Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Lost Language of Scholarship

When most people think about Jewish language they think of Hebrew or Yiddish, and sometimes of Ladino. In honor of UN Arabic Language Day, Jewish Treats would like to recognize the important role that Judeo-Arabic has played in Jewish life.

Judeo-Arabic, like most dialects within the Jewish community, is a combination of the local cultural language, in this case, Arabic and Hebrew with a touch of Aramaic. While Judeo-Arabic had its origins within the Jewish communities of the Arabian peninsula, the use of the language only began to flourish after the Islamic conquest of the Near East, North Africa and Spain.

Judeo-Arabic was both a spoken and a written language. In its written form, it was transcribed with Hebrew letters and sometimes included extra vowel markings taken from Arabic.

Today, since the majority of the Judeo-Arabic communities live in Israel or in western countries, Judeo-Arabic has become a lost language.  However, it was the language of scholarship from approximately the 8th century to the end of the 13th century. Indeed, some of the greatest works of Jewish scholarship were originally produced in Judeo-Arabic. These works include the writings of Saadia Gaon (including his Emunot v’Deot, Book of Doctrines and Beliefs), Bachya ben Joseph ibn Paquda (including his Chovot Halevavot, Duties of the Heart - link), Judah Halevi (including the Kuzari), and Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Rambam, Maimonides, including his Moreh Nevuchim, Guide For The Perplexed, although his Mishneh Torah - codification of Jewish Law - was written in Hebrew).

In addition to original scholarly works, many scripture and prayer books were translated into Judeo-Arabic. The translation of the Torah into Judeo-Arabic was known as sharh, which means translation. (This is similar to the word targum, which is the Aramaic translation of the Torah.)

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