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Poetry Guide: Hebrew and Jewish Epic Poetry

Though an abundance of historical reminiscence and legend lay in the storehouse of Jewish literature, none of it was built into epic poems until relatively recently. Religious and secular poets, it is true, often treated of such subjects as Abraham and Isaac and the near sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah, Jacob and Joseph and the story of their lives, Moses and Aaron and the departure from Egypt, Joshua and the entrance into Canaan, Jeremiah and the fall of Jerusalem, Elijah the Prophet, etc. These, however, are often considered only poems with an epic coloring; a pure epic poem according to the rules of art was not produced during the Middle Ages.

The stern character of Jewish monotheism prevented the rise of hero-worship, without which real epic poetry is impossible. Solomon de Oliveira is probably one of the first of whom an epic is known ("Elat Ahabim," Amsterdam, 1665). The first to produce an epic poem was N. H. Wessely with his Mosaide "Shire Tif'eret" (Berlin, 1789-1802), an epic on the Exodus from Egypt. The influence of a similar work by the German poet Klopstock is evident. Next to him stands Shalom Kohn with his "Ner David", an epic poem on King David (Vienna, 1834). The influence of these two epics on the readers and poets of that time was considerable.

In addition the following poets may be mentioned from that and the succeeding period: Issachar Bär Schlesinger ("Ha-Ḥashmona'im," Prague, 1817); Samuel Molder ("Beruriya," Amsterdam, 1825); Süsskind Raschkow ("Ḥayye Shimshon," Breslau, 1824); Gabriel Pollak ("Ha-Keritot," Amsterdam, 1834, and "Ḳiḳayon le-Yonah," ib. 1853); and Hirsch Wassertrilling ("Hadrat Elisha'," Breslau, 1857, and "Nezer Ḥamodot," ib. 1860). Works of this sort have been written by M. I. Lebensohn, J. L. Gordon ("Ahavat David u-Mikal", Wilna, 1856, and vols. iii. and iv. of his collected works, St. Petersburg, 1883), Chaim N. Bialik, and S. Tschernichowski.