Arabic, like Hebrew, is a Semitic language, with the two having many words in common. Up to 180 million people speak Arabic as their mother tongue. Jews from Arab countries often speak or spoke vernacular Judaeo-Arabic, and wrote it in Hebrew characters.
The most famous Judaeo-Arabic work is Dalalat al-haIrin (‘Guide for the Perplexed’), written in the 12th century by Moses Maimonides. Known in Hebrew as Moreh Nebhukhim, it seeks to accommodate ethics and religion with science and rationality.
Probably of more ancient origin, The Sharh for Tisha B’Av combines texts from the book of Jeremiah, with other stories about the destruction of the Temple.
Judaeo-Arabic literature draws upon hybrid national contexts. ‘The Light that Failed’ is a French-style novel by a 19th century Tunisian Jew, Messaud Maarek. Its subject matter is similarly cosmopolitan. One story concerns the daughter of a 17th Century Lithuanian rabbi; another deals with the Chmielnicki massacres in east Europe. From 20th century Baghdad comes Abw nyyh wa-abw nyytyn (‘The Story of Come-across and Double-cross’). It draws on a tale from the Babylonian Talmud, yet incorporates Aesopian and Islamic elements, and praises the virtue of generosity.
Like so many Judaeo-Arabic stories, ‘The Tale of Nathan Resista’ incorporates both Jewish and gentile elements. The original story of curbed lust and uxorial fidelity appears in the Babylonian Talmud. St Augustine tells a similar tale. Nissim Gaon of Kairwan wrote one version in the 9th century collection, ‘Hibbur yafeh min hayeshuah’; a more recent rendition is found in ‘Qussat Nathan Resista.
Many epic poems on biblical and midrashic themes were written anonymously in vernacular Arabic. They include ‘The Ballad of Judith’, ‘Haman’s Disgrace’, and a rhyming embellishment of the tale of the Ten Plagues during Passover. Each year after Passover, Jews go on pilgrimage to the island of Djerba off the coast of Tunisia, in honour of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. ‘The Enthusiastic Pilgrim’ is a charming Judaeo-Arabic poem that celebrates the joy of the occasion.
‘Homily on the Fringes and Phylacteries’ was written in 19th century Morocco, and combines Hebrew and Arabic. It mixes humour and word play with quotations from rabbinical authorities. Ultimately, the Homily is about living the good life.
Children’s books are another favourite of the Judaeo-Arab oeuvre. ‘The Story of the Fish’ borrows from the Arabian Nights and teaches the virtue of obeying parents. Other Judaeo-Arabic writings sought to defend Jews against attempts at conversion by Christians. One example resides in the National Library of Paris, and probably dates to 1000. Called ‘The Bishop’s Letter’, it claims to be the correspondence between a churchman who converted to Judaism and a former friend.
A rare genre of Jewish literature is passing away with the inexorable diminution of the Arabic-speaking Jewish community, even in Israel. Yet its treasures still delight readers.
Jewish Language Research Website: Judeo-Arabic