The Society for the Study of the Medieval Judeo-Arabic Culture (SJAS)

The Medieval Judeo-Arabic Culture

The expansion of Islam from the seventh century onwards inaugurated a period of great scholarly growth and an almost unparalleled literary blossoming among Jews. Arabic was gradually adopted by non-Muslims for most forms of spoken and written communication, even by those who maintained their bilingualism. Jews, Christians and Muslims – the educated elite, but also the common people who partook much less actively in the realm of intellectual high culture –shared a similar cultural background, speaking but also writing in the same language.

By the tenth century, Arabic was used by the seekers of science and literature of all the diverse religious communities. With Arabic as a lingua franca, texts, innovative literary models, textual practices and genres, as well as forms of discourse, could easily travel beyond communal barriers.

With the adoption of Arabic, disciplines of learning emerged that had no precedent in rabbinic literature, such as linguistic thought (grammars and dictionaries), legal and calendrical compendia, theology, philosophy, and exegesis (often with many subcategories),using a new technical and exegetical terminology in Arabic that can also be found contemporaneously in non-Jewish literature. Most of the Jewish writing in Arabic was in Hebrew characters, and Jews also transcribed Arabic texts written by non-Jews, in the sciences, philosophy and grammar; they even included the Quran and the New Testament.

Much of the literature composed in this language is no longer extant, or only partially preserved. Many of the compositions that have reached us are still in manuscripts and have not yet been published. The names of several famous authors can nevertheless be mentioned here, such as Saadia Gaon, Yefet ben ʿEli, Jonah Ibn Janāḥ, Baḥyā ben Yosef Ibn Pakūda, Judah Halevi and Maimonides.

From the fourteenth century to the twentieth century, Judeo-Arabic was also used in the writings of religious folk literature, such as translations and commentaries of the Bible, the Mishnah and the Passover Haggadot. From the 19th century, Judeo-Arabic is also used in the press and theater.

Throughout this middle-ages and until modern times, Judeo-Arabic was also used in daily life, as attested in both official and personal documents. Thousands of such Judeo-Arabic documents were preserved in the Cairo Genizah, and many others are on display in various libraries across the world.

The Judeo-Arabic Language

Judeo-Arabic is a Jewish language, like Yiddish and Ladino. These languages were created by merging the local language, adopted by Jews in their new country of residence, with Hebrew and Jewish components. Words and expressions from the core of the Jewish culture were incorporated, either in their original Hebrew and Aramaic form or in translation, into the newly acquired local language, thus making it 'Jewish'. Of course, in their interactions with non-Jews, Jews also used the prevalent common language, leaving out the Jewish components.

During the seventh and eighth centuries, Jews who came under Arab rule gradually switched from Aramaic (in Iraq and Palestine) and other languages (in North Africa) to Arabic. Different dialects of Arabic with a Jewish coloring were still spoken by Jews up to modern times.

As in other Jewish languages, a prominent feature of Judeo-Arabic is its Hebrew script. Most of the Jewish writing in Arabic was indeed in Hebrew characters, and it can be said that Jews read and wrote in a transliterated language. The fact that there are more letters in Arabic than in Hebrew was solved by adding dots, as in the Arabic language itself. Members of the educated classes, however, composed their works in a high register of the Arabic language.

These entries are based on texts written by Haggai Ben-Shammai and Aharon Maman.

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