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.


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.

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The deadline to apply is 5 September 2023 at 12 noon UK time.

Judeo-Arabic Judeo-Italian

The ‘Maḳre dardeḳe’ Manuscript with Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic Glosses

On 8 August 1488, Joseph ben Jacob Ashkenazi Gunzenhauser printed in Naples an abridgement of David Kimḥi’s Sefer ha-shorashim entitled Maḳre dardeḳe (מקרי דרדקי). This work is attributed to Menaḥem ben Peretz Trabot and includes a number of Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses. It seems that it was intended for a readership of Italian Jews, as well as Arabophone Jews in Sicily and Sephardic Jews who had come to Italy from the Iberian Peninsula beginning in the late thirteenth century. What is remarkable about Gunzenhauser’s edition is that it is not only the earliest printing of Maḳre dardeḳe, but also the earliest dated witness of this text with Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses.

Maḳre dardeḳe, printed by Joseph ben Jacob Ashkenazi Gunzenhauser (Naples, 1488), München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Res/2 A.hebr. 183.

Maḳre dardeḳe exists in manuscript form in six different manuscripts, dating from the end of the fifteenth century to the seventeenth century, and presenting notorious variants. These variants include the replacement of Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses by Yiddish or Judeo-Spanish glosses, or even the omission of glosses altogether. Three manuscripts contain Yiddish or Judeo-German glosses (Dortmund, Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, F 212, the oldest Maḳre dardeḳe witness; München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod.r. 63; and Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Opp. 634); one contains Judeo-Spanish and Judeo-Arabic glosses (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hunt. 218); another one has no glosses at all (Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, ebr. 429); and the last one contains Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses (San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Real Biblioteca, MS G-IV-9). In other words, this last manuscript is the only one containing Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses, like the Naples edition, and therefore deserves special attention.

Maḳre dardeḳe, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Real Biblioteca, MS G-IV-9, fol. 22v. © Patrimonio Nacional, Ministerio de la Presidencia.

The manuscript in El Escorial does not contain the entire text of Maḳre dardeḳe, but only an excerpt of it. In fact, the manuscript, with 224 folios, is a composite or non-homogeneous miscellany containing several exegetical works, some materials relating to Jacob ibn Ḥaviv’s ‘En Ya‘aḳov, the printed work Sha’are teshuvah by Yonah ben Abraham Girondi (probably a copy of the Venice edition, 1544) and other miscellaneous materials. The excerpt from Maḳre dardeḳe is copied on folios 22v to 24v and includes the beginning of the work (roots אב to אפז from the letter א). Previous mentions of this manuscript described it as containing Judeo-Italian glosses only, but folio 24v includes several Judeo-Arabic glosses as well.

Being a non-homogeneous miscellany, this manuscript is the result of previous existing materials having been gathered into a single binding. Yet this process was not a random selection of material done at the library at El Escorial. Rather, it had already been completed in sixteenth-century Italy by one of the manuscript’s owners, who selected the different constituent parts according to their own interests. We know this because when the manuscript arrived at El Escorial at the end of the sixteenth century, it was already in its present form. The book contains two different colophons, which describe the copying of parts of it in 1516 and 1518, and we therefore can surmise that the gathering of all materials was probably done later in the sixteenth century, sometime prior to the arrival of the manuscript at El Escorial in 1599. The different watermarks in the paper used for its many constituent parts also confirm this dating.

David Curbelo, a student under my supervision at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, edited the brief text of Maḳre dardeḳe in this manuscript in his Master’s thesis and discovered that the text of the El Escorial manuscript is an abridgment of the text printed by Gunzenhauser. The El Escorial text retains the biblical roots, the Judeo-Italian glosses (and on folio 24v, the Judeo-Arabic glosses, too) and the biblical verses, although most of the exegetical texts and references from the Naples edition are absent. For instance, the first root in both texts (אב) is followed by the first Judeo-Italian gloss (מיור/מיורי, ‘maggiore’, translated as ‘elder’) and the biblical verse including the word אב with this meaning, וישימני לאב לפרעה (Gen 45:8). Then, the text in the El Escorial manuscript skips Rashi’s explanations that appear in the Naples edition, and provides the reading for the following gloss for אב, which is פטרי (‘patre’, translated as ‘father’), and so on. 

Many questions arise from this manuscript witness of Maḳre dardeḳe. Was the scribe in possession of a copy of the Naples edition that served as a model? Was the scribe interested in the glosses only, given the fact that most of the exegetical passages were omitted? Or was the scribe copying from other manuscript witnesses not known to us but that were circulating along with the Naples edition? And why were the Judeo-Arabic glosses copied only on the last page, and not from the beginning of the text? This being the only manuscript version of Maḳre dardeḳe with both Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses that was produced shortly after Gunzenhauser’s printing, the El Escorial manuscript definitely merits a thorough study. This study should include the glosses, their comparison with the ones included in the Naples edition and the nature of the relationship between both witnesses.

Professor Javier del Barco
Associate Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature,
Research Fellow at Institute of Religious Sciences (,
Universidad Complutense de Madrid
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Edward Pococke Reading Saadiah’s ‘Tafsīr’ in Oxford

Professor Dr Ronny Vollandt is a member of the OSRJL’s Advisory Committee.


Few books in the history of Jews writing in Arabic have been read with greater vigour by pre-modern and modern readers alike than Saadiah Gaon’s Judaeo-Arabic translation of the Tora. The Tafsīr, the name by which his translation became known, spread quickly through the Jewish communities of the Near East, North Africa and Muslim Spain and, indeed, well beyond these. The Tafsīr did not only have Jewish readers, it was also read, copied and transmitted by Samaritan, Christian and Muslim scholars in the Middle Ages.  

The Tafsīr had an afterlife, as it were, a life of its own that is independent from its author: a reception history. The material evidence of this reception history consists of hundreds of full manuscripts, which attest to what happens to the Tafsīr as it moves further from, not closer to, its context of origin. 

A good example is found in the manuscript Oxford, Bodl., Poc. 395–396, a trilingual codex (Hebrew incipits, Targum Onkelos, and Saadiah’s Tafsīr) that was copied in 1449 in Ḥamāt, Syria. An ownership note on fol. 244v indicates that in 1612 the codex came into the possession of Abraham Dīqnīs (דיקניש), a figure known from other Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. He bequeathed a large number of manuscripts that originated from the family library of Maimonides’s successors to the Jewish communities of Aleppo. Edward Pococke later acquired the codices and brought them to Oxford. When Pococke was charged with the improvement of the Arabic version of the Paris Polyglot, he collated it with this manuscript, as well as the Constantinople Polyglot, and furnished the variants in Vol. 6 of the London Polyglot. His notes are still found in the margins of Oxford, Bodl., Poc. 395–396: readings of the Paris Polyglot are introduced in the margins by the letter ‘P’, while those of the Constantinople Polyglot have the siglum ‘C’. 

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Pococke 395, f. 36r (© Bodleian Libraries)

The manuscript Oxford, Bodl., Poc. 395–396 is also important as it revealed Saadiah’s forgotten longer preface to his Pentateuch translation. An autobiographical note in this preface allows insights as to his aspirations as an ardent young scholar about to embark upon an Arabic translation of the Tora. He says: 

Ever since I dwelt in my country [baladī] it had been my desire for a long time that among the people of our belief a translation of the Tora, composed by my own hands, shall be found, done appropriately […]. I hesitated to take this task upon myself […], as it seemed to me that there must be clear and well-arranged translations in the hands of those living in distant countries. 

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Pococke 396, f. 529v (© Bodleian Libraries)

If you are interested in finding out more about the Arabic versions of the Bible and current research in the field, visit the Biblia Arabica blog:

Professor Dr Ronny Vollandt
OSRJL Advisory Committee Member; Director of the Munich Research Centre of Jewish Arabic Cultures (, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich
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For more information about the OSRJL and its language classes, please see this page. Additionally, please note that the programme is also accepting applications for Visiting Fellowships at this time.


Clothes Make People, Scripts Shape Communities

Jewish-Arabic culture is the result of a profound and sustained process of socio-cultural transformations that shaped the Islamicate world during the Abbasid period (late 8th century onwards). For all religious communities, this transformation brought about new ways of knowledge production, organization, dissemination and consumption. Its most salient feature was the gradual adoption of the Arabic language as primary means of written and spoken communication. The Arabicization of the Islamicate world facilitated and accelerated the exchange of ideas across communal and denominational borders as well as the transfer of knowledge over longer distances. It entailed the adoption of new terms, concepts, discourses, textual forms, literary genres and disciplines of knowledge.

From within this cultural complex, this blog post singles out a tiny snippet, to wit the exchange of texts and ideas between Arabicized Jewish and Samaritan communities which has long been neglected and occasionally even declared to be non-existent. While most major European manuscript collections combine the descriptions of Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts in the same catalogue volumes, they are typically approached as cultural artifacts of two detached communities with few to no cross-connections between them. This separation stands in stark contrast to the fact that in some urban centres of the Arab world, and most notably in Cairo, the two communities were living adjacent to one another for many centuries within one and the same neighbourhoods.

A closer look at the Arabic literary heritage of both communities exposes the myopia of previous scholarship and lays bare a continuity of exchange and communication.

Depending on period, place, community, genre and context, Jews and Samaritans used various scripts to put their Arabic texts into writing. The following examples may serve as illustrations for varying graphic renditions of one and the same text passage:

MS St Petersburg, Russian National Library, Arab.-Yevr. 350, fol. 3v–4r, (© The National Library of Russia, St Petersburg)

MS St Petersburg, Russian National Library, Arab.-Yevr. 350, fol. 3v–4r, shows an extract from a Qaraite refutation of a Treatise on the Qiblah by the 11th-century Samaritan scholar Abū l-Ḥasan al-Ṣūrī. The Samaritan author advances scriptural prooftexts to buttress his view that Mount Gerizim is the location God chose for His sanctuary (left side, lines 7–8), while the Qaraite detractor aims at proving him wrong to demonstrate that ‘chosen place’ is the exclusive prerogative of Jerusalem.

The oldest versions of both texts are entirely in Arabic script, while using distinct transliteration systems to render the Hebrew texts of Scripture in Arabic script.

A later, 14th-century copy of the Samaritan treatise gives the Hebrew text in Samaritan script,

MS Sassoon 726, fol. 10r, lines 17ff. (current owner and library unknown; image used with permission)

whereas a later specimen of the Qaraite refutation is all in Hebrew script.

Yevr.-Arab. I 1681, fol. 43v–44r (© The National Library of Russia, St Petersburg); see left side, lines 13–14

As shown with these examples, script and scribal habits often serve as a means to integrate the trans-denominational commonality of knowledge into the particularity of a communal setting and to adopt it as one’s own. This also applies to the following image from a hitherto unknown Samaritan copy of Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed.

SP, RNL, Firk. Sam. III 35, fols. 18v–19r (© The National Library of Russia, St Petersburg)
Professor Gregor Schwarb
Senior Research Fellow,
‘The Transformation of

Jewish Literature in Arabic in the Islamicate World’;
Member of Munich Research Centre of Jewish-Arabic Cultures (,
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich
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