So I got my first look at real Judeo-Arabic, the Arabic dialect spoken by the Jews of the Arab lands. It is written in Hebrew letters, but is the transcribed Arabic dialect of the country in which it was spoken, but with some Jewish words, Hebrew and Aramaic mostly, thrown in. These two particular examples are Iraqi, and were shown to me by Rabbi Avi Navah of Kadima Heschel West Hebrew Academy in the West San Fernando Valley. He was born in Baghdad and a year later his family fled to Israel and he was raised speaking Judeo-Arabic at home but Hebrew everywhere else. He brought the Hagaddah of Passover, the prayer book used during the Passover feast to tell the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, and Shir ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs. It says on the front עם תרגום ושרח ערבי “‘em targum ve-sharakh Arabi” -With Arabic translation and explanation. Note this is the same as Arabic مع ترجمة وشرح عربي “Ma3 targema wa-sharh Arabi.” The ayin and the mim in “with” reverse themselves when you go from Hebrew to Arabic. This is why Judeo-Arabic is cool. Its a bridge language between two cultures who have serious problems right now, and in 50 years this language will be mostly extinct.

A lot of our knowledge of medieval Judeo-Arabic, and thus the dialectic Arabic spoken on the streets of Cairo, Baghdad, Tunis, or Sana’a for a thousand years of Jewish life, comes from the Cairo Geniza, among other genizas, or book storage archives. The geniza was typically an attic in a Synagogue or house of learning in which damaged or unusable books could be stored, since they could not be destroyed as they contained the Holy Name. As they grew over the years and the language gradually changed, the genizas have become a massive archive documenting linguistic evolution, as well as a way of life that has ceased to exist as a result of Zionism.

In our world, the information contained within those hundreds of thousands of books is being digitized and uploaded to the internet for all to peruse. Check Genizah.org for one major example of digitization. The Princeton-Penn-Cambridge Combined Geniza Project also is working hard to make geniza data available.

Some people are doing great research in this field and are preserving the study of this sadly moribund beautiful language. Among them were Dr. Joshua Blau, Dr. S.D. Goitein, Dr. Benjamin Hary, Dr. Noam Stillman, Dr. Ofra Tirosh Becker, Dr. Judith Rosenhouse, and others.






~ by Josh on July 3, 2008.

7 Responses to “Judeo-Arabic”

  1. One of my rabbis in Jerusalem (ashkenzi but has a phd in linguistics and knows arabic) has a copy of Rambam’s commentary on the mishnah in the original judeo-arabic. Apparently it’s very hard to find books like that in the original language because they’re so much more popular in hebrew.

    • Rambam’s (Maimonides’) commentary on the Mishnah was originally written in Judeo-Arabic, and later translated into Hebrew by others, such as Rabbi Yehudah Al-Harizi and Rabbi Samuel Ibn Tibbon, among others. Rabbi Yosef Qafih z”l lists some seven authors of our modern Hebrew translation. Of course, he also made a new translation of the Judeo-Arabic text, based on the Yemenite MS. seeing that the old printed editions were flawed with many errors and omissions. Generally speaking, you can still find amongst the elderly Yemenites handwritten copies (in manuscript form) of Maimonides’ Judeo-Arabic Commentary of the Mishnah. Rabbi Shlomo Tzadok of Jerusalem has a copy bequeathed to him from his father.


  2. where can copies be bought- of books in judeo-arabic? Are they available in any shops in Jerusalem?

  3. hi i published the haggadah in Darija language ( moroccan arabic ) do you want buy once ?

    that costs 4 dollars ,

    thank you

  4. Cairo Genizah images can also be seen here:

  5. Yes I want the haggadah in Darija, also do you have siddur in Darija?

  6. Judeo arabic is alive and well if you know where to look. Start at Kahal Joseph Congregation in Los Angeles, CA. If you come to the picnic this Sunday you will hear it over sheshpesh. Or look up Rabbi Haim Ovadia–he has a facebook page and I believe he may still be in the NY area.

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