Sonnets of Celebration: Hebrew Wedding Poems and Riddles in Honor of the Bride and Groom

Exhibit at the Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary
March 17, 2002 - August 2, 2002
Online selections available indefinitely

Italian Jews, like their Christian counterparts, were caught up in the poetic fervor that swept through Italy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In addition to a proliferation of sacred poetry, occasional poems and poetic riddles were written to celebrate a variety of communal and private events. While some poems commemorated public occasions such as the dedication of a new synagogue or the anniversary of the founding of a learned society, individual milestones were also acknowledged. Poems were written to celebrate circumcisions and marriages, or to lament the deaths of prominent personalities. These literary offerings, usually composed in Hebrew and occasionally in Italian, were often commissioned by affluent members of the community. They were authored by some of the most prominent Jewish writers of the period.

Wedding poems, also known as epithalamia from the Greek word thalamos (lit. nuptial chamber), constituted a considerable portion of the Hebrew occasional poetry composed by Italian Jews in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The penchant for epithalamia shown by these Jewish authors mirrored the fascination with this genre earlier expressed by the surrounding Christian society. Nuptial themes, however, were not new to Hebrew poetry and are among the subjects of some of the earlier Iberian Hebrew poets such as Abraham Ibn Ezra and Judah ha-Levi (eleventh -twelfth century).

Designed primarily as celebratory poems praising the newlyweds and their families, Hebrew epithalamia are characterized by a common structure. An introduction consisting of honorific statements introduces the names of the groom and his father. Frequently, the bride and her lineage are also noted. The writer may also express his good wishes to the new couple. In the central section the author presents the poem itself employing any one of a variety of literary formats; sonnets were extremely fashionable, as were longer poems of multiple stanzas. These were sometimes arranged as hymns to be recited or sung by one or more voices. The poetic work customarily includes allusions to the names of the groom and bride; puns are also a frequent feature. In many examples the names of the bride and groom are printed in larger or bolder letters so as to be immediately distinguishable. The third section usually consists of the author's final salutations and a signature, using either the poet's full name or initials. While many of the poems are printed, the few handwritten examples that remain attest to the personal nature of such verses. Although usually produced on paper, some lavishly illustrated poems were handwritten on parchment with decorative calligraphy.

Wedding riddles, known in Hebrew as hiddot, were another popular form of epithalamia. The riddle itself is divided into several distinct sections. The actual poem is usually preceded by an illustration called zurat ha-hiddah (riddle's image) consisting of a woodcut or engraving followed by an enigmatic caption. This in turn is followed by a poem whose length can vary from a few quatrains to over a hundred lines. Here, the personified subject of the riddle describes itself in allusive, cryptic terms. Typically, several encoding techniques are employed in each riddle including anagrams, puns and gematrias (assignment of numerical value to Hebrew letters). A frequently used device, known as ha-loez (lit. the foreign language word), was based on a bilingual pun. The author would insert an Italian or Spanish key-word into the Hebrew text, that when decoded correctly, would provide a clue to solving the riddle. Solutions to the riddle could range from familiar tangible objects, such as a candle, a bee or an egg, to abstract concepts, such as the sense of hearing or a parabola. Additional sections, each with its own technical name, i.e., motto, mafteah ha-hiddah, pitron ha-hiddah, often supplement the main poem. These enhance the challenge of the riddle while still providing some guidance for those endeavoring to arrive at the correct solution.

The riddles were customarily handed out several days before the marriage ceremony in order to provide guests with the necessary time to solve them. The riddling contest took place during the wedding feast as part of the entertainment provided by the assembled guests in honor of the newlyweds. Judges were appointed to supervise the competition, which had the potential, if left unregulated, to become raucous and unruly. A prize was awarded to the contestant who solved the riddle correctly and whose solution most closely matched the solution provided by the author.

At the close of the contest, once the author's erudition was praised and the solver rewarded, the solutions to these riddles often faded into obscurity. With the exception of a very select group of scholars, the solving of these riddles has become a lost art. Only in the few cases where a note was made on an individual copy of the riddle are we able today to decipher a solution to these challenging and enigmatic puzzles.

These wedding poems and riddles evoke the vibrant celebratory traditions of Italian Jewish society and typify the rich literary universe of the ghettos in the early modern era.