When the Second Verse Is Same as the First in Hebrew

Homophonic Poetry Tradition Goes Back to Leon de Modena

Heroic Subjects: Italian rabbi Leon de Modena wrote of his teacher Moses della Rocca in a homophonic elegy.
Wikimedia Commons
Heroic Subjects: Italian rabbi Leon de Modena wrote of his teacher Moses della Rocca in a homophonic elegy.

By Philologos

Published July 07, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

From Ben Zion Katz of Chicago comes this email:

“The noted Italian rabbi Leon de Modena (1571-1648) accomplished a linguistic tour de force by writing an octet, entitled Kina Sh’mor, that made sense whether read as Hebrew or Italian. My brother Jeffrey and I have written a poem that does the same with Hebrew and English and think your column might be a suitable venue for it.”

Leon de Modena’s Kina Sh’mor, “Mark This Lament,” is both the earliest and best example known to me of what is called homophonic verse, and it seems even more extraordinary when one considers that he wrote it as a bar mitzvah boy of 13. (One of the most fascinating characters in Jewish literary and intellectual history, de Modena grew up to be not only an outstanding scholar, poet and all-around Renaissance man, but also a compulsive gambler who repeatedly lost all his money.)

The poem is an elegy for a teacher of de Modena’s, Moses della Rocca, who died in 1584, and its first four lines go in Hebrew: “Kina sh’mor, oy ma ki pas otsar bo, / Kol tuv elim. Kosi or din el tsilo. / Moshe, mori, Moshe, yakar davar bo. / Sham tushiya on, yom kippur hu zeh lo.”

In a rough translation (the Hebrew is difficult in places), this would be: “Mark this lament! Ah, but the treasure of him has passed, / All his divine good! The shadow of God’s judgment falls on my cup of light. / Moses, my teacher, Moses, how precious all was in him, / How much resourcefulness and strength were there! This is his Day of Atonement.”

And now for De Modena’s homophonic Italian version. This is “Chi nasce, muor. Oime, che pass’ acerbo! Colto vien l’huom, cosí ordin’ il Cielo. / Mose mori, Mose gia car de verbo. / Santo sia ogn’ huom, con puro zelo.” This translates as (or so I hope; my Renaissance Italian is imperfect): “Whoever is born, dies. Ah, me! A bitter thing has come to pass! / A man has been plucked, such is the decree of Heaven. / Moses, my teacher, Moses, so precious of speech, / Sainted be he of all men, pure was his zeal!”

Note that this is the opposite of an ordinary translation, in which the translator seeks accurately to reproduce the meaning of the original words in another language whose words sound different.

The goal of homophonic translation — an extremely difficult form that is for good reasons rarely attempted — is to reproduce the original’s meaning as far as possible in words that sound the same. Compare, for example, de Modena’s first lines in Hebrew and Italian. Spelled phonetically, with stressed syllables in capitals, the Hebrew is: “Ki-NAH sheh-MOHR, oy MAH ki PAHS o-TSAHR bo.” The Italian is: “Ki-NAH-shey, MWOHR! Oy-MEY keh PAHS ah-TSHER-bo.” The similarity of sound is almost complete, whereas the similarity of meaning is only approximate.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.