Judeo-Arabic in Mizrahi Jewish Life


At the beginning of the Islamic period, which dates to the seventh century, the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa generally functioned in two languages: a local vernacular, which was used for ordinary conversation, and Hebrew, which was learned as the language of prayers and the classic religious texts, but was used for little other than the composition of liturgical poetry. As the Islamic conquests took root and unified the entire region linguistically, Arabic gradually replaced the local languages as the vernacular.

The Arabic spoken by the Jews did not differ markedly from that spoken by Muslims in this period, except insofar as it included terms specific to Jewish religious and legal practice; even these terms were sometimes replaced by words borrowed from Islamic ritual terminology. How far Arabic penetrated the inner life of the Jewish community may be judged by the fact that Arabic words were sometimes even used to describe religious ideas and institutions. Thus, when Jews wrote in Arabic, they ordinarily referred to God as “Allah” and to the pulpit as minbar (later distorted to almemar in Sephardic usage). They often referred to the leader of prayers as imam, to the Torah as qur’an (though the Hebrew word Torah exists in classical Arabic in the form taura), to rabbinic traditions as hadith, and to the halakhic practice as sunna.

One peculiarity of Jewish writing in Arabic is that the Jews normally used Hebrew characters rather than Arabic script. It is this peculiarity, supported by the tendency of Jewish writers to employ a certain amount of Hebrew vocabulary in their writing, that has caused the Arabic of the Jews to be referred to as Judeo-Arabic.

The reason for the Jews’ use of Hebrew script was probably that it came to them most naturally.  Elementary education at the time was nearly always identical with religious education; as the first thing a Jewish child went to school to learn was the prayers and the Torah, Jewish children learned the Hebrew alphabet before they learned the Arabic alphabet.  Because Hebrew and Arabic are closely related languages and very similar in their phonetic structures, Hebrew script was well suited to representing Arabic sounds. Thus, when Jews wanted to communicate in writing with other Jews, they wrote in their native language—Arabic—using their native script: Hebrew.

Saadiah was the first rabbinic leader to make Arabic his main language for scholarly writing, and thus he may be considered the founder of Judeo-Arabic literature. Thanks partly to his influence, and partly to natural development, Arabic took over many of the functions of Aramaic as the language of scholarship, and, as one vernacular replaced another, the original state of diglossia was restored. Arabic now served both as the vernacular and as the language of most scholarly writing and ordinary correspondence; Hebrew continued to be studied as the language of the Bible and other classical religious texts, especially the liturgy, and was actively employed for the writing of liturgical poetry, the few midrashim that were composed during the gaonic period, and other ceremonial purposes. As the Jews came under the spell of Arabic literature, they adopted some new literary genres from Arabic, using Arabic for some and Hebrew for others.

Both the attitude toward Hebrew and the role of language expanded in the course of the seventh to 16th centuries. It may seem paradoxical, but just as Saadiah was establishing Arabic as the language of rabbinic writing, he was also propounding a new and exalted view of the Hebrew language. From his time, and beginning with his work, a shift can be discerned not merely in Jewish writers’ use of Hebrew, but in their attitude toward it.

Saadiah’s focus on language was a response to the status of Arabic in the Islamic world, and his writing reflects the attitudes that originated in the world of Arabic scholarship. For the Islamic learned classes, the study of language was considered the cornerstone of all scholarship; great emphasis was placed on mastery of classical Arabic, and elaborate rules were propounded for writing it with elegance. This attitude is summed up in the doctrine that Muslim scholars called ‘arabiyya, the principle that classical Arabic (i.e., the language of the Koran and of pre-Islamic poetry) is the most perfect of languages and the model for all writing of importance and prestige. The principle of ‘arabiyya made a clear distinction between the classical Arabic used for formal purposes and the ordinary Arabic used for normal, informational, written communication.

The concept of 'arabiyya, as Hebraized by Saadiah and his contemporaries, gave rise to a division of functions: Hebrew was used for ceremonial communication, where style was most important, and Arabic was used for ordinary communications in which conveying concrete information was paramount.

This distribution of functions—Hebrew as the ceremonial language and Arabic as the language for communication of specific information—is exemplified by letters of condolence or congratulations, which often begin with flowery preambles in Hebrew and then deliver the substance of the message in Arabic, and by collections of Hebrew poetry, in which the poem is in Hebrew but the copyist’s introduction explaining the circumstances under which the poem was written is in Arabic.

With this division of functions between Arabic and biblical Hebrew firmly entrenched in Saadiah’s circle and reinforced by the Hebraized concept of ‘arabiyya, the stage was set for the introduction of Arabic literary genres into Jewish scholarship and of secular poetry, a literary type adopted from Arabic, into Hebrew.

This excerpt, from Cultures of the Jews: A New History, is reprinted with permission. For more on Cultures of the Jews click here.

Copyright (c) 2002 by David Biale. Reprinted by permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc.