Sefer Hamusar teaches that you can't buy food with poetry

From about 1200 to 1600,  Jewish writers created works similar to the Arabic literary genre of maqamaMaqama feature rhetorically ornate, rhymed prose, often with some interspersed poetry.  Maqama tell stories of an eloquent rogue who swindles the narrator in weakly connected episodes of mundane life.  Well-known in Arabic from the tenth century, this widely mixed genre was adapted into Hebrew in Spain about 1200.[1]  One of the last major Hebrew works of maqama was Sefer Hamusar, written about 1580.  In Sefer Hamusar, the story of a boy trumping the eloquent rogue indicates the erosion of the privilege of cultural sophistication.

In the Sefer Hamusar story, the eloquent rogue, famished, questions a boy in a town square.  The eloquent rogue’s name is Abner ben Helek the Yemenite.  The boy is not named.  Here’s their dialog:

Will limes be sold for perfect rhymes? Replied the boy: At no time.

Nor figs in aspic for rhetoric? Said he: It would be quite a trick.

Nor a savory slice for a poetic device?  Said the youth: At no price.

Nor a bit of grain for a choice refrain?  Said he: It would all be in vain.

Not a bean or pea for astronomy?  Said he:  Do not ask additionally.  My lord, you’ve spoken quite profusely; please do not react obtusely!  Know that the natives of this land will not trade the words of the wise for bran; nor a poem by a connoisseur for a brown bread loaf of a coarse texture; nor a missive of honeyed fluency for chicory; nor rhymes for dandelion; nor the grandest elegy for barley; nor a prayer penitential for a single lentil; nor breeding meet and fit, for a scrap or a meaty bit; nor matters grave and great, for marsh fish or whitebait.  For none of them attend to the sciences or the arts; they would rather banish them to distant parts; to these fields they turn their backs and not their hearts. [2]

Poetry and fashionable knowledge was valuable currency in the ancient Islamic world.  But here, the boy doesn’t yield to Abner’s cultural sophistication.  The boy warns the man not to be obtuse and expands Abner’s figure of exchange for far more words than Abner produced.  The dialog indicates that the town merchants do not value the sciences and the arts.  Yet the reason in context seems to be that cultural sophistication not longer distinguishes between a man and a boy.

Abner subsequently got an excellent meal by tricking the narrator into paying for it.

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Notes:

[1] The Hebrew term for maqama is mahbarot.  Early Hebrew works of mahbarot were the Book of Delight (Sefer Shaashuim) (c. 1200), and about two decades later, the Book of Wisdom (Sefer Takhemoni).

[2] Sefer Hamusar, Ch. 14, trans. Tanenbaum (2003) p. 301.  Zechariah Aldahiri (c. 1519 – c. 1585) was the author of Sefer Hamusar.  Aldahiri lived in the Jewish community of Sana’a in Yemen.  He traveled throughout the Middle East and to India.  Id. p. 297.  Astronomy, closely associated with medicine, supported important personal services in the ancient world.

Reference:

Tanenbaum, Adena. 2003. “Of a Pietist Gone Bad and Des(s)erts Not Had: The Fourteenth Chapter of Zechariah Aldahiri’s Sefer hamusar.”  Prooftexts. 23 (3): 297-319.

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