amsterdam, 1687), and many others versified the regulations concerning sheḥiṭah and bediḳah; an anonymous writer (perhaps Mordecai b. Hillel) versified the whole complex system of dietary regulations (Benjacob, l.c. p. 45, No. 877); another anonymousauthor worked over the treatise Ḥullin (Moses Ḥabib, "Darḳe No'am," Venice, 1546; Steinschneider, "Cat. Bodl." col. 2538, s.v. "Shem-Ṭob ibn Falaquera"); and Isaac b. Abraham Ḥayyot, the whole "Yoreh De'ah" ("Pene Yiẓḥaḳ," Cracow, 1591). Saul b. David elaborated the thirty-nine principal kinds of work forbidden on the Sabbath ("Ṭal Orot," Prague, 1615); Elijah b. Moses Loanz, the Sabbath regulations in general (in "Zemirot u-Tushbaḥot." Basel, 1599); and Abraham Samuel, the whole Mishnah treatise on the Sabbath ("Shirat Dodi," Venice, 1719). The Shulḥan 'Aruk in its entirety found a reviser in Isaac b. Noah ha-Kohen ("Sefer ha-Zikkaron," n.d., n.p.).

Here belong also a large portion of the halakic piyyuṭim (see Dukes, "Zur Kenntniss der Neuhebräischen Religiösen Poesie," pp. 42 et seq.) and the general and special Azharot. In this connection, too, should be mentioned the didactic poems on the Mishnah treatises of the Talmud. Of these, perhaps the first was composed by Sa'id al-Damrari (Steinschneider, "Cat. Berlin," section ii., p. 8); the same material was treated of by Isaac Samora; while Saadia b. Danan in his didactic poem on this subject brings in the separate sections of the treatises (in Gavison, "'Omer ha-Shikḥah," pp. 123 et seq.)

Philosophic Poems.

The philosophical didactic poem is also very well represented. Levi b. Abraham b. Ḥayyim wrote 1,846 lines ("Batte ha-Nefesh weha-Leḥashim"; see Benjacob, l.c. p. 90, No. 693) on the "seven kinds of wisdom" ("sheba' ḥakamot"); Solomon b. Immanuel da Piera translated Musa b. Tubi's philosophical didactic poem in metrical verse ("Batte ha-Nefesh," ed. Hirschfeld, Ramsgate, 1894); Abraham b. Meshullam of Modena wrote in rime a commentary on philosophy (see Michael, "Or ha-Ḥayyim," No. 187; "Bi'ur le-Ḥokmat ha-Pilosofia ba-Ḥaruzim"); Anatoli (Seraiah ha-Levi) wrote on the ten categories; another poem on the same subject is printed in "Ḳobeẓ 'al Yad" (ii., "Haggahot," p. 10); Shabbethai b. Malkiel included the four forms of syllogism in four lines (Steinschneider, "Cat. Leyden," p. 218); and the "thirteen articles of faith" exist in countless adaptations. Mattithiah Ḳarṭin versified the "Moreh Nebukim" (Steinschneider, "Hebr. Uebers." p. 428); Mordecai Löwenstamm, the "Beḥinat 'Olam " ("Shire ha-Beḥinah," Breslau, 1832). The Cabala, too, received attention, as witness the adaptations of the ten Sefirot. Of other sciences only medicine need be mentioned.

Poems on History and Medicine.

A didactic poem on the controlling power of the twelve months is attributed to Maimonides (Steinschneider, "Cat. Berlin," section i., p. 39); Solomon ibn Ayyub translated Avicenna's didactic poem on medicine in metrical verse (Steinschneider, "Hebr. Uebers." p. 700); Al-Ḥarizi was the author of a metrical dietetic thesis ("Refu'ot ha-Gewiyah," first in "Liḳḳuṭe ha-Pardes," Venice, 1519). Dietetic-ethical mnemonic verses by Shem-Ṭob ibn Falaquera likewise are well known ("Iggeret Hanhagat ha-Guf weha-Nefesh"; see Steinschneider, "Cat. Munich," No. 49).

History also was frequently the subject of didactic poems. The historical piyyuṭim should hardly be mentioned here; at an early date, however, a certain Saadia, about whom nothing definite is known, composed a learned history in rime (Zunz, "Z. G." p. 71); Falaquera was the author of a "Megillat ha-Zikkaron," of which only the title is known; to Simon b. Ẓemaḥ Duran is attributed the authorship of a didactic poem on the chain of tradition (Steinschneider, "Cat. Bodl." col. 2602); and Moses Rieti's masterpiece "Miḳdash Me'aṭ" may also be mentioned, although it is not strictly a didactic poem. Poets wrote about games also, especially on chess, e.g., Abraham ibn Ezra (see Steinschneider, "Schach bei den Juden," Berlin, 1873); and there have not been wanting those who versified all the books of the Bible. This was not done, however, for didactic purposes; and such productions do not belong to the class of poetry of which this article treats.

See, also, Fable; Polemics; Proverbs.

J. H. B.—Lyric:

Lyric poetry being essentially the expression of individual emotion, it is natural that in Hebrew literature it should be, in the main, devotional in character. Post-Biblical lyrics are confined within a small scale of human feeling. Love for God and devotion to Zion are the predominant notes. The medieval Hebrew poet sang less frequently of wine, woman, and the pleasures of life, not because the Hebrew language does not lend itself to these topics, but because such ideas were for many centuries incongruous with Jewish life. Yet there is no form of lyric poetry which has been neglected by the Hebrew poet. Ode and sonnet, elegy and song are fairly represented, and there is even an adequate number of wine-songs.

In Spain.

Secular poetry in Hebrew literature may be said to (date from the middle of the tenth century. In the time of Samuel ha-Nagid (d. 1055) it had already attained a degree of perfection. Still it is difficult to find, in that early period, lyric poetry which is not devotional, or non-devotional poetry which is not didactic or gnomic in character. Perhaps the earliest secular lyric poem is the wine-song ascribed to Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-70), said to have been written against a niggardly host who placed water instead of wine before his guests. The first great poet to give prominence to non-devotional lyric poetry was Moses ibn Ezra (1070-1139), who devoted several chapters of his "Tarshish" to the praise of wine and music, friendship and love. The secular lyrics of his more famous contemporary Judah ha-Levi (1086-1142) are mostly occasional poems, such as wedding-songs, panegyrics, and the like. Abraham ibn Ezra (1092-1167) wrote a number of beautiful poems of a personal character, but they belong to the epigrammatic rather than to the lyric class of literature. Judah al-Ḥarizi (1165-1230), though the first poet of note to devote himself entirely to secular poetry, is more of a satirist than a lyrist. Of the fifty chapters of which his "Taḥkemoni" consists the twenty-seventh is the only one which sings the praise of wine. The rest are satires, didactic or gnomic in character.

Immanuel of Rome.

The true ring of non-devotional lyric poetry, however, is not to be found in Hebrew literature until the time of Immanuel of Rome (1265-1330). He united in himself the warm imagination of the Orient and the erotic spirit of Italy. In a style more flexible even than that of Ḥarizi he gives utterance to passionate love with such freedom of expression that the Rabbis thought it justifiable to forbid the reading of his "Maḥberot" on the Sabbath.

From Immanuel there is a stretch of almost three centuries before another great lyric poet is met with. Israel b. Moses Najara is universally acknowledged to be one of the sweetest singers in Israel. He is, however, more of a devotional poet, and his right to be included here comes from the fact that he sings of God and Israel in terms of love and passion. In fact, he is so anthropomorphic in his expressions that Menahem di Lonzano condemned him for it. Nevertheless the latter, though of a serious turn of mind, indulged in lighter compositions when the occasion presented itself. His poem for Purim ("'Abodat Miḳdash," folio 74, Constantinople) is one of the best wine-songs in Hebrew literature.

From Najara two centuries pass before true lyric poetry is again met with. This is a period of transition in Hebrew poetry. The Hebrew bard had just begun to come under the influence of European literature, and as yet had had no time to assimilate what he had absorbed and strike out in a way of his own. The drama is introduced into Hebrew literature in the works of Solomon Usque, Joseph Penso, and Moses Zacuto. Yet, though the form in which these poets threw their compositions is dramatic, the temperament is lyric in all of them. For the same reason Moses Ḥayyim Luzzatto must be regarded as one of the best lyric poets of the eighteenth century.


The success which Wessely's "Songs of Glory" ("Shire Tif'eret") met gave rise to a great number of imitators, and almost every one who could write verse essayed the epic. But soon this German school was over-shadowed by the Russian lyric school, of which Abraham Dob Bär Lebensohn and his son Micah were the acknowledged leaders. From that day until now the palm has been held by the Russian poets. With the exception of Joseph Almanzi and Samuel David Luzzatto of Italy, and Meïr Letteris and Naphtali Herz Imber of Galicia, all the more eminent modern Hebrew poets belong to Russia.

Judah Löb Gordon, though decidedly a greater master of Hebrew than his preceptor Micah Lebensohn, can not be assigned to an exalted position as a lyric poet. As a satirist he is supreme; as a lyrist he is not much above the older and is far below the younger Lebensohn. The most fiery of all modern lyrists is undoubtedly Aba K. Schapira. Z. H. Mané is sweeter, M. M. Dolitzky is more melodious, D. Frischman is more brilliant, and N. H. Imber sounds more elemental; but Schapira has that power which, in the language of Heine, makes his poetry "a fiery pyramid of song, leading Israel's caravan of affliction in the wilderness of exile." Of living poets the nearest to approach him is H. N. Bialik and A. Libushitzky, though neither has yet arrived at maturity. See Drama, Hebrew; Epic Poetry; Piyyuṭ; Satire.

  • Delitzsch, Zur Gesch. der Jüdischen Poesie;
  • Steinschneider, Jewish Literature.
J. I. D.