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Uncovering Unknown Judeo-Romance Dialects in a Bodleian Miscellany (MS. Heb. g. 1)

This post is based on research undertaken during Dr Peter Nahon’s stay at the OCHJS as an Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages Visiting Fellow in Hilary Term 2023. He teaches Judeo-Provençal at the OSRJL.


In southern France, local dialects of the Romance family which developed from Latin are heterogeneous and exhibit considerable territorial variation. As in other parts of the Diaspora where Jews have spoken and written varieties of local languages, it can be assumed that in southern France this dialectal variation was mirrored in the languages used by Jews of that region. That being said, until recently, only Judeo-Provençal—the dialect used in one single, narrow area of south-eastern France—had received extensive scholarly attention. A focus of my research in the past few years has been documenting and describing other insufficiently studied or unknown Southern French Romance varieties used by Jews—Judeo-Gascon, Judeo-Niçart and diverse secondary Jewish linguistic varieties of Southern French—thus yielding unprecedented insights into the linguistic diversity of the field.

Yet much remains to be done to expand our knowledge of Jewish languages in this linguistic region. Indeed, a wealth of material still remains in need of identification, description and linguistic analysis. It so happens that the Bodleian Library holds a manuscript miscellany that has tremendous potential for shedding light on whole swathes of Jewish linguistic variation. Oxford Bodleian Ms. Heb. g. 1 (cat. n. 2792 in Neubauer and Cowley’s Catalogue, 1906, vol. 2, p. 203-204) is miscellany of 197 folios, containing 21 different texts in several independent codicological units, of which a vast majority seem to have been written in the south and the east of France during the 15th century. The content of these texts is chiefly technical: medical and surgical topics, astronomic treatises, calendrical indications, charts of measure and weights, pharmacologic recipes and lists of therapeutic plants (materia medica). It also contains various materials attesting to deep cultural contacts between Jews and Christians: inter alia, a list of the books of the Old Testament ‘according to the count of the Christians’ (fol. 47), a list of the names used by Christians for the seven branches of learning (trivium and quadrivium) in Latin written in Hebrew letters (f. 61v) and a Christian calendar (ff. 181v-188v).

Fig. 1. Folio 187a. Part of the calendar, for the month of Tišri (תשרי) and September (שטומברא). The left column gives the name days of the Christian calendar of saints: Line 1—Saint Giles and Saint Ladre or Lazarus (ק׳ גילא וק׳ לאדרא), Line 4—Saint Martial de Limoges (ק׳ מרצייל דלימונגייש), Line 13—Saint Vernier or Werner (ק׳ וורנייר), Line 6—reads יריד בריאנשון ‘the fair of Briançon’ and Line 14—יריד רבייל ‘fair of Revel’, on the day of the Holy Cross (ק׳ קרוייץ).

The calendar, the only part of the miscellany that has been thoroughly described,[1] gives important clues about the dating and localisation of the manuscript: it is dated 1493 and refers to fairs or market days in Dauphiné (e.g., Briançon, Revel). Although the manuscript also contains some slightly later Italian material, it is very likely that the largest part of the miscellany was written and compiled in that area of south-eastern France by a single person—certainly a physician well-versed in the liberal arts—probably originating from northern France (as demonstrated by the palaeographic type of Hebrew handwriting used), who spent time in Dauphiné before immigrating to northern Italy.

Fig. 2. Folio 142b. A list of vernacular names of ‘hot’ seeds or species (זרעים חמים) used as remedies. In the first column, next to the Hebrew indication למחול קר ‘against the cold disease’, one reads קאפריש capres ‘capers’, שיקורייאיי chicorié ‘chicory’, טימי timi ‘thyme’, etc.; in the second column, שטאפיזאגרא stafizagre ‘stavesacre’, אפי api ‘celery, lovage’, אניזיי anize ‘anise’, אנייטי aneti ‘dill’, etc.

Such context of production has historically and linguistically significant ramifications. From the beginning of the Jewish presence in the kingdom of France and Burgundy, 15th-century Dauphiné was a crossroads for Jewish migrants en route to Savoy, Provence and, ultimately, Piedmont. It was there in Dauphiné that cultural and linguistic encounters occurred between its centuries-old Jewish community and exiles from neighbouring areas. However, material written by Jews in this area is extremely scarce: the few known items are all from earlier periods and comprise mostly formal codices, such as Bibles (e.g., Bodleian ms. Opp. 14, a 1340 Bible) or liturgical manuscripts (Parma ms. De Rossi 654), or very short, non-literary Hebrew documents (such as Grenoble ms. 4376, a betrothal contract from 1347). No other document of Jewish origin containing substantial matter written in the vernaculars of this dialectal zone—which extends across the linguistic border between Occitan and Franco-Provençal—has ever been described. Linguistic analysis shows that this unique manuscript furnishes a wealth of linguistic evidence in various dialects of south-eastern Gallo-Romance. While Hebrew is the main language used in the miscellany, the technical nature of its texts induces a frequent use of vernacular glosses, names or more extensive textual fragments. Reflecting the complex migration route and linguistic aptitudes of its writers, it includes words or phrases in Northern French, Franco-Provençal, Occitan, Latin and even Italian, all written in Hebrew characters.

Fig. 3. Folio 68a. A pharmacological recipe in Hebrew mixed with Romance: קח בצלים מדבריים דל שָוַויְיא ובשלם ‘take wild onions “del sâvaje” (Occitan “from the wilderness”) and cook them’. 

A thorough study of this material is needed. In the course of my ongoing OSRJL Visiting Fellowship at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, I am currently assessing the exact linguistic contents of the miscellany in order to then extract and describe all the vernacular linguistic data in it. This data deserves to be transcribed, edited and analysed with the methodological tools of Romance linguistics and dialectology (linguistic atlases, Gallo-Romance lexicography) in order to locate it within the complex map of dialect variation in southern France. Its critical edition and analysis will broaden considerably our knowledge of the languages used by Romance-speaking Jews in the late Middle Ages, as well as the history of cultural, scientific and linguistic contacts to which this important manuscript is a unique witness.

[1] Stern, Sacha, 2016. ‘Christian Calendars in Medieval Hebrew Manuscripts’, Medieval Encounters 22(1):236–265.

Dr Peter Nahon 
OSRJL Visiting Fellow Hilary Term 2023, OCHJS; OSRJL Judeo-Provençal Teacher; Research Fellow in Romance
Dialectology and Linguistics,
University of Neuchâtel
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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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Old Yiddish

Adapting the Sefer ha-Zohar in Old Yiddish

Dr Jean Baumgarten is the leader of the OCHJS’s current Oxford Seminar in Advanced Jewish Studies, entitled ‘Books in Judeo Languages: Popular Reading and Scholarship’ (Michaelmas Term 2022).


Between the beginning of the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a transformation of Jewish religious culture marked by the popularisation or vernacularisation of Kabbalah. A closed esoteric doctrine in the Middle Ages, studied and transmitted by a tiny intellectual elite, Kabbalah emerged in the early modern period and developed into the predominant theosophical, theological and ethical system used by Jews—and also Christian Hebraists—to understand creation, divinity, the interrelationship between the terrestrial and celestial worlds and the parallel between the human body and celestial bodies, all in terms of the end of the Jewish people’s exile and the advent of messianic times. 

Herein, I focus on a representative example of the appropriation of Kabbalah by less-educated Jews: the Naḥalat Tsevi (Frankfurt, 1711). This work, also known as Taytsh-Zoyer, is a translation and adaptation of the Sefer ha-Zohar into Old Yiddish and was edited by the kabbalist Tsevi Hirsh ben Yerahmeel Chotsch. It was printed by the Christian printer Anton Einscheit with the collaboration of Nikolaus Weinmann. 

Tsevi Hirsh ben Yerahmeel Chotsh, Naḥalat Tsevi, Frankfurt, 1711

In its title page in Hebrew, we read: 

‘A marvelous composition [comprised of] ethical words, stories and literal revelations in Yiddish copied, translated and compiled [. . .] from the dear Zohar composed by the great man among giants, the divine Tanna Rabi Shimon bar Yohai [. . .] edited by the great darshan Rabbi Tsevi Hirsh ben Yerahmeel Chotsch of Krakow.’ 

Chotsch emphasizes the literal commentary (peshat), ethical lessons (musar) and narrations (sippurim) in this volume. The work constantly plays on the dialectical tension and, simultaneously, rhetorically constructed illusion between the uncovered, exposed parts and revealed way (derekh nigle) of the Sefer ha-Zohar and its concealed way (derekh nister), or hidden secrets (soydesfarborgene zakhn). In his introduction, Chotsch relays the main stages in the history of the Zohar’s reception: 

‘After the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish people were dispersed in exile and the Torah was forgotten, God forbid. It was decided in heaven that the Mishnayes and the Gemore should be written down. Therefore, they hid secrets, which were revealed in the Gemore in the form of stories, according to the understanding of [common] people. They are a garment (levush) for great secrets. And as the (knowledge) of the Torah decreased, the world faded from existence. Since the secrets were not studied, God sent R. Shimon bar Yohai and his companions (averya) to reveal the good secrets. And Daniel (12:3) said about them: And the intelligent people (Maskilim) shall shine like the light of the firmament. R. Shimon bar Yohai and his circle will shine like the great light that has been hidden since the six days of creation to such an extent that the sun is only a part of the three hundred and forty-three parts of that light and their reward will be great. He and his circle compiled the Zohar in order to reveal it. . . . And the Zohar was again hidden until the time of redemption (zman geule) came so that it would be revealed for the first time, for redemption cannot come except through Kabbalah (durkh di kabole).’ 

The introduction of the Naḥalat Tsevi suggests a common practice of reading: ‘He who has no time during the week shall read the Parashah on Shabbat’. We might imagine a single individual silently reading on Oneg Shabbat or a semi-private reading in the domestic space with family or in a small study group. Or, perhaps, there was a reading among little ḥavrutot composed of followers of Sabbatai Tsevi. According to Gershom Scholem, Chotsh was a ‘moderate sabbatean’. Little clues in this regard are, for example, scattered throughout his commentary of the Tikkunei ha-Zohar, the Ḥemdat Tsevi (Amsterdam, 1706). 

Tsvi Hirsh ben Yerahmeel Chotsh, 
Ḥemdat Tsevi, Amsterdam, 1706. 

On the frontispiece of the volume, we see two deer and, on top, a crown and quotation (Isaiah 28:5), as well as a reference to Sabbatai Tsevi. We could imagine that the Naalat Tsevi was among the few Old Yiddish books read by disciples of the ‘false Messiah’. 

I conclude with a short example of the adaptation of the Zohar from the Parashat Noah, concerning the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:5): 

‘Rabbi Hiyya begins: And Adonai said (Gen 11:1): All the earth had one language and the same words. They found the place of the generation of the flood, in order to turn away from God and to rebel against him. And they succeeded in their enterprise [because] they were one people and one language. United with each other. They spoke the Holy language. But what they spoke with their mouths was only in order to continue and make their enterprise successful. The Holy One, blessed be He, says: Since they are a people with one heart and one will and they speak the Holy language, then they will do all that they had the will to do. I will confuse their language. And their heavenly degrees [the degrees or sefirot of emanation and the seven higher levels of midot]. And the Holy One, blessed be He, created a confusion [of tongues] and scattered them throughout the world. And moreover, they served idols. For they were united in heart. They spoke the Holy language, but no Law (din) could have authority over them until the Holy One, blessed be He, caused the confusion. We and our fellow men who were united in one heart engaged in the Torah and all the more so, in the Holy tongue. But among them, the measure of Law (midat ha-din) did not dominate [. . .] And the Holy One, blessed be He, mixed up their language. So the Lord scattered them from that place (Gen 11:8). But when the Messiah will come, it is written: Then I will also give all the peoples a pure tongue, so that they will all call on the name of the Lord (Zephaniah 3:9), and we read: The Lord will be king over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be one and unique will be his name (Zechariah 14:9).’

The Naḥalat Tsevi contains a vast amount of information which sheds light on important aspects of Ashkenazi society, culture and religion. Though often considered minor works of literature, Jewish vernacular texts such as this one deserve more nuanced assessments than have been afforded them, so that we might gain a more global and complex understanding of Jewish popular culture in the early modern period.

Dr Jean Baumgarten
Leader of Oxford Seminar in Advanced Jewish Studies Michaelmas Term 2022 ‘Books in Judeo Languages: Popular Reading and Scholarship’, OCHJS; Directeur de Recherche Emeritus,
    Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS, Paris)

A Judeo-Provençal New Year’s Eve Dinner in the 18th Century

Dr Peter Nahon will be teaching Judeo-Provençal at the OSRJL.


In the shadow of great literary monuments, documents of humbler appearance often provide precious glimpses into the past of a language. This phenomenon is even truer when it comes to Jewish languages: since most communities used Hebrew as their written language, their vernaculars were recorded in writing only on a few casual occasions. Linguists must look carefully for the slightest marginalia that may conceal relevant linguistic facts, especially as the sort of documents in question are more likely than others to have been discarded over time. 

Judeo-Provençal—the vernacular of Jews from Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin in south-eastern France—is no exception. Among its speakers, Hebrew was still the primary written language up until the beginning of the 19th century. Even correspondence, account books and administrative birth records were still mostly written in Hebrew. Only in a few cases did the sacred language of Jews give way to the vernacular; one such instance was naming things for which the Hebrew vocabulary learnt at school was neither rich nor precise enough. 

This use of the vernacular is reflected in a manuscript I found unexpectedly in an 18th-century Hebrew prayer book for the New Year according to the rite of Carpentras, printed in Amsterdam in 1739 and kept today in a private collection. One of its flyleaves bears these handwritten annotations:

Handwritten marginalia in a copy of the Seder le-yamim noraim
ke-minhag q”q Carpentras
, ed. Abraham Montel, Amsterdam, Hirtz Levie
Rophe, 1739. Private Collection, Avignon

Written in a Provençal semi-cursive hand, five blessings in Hebrew—each beginning with יהי רצון (‘may [God’s] will . . .’)—are preceded by the Judeo-Provençal vernacular names of food items on which the blessing is to be recited. The foods can be transcribed as follows: line 1—cooulé ‘cabbage’; line 2—pori(t) ‘leek’; line 3—espenhar ‘spinach’; line 4—daité ‘date’; and line 5—coucourdo ‘pumpkin’. Consistent with other Judeo-Provençal sources, these few words exemplify the peculiarities of the Provençal writing system: letter ב beth is used for the semivowel [w] or [u̯] as the second segment of a diphthong, as in כֳבְלֵי *[ˈkou̯le]; letter ש šin stands for [s], and the vowel ֳ  can be used both for [o] and [u]. The word porit, for *[ˈpori], retains an etymological -t (ט) that was probably silent in the spoken language, but is reminiscent of older orthography (the same occurs in several 17th- and 18th-century Judeo-Provençal manuscripts).

How do these words compare with those in cognate non-Jewish dialects? For each, let’s look at the local form recorded in the Linguistic Atlas of France (ALF). Geolinguistic point 864, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse—a few kilometres from Carpentras—may serve as a point of comparison. For ‘cabbage’, the form recorded in ALF (card n°283) at point 864 is [ˈkule]; our Judeo-Provençal form represents an earlier phonetic stage where the etymological diphthong [ou̯] had not yet monophthongized to [u]. For ‘leek’, ALF (card n°1048) gives [ˈpore] and for ‘spinach’ (card n°475), [esˈpiɲar]. For both these words, the comparative Judeo-Provençal forms display vocalic variation that affects [e] and [i]. This variation may either reflect real phonetic features proper to the Jewish ‘lect’ or be due only to the imprecision of the Hebrew spelling. The fourth word, not documented in ALF, must be looked for in the lexicography: standard Provençal for ‘date’ is datti (FEW 3, 2b), which suggests that the Jewish cognate underwent metathesis. The last word (ALF card n°296) is [kuˈkurdo], identical with that listed in the Jewish source. 

This quaint list of food items reflects the local form of the Jewish custom of simanim ‘symbols’: foods whose names evoke good omens or auspicious scriptural references and that are served during the New Year’s Eve supper to symbolise good wishes and hopes. The nature of these simanim vary from one community to another, and sometimes even within a single community between different families. 

It so happens that two other slightly different lists of vernacular simanim from Provence are known. The first of these, probably written in the same decades as the manuscript discussed above, appears in a 1712 manuscript prayer book for the New Year according to the rite of Carpentras and copied by Emmanuel b. Gad de Milhaud. In a different and later hand, a previous owner of the book—possibly Ṣemaḥ David Astruc (whose name appears on the flyleaves in similar lettering)—added the following blessings on a blank folio:

Columbia Ms. X 893C J 55 vol. 5, fol. 157v.; Photo P. Nahon

The foods and blessings listed herein appear in the same order as those in the first manuscript, though with a few variants. The words cooulé ‘cabbage’, daiti ‘date’ and coucourdo ‘pumpkin’ reflect identical pronunciations despite slightly different vowel spellings. Furthermore, pori lacks here the etymological ט, confirming that this letter in the other version is silent. Lastly, spinach is replaced with another leaf vegetable of the same family, בִּלִידוֹ bilido (cf. Provençal bledo in FEW 1, 344a), which can mean either chard or orache. 

The final example I would like to present herein is printed in the Seder ha-qunṭeres, a booklet containing occasional prayers and hymns for the rite of the Comtat Venaissin. This booklet was compiled by Isaïe Vidal and Mardochée Venture and issued in 1765 at Avignon. At folio 28v, we find the list of simanim and blessings:

Seder ha-qunṭeres, fol. 28v.; Private Collection, Paris

Again, a few variants are present: while the spellings for daiti and coucourdo represent pronunciations that are identical with those in the previous two manuscripts under consideration, caoulét ‘cabbage’ retains an etymological t (ט) while porés ‘leeks’, as in the second manuscript (Columbia), does not. Indeed, porés is given in its plural, with a final -s (פוריש). Here again, chard or orache (with a variant form: בלייטוה bléito with -t- probably due to the influence of the French cognate blette ‘chard’) is preferred to spinach, though a former owner of the book—who added the French names of each item in the margin—wrote epinar, the French for ‘spinach’! Here, are we dealing with variations in local customs, individual preference or material circumstances? Chard and orache are both less challenging to grow and yield bigger harvests than delicate and expensive spinach: they may have been preferred in less well-off households. 

Judeo-Provençal and the liturgy of the Comtat Venaissin both became extinct during the 20th century as a result of Nazi genocide and assimilation, and have left only scant linguistic and cultural traces in the living memories of today’s French Jews. Most of this once flourishing tradition is today concealed in old printed books and manuscripts. We must turn to such documents to recover some details of these vanished communities’ daily lives and distinctive ways of speech.

Dr Peter Nahon
OSRJL Judeo-Provençal Teacher; Research Fellow in Romance Dialectology and Linguistics, University of Neuchâtel

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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