Jewish Language and Poetry

Arabic was the spoken and written tongue of the Jews in the medieval Muslim empire, a fact that encouraged cultural exchange and the development of new forms for Hebrew poetry.


The following article is reprinted with permission from Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia (Routledge).

Language as Cultural Gateway

Jews in the Fertile Crescent had spoken Aramaic for centuries, using Hebrew and Hebrew‑Aramaic as their literary languages. By the tenth century, Arabic had superseded both of these as the unified spoken and written tongue of the Jews. This contrasts revealingly with Europe. There, Jews adopted local dialects (French, German, etc.) for speaking purposes. But they did not use Latin, the language of most written culture, for literary pur­poses. Rather, they continued to employ rabbinic Hebrew for their writings. 

Jews in the East were less uncomfortable with Islam as a religion, and anti‑Jewish polemics in Ara­bic were far less prevalent and less inimical than Latin polemics against the Jews and Judaism. More­over, Arabic represented the means of acquiring secular culture (medicine, science, historiography, belles lettres, secular poetry, etc.), to which Jews were powerfully attracted. One should add that Arabic is so close to Hebrew linguistically that its adoption for everyday as well as formal literary purposes must have seemed relatively effortless.

Jews mostly wrote Arabic in Hebrew characters, which they apparently found easier than Arabic script and perhaps more “Jewish,” in that it allowed them readily to punctuate their writing with Hebrew words, phrases, or classical Jewish citations, as was so common and often necessary. But Jewish comfort with the Arabic language stretched to a certain liberty with the religious vocabulary of Islam. Such a prominent paragon of rabbinic leadership as Sa’adyah, for instance, could refer unselfconsciously to Torah as shari’a (the Islamic term for the holy law), to the Jerusalem‑oriented direction of prayer as Kibla (Muslims use this word for Mecca), and to the Jewish hazzan as imam.

Proficient knowledge of Arabic eased Jewish ac­cess to the innumerable volumes of Hellenistic writ­ings that were being translated into Arabic during the ‘Abbasid period, thanks to the efforts of Oriental Christians. It similarly made it possible for the Jewish intelligentsia to become part of the multi-denomina­tional cultural elite of the Arab world. Jewish intel­lectuals frequented the courts of Muslim rulers, forming a veritable Jewish courtier class, best known in Muslim Spain but also existing elsewhere. Jews sat alongside Muslims and Christians in erudite “ses­sions” (called majlises), wherematters of the intellect, including religion, were discussed and debated in a fairly impartial manner.

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Mark R. Cohen is a Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.

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