Arabic as a Jewish Language1
Part II: The Judeo-Arabic of the Cairo Geniza

By Sasson Somekh2

The Islamization of the Middle East during the 7th and 8th centuries AD, and the rise of Arabic as the official language of the new empire, were to gradually change the language of the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa.  The Aramaic language that was used by the Jews, among others, gave way to the Arabic language, first in speech and later in the written language. Their Arabic was written throughout in Hebrew characters. Where I use the term ‘written Judeo-Arabic‘ I mean Arabic language written in Hebrew characters. To be sure, certain Jews used Arabic well before the coming of Islam in the Arabian peninsula, in Hijaz and Yemen (but not necessarily in its written form).
But after the rise of Islam the entire Jewish population switched to Arabic and made it the language of its cultural expression rather than Aramaic and Hebrew.  The most striking feature pertaining to the written Arabic produced by those Arab Jews for at least a thousand years was the fact that it was being written down in Hebrew characters rather than the Arabic ones.

This fact can be explained by suggesting that Jews were not encouraged to learn and teach their children the written form of Arabic.  Arabic and the Koran were treated as one continuum.  Jews who wanted to write down their speech resorted to the Hebrew alphabet, gradually introducing minor modifications that made the text they produced a reflection of the text written in Arabic script.  This way it was possible for Jewish writers to introduce Hebrew and Aramaic quotations without having to translate or switch from one script to another.  Texts in written Judeo-Arabic (in Hebrew script) abound.  Books and single pages in this kind of language came down to us since the 9th and 10th centuries, but most of the texts in question were literary or religious ones.  Only fairly recently did we come across texts written by simple Jews. This happened at the end of the 19th century. A treasure trove of Jewish texts came to our attention with the discovery of the Cairo Geniza at the Ben-Ezra synagogue near Cairo.  Tens of thousands of documents, many of which were written in Judeo-Arabic, were preserved in the attic of that synagogue: and owing to the fact that Cairo’s weather is dry, the documents in question (on paper, parchment, and other writing material), were only slightly damaged.  Scholars all over the world have been busy ever since trying to copy and interpret these documents. Quite a substantial part of the original Geniza documents have been studied and published, but much more work is yet to be done in order to fully benefit from these documents.

Among the Geniza documents an impressive number of ‘literary’ fragments were found and our knowledge of literary history and religious life was enriched.  But the Geniza also presents us with hundreds of thousands of ‘casual’ fragments written by non-professional writers, mainly merchants and simple individuals.  These sheets were at first viewed by scholars of literature as unworthy of examination owing to their transient subject matter.  However thanks to Shlomo D. Goitein and his many students, we now realize that the importance of these casual fragments in the study of Jewish life and history in the Middle Ages is enormous.  Goitein himself spent a great many years scrutinizing these so-called trivial documents. His monumental A Mediterranean Society was a systematic survey of these ‘casual’ documents (this is Goitein’s term).  He presented us with massive chapters studying such aspects of life of the Arab-Jewish communities as family life, economy, religion and rituals, and education.  Goitein’s work inspired scholars all over the world to deal with the tens of thousands of documents that he did not have the opportunity to study in depth. Several of his disciples published, in their turn, volumes of studies on the Jews of Islam.  We now know many minute details about the life and aspirations of the Jews in the Middle East and the Maghreb.  One of these students of Goitein, Moshe Gill, appended one of his major books with the list of names of captains of trading ships in the Indian Ocean consisting of 285 names, all of which were culled from letters written in Judeo-Arabic by Jewish merchants.  The impact of the knowledge released to us by the Geniza documents spread far and wide. A contemporary Indian novelist, Amitav Ghosh, published in 1992 an enthralling novel, In an Antique Land, featuring a Jewish trader and his Indian assistant ('eved in Hebrew).  Incidentally the trader settled in India and married a local woman. I could go on telling you about the marvels of the world of the Cairo Geniza, but in the context of our discussion, I have as yet to say a few things about the linguistic and cultural context of these documents.

These letters and commercial documents were produced by Jews who were not necessarily skilled in the literary Arabic language.  What they wrote in these documents would more often than not reflect the colloquial language on which their sentences are shaped.  The use of colloquial language, too, is important to the linguists who are interested in Arabic dialects as they existed in the past because these dialects were only rarely recorded by Muslim writers.

Apart from the informative value of the ‘casual’ documents, they shed light on linguistic as well as other unknown aspects of daily life.  For instance the trader’s business letters introduce us to the world of the international trade, partnerships, and legal aspects of medieval business.  They are also instrumental in enlightening us regarding the language used in trade, as well as names and origins of all types of commodities.  Medieval Arab lexicographers usually listed words and expressions belonging to what they regarded as ‘true’ Arabic rather than colloquial and borrowed words used by the speakers of their language.  They, therefore, had little use for words denoting food items, or cooking utensils.  Thanks to the work of the Geniza scholars we can say that an entire section of the Arabic lexicon which in the past was given no attention, is now coming to our notice.  Indeed works such as those of Goitein, Gil, and Mordechai Friedman provide their readers with vocabularies of newly discovered words and expressions used in the Middle Ages.

So much for the ‘casual’ documents of the Geniza of Cairo.  I now move to what Goitein called literary documents.  We all know that the greatest Jewish writers and philosophers of the Middle Ages in the Muslim world wrote their literary works in Arabic.  Sa'adia Gaon, Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi, and Ibn Gabirol wrote their main prose works in Arabic.  (I will soon talk about poetry which presents a different linguistic history).  The work of these prose writers too was written in Arabic in Hebrew script.  The style of Maimonides and the other Jewish philosophers was a relatively elevated one, although it did not always conform to the basic rules of classical fusha in matters of grammar and syntax.  Furthermore, we find in the Jewish literary documents a great number of hyper-corrections, for example, in trying to write a complex case ending where a simple ending would be grammatically more correct. 

I have so far discussed two stylistic types of Judeo-Arabic writing: what I have called the 'learned' type and the 'casual' type.  The third type is not linguistically Arabic, but it occupies pride of place in the linguistic continuum of the Jews of Islam.  I am referring, of course, to the Hebrew poetry that was written mainly in Muslim Spain, but also in other Jewish communities of Islam.  The Hebrew poets of Muslim Spain did master the Arabic language and wrote their most important prose works in that language.  However the bulk of their poetry was written in Hebrew (in Hebrew characters, of course).  Although Hebrew was not used as a spoken language by the poets of Spain, they were able to shape the Old Testament language into a very powerful poetry rich in imagery and variegated in subject matter.  The biblical phrases are masterfully reshuffled, indeed reinvented, so much so, that some critics speak of a revival of the written Hebrew language perpetrated by these poets.  Nevertheless the mastery of the Hebrew language and the mastery of the text of the Old Testament are not the main reason for the rise of the 'golden age' of Hebrew poetry.  Above all, the poets of Muslim Spain saw themselves as disciples of classical Arabic poetry.  They resorted to the theory and practice followed by their Muslim counterparts, making appropriate changes that made them applicable in the context of Hebrew. First of all, they were able to adopt the main Arabic meters to the Hebrew language, by imposing certain adjustments to the Hebrew vowel-system; second, they introduced the hemistich model into Hebrew poetry, dividing the line into two halves, the second of which ends in a rhyming word.  Each of their poems has a united rhyme for the entire poem, with the exception of the type called muwashshah, which is basically a strophic structure.  Third, the poetic imagery, though rich in biblical metaphors, is nevertheless very close to what we find in Arabic poetry.  The ma'ani, i.e., ideational clusters, is also similar to that used in Arabic poetry.  In fact someone who is unaware of the Arabic element that is part and parcel of Andalusian Hebrew poetry, will often misinterpret expressions used by our poets.  Let me give you one example:  Yehuda Halevi's most famous poem opens with the following hemistich:

Jerusalem! Have you no greeting for your captives [asirayikh] your last remaining flocks?

A few years ago, in a meeting in Israel of a group of Hebrew literature teachers in high schools, I asked the participants about the meaning of the word ‘captives’.  One of the participants answered that it meant 'prisoners of Zion.'  At that time the expression 'prisoners of Zion' was used in the media to refer to the Jews of Russia who were then barred from immigrating to countries outside the Soviet Union.  It goes without saying, that that was not the meaning that Halevi's poem was conveying, for  'asir' in Arabic and especially in amorous poetry means 'prisoner of love' and this is undoubtedly the way for it to be understood in Halevi's poem.  We therefore have a completely different meaning, if not the opposite, and it is not normally comprehensible to a speaker of modern Hebrew unless he knows some Arabic (which is unfortunately not the case with most Israelis).

A word of caution is in order at this point.  The term 'symbiosis', often used to characterize the relations between Jews and Arabs in the Middle Ages, is a borrowing from biology.  It normally means 'vital union' or 'partnership’ of certain organisms such as fungus and algae.  The case of Hebrew and Arabic, however, does not present us with a complete equality regarding the elements in question.  They do indeed work in harmony, but the partnership is not necessarily of equal valency.  Whereas the Hebrew component is totally dependent on the Arabic linguistic and literary system, the Arabic component is often unaware of the Hebrew culture.  That is so because in all the Arabic texts the Jews wrote in the Islamic world they used the Hebrew alphabet, which made no sense to their Muslim neighbors.  Even the philosophical works of Maimonides, the 'great eagle', are not known to Arab scholars.  He is mainly known as a physician (he served as the main physician with the rulers of Egypt), and his biography appears first and foremost in Arabic medical biographical dictionaries.

1. This is the second of three parts. These essays are based on the texts of three lectures, delivered as the Taubman Lectures at the University of California at Berkeley, in April 2010. We are grateful to Sasson Somekh for the opportunity to publish these in Sephardic Horizons.

2. Born in Baghdad in 1933 and immigrating to Israel in 1951, Sasson Somekh became an international authority on Arabic literature. Already an established poet in Arabic while in Iraq, he is the doyen of Arabic literary studies in Israel, having been one of the founders of the Arabic Department at Tel Aviv University, where he is now professor emeritus. He has published books and articles on the 1989 Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz and was also his close friend. An early work, The Changing Rhythm: A Study of Naguib Mahfuz's Novels (1973) helped establish Mahfouz's reputation internationally. Somekh is also among modern Hebrew's most respected translators of contemporary Arabic poetry.

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