Dunash ben Labrat
(920 - 990)
Dunash ben Labrat, also known
as, Rabbi Adonim Halevy (ha-Levi), lived in Spain in the middle of the tenth century. He studied
Gaon and served as a rabbi,
possibly in Cordoba at the same time that Menachem
ben Jacob ibn Saruk, Hisdai
ibn Shaprut's secretary, was working on
his biblical dictionary. A grammarian and piyyutam (liturgical
poet), Dunash'a works include the Shabbat song Dror Yikra and Dvai Hasair,
the (now) traditional preface to birkat
hamazon at weddings.
Dunash wrote a series of
responsa against Menachem and presented them,
with praise and thanks, to Hisdai. He claimed
to have disputed 200 items, but in the text
which has been preserved there are only 160
entries. Many of Dunash's comments dealt with
Menachem's explanations which, in his opinion,
were likely to lead to error in matters of halachah and belief. This religious factor may explain
the severity of his attack.
Though Menachem was fired
as a result of accusations of heresy, there
is no proof that Dunash deliberately caused
his downfall or that he benefitted from it
in any way.
Three of Menachem's students,
Isaac ibn Kapron, Isaac ibn Gikatilla, and
Judah Hayyuj, came out against Dunash by writing
responsa dealing with 50 items. Dunash's student,
Yehudi ben Sheshet answered back sharply.
Rashi, who knew of the argument between the school
of Menachem and the school of Dunash, quotes
Dunash about 20 times. R. Tam wrote "decisions"
on the disagreements between Dunash and Menachem.
The greatest controversy
between these scholars was the nature of the
Hebrew root. We know today that Hebrew words are made up of three-letter roots. This
was not known in the medieval Jewish world.
Both Menachem and Dunash were incorrect in
their grammatical analyses because they assumed
that some roots could be one or two letters.
Despite this controversy,
Dunash was best-known for his poetry. He was
the first Jewish poet to apply Arabic forms
of poetry to Hebrew, thus laying the foundation
for medieval poetry. It raised quite a stir
at first, but soon secular Hebrew poetry using
classical forms became the rage of Spain.
Solomon ibn Gabirol, writing a poem praising
Judah HaLevi, referred to Dunash as the greatest
poet of all time.
Only a few of Dunash's poems
have so far been discovered and most are known
only by lines quoted elsewhere. A Cairo Geniza
fragment indicates that ten rhymed riddles,
previously thought to be the work of Ibn
Gabirol, were written by Dunash. He also
A Poem by Dunash ben Labrat
"He Said, Don't Sleep"
He said, "Don't sleep. Drink old wine
with myrrh and lilies, henna and aloes,
in an orchard of pomegranates, palm, and
full of pleasant plants and tamarisks,
to the hum of fountains
and the throb of lutes,
to the sound of singers, flutes, and lyres.
There every tree is tall, branches are
fair with fruit,
and winged birds of every king sing among
Doves moan melodiously,
and the doves reply cooing like reed pipes.
We will drink among flower beds fence in
putting sorrow to flight with songs of
We will eat sweets and drink by the bowlful
We will act like giants and drink out of
In the mornings I will arise to slaughter
healthy and choice, with rams and calves.
We will anoint ourselves with fragrant
oil and burn aloe incense.
Before the day of doom overtakes us, let's
I reproached him: Silence, silence! This,
how dare you
when the Holy House, the footstool of God,
Foolishly you've spoken, sloth you've chosen;
Nonsense you've uttered like mockers and
You have abandoned the study of the Supreme
and you rejoice with jackals running wild
How could we drink wine and how raise our
when we are nothing, abhorred, and loathed?
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