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Judeo-Arabic

The Oran Maḥzor as a Source for the Study of Multiple Histories

This post is based on research undertaken during Professor Jonathan Glasser and Dr Amina Boukail’s stay at the OCHJS as Visiting Scholars in June 2023.

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The Oran Maḥzor is a set of five manuscripts found at the Bodleian Library that brings together liturgical and paraliturgical texts associated with the Jewish community of Oran, Algeria, during the first period of this port city’s rule by Spain up until the community’s expulsion in 1669.[1] These manuscripts appear to have emerged from the Cansino family, prominent Jewish figures in Oran who for generations served as Arabic translators and intermediaries for the Spanish authorities.[2] The maḥzor joined the Bodleian Library in 1869 through the intermediary of Isaia Luzzatto, son of the renowned Italian Jewish scholar S. D. Luzzatto, who himself had acquired the manuscripts around 1834.[3] Most of the maḥzor features texts in Hebrew, but one of the manuscripts ends with a long section of poems written in Judeo-Arabic.

Our collaborative work on the Judeo-Arabic components of the maḥzor dates back to 2018. As an Algerian scholar of medieval Arabic literature and an American ethnographer and historian of North African expressive practices, we found in the maḥzor a fascinating testament to everyday life in western Algeria during the early modern period. Professor Paul B. Fenton has published a study of the final long Judeo-Arabic poem narrating the expulsion of the Oran Jewish community by the port city’s Spanish rulers in 1669, but we were pleasantly surprised to discover that this fascinating poem is only the last in a series of more than one hundred texts in Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew that end this volume of the maḥzor.[4]A recent visit to Oxford as Visiting Scholars of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies allowed us to finalize our Arabic-letter transcription of the texts which we plan to make available online through the website of one of our home institutions, The College of William & Mary, USA. 

Studying this collection of texts enriches our understanding of cultural production in western Algeria during the period in question in several ways. Most immediately, it gives us a rich sense of poetic and musical life among one of the leading Jewish families of Oran in this period. The texts are sung poems which, with the exception of the narrative of the expulsion, are arranged into a compound form called ṭarīq (path). Nearly every ṭarīq brings together multiple texts in Hebrew and Arabic under the rubric of a particular melodic mode. Professor Edwin Seroussi has suggested that this manuscript is the earliest known example of the notion of ṭarīq in a Maghribi Hebrew-letter manuscript.[5] Coming at the end of a larger manuscript that is mainly devoted to liturgical and paraliturgical poems associated with formal worship, the ṭarīq texts point to a rich musical practice that stood alongside these more canonical practices and integrated Arabic texts and musical concepts, including through the use of melodies associated with Arabic texts to sing Hebrew texts found in other parts of the manuscript. If this document indeed reflects the everyday practice of the Cansino family, then it shows that for them, Arabic was a language not simply of commerce and politics but also of intimacy, entertainment, creativity and worship. It is thus a testament to the intimate ties between the Jews of Spanish-ruled Oran and the wider Arab-Islamic culture of the region.

Fig. 1. MS. Opp. Add. 4° 85, ff. 105v, 106r.
(© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

In addition, the nearly one hundred Arabic texts included in the ṭarīq section of the manuscript are a rich contribution to our understanding of early modern poetic and musical practice in this part of the Maghrib. These texts reflect a wide range of linguistic registers, including classical Arabic and colloquial Arabic. A few have obvious religious themes, often with strong Sufi inflections, but most of them read at the surface level as profane love songs, some of them of a homoerotic nature. The poetic voice in some instances evokes a Muslim speaker and, in some cases, a female or an enslaved speaker (or, in several instances, both). Formally speaking, the poems, nearly all of them strophic, are marked as kharjazajalabarwāl or are left unmarked.[6] In a few instances, we can find sung texts that circulated in medieval Iberia, which suggests centuries-long continuity in repertoire. Intriguingly, a few of them are versions of texts that continue to be performed in the modern Andalusian music tradition of the Maghrib, making this manuscript an important point of comparison for later songbook collections. However, many of them are poems that have not been previously attested in print or in manuscript form. This fact makes the manuscript particularly exciting for scholars of Maghribi popular poetry. Making the texts available in Hebrew and Arabic orthography—as our project aims to do—will allow for wider access to this understudied source. In addition, like several recent publications from Morocco and Tunisia, it will provide practical tools for speakers of Arabic who are seeking to learn how to access Judeo-Arabic texts.[7]


[1] The manuscript we explore here is Opp. Add. 4to 85 (Neubauer 1191), marked as Vol II. The connected volumes are Neubauer 1987 (Vol I), 1190 (Vol III), 1089 (Vol IV), and 1163 (Vol V).

[2] On Jews in Spanish-ruled Oran, see the pioneering work of Jonathan Israel, ‘The Jews of Spanish North Africa, 1600-1669’. Transactions and Miscellanies (Jewish Historical Society of England) 26 (1974-1978): 71-86. On the Cansino family, see Jean-Frédéric Schaub, Les juifs du roi d’Espagne: Oran 1509-1669. Paris: Hachette Littératures, 1999.  

[3]We thank Dr César Merchán-Hamann for the information regarding the circumstances of the acquisition.

[4] Paul B. Fenton, ‘Une qaṣîda historique sur l’expulsion des Juifs d’Oran en 1669’. In Présence juive au Maghreb: Hommage à Haïm Zafrani, edited by Joseph Tedghi and Nicole S. Serfaty, 451-455. Paris: Editions Bouchene, 2004.

[5] Edwin Seroussi, ‘Music of the Maghrebi Jews in North-Africa and Israel’. In Perceptions et Réalités au Maroc: Relations Judéo-Musulmanes, Actes du Congrès Marrakech-Paris, 14-22 octobre 1995, edited by Robert Assaraf and Michel Abitbol. Casablanca: CRJM Maroc, 1998.

[6] The use of kharja as a textual heading is unusual—kharja usually refers to the final refrain in a muwashshaḥ. A zajal is a more colloquial version of the strophic muwashshaḥ form, and abarwāl (more usually barwāl or barwāla) usually refers to a short colloquial song text in urban musical traditions in the Maghrib.  

[7] See Abdelaziz Chahbar, Dīwān Al-malḥūn bi-‘arabiyyat yahūd al-maghrib. Tétouan, 2014; Leila Habbachi, Safīnat al-ma’lūf bil-khaṭṭ al-‘ibrī. Tunis: Dār Suḥnūn, 2018.



Cite this blog post
OSRJL Administrator (2023, September 27). The Oran Maḥzor as a Source for the Study of Multiple Histories. The Jewish Languages Bookshelf. Retrieved June 14, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/ur4r

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