One of the last great personalities of the "Golden Age" of Jewish culture in Spain was the poet, traveler, scholar and translator Rabbi Judah ben Solomon Al-Harizi. He was a man who rarely spent much time in one place. That is why very little is known of his personal background. There is also some doubt as to his native town. Some believe Al-Harizi was born in Barcelona, the center of Northern Spain, of which he speaks with affection and admiration, and which he calls "a community of princes and noble people." His parents are believed to have migrated to Barcelona after their hometown of Seville had been destroyed by the Almohades. Some of Al-Harizi's remarks, however, indicate that the city of Toledo may have been his native town.
Very little is known of Al-Harizi's family besides the fact that one of the outstanding disciples of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (RIF) was a certain Ibn Isaac Al-Harizi. Another member of the family was a poet by the name of Rabbi Abraham Al-Harizi who, in the opinion of his relative Rabbi Judah ben Solomon, was a poet of no mean quality. Thus Rabbi Judah's family must have belonged to the Jewish nobility of Spain.
Judging by his writings, Rabbi Judah Al-Harizi had a thorough Jewish and secular education. His Hebrew style belongs to the most elegant and eloquent of our literature. Al-Harizi spoke fluently also Arabic, Aramaic, French, Latin and Greek. He may have intended to become a physician, for many of his translations and writings show that he was well acquainted with the medical writings known in his time. He even translated several Greek and Arabic medical treatises. However, it is certain that Al-Harizi never settled down to practice any definite profession.
The first twenty five years of his life were spent in study. Then he started his poetical career. Poets often like to travel, and with Al-Harizi traveling was a passion. He traversed France, Italy, Greece, Syria, Palestine, Persia and Egypt. In all these communities he met many admirers who supported him generously and helped him publish his writings. In return, the grateful poet sang their praises. During his travels Al-Harizi recorded his experiences and impressions, and these are partially preserved in his major poetic work entitled Tachkemoni "The Wise One."
The Jews of the cities of Spain and Southern France, such as Lunel and Marseilles, appreciated the poet's great gift for writing and his witty style, and made it possible for him to devote his time to his work. Italy, too, gave him all the credit and admiration which his learning and poetry deserved. But at one time he spent many years in hunger and privation, while looking for patrons to support him. Of this lean period in his life he writes:
"The Fathers of Song, Solomon and Judah (Gabirol and Halevi)
And Moses (ibn Ezra) besides all shone in the west;
And rich men were rife then who purchased the pearls of their art.
How sad is my lot, how times have changed!
The rich men have gone and their glory has set!
The Fathers found fountains - for me never a fountain will start!"
Towards the latter years of his life, however, fortune smiled upon him again. He met the Jewish princes of Syria and Damascus who extended to him their generous support and enabled him to record the story of his wanderings in poetic form. The above-mentioned "Tachkemoni" is dedicated to one of these men, the noble Isaiah ben Jesse, whom the poet calls "the prince of Israel in Exile."
One of Al-Harizi's noble ambitions was to turn the Jews back to their own language. "They serve foreign tongues, and despise their own," he complained. He set out to prove that Hebrew lacks none of the grace and elegance of Arabic, and started his literary career with the translation of the poetic works of one of, the most popular Arabic poets in those days, Hariri of Bozra. The latter had popularized the style of rhymed prose, called "Makamat." The "Makamat" was a curious old Arabic kind of rhyming prose abounding in witty remarks, fanciful expressions and flowery language. Using the style of the Bible, Rabbi Judah Al-Harizi faithfully translated these Makamat, which were published under the title "Mahberoth Itiel." Thus Al-Harizi created a new fashion of Hebrew rhyming among the educated Jewish nobility of Spain and Italy. However, though he had many imitators, none reached his heights either in the mastery of the Tanach style or in humor and wit.
Harizi's translations from Arabic into Hebrew include the introduction and a portion of the Rambam's Commentary on the Mishnah and his entire Moreh Nebuchim. Harizi, who was about 25 years younger than the Rambam, was a great admirer of the latter, and bestowed upon him the most lavish titles, calling him "an Angel of G‑d," and one "who has scaled the very heights of G‑d's residence." Al-Harizi's translation of the "Moreh" is more readable and understandable than the translation of the same work by Rabbi Judah ibn Tibbon, though the latter is the more punctual and faithful.
Harizi also translated Aristotle's Philosophical works of "Ethics" and "Politics," and several medical treatises of minor importance. He also wrote a medical treatise of his own, entitled "Refuath Geviyah," the Healing of the Body. Others of his minor works include "Sefer Anak," which is an imitation of the poems by Rabbi Moshe ben Ezra and Rabbi Solomon ibn Gabirol under the same name, and his "Sefer Goraloth."
"Tachkemoni," mentioned above, is Harizi's major work, and upon it chiefly rests the poet's fame. It contains a collection of some fifty chapters in rhymed prose, in the style of "Makamat." These have little relation to one another, and their contents cover a variety of topics from the lofty discussions of great poets and scholars to the debate between an ant and a flea. The two main characters of "Tachkemoni" are "Chever Hakeini" whom many scholars called the Jewish Don Quixote, because he is supposed to be a traveler who tells of his adventures and exploits; the other character is "Heiman Haezrachi" another name selected from Tanach, who interrogates Chever Hakeini about his travels and adventures, and behind whom the author hides his own personality, experiences, reflections, and commentaries on his predecessors and contemporaries. Al-Harizi speaks in glowing terms of the princes and masters of Hebrew poetry such as Rabbi Solomon ibn Gabirol, Abraham ibn Ezra, Judah Halevi and Moses ibn Ezra, with whose passing "the fountain of song ceased to flow." Of himself and his contemporaries he says, "We merely gather their pickmigs(?); we can never reach them." And of certain so-called "poets" he met in the course of his travels he speaks with irony and contempt, "Whin he a ditty writes or ekes an ode, it sounds as if some pot or kettle did explode."
Historically, the descriptions by Rabbi Judah Al Harizi of the places he visited and the people he met are not as important as the travelogues of his two older contemporaries, Rabbi Benjarmin ibn Tudela and Rabbi Petachyah of Regensburg. However, his reports of his travels are interesting by way of comparison to see how Jewish life had changed in the thirty years that elapsed between the former two globe trotters and Al-Harizi.