The Little-known Language Spoken by Jews Across the Medieval Arab World

Less known than Yiddish or Ladino, Judeo-Arabic was spoken by Jews from Iran to Spain, from Yemen to Syria. The 99-year-old doyen of Maimonides' tongue, says that during Golden Age of Islam, Jewish culture in Arab lands was 10 times greater than that of Ashkenazi Jewry

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A Judeo-Arabic manuscript handwritten by Maimonides.
A Judeo-Arabic manuscript handwritten by Maimonides.Credit: Jerusalem's National Library
Smadar Reisfeld
Smadar Reisfeld
Smadar Reisfeld
Smadar Reisfeld

When it was suggested to Joshua Blau, at the start of his professional career, that he study the letters of Maimonides, there were those who warned him not to undertake the task. The three scholars who had previously begun dealing with the letters had died unnatural deaths. The first was found deceased at his desk after having translated just one and half missives; the second died prematurely from an illness; and the third was murdered in a terrorist attack midway through his research. “I paid no heed to the warning, of course,” Blau says. “In the meantime, I seem to be doing all right.”

Indeed. Blau, emeritus professor of Arabic language and literature at the Hebrew University, turned 99 earlier this month. His sonorous voice, firm handshake and sarcastic humor – and the vigor with which he continues pursuing his linguistic studies – attest that he’s doing better than “all right.” In what has become an annual tradition, a family celebration was held in his honor on his Hebrew birthday, with the participation of the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and, as of this year, a great-great-grandchild – a total of 39 souls. His colleagues also threw him a party, in which congratulations and accolades flowed for the nonagenarian who’s considered the world’s preeminent scholar of medieval Judeo-Arabic.

Blau enjoyed himself (who wouldn’t?), but when he’s asked about the praise, the paeans and the prizes that have been heaped on him over the years – among them the Israel Prize and a medal from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences – he responds, “‘Prizetitution’ – that’s what [the poet] Avraham Shlonsky called it, and I agree completely. Deserving people get prizes,” he smiles, “and a great many undeserving people. That’s how it is, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. When all is said and done, it’s human beings, you know.”

That observation is not motivated by bitterness, of course. It’s just Blau’s worldly-wise approach, a blend of self-irony and perspective, which gazes at reality without embellishment. Like when he talks about a certain discovery and exclaims, “Listen, this is really interesting!” And immediately adds a demurrer, emanating from acute self-awareness, “For those who are interested, of course.”

Setting up a meeting with him is not easy. His schedule is dense and unvarying. He begins each day with prayers in the synagogue, then goes for a swim, and only after breakfast, about 10:30, and only if it’s one of the rare days on which he hasn’t already arranged to receive a scholar who wants to work with him or speak with him, is a meeting possible. Still, we find time.

After greeting me in the foyer of the assisted-living facility in Jerusalem where he lives with his wife, Shulamit, who’s 96, he rushes to his study with the aid of his walker, leaving me to try to keep up.

Judeo-Arabic is the language spoken by the Jews who lived in the Arab lands in the Middle Ages. Like Yiddish and Ladino, Judeo-Arabic is categorized as one of the “Jewish languages”: Its vocabulary resembles that of the surrounding tongue, but it’s written with Hebrew letters. Thus, “Good night” varies in accordance with the region in which it is uttered: In Judeo-Arabic, it is “masa alkhir,” in Judeo-German (Yiddish), it’s “a gutte nacht,” and it’s “buenos noches” in Judeo-Spanish (Ladino).

You study the language of the Jews in the medieval Arab lands. Let’s define the time and the space.

“Latitudinally, I’m talking about Iran, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Spain; longitudinally, it’s Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt and Yemen. The period stretches from the ninth century until the 14th century, an era of tremendous cultural efflorescence in literature, philosophy, medicine and astronomy. It’s the Golden Age of Islam, and in this period the Jewish culture of the Arab lands was 10 times greater than the culture of Ashkenazi Jewry. It was only later, during the Renaissance, that Ashkenazic culture started to flourish in France, Italy and Germany.”

What about Rashi and Rabbeinu Gershom [Gershom Ben Judah], both of whom lived in Europe?

“They herald the advent of Ashkenazic culture, when Judeo-Arabic culture was in full flower. A cultural fracture occurred in the 14th century. Arab culture fell, and with it Jewish culture. Henceforth the Jews no longer participate in the Arab culture, and the elite starts writing literature only in Hebrew.”

The Jews who were part of the flowering of Arab culture didn’t write in Arabic but in Judeo-Arabic. How did that language develop?

“Like all the Jewish languages, Judeo-Arabic was originally created because of the children. Jewish children go to heder – in Ashkenazic lands – and to kuttab – in Islamic lands – to learn Torah. The first script they become acquainted with is Hebrew, and therefore, to teach them the local language, it too is written with Hebrew letters. That’s the origin of Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, and later of Ladino.

“Unlike Yiddish, which in the Middle Ages was the spoken language of the lower classes, while the elite wrote in Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic was also the language of the educated. In fact, the bulk of Jewish philosophical literature in the Arab countries in this period was written in Judeo-Arabic. Thus, for example, Rabbi Saadia Gaon wrote his ‘Sefer Hagalui’ [Book of the Revealed] in Hebrew, and immediately translated it himself into Judeo-Arabic. Yehuda Halevi wrote ‘The Kuzari’ directly in Judeo-Arabic, and Maimonides did the same with ‘The Guide for the Perplexed.’ In fact, in his will. Maimonides left instructions not to copy the book into Arabic letters – in other words, not to publish it in the language of the Muslims.”

As though it were a secret code! If Yehuda Halevi had left a will like that, I could understand. ‘The Kuzari’ is a racist book and it was best that it not come to the knowledge of non-Jews. But why did Maimonides try to prevent non-Jewish readers from reading his book of philosophy?

“The non-Jewish world was of no interest to him. He wrote for Jews only.”

But that’s not just indifference, it’s a declaration of isolationism. And yet Maimonides himself was deeply influenced by the non-Jewish philosophers, both Muslim and Greek.

“True, ‘The Guide for the Perplexed’ is a direct continuation of Aristotelian philosophy, which reached Maimonides through its translations into Arabic. As I said, Arab culture was the highest of its time: The authorities took part in the immense task of translating the Greek writings into Arabic.”

Then why did he not want to share with the general society in which he lived? I can’t understand it.

“You are thinking too globally. The world wasn’t like that then. It was divided into societies, communities, and there was no interest in breaching borders. I myself grew up like that in Austria, and I know well what a Jewish community is.”

Scrubbing the sidewalk

To hear Blau say that last sentence in his light Hungarian lilt, with its note of wonder at the end of each sentence, is quite amazing. How does a Jew who was raised in Austria, in a religious family, at the beginning of the last century, decide one day to study Arabic at university?

“I was born in Transylvania, the Hungarian part of Romania. When I was 12 we moved to Austria,” he relates. “My father was a merchant who amassed enough money to allow himself to take early retirement and fulfill an old dream: to be a journalist. Because the journalistic world was then concentrated in Vienna, we settled in a nearby city. On the way, in the train, my father said something that would later turn out to be so ironic, ‘Here we are, traveling to a land of culture.’

“When I completed high school, it turned out that as a Romanian subject, I would not be able to work in Austria. Father came up with two suggestions. One was to study Arabic at the University of Vienna, so that if I were to go on aliyah to the Land of Israel I would be able to make a living by teaching the language. The second suggestion was to register at the rabbinical seminary in Vienna, so that if I should, after all, remain in Austria, I would be able to earn a living as a rabbi. The two suggestions intertwined well, because in that period everyone who studied at the rabbinical seminary was also obligated to attend university.”

Wonder of wonders – that’s even more than the core studies [that ultra-Orthodox schools in Israel don’t require of their students].

“Rabbis were required to be educated, not to seclude themselves exclusively in the Jewish world.”

Your father’s suggestion to study Arabic in case you settled in Israel is impressive. What a vision! Were you Zionists?

“Yes, and we also had family here. On March 13, 1938, Hitler annexed Austria, and the rabbinical seminary was shut down immediately. Because we were Romanian foreign nationals, I was able to go on studying at the university, but the Austrian enthusiasm for Hitler kept growing. One day our Christian maid arrived distraught and told my father how a person ‘who looked exactly like master Doktor’ had been forced to scrub the sidewalk. That event exercised a great influence on my father, and from it I afterward learned an important lesson: that sometimes a small disaster preserves us from a big disaster. The fact that things started to become bad made my father realize that we must leave and move to the Land of Israel.”

A blessing in disguise

Maimonides.Credit: Jonund / Wikimedia Commons

“But how were we to get out? Someone told my father that visas were being issued that day in the Greek embassy. Even though it was Shabbat, father took a taxi there, as it was a case of pikuah nefesh [life and death]. He climbed the stairs of the embassy and knocked on the door. No answer. He started to go back down. When he was midway down, the door opened and a man appeared, who said, ‘We are closed.’ Father kept going, the door reopened. Again the man appeared. He said, ‘Come up.’ ‘What does my good sir want?’ the man asked, and my father replied, ‘A visa.’ The man took out the rubber stamps, gave my father the visa and said to him, ‘You look exactly like my father.’ That’s a story I’d never have believed if I’d heard it from you.”

It’s clear that, despite the monotonal melody with which Blau tries to infuse his words, he is moved by the tale he is telling. “When we arrived in this country, I looked for work. Because I was so awfully shy, I was afraid to be a teacher and stand in front of a class, so I turned to the police force. When I came to the office to register, I was asked to submit a photograph. Because I didn’t have a photo with me, I was told, ‘Go home and bring one.’ As I entered the house, the phone rang. It was from one of the schools, and they said they needed an Arabic teacher.

“That was the turning point of my life, and it was the second lesson I learned, and one which I urge you to learn: Never walk around with your picture in your pocket. If I hadn’t gone home to get the photograph, I would not have become a teacher of Arabic, and all that happened afterward would not have come to pass.”

Who were your students?

“Everyone. Arabic was a compulsory language at school, and justly so, of course. At first I had disciplinary problems with the students. One day they left a stink bomb for me. I went to the window, closed it and continued teaching. That changed everything. After that, I had no more problems.”

When you started to teach at the Hebrew University, you specialized in Judeo-Arabic grammar. Why in the world grammar?

“When I was 6, my father asked me whether I wanted to go to kindergarten or school. ‘School,’ I said. When I got home, he asked, ‘How was it?’ ‘Very interesting,’ I said. He asked, ‘What did you have?’ I said, ‘Grammar.’ My father, being a normal person, turned pale, and said, ‘Derangement.’ And here, all my life I have made a living from that derangement. I simply love it.”

Let’s go back to Judeo-Arabic. It turns out that it isn’t characterized only by the use of the Hebrew alphabet. Grammatically, it’s a combination of literary Arabic and spoken Arabic. How did that happen?

“A language is always developing, and the development depends on many factors. At first there was Bedouin Arabic, which was prevalent in the period the Muslims call the Jahiliyah – the ‘Period of Ignorance,’ meaning the time before Muhammad. That Arabic was characterized on the one hand by a limited vocabulary, an absence of many words and concepts; while on the other hand, it offers surprising detail about certain concepts. For example, there might be separate terms to describe – I am deliberately exaggerating – a half-year-old camel, a year-old camel and a camel of a year and a half.”

Like the multiple words the Eskimos have for snow.

“Exactly. Ancient texts of early Arabic that have been discovered surprised us. We expected them to be primitive, but we found poetry. That means that the people admired the ancient Bedouin poetry and passed it on orally from generation to generation, until it was written down.”

Like the ancient poetry in the Bible, such as the Song of the Sea, which appears after the Red Sea crossing [in Exodus 15].

“Correct. As Islam spread, it became necessary to broaden the language – to add words that would be appropriate for the new culture and to create linguistic structures to enable complex ideas to be expressed. For example, it’s not possible to write a book of philosophy in Bedouin Arabic. A new language formed that preserved Bedouin phonetics and morphology, but changed the style and the syntax.

“At a certain stage – there’s disagreement over exactly when – a situation of diglossia emerged, meaning two separate languages. One is used for literature, the other for speaking. The first is considered ‘high language,’ the second ‘low language.’ Linguists refer to this as ‘high register’ and ‘low register,’ respectively. Judeo-Arabic mixes the two registers in a way that’s characteristic of minorities. You find it in the language of Christian Arabs, too, because they are not so subject to the rigid ideal of the literary language. The Muslims revered the language of the Koran and of poetry, and believed that it must not be impaired in any way; whereas the minorities were not committed to that perfection. My task in my doctoral thesis was to examine how far Judeo-Arabic resembles both spoken Arabic and literary Arabic.”

What did you find?

“It changes according to the text. There are some texts in which the Judeo-Arabic is almost completely literary, while others are written in almost spoken Arabic, and there are all the relative forms along the continuum.”

An example, please.

“I will give you an example from texts I studied later on: Maimonides’ responsa. Maimonides replied in Judeo-Arabic to questions that were sent to him from across the Jewish world. There are two responses that I especially like, pertaining to a husband and wife who became entangled in a dispute between them and wrote to Maimonides, each separately, in order to hear his ruling. This is the only case in which we possess the documentation of the questions and responses of both sides, and it’s fascinating. The man complains that his wife is a teacher of children, even though he wants her to stay home like all the wives. Maimonides replies that he is entitled to oblige her to stay home. A few years later, the wife writes to Maimonides, relating that her husband is an idler: He goes out, returns, and goes out again, and doesn’t give her a penny. To avert starvation, and because she can read and write, she started to teach, and moreover she became a headmistress. She asks Maimonides to allow her to continue in this way.”

Why would the husband not want her to teach? After all, contrary to him, she is earning a livelihood.

“Because he wants to marry a second woman. Seemingly there is no problem – polygamy was permitted – but the ketuba [marriage contract] stated that the husband may not marry a second woman without the consent of the first. The husband thus tried to compel the wife to agree to another woman, and only then would he allow her to leave the house. Maimonides, having read the wife’s question, ruled that if so, she should rebel against her husband. The husband would be obligated to divorce her, and then she could do as she pleased.”

What does “rebel against her husband” mean?

“Not to live with him, not to cook for him and not to maintain intimate relations with him. A wife was obliged to do all of those things, and if she did not, the husband was duty-bound to divorce her. In addition to the fact that we have here exceptional documentation of a female teacher, the only one we know of from the Middle Ages, the questions and responses made it possible for me to examine the register in which they were written.”

And what did you find?

“The questions of the man and the woman are written in spoken Arabic, mixed with a bit of literary Arabic. Maimonides’ replies, in contrast, are written in far more literary Arabic, but a good deal less literary than what he used when writing ‘The Guide for the Perplexed,’ for example. He adjusted the register of his language to the recipients’ level.”

Free-form text

We always say that Judeo-Arabic is a combination of literary Arabic and spoken Arabic, but how do we actually know what the spoken language was? After all, only the writings remain.

“Overall, we don’t know for certain – only from the 19th century, when the investigation of the different dialects began. As for the spoken Arabic of the Middle Ages, I can only guess, but there is some evidence that makes the guess an educated one. First, the grammar of the literary language is far more organized than that of the spoken language. Comparing the grammar of texts written in Judeo-Arabic to that of literary Arabic, we discover a great many changes, and the hypothesis is that they reflect the spoken language. As I mentioned, such deviations from literary Arabic characterize minorities, because they allow themselves to write in a lower register, in the way that people speak.

“An additional way to know what spoken Arabic was, is to find texts that are written phonetically, preserving the sound of the word and not its regular spelling. A few weeks ago, I received such a text in Judeo-Arabic. It deals with magic and is written in a completely free form. Nothing in it is consistent: The spelling is sometimes vocalized, sometimes unvocalized. A word that’s repeated several times is spelled differently each time. It’s awful writing, but marvelous from our perspective, because it provides information about the form of speech.”

Apart from the mixture of registers – literary and spoken Arabic – Judeo-Arabic is also obviously influenced by the Hebrew to which Jews were exposed through the Scriptures. Are there words in Judeo-Arabic that were absorbed from Hebrew? Are there hybrid expressions, like those used by Palestinian Arabs, who say, for example, “khiar hamutz,” combining an Arabic word and a Hebrew word to produce “pickle.”

“The more religious the texts, the more Hebrew words they contain. Hebrew words that entered Judeo-Arabic include, for example, galut [exile], hayei sha’ah [living for the moment] and kame’ah [amulet].”

If one were to read to an Arab in the Middle Ages a text written in Judeo-Arabic, would he understand?

“Definitely, unless there were religious terms, which he would of course not understand. For example, if ‘The Guide for the Perplexed’ had been read to him, he would have understood it in part.”

Blau’s lucidity and acuity are a wonder to behold. Despite frequent interruptions from a ringing phone, my remarks and people entering the room, he maintained his train of thought and conversation better than most people I’ve interviewed, even 40-year-olds. But when I try to elicit his thoughts on current events – his opinion about the change in the status of Arabic in Israel in the wake of the nation-state law, for example – he loses interest. It’s possible, of course, that he doesn’t want to talk about politics, but it appears more likely that it simply doesn’t interest him. Sequestered in his linguistic-grammatical world, perhaps like the isolationist approach of Maimonides that he told me about, he associates the Arabic speakers who live in Israel solely with the Judeo-Arabic of his research.

Toward the end of our meeting, I feel obliged to ask him about his advanced age, even though it’s clear that he’s not the type of person who is looking to offer advice to the public or to dictate a list of pithy remarks. Indeed, he says simply, “I was fortunate. Fortunate that we left Austria in time, fortunate that I was accepted as a scholar at the Hebrew University – how many people work in the profession they love so much? Fortunate that my head is working. It’s not because I use it. I have colleagues who used their heads very nicely and fell ill at the age of 60. I was fortunate with the children and tremendously fortunate with my wife.”

Shulamit has in fact been sitting with us throughout the conversation. Attentive, focused, she occasionally adds a detail that she thinks has been overlooked. She is well versed in his work and in his deportment. At one stage he asks her whether to tell the story about Yosef Yoel Rivlin, the father of Israel’s incumbent president, and when I urge him to tell it, he refers to her as “she who must be obeyed” – and because she doesn’t give her permission, there’s no story.

The couple traveled regularly to conferences together. “Once I was invited to an international conference,” he says, “and because of the unexpectedly large number of participants, the speakers were asked to abridge their talks. Instead of the original 20 minutes, we had eight minutes. When I realized that there was no chance that I would conclude in time, I simply jumped in the middle to the end of the lecture. There was no connection between the previous sentence and the one I jumped to, but when I was done I got thunderous applause. After that, I asked Shulamit to come to my lectures, so that at least there would be one person who would tell me the truth.”

Do you feel that you are associates, I ask, and she replies, “friends.”

“Friends,” he reiterates. “That’s the right word. God smiled on us, so that we can talk to each other just as we did 74 years ago. That’s far from self-evident. An unparalleled gift.”

A brief history of Judeo-Arabic

In the footsteps of Aramaic

With the spread of Islam, Arabic replaced Aramaic as the prevalent language, among Jews. Judeo-Arabic followed the path of Aramaic: At first, the educated wrote only in Hebrew, and with time they accepted the foreign language as well.

Vestiges in Yemen

The use of Judeo-Arabic diminished following the fall of Muslim culture, but it remained an internal language among the Jews of the East, even into the 19th century. At present, vestiges of it remain in use only in Yemen and in a few communities in Iraq.

All the literature of Maimonides

Judeo-Arabic was the principal language of teaching and writing in the period of Rabbi Saadya Gaon and Maimonides. Nearly all of Maimonides’ literature is written in Judeo-Arabic, as well as his works in medicine and the sciences, and other books of philosophy and morality.

Al-Quin Victoria

The National Library in Jerusalem has about 700 manuscripts in Judeo-Arabic, including the correspondence of the Sasson family, which managed the finances of the British Empire in the East (and customarily called Queen Victoria “al-Quin”).

Stored in the attic

The most famous source of texts in Judeo-Arabic is the Cairo Geniza, the collection of holy writings, letters, personal notebooks, contracts, etc., that were stored in the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, and discovered almost by chance near the end of the 19th century.

Street language for women

During the 20th century, hardly any books were written in Judeo-Arabic. An exception is a book of practical conduct for women written by the Ben Ish Hai (Yosef Hayyim, from Baghdad). Because women were a non-scholarly target audience, the book was written in the language of the street.

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