We all know that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was, in his time, a passionate advocate of vegetarianism within a traditional Jewish philosophical framework. But Shmuel Hanagid? Seriously?
(Shmuel Hanagid, by the way, was (one of) the 10th-11th century Jewish poet laureate(s) of Muslim Spain. He was also a learned Talmudic scholar, in addition to serving as a general and prime minister of the Islamic statelet in which he lived. The Arabs knew him as Isma’il ibn Naghrila.)
As fate would have it, scholars in the 1920s discovered the diwan (complete collected poetic works) of Hanagid. And these poems, aside from being particularly evocative and well-written, contained passages like this (translation by Peter Cole [Selected Poems of Shmuel Hanagid, Princeton University Press, 1996]):
I crossed through a souk where the butchers
hung oxen and sheep at their sides,
there were birds and herds of fatlings like squid,
their terror loud
as blood congealed over blood
and slaughterers’ knives opened veins.
In booths alongside them the fishmongers,
and fish in heaps, and tackle like sand;
and beside them the Street of the Bakers
–whose ovens are fired through dawn.
They bake, they eat, they lead heir prey;
They split what’s left to bring home.
Upon reading this passage, a friend of mine decided that Shmuel Hanagid must have been a staunch opponent of meat consumption. After all, who could read such a horrifyingly vivid account of slaughterhouse carnage without their stomach turning? The whole thing has the air of a gory horror flick – you’re watching the blood congeal, the animals are screaming, and what’s more, the monorhyme in the original Hebrew hammers at you by ending each line of the poem with the sound “dam,” which means “blood.” In short, the whole scene is just horrible, horrible.
In my opinion though, there is a nuance here that my friend missed: the distinction between horrible and terrible. Nowadays, we sometimes use the words interchangeably; they both carry unequivocally negative connotations in colloquial, everyday use. Literarily, however, they mean different things. “Horrible,” by and large, comes with negative connotations in general, and morally negative connotations in particular – hence, horror movies generally contain morally reprehensible violence. “Terrible,” on the other hand, can simply mean “exciting fear or awe.” That’s why the Wizard of Oz can call himself “Oz, the great and terrible” without casting moral aspersions on himself. Indeed, in the Jewish liturgy, God Himself is referred to often as “Nora,” a Hebrew word that translates in all of its senses to the English word terrible. “Terrible,” therefore, can be a good thing, insofar as fear of God engenders us with a feeling of humility and perspective; the encounter with the terrible might be for us, as it is for Dorothy in Oz, an opportunity for moral and experiential growth.
I would argue that the poem above gives a strong feeling of the terrible, but not necessarily the horrible. Aside from the explicit use of the word “terror,” there are several allusive references to the Biblical account of the defeat of the Egyptians at the Red Sea (I can count at least four — see how many you can find!), an episode that, at least to its original audience, would have instilled terror at God’s awesome power rather than horror at His ostensibly immoral killing of the pursuing Egyptians. Nor would I be worried about all the blood — remember, blood of sacrifices was offered up to God on the altars of the ancient Israelite temple, and was until modern times probably more symbolically evocative of terror than horror.
In summary, beware: our modern sensibilities might impute moral judgments to the medievals or ancients that they wouldn’t have intended themselves.