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Judaeo-Arabic and Judaeo-Persian

Abstract and Keywords

The term ‘Judaeo-Arabic’ refers to a type of Arabic that was used by Jews and was distinct in some way from other types of Arabic. The Arabic language was used by Jews in Arabia before the rise of Islam. From the point of view of linguistic form, the following characteristic features of written Judaeo-Arabic can be identified: it is written in Hebrew script; it exhibits deviations from Classical Arabic; and it contains Hebrew and Aramaic elements. ‘Judaeo-Persian’ refers to Persian used by Jews. Like Judaeo-Arabic, Judaeo-Persian is not a uniform linguistic entity. The term is used to refer to both a written and a spoken form of language. The geographical area in which it was used extended beyond the boundaries of Iran and included Afghanistan, part of the Caucasus, and much of Central Asia. Judaeo-Persian in its written form is represented in Hebrew script.

Keywords: Judaeo-Arabic, Judaeo-Persian, Jews, Islam, Aramaic, Hebrew script


The term ‘Judaeo-Arabic’ refers to a type of Arabic that was used by Jews and was distinct in some way from other types of Arabic. It is by no means a uniform linguistic entity. Different criteria, moreover, have been used to define it.

The Arabic language was used by Jews in Arabia before the rise of Islam. Some of the pre-Islamic Arabic poets were Jewish, the most famous of whom was al. Samaw˒al ibn ˒Ādiyā˓ The surviving written works of such Jewish poets do not exhibit anything that distinguishes them from the equivalent works of their non. Jewish contemporaries, and so are generally not referred to as Judaeo-Arabic. It is assumed that the Jewish communities in Arabia spoke Arabic as their vernacular language. Although we do not have any direct evidence of the nature of this spoken language, some scholars claim that there are indirect indications that it differed from the vernacular of the non-Jews.

After the Islamic conquests in the seventh century ce, the Arabic language gradually spread throughout the Near East. It was initially restricted to the Arab invading armies, but soon began to be used by the local population. This applied not (p. 602) only to converts to Islam but also to Jews and Christians who maintained their religion and traditional communal life. The Arabicization took place most rapidly in the large urban Centres, where the Arab armies had settled and established Centres of administration. In the pre-Islamic period the Jews of Iraq and Syria spoke Aramaic, whereas further west they used Berber or Romance as their vernacular languages. These languages were largely replaced by Arabic. The Jewish communities in rural areas were much slower in adopting the Arabic language. Although the Jews of the urban centres in Iraq appear to have become Arabic-speaking by the eighth century ce, there is evidence that the Jews in the countryside continued to speak Aramaic at least until the tenth century. Some Jewish communities living in the isolated mountainous areas of Northern Iraq never fully adopted Arabic as a vernacular, and continued to speak Aramaic down to modern times. A similar pattern applied to the spread of Arabic elsewhere in the Islamic empire.

During the first three Centuries of the Islamic period the Jews in the Near East used the traditional rabbinic languages of Hebrew and Aramaic as their written language, although many of the urban communities were no doubt using Arabic as their vernacular at this period. One factor that may explain the slowness of the Jews to use Arabic as a written literary language was that the main centres of Jewish learning, such as the academies of Sura and Pumbeditha, were situated in the Iraqi countryside where Aramaic remained the spoken language for a longer period (Fenton 1990: 464). The first written records of Judaeo-Arabic are datable to the ninth century ce. These are largely private documents from Egypt that were written on papyrus. Both the writers and recipients were Jews. They were written in Hebrew script, which became one of the most conspicuous distinctive features of Judaeo-Arabic.

Arabic was not used in high-register literary texts written by Jews for a Jewish readership until the tenth century, although we have some evidence of Jews of a slightly earlier period writing scientific or astrological texts for a general readership. These literary texts that began to be produced in the tenth century were written in Hebrew script. Arabic in Hebrew script continued to be used by Jews in Arabicspeaking lands throughout the Middle Ages down to modern times. The term ‘Judaeo-Arabic’ is frequently used to refer to all such cases of Arabic written in Hebrew script. This is based on a descriptive linguistic criterion, namely its graphic representation, and also, by implication, one of communicative function, since anything written in Hebrew script would, one assumes, be addressed to a Jewish readership.

Judaeo-Arabic in this sense, that is, any form of Arabic written in Hebrew script, is not a linguistically uniform phenomenon. It is generally categorized into three chronological periods that correspond to three major phases in its linguistic development, viz. Early Judaeo-Arabic, Classical Judaeo-Arabic, and Late Judaeo-Arabic.

The term ‘Early Judaeo-Arabic’ is used to refer to the Judaeo-Arabic that is attested in the ninth Century, mostly in papyri. The main linguistic feature that (p. 603) distinguishes this from Classical Judaeo-Arabic is the orthography with which the Arabic is represented. It is based essentially on the spelling practices used for Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic at that period. This is particularly noticeable in the use of vowel letters or matres lectionis. The scribes, moreover, wrote the Arabic phonetically, without taking into account the spelling conventions of Classical Muslim Arabic in Arabic script. The Arabic word for ‘sun’,  Judaeo-Arabic and Judaeo-Persian for example, was written  Judaeo-Arabic and Judaeo-Persian, since it was written pronounced ˒ aššams with the lām of the definite article assimilated to the šīn. In Classical Judaeo-Arabic, which was used from the tenth to approximately the fifteenth centuries ce, the spelling that was used was made to correspond to the orthographic conventions of Arabic in Arabic script. The word for ‘sun’, therefore, was written  Judaeo-Arabic and Judaeo-Persian, corresponding to Arabic  Judaeo-Arabic and Judaeo-Persian. The vowel letters of Classical Judaeo-Arabic, furthermore, corresponded exactly to those of Classical Muslim Arabic in Arabic script. In Late Judaeo-Arabic, which began to be used roughly after the fifteenth Century, scribes abandoned a rigorous imitation of the orthography of Classical Muslim Arabic and, as in the Early Judaeo-Arabic period, employed many of the conventions of spelling that were used for Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic.

In addition to differences in orthography in these three periods, there were also differences in grammatical structure. From the early Islamic period, and probably also before the rise of Islam, distinct types of Arabic were used for speech and writing. The spoken language included numerous dialects, whereas the written language was of an essentially standard form. The standard written language, in its classical form, is generally referred to as Classical Arabic. It is a feature of Judaeo-Arabic texts written in all three periods that they usually exhibit grammatical deviations from Classical Arabic. These deviations are due to interference from vernacular spoken dialects of Arabic. The extent to which the language deviates from Classical Arabic varies from text to text, but in general it is far more pronounced in Late Judaeo-Arabic than in Early and Classical Judaeo-Arabic. As a result of this, Late Judaeo-Arabic differs from region to region, since it reflects the local spoken dialects of the writers. Another feature of Judaeo-Arabic of all periods is the presence of Hebrew and Aramaic words in the language. These sometimes include more than purely technical terms associated with Jewish tradition. They are often adapted to the grammatical structure of Arabic, and take, for example, Arabic plural endings.

From the point of view of linguistic form, therefore, the following characteristic features of written Judaeo-Arabic can be identified:

  1. 1. it is written in Hebrew script;

  2. 2. it exhibits deviations from Classical Arabic; and

  3. 3. it contains Hebrew and Aramaic elements.

All three elements arise to a large extent from the traditional Jewish educational background of the scribes. This involved the learning of the Hebrew Bible and (p. 604) rabbinic texts rather than rigorous instruction in Classical Arabic grammar, with the result that the Jews felt more at home with Hebrew script than with Arabic script and that they had a less-than-perfect grasp of Classical Arabic.

From the strict point of view of descriptive linguistics, however, certain texts that were written by Jews lack some, if not all, of the aforementioned characteristic features of Judaeo-Arabic. This applies especially to some texts that were written by Jews belonging to the Karaite movement of Judaism. In the tenth to twelfth centuries the Karaites often wrote Arabic manuscripts in Arabic script. Manuscripts of this nature are often written in a relatively pure form of Classical Arabic. One of the reasons for their use of Arabic rather than Hebrew script seems to be that they did not feel themselves to be so rooted in the rabbinic literary tradition as the orthodox rabbanite Jews and were, consequently, more open to adopting literary and linguistic practices from the surrounding non-Jewish environment. These Karaite texts in Arabic script were, nevertheless, clearly addressed to a Jewish readership and their contents must be defined as Jewish. They generally include a number of technical Hebrew or Aramaic elements, usually in the form of citations from the Bible, generally also in Arabic script. The main feature that distinguishes them from Classical Muslim Arabic texts, therefore, is the Jewish subject-matter. From the point of view of linguistic form, however, it is difficult to classify their language as ‘Judaeo-Arabic’. It is legitimate, however, to designate them as ‘Judaeo-Arabic’ from the point of view of social and communicative function, in that they are addressed to Jews on Jewish subjects, with contents that are likely to be largely incomprehensible to non-Jews.

In addition to the distinction between linguistic criteria and the criteria of communicative function in the definition of written Judaeo-Arabic, we should also make a distinction between a text in general and individual manifestations of a text in manuscripts. This distinction is relevant both when applying criteria of linguistic form and criteria of communicative function.

The application of criteria of linguistic form to identify the language of a written text as Judaeo-Arabic may apply to the text in general, in all its recorded forms in manuscripts. This would be legitimate where the manifestations of the texts in manuscripts are largely uniform. In many cases, however, it is necessary to apply the criteria to each manuscript individually. The Karaite texts that are found written in some manuscripts in Arabic script, for example, were often copied in other manuscripts in Hebrew script. It is, in fact, difficult to establish in which script they were originally written. In the Middle Ages the choice of script used in Karaite manuscripts seems to have been largely the reflection of individual preferences. One Karaite author, for example, before writing the manuscript of the final version of a work, felt obliged to send a letter to the man who commissioned the work asking whether he wished the text to be written in Arabic or Hebrew script (Khan 1993a).

The distinction between text in general and individual manuscripts is also relevant when applying the criterion of communicative function in the definition (p. 605) of Judaeo-Arabic. In the majority of cases, when a text is defined as ‘Judaeo-Arabic’ with regard to its communicative function, this applies to the text in general, in all its attestations. In a few cases the definition is not so straightforward. This applies, for example, to a number of manuscripts which contain Arabic texts written by non-Jewish authors that have been transcribed into Hebrew script. These texts were clearly written originally for either a Muslim or general readership, rather than one that was specifically Jewish. A wide range of texts were transcribed in this way, including even the Qur˒an. A similar phenomenon is found in documentary material, in that Jews used to write in Hebrew script drafts and personal copies of Arabic documents that were addressed to Muslim officials, although the final version of the document that was sent to the official was written in Arabic script. In such cases the text in general cannot be defined as Judaeo-Arabic, based on the criteria of linguistic form or communicative function, but the manuscripts in Hebrew script could be identified as Judaeo-Arabic according to both of these criteria. Although the text in general was not designed for a Jewish readership, the manuscripts in Hebrew script were written specifically for Jews who felt more at home in that script. Conversely, some Arabic texts that were written by Jews originally in Hebrew script for a Jewish readership, were occasionally copied into Arabic script for a Muslim readership. One example of this is a manuscript of Maimonides’ Guide For the Perplexed that is written entirely in Arabic script (Atay 1974). Finally, we should mention the fact that some early European presses printed Muslim Arabic texts in Hebrew characters simply because an Arabic fount was not available (Fenton 1990: 462–3). It is doubtful whether these should be defined as Judaeo-Arabic from the point of view of either linguistic form or communicative function.

Of course, the majority of texts that are defined as Judaeo-Arabic on the basis of criteria of linguistic form can also be so classified on the level of communicative function. Likewise many texts can legitimately be defined as Judaeo-Arabic in all their manuscript manifestations. It is important, however, to be aware of the necessity to make a distinction between these levels of analysis in some circumstances, since, as we have seen, these levels of analysis do not always coincide and it is in such cases that a single, monolithic definition of Judaeo-Arabic can be confusing. In a general overview of the subject, such as is being attempted here, however, it is helpful to have a ‘working definition’ of written Judaeo-Arabic which includes the features that are exhibited by the majority of texts, while remaining aware of the fact that stricter, more precise definitions are necessary in some cases. In the remainder of this survey, therefore, we shall adopt the working definition of written Judaeo-Arabic as Arabic texts written in Hebrew script by Jews for a Jewish readership.

We have presented above a classification of Judaeo-Arabic into three chronological periods according to its linguistic development. In general terms, the range and nature of the written material in Judaeo-Arabic also differed across these three periods.

(p. 606)

As remarked, the scant material surviving in Early Judaeo-Arabic is mainly in the form of private documents on papyrus. There are also a few fragments of manuscripts of literary texts.

In the period of Classical Judaeo-Arabic, Judaeo-Arabic was used in a very wide range of texts. Many of the traditional texts of Judaism were translated into Judaeo-Arabic, including first and foremost the Hebrew Bible, but also other texts such as the Mishnah, the Talmuds, midrashim, and liturgy. Many new genres of Arabic text were adopted by the Jews from the Muslim cultural environment and adapted to Judaism. This reflected a close rapprochement between the Jews and Muslim culture in the High Middle Ages (approximately tenth-thirteenth centuries). The new genres of texts included works on biblical exegesis, grammar, systematically arranged handbooks of legal subjects, and works on theology and philosophy. Judaeo-Arabic was also used for a wide range of documentary material. Most letters were written in Judaeo-Arabic and also a large proportion of Jewish legal documents. Hebrew was still used as a learned language in letters by some Jewish intellectuals, such as the Geonim. It was also used by the leading Jewish poets in the Middle Ages, but many popular verses and songs were composed by Jews in Judaeo-Arabic.

In the Late Judaeo-Arabic period, the range of texts written in Judaeo-Arabic became more restricted. Among the factors that brought this about was that the Jewish communities enjoyed less intellectual rapprochement with the Muslim environment and that Spanish and Portuguese Jews refugees from the expulsions in the fifteenth century and their descendants came to be among the leading intellectuals in most Arabic-speaking Jewish communities in the Near East. Judaeo-Arabic became restricted largely to popular texts such as stories and songs or private letters. Another common type of Judaeo-Arabic text in this period was a literal translation of the Bible known as šarḥ. This was a word by word gloss which generally could not be understood independently of the original Hebrew source text. The medieval Judaeo-Arabic Bible translations Ceased to be used in most Arabic-speaking Jewish communities and were supplanted by the šarḥ, the language of which was much closer to the local vernacular spoken dialect. It should be noted, however, that in the Jewish communities of Yemen, Classical Judaeo-Arabic texts continued to be copied and read down to modern times and the division between Classical and Late periods of Judaeo-Arabic is not so appropriate.

Judaeo-Arabic texts attracted the interest of Western scholars at an early stage in the development of the discipline of Oriental languages in European universities. Following the Reformation in the early sixteenth century, there was particular interest in texts that could elucidate the Bible, such as translations, commentaries, and treatises on Hebrew grammar. The Judaeo-Arabic version of the Pentateuch by Saadya Gaon was incorporated in the Paris Polyglot (1645) by Gabriel Sionita in Arabic transcription, and subsequently also in the Walton Polyglot (1657) by Edward Pococke. While serving as Anglican chaplain in Aleppo, Pococke acquired a large number of Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts, which are now in the possession of (p. 607) the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Pococke himself printed an extract from a manuscript containing Maimonides’ Judaeo-Arabic commentary on the Mishnah (Porta Mosis, Oxford, 1655). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a number of scholars studied and published Judaeo-Arabic texts from the Oxford collection. In the nineteenth century important collections of Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts were acquired in France, largely due to the efforts of Solomon Munk, who also made important contributions to Judaeo-Arabic scholarship. Important editions of Judaeo-Arabic texts from Western European collections continued to be made throughout the nineteenth century. We may mention here the work of Joseph Derenbourg who published some of the exegetical texts of Saadya Gaon and also the grammatical works of Ibn Janah. Derenbourg's work is a good illustration of the nature of Judaeo-Arabic scholarship at this period. The emphasis was on the publication of texts on the basis of the available manuscripts. These editions are foundational works in the field. It should be noted, however, that some of the manuscripts used by scholars at this period were late and not reliable. Moreover, there were no fixed conventions about the editing of Judaeo-Arabic texts. Many of the editors took great liberties with their manuscript sources. They sometimes transcribed the text into Arabic script and even ‘corrected’ dialectal features of the text that were judged not to conform to the rules of Classical Arabic.

It should also be noted that at this period scholars were exclusively interested in texts from the classical period of Judaeo-Arabic literature. There was little interest in texts written in Late Judaeo-Arabic. This neglect of the later texts by scholars continued throughout the twentieth century. Some Late Judaeo-Arabic texts, however, were printed and published in the local Arabic-speaking communities, the presses in the North Africa communities being particularly active. These included original works and translations, including Late Judaeo-Arabic renditions of some Classical Judaeo-Arabic works. Judaeo-Arabic newspapers were also published in various communities.

An important milestone in Judaeo-Arabic scholarship was the work Die Arabische Literatur der juden (1902), by the indefatigable bibliographer Moritz Steinschneider (1816–1907). This was an exhaustive bibliographical record of the Judaeo-Arabic works that were known to him. His sources were mainly manuscript collections in Western Europe. It is still of importance today, although we now have access to a larger number of manuscripts.

By the end of the nineteenth century two important collections of Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts had been acquired by academic libraries that were to prove of immense importance. First was the so-called Firkovitch collection, which came into the possession of the Imperial Library in St Petersburg (now the National Library of Russia). This was divided into two parts, known as the first and the second Firkovitch collections. Of particular importance for Judaeo-Arabic studies is the second Firkovitch collection. This consists of more than 15,000 items that were acquired by the Karaite bibliophile Abraham Firkovitch (1787–1874). It includes a (p. 608) large number of Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts. Most of these were found by Firkovitch in the Karaite synagogue in Cairo between the years 1863 and 1865. The other major collection was that of the Cairo Genizah. The Genizah was a repository for discarded manuscripts that was discovered in a medieval synagogue in Old Cairo (Fusṭāṭ) in the second half of the nineteenth century. This contained approximately 200,000 fragments of manuscripts, most dating to between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. The majority of the fragments were brought to Cambridge by Solomon Schechter with the financial assistance of Charles Taylor, and were acquired by Cambridge University in 1898, forming the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection. Some smaller collections of Genizah manuscripts were acquired by other libraries.

The contents of these two collections greatly enriched the Judaeo-Arabic material that was available to scholars at the end of the nineteenth century. The second Firkovitch collection contains a large number of Early Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts. These are often copies of texts that are not known from other sources and are not listed in Steinschneider's Arabische Literatur der Juden. Some of the manuscripts are copies of works that are known from manuscripts in other sources, but are older and more reliable. The Genizah collection, likewise, contains fragments of many Judaeo-Arabic texts that were not known at the end of the nineteenth century and early copies of known works. A unique feature of the Genizah, however, is its copious Judaeo-Arabic documentary material. This includes a vast array of private, official, and legal documents that allow scholars to reconstruct the everyday life of the Jewish community of Old Cairo (Fusṭāṭ) in the Middle Ages. Many of the Genizah fragments also give us an insight into forms popular culture, such as games, soothsaying, and magic, that are not known from literary texts. Furthermore the Genizah contains some material in Late Judaeo-Arabic and also a number of fragments that exhibit Early Judaeo-Arabic orthography.

Some of the Judaeo-Arabic material from the Firkovitch collections was published by Russian scholars such as A. Harkavy (1835–1919), P. Kokowzow (1861–1942), and A. Borisov (1903–42). For many years, during the communist era, it was virtually impossible for scholars from outside Russia to have free access to the collections. They were finally opened up to international scholarship in the last decade of the twentieth century. A card index of the manuscripts was made in St Petersburg, for the most part by A. Harkavy, but this is often rather vague and an accurate idea of the contents of the collection will only be possible after a systematic catalogue has been completed.

Scholarly work on the Cairo Genizah has fared better. H. Hirschfeld was one of the first scholars to study the Judaeo-Arabic material. Systematic work was begun on the Judaeo-Arabic documentary material by S. D. Goitein and his students, many of whom have themselves become leading authorities in the field. A large number of the Judaeo-Arabic Genizah documents have now been published and catalogues are available for a large part of the collection.

(p. 609)

In addition to work on the Genizah, a number of other important contributions were made to the field of medieval Judaeo-Arabic studies in the twentieth century. These include text editions and various studies based on Judaeo-Arabic material.

For some texts we now have available a very large number of manuscripts. This often makes the preparation of an edition a complex task, particularly since the manuscripts frequently do not reflect a stable text. Works that became popular were often published in shortened versions. This abbreviation often existed in several degrees. An extreme example of this textual diversity of a single work is the collection of homilies attributed to David ben Abraham Maimuni, the grandson of Maimonides, which has been transmitted in a remarkable variety of versions (Almagor 1995).

The linguistic study of medieval Judaeo-Arabic did not receive serious attention until the twentieth century. Previously scholars who edited Judaeo-Arabic texts tended to take a pejorative view of the language and consider it to be a corrupted form of Classical Arabic, which, as remarked, they often did not hesitate to correct. This attitude is not held any longer, thanks to the work of J. Blau who, in his many publications, has studied the linguistic structure and background of medieval Judaeo-Arabic. He has shown that medieval Judaeo-Arabic should be regarded as a form of literary Arabic in its own right, and that editors of Judaeo-Arabic texts should reproduce faithfully the language as it appears in the manuscripts. In recent years texts in Early Judaeo-Arabic have been investigated by J. Blau and S. Hopkins. Late Judaeo-Arabic has been studied by B. Hary, who has examined the linguistic structure and background of texts from Egypt.

The Cairo Genizah has still not revealed all its secrets, and it remains the most important source for Judaeo-Arabic documentary material. It is the Firkovitch collection, however, that contains the greater proportion of unexplored manuscripts. The study and publication of the texts contained in this collection, many of which are unknown from other sources, will require the work of several generations of future scholars. The few Judaeo-Arabic texts from the Firkovitch Collection that have been published in recent years have already cast new light on medieval Judaism and, as more are published, the history books for that period of Judaism will have to be rewritten.

In order to be in a position to work with Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts, scholars need to have a good training in both Arabic and Hebrew. This is a qualification that is becoming increasingly rare among university students outside Israel. It is hoped that more students will be encouraged to combine the two languages by the exciting prospects of research. In 1984 an academic organization known as the Society for Judaeo-Arabic Studies was founded by N. Golb of the University of Chicago to promote the study of medieval Judaeo-Arabic language and texts. This society holds a biennial conference that brings together researchers in the field. The published papers of these conferences are a good indication of the current scope of the Judaeo-Arabic studies (first conference: N. Golb ed. 1997; second conference: Sefunoll NS 5, (p. 610) 1991; third conference: J. Blau and S. C. Reif eds. 1992; fourth conference: J. Blau ed. 1998). The membership of the society is international, though a large majority of its active members are Israeli. In England at present Judaeo-Arabic studies is concentrated at the University of Cambridge. This is the home of the famous Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection. For several decades now a research unit under the directorship of S. C. Reif has been working on this collection, and it includes several Judaeo-Arabic specialists among its staff. Various projects on Judaeo-Arabic material are also being undertaken at the Faculty of Oriental Studies in Cambridge that involve both Ph.D. and postdoctoral researchers under the supervision of G. Khan.

We have been concerned so far almost exclusively with Judaeo-Arabic in its written form. The term Judaeo-Arabic, however, is also used to refer to the spoken vernacular of Jewish communities in the Arabic-speaking world. Many of these have left their original places of residence and have now moved to the State of Israel. There are still, however, remnants of Arabic-speaking Jewish communities in some parts of the Arab world, especially in North Africa.

The spoken Judaeo-Arabic dialects generally differ in structure from dialects spoken by the neighbouring Muslim population. The Muslim dialects often exhibit a number of features that are characteristic of the Bedouin Arabic dialects, whereas Jewish dialects generally preserve features of the old urban dialects. It is not clear how far back this divergence of dialects among confessional communities can be traced. There is some evidence, however, that already in the Middle Ages differences had arisen due to distinct patterns of population movement of Jews and Muslims. Some of the Arabic dialects spoken by Iraqi Jewish communities exhibit features that appear to have arisen under the influence of Aramaic, their former spoken language. These, therefore, would presumably have always differed from the Muslim dialects, which did not have such an Aramaic substrate.

The best-studied case of divergence between communal dialects is that of Baghdad before the emigration of the Jews in the 1950s. H. Blanc, in his Communal Dialects in Baghdad (1964), has shown how the dialect of the Jewish population of Baghdad differed in all levels of grammar (phonology, morphology, syntax) and also vocabulary both from the dialect of the neighbouring Muslims and also from that of the Christians of the same town. In this work Blanc examines the general phenomenon of Arabic dialectal differences between religious communities.

A number of the items of vocabulary that are exclusive to the Arabic dialects of the Jewish communities are of Hebrew origin. These words have generally been adapted to the phonology and morphology of the dialect. This Hebrew component, together with the distinct features of grammatical structure, clearly justify the designation of the dialects as Judaeo-Arabic from the point of view of linguistic (p. 611) form. The term is also justified with regard to communicative function, since such dialects were, in principle, only used by Jews to communicate with other Jews and, indeed, were often incomprehensible to non-Jews.

As with the definition of written Judaeo-Arabic, there is not such a clear justification on the grounds of linguistic form to classify some types of Arabic spoken by Jews as being distinct from the neighbouring Muslim dialects. This applies, for example, to the Arabic dialects spoken by the Jews of Egypt before their mass emigration in the 1950s and 1960s. There are some small structural peculiarities in the dialect of the Rabbanite Egyptian Jews, but the Arabic spoken by the Karaite community of Cairo was largely identical in structure to that of Muslim Arabic. Such small differences that existed tended to be in the area of vocabulary, which included a number of Hebrew loan-words. In terms of communicative function, therefore, there would be grounds for labelling the Arabic spoken by the Karaites of Cairo as Judaeo-Arabic, but the case would be less clear purely on the grounds of linguistic form. A similar case was the Arabic dialect that was spoken by Jews in the Old City of Jerusalem in the first half of the twentieth century. This was essentially identical in structure to the Arabic of the neighbouring Muslims, and differed only in the usage of Hebrew loan-words and small divergences in intonation.

In a number of communities secret trade languages were invented in order to ensure that their speech was incomprehensible to Muslims, and indeed to anybody outside their professional circle. The Karaite goldsmiths of Cairo, for example, had such a trade argot, and other argots are recorded as having been used among the Jews of North Africa.

Work on the linguistic description of the spoken Judaeo-Arabic dialects has by no means been neglected. Several important grammatical studies on a variety of dialects were published in the twentieth century and continue to appear. The number and diversity of the Judaeo-Arabic dialects is, nevertheless, considerable, especially in North Africa, Iraq, and Yemen, and many of these have not received any attention. The description of these dialects has now become an urgent task for the future, since a large proportion of the speakers have left their original places of residence. This applies especially to the Jewish communities of Iraq and Yemen, who have almost totally emigrated. The dialects are already beginning to be forgotten by the younger generations of these communities, and are likely to disappear completely within the next few years. As with the case of written Judaeo-Arabic, work on the spoken forms of Judaeo-Arabic requires a knowledge of both Arabic and Hebrew. Since much of the field now has to be carried out in Israel, field-workers need to be fluent in Modern Hebrew in order to communicate successfully with informants.

(p. 612) Judaeo-Persian

‘Judaeo-Persian’ refers to Persian used by Jews. Like Judaeo-Arabic, Judaeo-Persian is not a uniform linguistic entity. The term is used to refer to both a written and a spoken form of language. The geographical area in which it was used extended beyond the boundaries of Iran and included Afghanistan, part of the Caucasus, and much of Central Asia.

Judaeo-Persian in its written form is represented in Hebrew script. It can be divided into an early and a classical period. The early period extends from the eighth century ce, which is the date of the most ancient texts so far know, until the fourteenth century. The texts from this early period are of considerable linguistic diversity. They are written in a form of New Persian, but not the form that was to become the standard language of Classical Persian literature. The early Judaeo-Persian texts, which originate in a variety of geographical areas, reflect different local Persian dialects. Some contain linguistic features that are characteristic of Middle Persian, but scholars generally regard their language to represent New Persian in its early stages of development. The texts are of a variety of different types, including inscriptions, private and legal documents, biblical commentaries, grammatical works, medical treatises, and texts concerning magic. A number of the texts may have been written by Persian-speaking immigrants in Palestine and Egypt. This applies especially to a corpus of early Judaeo-Persian texts written by Karaite Jews.

In the fourteenth Century Judaeo-Persian works began to be written in a form of New Persian that was essentially identical to that of Classical Persian, except for its representation in Hebrew script and the usage of a number of Hebrew and Aramaic words. Even the orthography of Judaeo-Persian in this classical phase of its literature imitated that of Classical Persian, as was the case with Classical Judaeo-Arabic. It should be noted, however, that this literary rapprochement between the Jewish communities and the surrounding Muslim culture came later in Iran than in Arabic-speaking lands.

A variety of Bible translations were produced in Classical Judaeo-Persian as well as poetry, mainly on biblical themes. The Judaeo-Persian poets imitated not only the Classical Persian language, but also the traditional epic style of the classical Persian poets. Manuscripts of these poetic works often contain miniature illuminations similar to the ones that adorned the manuscripts of the works of the Muslim poets. Indeed, many of the writings of the classical Muslim Persian poets were transcribed into Hebrew script for the benefit of a Jewish readership. There are manuscripts in Hebrew script containing works by the famous poets Niza̅mi̅, Rümi̅, Ha̅fiz, and others. These texts obviously cannot be classified as Judaeo-Persian literature and, as is the case with the transcription of Muslim Arabic texts into Hebrew script, one needs to make a distinction between the text in general and its manifestation in individual manuscripts. The manuscripts in Hebrew script can be (p. 613) described as Judaeo-Persian both with regard to their graphical form and their communicative function, in that they were intended exclusively for a Jewish readership.

A distinct phase in the development of Judaeo-Persian literature is represented by the production of numerous literary works by the Jews of Bukhara in the eighteenth century. These were written in the local Tajiki dialect of Persian and so differed linguistically from Classical Judaeo-Persian works. They include poetic compositions either on traditional Jewish themes or on the theme of local events, and also commentaries and translations of Jewish texts.

In the second half of the nineteenth Century many Persian-speaking Jews from Bukhara, Turkestan, Afghanistan and Iran emigrated to Palestine. They set up a Hebrew printing press in Jerusalem and published a very wide range of literature in Judaeo-Persian. This was intended to meet the religious and literary interests of Persian-speaking Jews throughout the diaspora. Judaeo-Persian translations were made of Bible and rabbinic texts, commentaries, prayer books and poetry. A number of non-Jewish texts were also translated, including the Arabian Nights and Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors. A Hebrew press was set up also in Tehran at the beginning of the twentieth century, which produced many Judaeo-Persian works.

There are numbers of spoken dialects of Judaeo-Persian that are still the living vernacular of a number of Jewish communities, such as those of Ka̅sha̅n, Hamadan, Isfaha̅n, Kirma̅n, Shira̅z, and Yazd. These exhibit numerous differences from standard Persian, which is ultimately derived from the local dialect of Khurasa̅n. In most cases they are distinct from the dialects spoken by the Muslim population. In Bukhara the spoken language should strictly be defined as a variant form of the Iranian dialect of Tajik, though this is sometimes referred to as Judaeo-Persian. In the Caucasus the Jews spoke a variant of the Iranian dialect known as Ta̅t. The Persian Jews had secret languages, one of which, known as Zargari was used by goldsmiths.

Some of these spoken Judaeo-Persian dialects exhibit archaic features. This applies especially to the dialect of Yazd, which preserves an ergative verbal system that is characteristic of earlier Iranian. It is not clear whether the dialects reflected by the early Judaeo-Persian written texts were already distinct from those of the local Muslim population. Most of these texts are probably not direct representations of the spoken language, but are attempts at a literary style with interference from the vernacular.

As with Judaeo-Arabic, the beginnings of interest by Western scholars in Judaeo-Persian can be dated to the post-Reformation period, when there was an increasing enthusiasm for the philological study of the Bible and its versions. The Persian version of the Bible that was published in the Walton Polyglot (1657) was a transliteration in Arabic script of a Judaeo-Persian version that is attributed to Jacob ben Joseph Tavus, a Persian scholar active in Istanbul in the sixteenth century. A large number of manuscripts containing Judaeo-Persian Bible versions were collected at (p. 614) the beginning of the seventeenth century by the Florentine scholar Giambattista Vecchietti. By the nineteenth century European libraries had acquired many Judaeo-Persian manuscripts, which formed the basis of important publications by Western scholars. At this period, however, there was still no awareness of the full range of Judaeo-Persian literature, since the Western collections of manuscripts were still mainly restricted to Bible versions. A turning-point in Judaeo-Persian research was brought about by the acquisition of a large collection of Judaeo-Persian manuscripts in Bukhara and Persia by Elkan N. Adler in 1896–8. This contained works representing the full range of Judaeo-Persian literature, including poetry and popular narratives. The collection, which was subsequently acquired by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, inspired a number of scholars to make important contributions to Judaeo-Persian scholarship. Foremost among these was W. Bacher, whose numerous publications on Judaeo-Persian literature advanced the field considerably.

Scholars in the twentieth century continued to publish Judaeo-Persian texts from the classical period. By the end of the century a large number of the Judaeo-Persian Bible translations had been edited, largely as a result of the work of H. Paper. As in the case of Judaeo-Arabic, the Firkovitch collections of St Petersburg and the Cairo Genizah proved to be important sources for hitherto unknown Judaeo-Persian material. These collections contain several texts from the Early Judaeo-Persian period, which exhibit numerous dialectal features. They are small in number compared to the large quantity of Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts in these collections, but they represent a considerable addition to the extant material in Early Judaeo-Persian. Some of the Judaeo-Persian manuscripts in these collections were identified over a century ago. The majority, however, have only come to light in the last few decades, largely due to the work of S. Shaked. Some research has been done on this material, though the manuscripts have mostly remained unpublished and unstudied.

In the coming years it is the recently discovered Early Judaeo-Persian material that offers some of the most exciting prospects for research. These will prove to be of immense importance for the history of the Persian language, and need to be brought to the attention of all specialists in Iranian languages. They are also crucial historical sources which will fill many gaps in our knowledge of the socio-economic and cultural history of Persian-speaking Jews in the Middle Ages. A number of the texts were written by Karaite Jews, and these promise to cast light on the early stages of the Karaite movement, which had its origins in Iran. Also many manuscripts from the Classical Judaeo-Persian period remain unpublished. Co-operation between Judaeo-Persian specialists and scholars concerned with the edition of Muslim Persian texts is likely to be fruitful. Future editions of Persian poetry, for example, could profitably take greater account of the existence of manuscripts of poetry in Judaeo-Persian transcription. As in Judaeo-Arabic studies, however, probably the most urgent task for the future is the description of the spoken Judaeo-Persian (p. 615) dialects. Very few of these have been adequately described and, due to the emigration of the majority of the Persian-speaking Jews from Iran, many of them are now likely to disappear within the next few years. Unfortunately the number of young scholars coming into the field of Judaeo-Persian is even smaller than those taking up Judaeo-Arabic studies. Combined courses in Hebrew and Persian are only very rarely taken by students in European and American universities, and indeed even in Israeli universities. As with Judaeo-Arabic, one can only hope that an increasing awareness of the exciting prospects of importance research in Judaeo-Persian will attract more research students into the field.

Suggested Reading


An introduction to Classical Judaeo-Arabic and its linguistic background is given by Blau (1999). The only systematic grammar of medieval Judaeo-Arabic is Blau (1979), which is written in Hebrew. J. Blau has compiled a dictionary of medieval Judaeo-Arabic, which has still not appeared at the time of writing. Y. Ratzaby (1985) has produced a helpful dictionary of the rare words occurring in Saadya's Bible translation. Students of Judaeo-Arabic will find Dozy (1967) useful when reading texts. A lexical study of the Judaeo-Arabic of the Genizah documents is Diem and Radenberg (1994). Chrestomathies of medieval Judaeo-Arabic literature have been published by Hirschfeld (1892) and Blau (1980). Studies of the Early Judaeo-Arabic texts have been published by Blau and Hopkins (1984, 1987). The most comprehensive introduction to Late Judaeo-Arabic is that of B. Hary (1992), which gives a general introduction to the background of post-mediaeval Judaeo-Arabic and a detailed analysis of the language of a text from Egypt.

Good introductions to Judaeo-Arabic literature are Halkin (1960), Vajda (1978), Fenton (1990), and Polliack (1998), in which further bibliography can be found. The most comprehensive bibliographical tool for the study of Judaeo-Arabic literature remains that of M. Steinschneider (1902), much of the material of which was presented in a series of English articles (1897–1901). As remarked in the body of the article, however, this does not take into account a large number of manuscripts that are now available to scholars, especially from the Cairo Genizah and the Firkovitch collections. A general introduction to the field of Cairo Genizah studies is Reif (2000). Important tools for Genizah research have been produced by the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge ( Those of particular importance for students of Judaeo-Arabic are the catalogues of Baker and Polliack (2001), Khan (1993b), and Isaacs (1994), and the bibliography by Reif (1998). A general survey of the Judaeo-Arabic material in the Genizah is given by Baker (1995). Catalogues of Genizah fragments in smaller Genizah collections include Halper (1924, 1990). A brief card index of the Judaeo-Arabic material from the Firkovitch collections is available to readers in the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg. A large selection from this card index was published by Fenton (1991). The majority of the Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts as well as this card index have now been photographed and can be consulted on microfilm at the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts (http://www. at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem.

(p. 616)

Microfilms of Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts from most other collections from around the world are held by this institute, as well as microfiche copies of the relevant published catalogues. A cataloguing project of the Judaeo-Arabic material in the Firkovitch collections is currently being undertaken in Jerusalem. Research on Judaeo-Arabic is also co-ordinated by the Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of the Jewish Communities of the East in Jerusalem (, which also has a publication series. A number of rare printed editions of Judaeo-Arabic texts that may not be available in most university libraries are available at Oxford on microfiche (see

Some recent editions of medieval Judaeo-Arabic texts, many based on Firkovitch manuscripts, which are not mentioned in the aforementioned general surveys include: Vajda (1985) and Stroumsa (1989), on philosophy; Shy (1991), Goshen-Gottstein and Perez (1992), and Avishur (1995), on exegesis and biblical translation; Fenton (1981, 1987), on mysticism; and Dotan (1997), Khan (2000a, 2000b), and Basal (2001), on grammatical thought. Some recent editions of texts in Late Judaeo-Arabic include Zafrani (1980), Avishur (1987), and Chètrit (1994). Some important recent studies of Judaeo-Arabic texts on the basis of unpublished manuscript sources are Sklare (1996), Fenton (1997), and Polliack (1997). For Muslim literature transcribed into Hebrew script see Fenton (1990). Drafts of documents addressed to Muslims written in Hebrew script are found in Khan (1993b).

The classic treatment of the Genizah documentary material is Goitein (1967-1967a 88). Major editions of the Judaeo-Arabic Genizah documents include those of J. Mann (1931–5), M. Gil (1983, 1967a1997), and M. Ben-Sasson (1991). An increasingly important resource is the website of the Princeton Genizah Project (, which includes editions of some Genizah documents in machine-readable form.

For a general survey of the literature on spoken Judaeo-Arabic dialects with special attention to those of North Africa, see Cohen (1978) and Bar-Asher (1996). Further literature on the subject is given by N. M. Waldman (1989: 161–6). The classical treatment of the phenomenon of communal dialectal divergence is Blanc (1964). For a general survey of the Judaeo-Arabic dialects of Iraq see Jastrow (1990a). The trade argot of the Karaite goldsmiths of Cairo is treated briefly in Khan (1995-7). Some recent major publications that are not included in the aforementioned surveys include Stillman (1988) on the dialect of the Jews of Sefrou, Jastrow (1990b) on the dialect of the Jews of ˓Aqra and Arbi̅l, Piamenta (2000) on the dialect of Jews of Jerusalem in the first half of the twentieth century, and Heath (2001) on the dialects of the Jews of Morocco.


Good surveys of Judaeo-Persian literature are Fischel (1960, 1971, 1978), and Netzer (1985: 11–49). All of these have helpful bibliographies, the fullest and most up to date being that of Netzer. An up-to-date survey of Early Judaeo-Persian material from the Cairo Genizah and Firkovitch collections is Shaked (forthcoming), in which references can be found to most of Shaked's own work in this field. Shaked (2000) includes Firkovitch material in his survey of Judaeo-Persian Bible translations. An edition and study of the longest of the Firkovitch manuscripts, a commentary on Ezekiel consisting of 226 folios, is at present being carried out by T. Eilam-Gindin, one of Shaked's students. For a preliminary report see Eilam-Gindin (2000). An edition and analysis of an Early Judaeo-Persian Genizah text written by a Karaite has been published by Khan (2000b: 241–331). As with Judaeo-Arabic, the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts holds microfilms of most known Judaeo-Persian manuscripts (p. 617) (see above for details). For miniature illuminations in Judaeo-Persian manuscripts, see Moreen (1985).

A description of the linguistic features of Judaeo-Persian is published in the aforementioned volume by G. Lazard (1968), a more concise version of which can be found in Lazard (1971). The Judaeo-Persian dialects against the background of the formation of the Persian language in general are studied by Lazard (1995). Netzer (1985:50–6) describes the orthographic practices found in Judaeo-Persian manuscripts. There is no dictionary devoted exclusively to Judaeo-Persian. Students reading texts in Early Judaeo-Persian will find it helpful to consult the Middle Persian dictionary of MacKenzie (1971). Chrestomathies of Judaeo-Persian, which will be useful for those new to the field, have been published by Asmussen (1968) and Moreen (2000). Very little work has been done on the spoken Judaeo-Persian dialects. Netzer (1985: 57n.97) refers to most of the relevant publications. For secret languages used by the Persian-speaking Jews, see Yarshater (1977). Articles reflecting the current state of a wide range of Judaeo-Persian studies can be found in the series Irano-Judaica, four volumes of which have so far appeared (vol. 1, ed. S. Shaked, 1982; vols. 2–4, ed. S. Shaked and A. Netzer, 1990, 1994, 1999).


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