Judeo Arabic II

As I mentioned in the previous post, I found a Jewish prayer book from around the year 850, written by an incredibly influential and brilliant Egyptian rabbi, Rav Saadia Gaon, with large portions of translation and explanation in Judeo Arabic, Classical Arabic written in Hebrew characters. This particular book was reprinted in 1941 in Jerusalem.

This is an interesting piece of research material because it provides a window into what cutting-edge Arabic Jewish discourse and discussion and prayer was like in the Cairo/Baghdad of the Middle Ages.

In this post I’ve chosen a random sampling of Judeo Arabic and I’m going to transcribe a small section of Hebrew characters into the Arabic characters and then try and translate it to English. Thing about Judeo Arabic is, there are Hebrew phrases scattered in, particularly relating to God and prayer. In this (helpful) printing, the Hebrew words are spaced a little wider out. Note that only one column is Arabic, the left side is Hebrew.

Also present are Arabic diacritical marks denoting certain Arabic letters and pronunciation guides. This is an easy diagnosis when looking at a this siddur, since the Hebrew wouldn’t have those particular marks, one can tell the JudeoArabic from the rest easily, without having to scan and find clues in the text, a preposition here, a definite article there. These marks also help transcribe the text more easily. I’ll go into more detail about how to switch the alphabets over later.

وكانت الفصول يح فقت فلما زاد هذا صارت يظ. وكذلك في عهد ابانا لم يكونوا محتاجين ان يقولون “מקבץ נדחי עמו”
لاجتماعهم ولا “בונה ירושלים” لآنها كانت مبنية ولكنهم بدلًا من هاتين كانوا يسلون في دوام الملك والنصر في الحروب حسب الحاجة في كل جيل. فأن توهم متوهم ان ههنا فنون آخر جير هذه اليح مما

“And it was only in the sections of Yeh, and when it increased it became Yidth, as it was in the time of our fathers, who were not in need of saying, “מקבץ נדחי עמו” for they were together, nor “בונה ירושלים” because it was built, but instead of saying either of those, they sought the favor of the king and helped during the wars, according to the need of each generation. If there was suspicion against them, with these or other types of Yeh regarding…”

So jibberish, or what happens when you flip to a random page and pick a paragraph. I’m pretty sure I screwed up the translation, I have no idea what these Yeh and Yidth things are, and I translated fasul as ‘sections’ but it could be ‘months’ and a ton of other stuff. The first part of the Hebrew says “Gather the Exiles ” and the second reads “Build Jerusalem”.

-UPDATE! My man Ezra comes through with the clarification!

Yeh and Yidth are numbers, abbreviations for 18 and 19. 18 in Hebrew, besides being the numerological sign for ‘life’, is also a collection of prayers said daily: the 18 blessings, or Amidah, from עמד/عمد ‘amd – pillar or support, as it is said standing.

The Hebrew of the first line, facing column, translated by Ezra: “and when the sections/paragraphs were only 18, and when they were added upon they became 19.” So just based on this first paragraph and nothing else, it’s possible that it’s discussing factional politics in Israelite times, before the Jews were scattered.


~ by Josh on July 20, 2008.

6 Responses to “Judeo Arabic II”

  1. […] brought with me Saadia Gaon’s Siddur, which has large sections of Judeo-Arabic commentary; I thought he might like to have a look. He […]

  2. Interesting post. What Saadai Gaon is explaining here is why the original 18 blessings in the Amidah prayer were given an additional 19th prayer.

    This seems to be in the general context of explanations for each of the individual blessings in the amidah.

  3. Are there any known English translations of this siddur? I’ve been searching the web off and on for several months, and I haven’t found one yet. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

    • I have just recently translated excerpts taken from the Siddur of Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon, but these are still awaiting publication by Professor Yosef Tobi of Haifa University. If you’re interested in seeing an English translation of Rabbi Sa’adia’s Arabic translation (Tifsir), which, in turn, is a transription of the original Hebrew prayer-rite, as well as the benedictions said before and after Kiryat Shema (the recital of the “Hear, O Israel” verses), perhaps you should consider writing Professor Yosef Tobi. tobiy@research.haifa.ac.il


  4. Josh, this page is most interesting! Professor Yosef Tobi would be interested in seeing this, as he has researched the writings of Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon and Judeo-Arabic writings of the Middle-Ages for more than twenty years. I am currently translating some articles written by him on this subject. Perhaps he would know the meanings of those words that you were uncertain about. His e-mail address is:

    Is there any way I can forward this page to him?


  5. This excerpt has been taken from Professor Yosef Tobi’s article entitled “Between Tifsir and Šerah,” published in the journal מחקרים בתולדות יהודי עיראק ובתרבותם (Studies in the History of Iraqi Jewry and their Culture), vol. 6, 1991, pp. 127-138.

    “…Based on Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon’s introduction in his Tifsir (i.e. Arabic translation of the Hebrew Scriptures), after he had written his longer version, at least in what concerns the Pentateuch, a smaller version was condensed from that greater work, being, in fact, entirely built upon that commentary. It is doubtful whether RSG intended his translation to cater to those that were not Jewish, while, in particular, he had in mind the enlightened rank of the Jewish people, according to Hirschberg (pp. 415-416), but which, according to Zücker (pp. 9-10), served the enlightened community to a lesser extent. The Tifsir (Arabic translation) was compiled at the request of one of his disciples, certainly because, at that time, knowledge of the Hebrew language amongst all the different ranks and files of the Jewish people was at an unprecedented low level; for, indeed, we’re able to find in more and more of his theoretical books treating on topics of grammar and literature, and where he complains and makes his protest heard, that the Jewish people had neglected their use of the Hebrew language when compared to those who spoke in the Arabic tongue or in the Aramaic tongue, which latter know very well their respective languages. It was especially upsetting to him that Jews no longer knew terms employed in the Bible. According to him, words taken from the biblical language are difficult words for those writing in Hebrew, even for Jewish poets themselves, who among all people have perhaps a better command of the Hebrew language and are equipped for understanding its subtleties. RSG wrote, therefore, his Tifsir not only to provide a summary and condensed version of his longer commentary, but also to draw the Jewish public closer to the biblical language, that is, where their own language might approach the level of biblical Hebrew.

    Now anyone familiar with RSG’s Tifsir, even in the slightest way, knows very well that RSG’s translation is not a literal translation, nor does it preserve the sentence structure of the scriptural verse, unlike the method used in Aramaic translations of the Bible, especially the Pentateuch. By this, it can be argued, that there is a contradiction between his purpose as defined above and what actually transpired in his writings, for his method of translation arguably distances the reader from the Hebrew source.

    We might answer concerning this allegation that RSG is known in all his works by his ingenuity. He never walked in the path trodden down by those who came before him, but rather, he had always made innovations. Take, for instance, his paytanic work: As a neo-classicist, he apparently walked in the footsteps of the early paytanists, and those that came after them – Rabbi Eleazar Kallir and Shelomo Suleiman Al-Sanjari. However, in reality, also in the very place where we’d imagine him to have trodden the path taken by his predecessors, he makes great innovations as far as the language is concerned, as well as in rhetoric and in its structure. It is the same, then, with regard to the Tifsir of the Bible. That is to say, he no longer sees himself obligated to remain faithful to the structure of the biblical verse, but rather, builds in an independent way the latent idea concealed within that verse, while at the same time changing the syntactic order – if there is a need to do so and without any hesitation – but, especially, with an idea to build solid, compact sentences, and all this, mind you, by the omission of superfluous words and by the categorical use of epithets and similar things. Occasionally, he will change the syntactic structure in order to express his own idea about the verse’s commentary, beside, of course, what is typically accepted by the very nature of its morphemic commentary. All this he accomplished, despite being disposed to make use of cognate Arabic words, or those Arabic words which are closely akin, etymologically speaking, to their Hebrew counterparts, even though they might be rare occurrences in the Arabic language.

    RSG did not consider the Tifsir that he wrote to be a mere translation, neither was it so from the standpoint of its simple harmonics, but rather saw it as an implement by which he could express his opinions on faith and religion. In other words, his use of a certain word often stemmed from his own philosophical views on a subject, or his views on practical religious law. There is somewhat to be found in his longer commentary where he relates to the method of his translation in the Tifsir. A parallel can be drawn between the method used by RSG in his translation-like/commentary-like work on the Hebrew Scriptures and his work on the two editions of Sefer Hagalui, whose first edition is written entirely in Hebrew, while in his second edition – Kitāb al-tārd – there was added to it Arabic explanations as far as its usage of grammar is concerned. Rather, with respect to the Tifsir and his commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures, it is hard to determine with absolute certainty which of the two is the earlier, or perhaps their final version came to be written at the same time. Whatever the case, it is certain that in order to permit himself to incorporate in his translation his own personal views regarding faith and religion, RSG was unable to translate verbatim, but had to change its syntactic structure. A different matter in which there can be recognized the traces of RSG’s translation method is his way of distancing from the reader all expressions of corporeality, while going in principle after the Aramaic translations of the Scriptures, and where he even coins a phrase to describe their authors as being “the faithful sages of our nation in what concerns our religion,” or “the disciples of the prophets.”

    So much for RSG and his Tifsir (Arabic translation). Yet, as for those authors who compiled commentaries (Šerahs) written in their own local dialects, their intent was to create a didactic tool of their own by which they could explain to their students, the tender babes in the house of their Schoolmaster, the language concealed in the writings. They, themselves, were those who would read aloud the text for these small children. However, in the beginning – so it would seem from a closer inspection of the different commentaries – they initially made use of RSG’s Tifsir. Rather, because of its classical-like make-up and his “liberal” method of translation, especially the linguistic remoteness between RSG’s medieval Arabic and the special dialect peculiar to each place, these were the factors which turned his Tifsir into a worthless didactic tool. Thus, by their reliance on RSG’s Tifsir, and in the process of having to deal with his alterations in the text and to bring it back into conformity with the biblical verse’s syntax, as well as with the local dialect, the Šerah was created by teachers of schoolchildren….”

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