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.

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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 By the tenth century, Arabic had superseded both of these as the unified spoken and written tongue of the Jews.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.

old book of poetryJews 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.

The Bible Makes a Comeback

This social and cultural integration left its mark in numerous ways. One was the restudy of the Bibleand its elevation to a distinguished position in the Jewish curriculum. After having been long pushed into the background by the study of Jewish law, Jews observed the reverence that Muslims lavished on the Koran and the Arabic language in which it was written.

With so many foreigners in their empire (Greeks, Syrians, Persians, Spaniards, Berbers, Jews, etc.) coming over to their parlance, Arab scholars in­vestigated and described the grammar ofthe Arabic language. This included, for the first time, creating vowel signs for the‑-like Hebrew‑-consonantal, nonvocalic Arabic script, A primary reason for this was to ensure the proper pronunciation of the Koran

Jews followed suit, though it is likely that Karaite emphasis on the centrality of the Bible formed an­other stimulus to this emulation. In the early Islamic period, Jews in both Babylon and in Palestine worked toward establishing vowel signs and other notations to guide the proper recitation of the Torah. Our Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible is the prod­uct ofthis enterprise (it represents the system devel­oped in Tiberias, Palestine).

Hebrew grammarians, imitating their Arab counter­parts, delved into the structure ofthe classical Hebrew language. How many letters constituted the root of a Hebrew word; five, four, three, less? Debates among Hebrew philologists lent spice to the project, which eventually determined the linguistic makeup of the biblical language as it has been ever since understood.

Wine, Women, and the Song of Songs: Medieval Hebrew Poetry

Emulation of Arabic poetry produced intriguing results. Jews living in the Arabic‑speaking world were enormously impressed by the poetry of the Arabs and self‑consciously contrasted it with their own liturgi­cal verse. The latter expressed only religious senti­ments, its thematics drew heavily on talmudic and midrashic concepts and words, and its locus of performance was restricted to the synagogue. Its most conspicuous poetic convention was a rhyme syllable at the ends of lines.

Arabic poetry adhered closely to its classical language and had both meter and rhyme. Its themes oflove, wine, women, war, friendship, and parting gave expression to values of secular Arabic leisure life, set in a garden rather than in a mosque, and went hand in hand with the courtier society that Jews had come to admire and wish to reproduce among themselves. Rather than adopting Arabic for this purpose, however, the Jewish poets chose to write in Hebrew. But, still emulating the Arabs, they wrote solely in classical Hebrew, the language of the Bible, eschewing the postbiblical language and tal­mudic allusions of pre‑Islamic Jewish religious verse.

Inventively, they figured out how to adapt Arabic quantitative (syllabic) meter to Hebrew, to clothe genres of Arabic poems in Hebrew garb, and to describe in biblical vocabulary (with some neologisms borrowed from Arabic) the secular themes that had captivated their imagination. They also wrote religious poetry according to Arabic conventions, adding some new theological concepts current in the Muslim milieu.

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Mark R. Cohen

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