Shem Tov

Shem Tov
(Rabbi Shem Tov ben Yitzhak Ardutiel, Sem Tob, Santo, Santob de Carrión)
(ca. 1290–ca. 1369)
   Shem Tov (“Good Name” in Hebrew) was a 14thcentury Castilian Jew who composed poetry in both Spanish and Hebrew during the reigns of Alfonso XI (1312–50), and his son and successor Pedro I (1350–69). He was born and lived in the town of Carrión de los Condes in Castile. In his Proverbios morales (Moral proverbs), his bestknown work, he uses the Spanish-sounding name of Santob de Carrión, and presents the text as counsel from a “white-haired poet” to King Pedro, known as “the Cruel.” Pedro was a monarch particularly known for his tolerance of Jews, and therefore an appropriate audience for Shem Tov’s verse. The Proverbios morales is written in 686 stanzas of four heptasyllabic (seven-syllable) Spanish lines rhyming abab. As such it is the first Jewish literary text written in Spanish. Inspired by the biblical genre of wisdom books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Shem Tov’s Proverbios morales represent the first verse treatment in Spanish of the wisdom genre (known in Hebrew as musar). Shem Tov drew some of his inspiration from the Bible, from the Talmud, and from the 11th-century Spanish Jewish philosopher Avicebron, but he seems to have based a number of his proverbs on his own philosophy. The work deals with questions of ethics and philosophy, and survives in five manuscripts. The rabbi rather conventionally promotes work and study in his proverbs, and warns of the harm that a king might cause through injustice and profligate living. But more radically Shem Tov also expresses a deep skepticism and relativism concerning philosophical and religious questions, most of which he sees as inherently subjective. Only God, the king, and the law are beyond question for Shem Tov.
   Several Hebrew works are also attributed to Shem Tov. In about 1345, he composed a rhymed prose narrative (a form called a magāma). Two of his other texts are intended for the liturgy—a hymn called Vidui Gadol (Confession on Yom Kippur) and a prayer of supplication (or bakkashah). Shem Tov also translated a liturgical work by Israel ben Israel into Hebrew. But it is the enigmatic Proverbios morales upon which his modern reputation rests. Shem Tov’s proverbs influenced a number of subsequent Spanish poets, including SANTILLANA, who imitated them. The work is unusual for the Middle Ages, and in many ways looks forward to the Renaissance.
   Bibliography
   ■ Santob de Carrión. Proverbios morales. Edited by Theodore A. Perry. Madison, Wisc.: Hispanic Seminary for Medieval Studies, 1986.
   ■ ———. The Moral Proverbs of Santob de Carrión: Jewish Wisdom in Christian Spain. Translated by Theodore A. Perry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.
   ■ Shepard, Sanford. Shem Tov: His World and His Works. Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1978.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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