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
Jewish English

Jewish English Texts: Camp Hebraized English Online and Hebrew-Letter Campaign Gear

Dr Sarah Bunin Benor is a member of the OSRJL’s Advisory Committee.


For many readers, the phrase ‘Jewish languages bookshelf’ likely conjures images of medieval Judeo-Arabic treatises, early modern Judeo-Italian siddur translations, and modern Yiddish and Ladino novels. For me, this phrase encompasses not only items like these, but also a much broader swath of writing, especially in the language I study, Jewish English. Jewish English is an umbrella term for the many ways Jews have spoken and written English in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, Australia, and elsewhere. This post gives two examples of Jewish English writing and analyzes how they are both similar to and different from languages Jews have written in previous eras.

Excerpt #1: Camp Hebraized English blog post

Excerpt from a Habonim Dror Camp Galil parent update, 6/15,

Most American Jewish summer camps are conducted primarily in English, but many are infused to varying degrees with Hebrew loanwords. Orthodox communities, including their summer camps, use loanwords primarily from Textual Hebrew and Yiddish, with only some from Modern Hebrew. But secular Zionist camps like Galil, a Habonim Dror camp in Pennsylvania, USA, use loanwords primarily from Modern Hebrew. Most of these words refer not to religious life, but to camp:

  • activitiestiyul ‘hiking trip’, avoda/avodot ‘chore(s)’, tochnit erev ‘evening activity’, kibud ‘snack’, peulot ‘discussions’, chugim ‘electives’, menucha ‘rest time’, chofesh ‘free time’, ivrit shimushit ‘[the skit to teach the] useful Hebrew [word of the day]’
  • locationstoren ‘flag pole’, tzrif ‘cabin’, refet ‘barn’, beit omanut ‘art room’, chadar ochel ‘dining hall’, moadon ‘clubhouse’
  • roles: madrichim ‘counselors’, tzevet ‘staff’, chanichim ‘campers’
  • groupings and divisionskvutsa ‘small, united community’, shichva/schavot ‘age group(s)’, Chotrim ‘rowers’, Bogrim ‘graduates’, Amelim ‘workers’, Tzophim ‘scouts’, Sayarim ‘patrols/scouts’, and Bonim ‘builders’.

By using so many Hebrew words in the everyday life of camp, this Zionist institution highlights the importance of Hebrew and makes camp feel like a distinct environment from campers’ homes, schools, and synagogues. In fact, this can be seen as a special register of Jewish English: ‘Camp Hebraized English’. This register follows the historical trend of Jewish languages incorporating Hebrew loanwords into the language spoken by the surrounding non-Jewish communities. But the main source of those words in this case is not the sacred ancient texts of Judaism, but rather the spoken language of the State of Israel.

Like in many Jewish languages, the Hebrew words in this excerpt are pluralized according to Hebrew morphological norms. For example, the masculine noun chug receives the masculine plural suffix -im (chugim), and the feminine noun avoda receives the feminine plural suffix -ot (avodot). Even irregular nouns receive the appropriate Hebrew plural morphology: shichva becomes shchavot (but with a typo here: schavot). Although not evident in the update, the camp also tends to use the Hebrew morphological system of distinguishing between males and females, e.g., madricha for a female counselor and Amelim (masc.) and Amelot (fem.) to refer to boys and girls of that division.

Despite the general trend of following (Israeli) Hebrew linguistic norms, some of the Hebrew words have distinctive usages and meanings in this excerpt (as at camp), such as peula, ‘discussion’, which is ‘action/activity’ in Modern Hebrew; refet, ‘barn without animals’, which is ‘cowshed, dairy section of a farm’ in Modern Hebrew; and moadon which is shortened to mo. In addition, in the years since this blog post, Galil and other camps that affiliate with the Habonim Dror youth movement have begun to use innovative gender suffixes, such as Amelimot (gender-inclusive double plural of this division) and chanichol (gender-neutral ‘camper’). These are common trends not only in Jewish English but also in Jewish languages around the world; many loanwords undergo semantic shift and are sometimes clipped and otherwise altered phonologically.

Aside from loanwords, this excerpt does not include any other elements of the distinctive Jewish linguistic repertoire, such as the Yiddish grammatical influences found in Orthodox Jewish English or the rise-fall intonation patterns and New York phonological variants perceptible only in spoken language.

This excerpt reflects the common trend of writing Jewish English in Latin letters, using the same orthographic norms as English, with the addition of transliterated Hebrew words. This contrasts with the Hebrew-based writing systems used in most Jewish languages historically. This development can be explained by the expectations and educational policies regarding near-universal literacy in the countries where Jews live today, in contrast to medieval and early modern societies. However, there are exceptions to this trend, such as English words in Hebrew letters on apparel and other items advertising universities, sports teams, and political candidates. We see an example of this in Excerpt #2.

Excerpt #2: Hebrew-Letter Jewish English Campaign Gear

Kipah: ‘Trump/Pence/Keep America Great/2020’, from this article. [Note: the inclusion of this item should not be interpreted as a political endorsement!]

This kipah (skullcap) is one of many American political campaign items that incorporate Hebrew letters, sometimes alongside English letters, such as a 2008 Obama bumper sticker: ‘ברק אובמה ’08’ and similar historical buttons here). Each of these items represents an American candidate’s name in Hebrew letters, sending the message that the individual displaying it is a supporter of that candidate, a Jew proud to publicly display their Jewish identity and, likely, someone who has at least basic Hebrew reading skills.

The kipah in Excerpt #2 includes an additional element: Trump’s 2020 campaign slogan rendered in Hebrew-letter English: ‘Keep America great’. Some other merchandise translates the slogan into Hebrew, e.g., ‘שמור את אמריקה נהדרת’ (such as this poster). By spelling the English slogan in Hebrew letters, Trump supporters appeal to the most common Hebrew skill level among American Jews: an ability to decode Hebrew letters but not to comprehend Hebrew texts. The kipah follows the orthographic system of Modern Hebrew for transliterating foreign words, rather than that of Yiddish, Ladino, or another Jewish language. Even so, by rendering English words in Hebrew letters, this image connects Jewish English orthographically to Jewish languages throughout history.

These two items demonstrate that English-speaking Jews are continuing some of the linguistic trends of their predecessors around the world: speaking a version of the local language while incorporating distinctive features, especially lexical and orthographic influences from Hebrew. At the same time, these items demonstrate some new historical developments: the privileging of Modern Hebrew over Textual Hebrew influences and the tendency to use the writing system of the surrounding society. They also highlight new forms of writing brought about by technology, such as blog posts and mass-produced apparel. Despite these new developments, these texts show that Jews continue to position themselves as both a part of and apart from society.

This post incorporates elements of several articles by the author:

Benor, Sarah Bunin. 2009. ‘Do American Jews Speak a “Jewish Language”? A Model of Jewish Linguistic Distinctiveness’. Jewish Quarterly Review 99/2. 230-269.

Benor, Sarah Bunin. 2020. ‘Bivalent Writing: Hebrew and English Alphabets in Jewish English’. Journal of Jewish Languages 8/1-2: 108-157.

Benor, Sarah Bunin. 2021. ‘Written Jewish English’. In Jewish Languages: Text Specimens, Grammatical, Lexical, and Cultural Sketches, ed. Lutz Edzard and Ofra Tirosh-Becker. In Porta Linguarum Orientaliumseries. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. 368-391.

Benor, Sarah Bunin, Jonathan Krasner, and Sharon Avni. 2020. Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Dr Sarah Bunin Benor
OSRJL Advisory Committee Member; Director, Jewish Language Project; Vice Provost and Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and Linguistics,
Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion

Judeo-Spanish Spanish

‘Orlando Furiozo’: Examining a Judeo-Spanish Manuscript in Oxford

This post, based on the research Alla Markova undertook during her time as the first Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages Visiting Fellow in Hilary Term 2022, is a kind of continuation of the post written by Dr César Merchán-Hamann regarding MS. Canonici 6. To read his post, click here.


The Orlando Furiozo manuscript in question has 200 paper folios with a semi-limp, unornamented parchment binding; simple endbands; ornamented upper and lower endsheets; and flyleaves. There are two bifolia quires at the beginning and end of the codex as well as 24 quires of four bifolia—it is on these 24 quires that the text of Orlando is written.

The paper of this manuscript is of various stocks. At the time (latter half of the sixteenth century), paper was an expensive commodity; therefore, scribes and even printing presses often did not have enough paper of the same stock, so mixed different varieties within one codex. In most such cases, the differing materials used were of the same density and quality. However, in this case, the paper differs not only in its watermarks but also in its quality. While most of the manuscript is written on thick, difficult-to-bend paper with hardly visible chain lines and watermarks, some quires are made of much softer and easily bendable paper with clearly seen watermarks as well as chain and laid lines.

Watermark on thick paper; MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries; Photo Credit: Alla Markova

In the first 19 quires of 8-folios each, there are two matching watermarks—an anchor with double arms and big flukes in a circle and surmounted by a six-pointed star. These watermarks and countermarks are similar to Mošin #1421 (V. Mošin, Anchor Watermarks, Amsterdam: Paper Publications Society [Labarre Foundation], 1973). The two subsequent quires (ff.157-164 and 165-172) are made of much softer and thinner, quite translucent paper and boast a similar watermark; however, in this instance, the anchor in a circle has singular and not double arms (similar to Mošin #1655).

Watermark on thin paper; MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries; Photo Credit: Alla Markova

The next quire (ff. 173-180) has a watermark with a double anchor similar to Mošin #736, while the following two quires (ff. 181-196) are made of different paper with completely different watermarks which resemble a lion, similar to Bofarull #207 (F. de Bofarull y Sans, Animals in Watermarks, Hilversum: The Paper Publications Society, 1959).

Mošin identifies the watermarks in question as Italian and dating to roughly 1560-80. In this particular manuscript, the watermarks on all quires of hard as well as most quires of soft paper are very similar; this resemblance may indicate that the paper was produced on the same mill. If all this were to be the case, then why is the paper so variegated to the touch? And why are the watermarks, chain, and laid lines barely visible on the thick, opaque paper of the first 19 quires yet easily traceable on the paper of the last quires?

Another strange phenomenon I observed in this manuscript is the near total absence of errors—or, rather, of their corrections. Indeed, a sofer is not permitted to make errors in sacred texts. However, Orlando Furiozo is not a sacred text, but rather a prohibited if not sacrilegious work: a transliteration into Hebrew letters of a frivolous text originally printed in Latin letters. Given the length of the work, the scribe must have made errors and must have noticed and corrected at least some of them. Still, upon my examination of the text, I could not see any indications of corrections as I have observed in other Judeo-Spanish manuscripts (e.g., signs above the letters or on the margins).

That being said, and while I was endeavouring to identify watermarks, I noticed strange translucent spots on some leaves of the manuscript. Using a magnifying glass, I discovered that a layer of paper had been scratched out—apparently to correct a letter or letters. I began checking other pages and found further examples of this technique, which reminded me of my childhood in the USSR when we used razor blades to scratch out a letter or digit in our notebooks (or even a grade on our report cards). From my own experience, I remembered that the ink spread—bled—around the letter or digit we wrote in place of the erased one. So, with a magnifying glass, I examined the letters written over the translucent spots; in most cases, the ink had spread as well, whereas letters on the opaque parts of the page never bled.

Translucent spots on a page; MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries; Photo Credit: Alla Markova
Translucent spots on a page; MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries; Photo Credit: Alla Markova

To prevent ink from bleeding, early paper was sized by gelatin with the addition of alum. There were two types of sizing: an internal sizing of the pulp and surface sizing of the ready paper leaves. There were cases when scribes, while preparing the material for an important work, did additional surface sizing themselves. It seems that the scribe of our manuscript, accustomed to writing sacred texts on parchment and correcting his/her mistakes by scratching out a layer of parchment, used the same technique with paper. But, to do so, s/he did additional surface sizing on most of the stock, making the paper thicker and less translucent. 

Scratched-out letters; MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries; Photo Credit: Alla Markova
Ink bleeding on scratched out place; MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries; Photo Credit: Alla Markova

On several of the thinner pages in the last quires, some repeated words are simply crossed out.

The layout of the pages is beautiful: there are two columns of five octavas, written in minuscule Sephardic cursive. When a new song starts, some of the lines are written across the full width of the page telling the contents of the song, resulting in four or four and a half octavas in a column. Everything is nicely measured, but there are no visible lines or dots—even using a magnifying glass, you cannot find any such marks. Each leaf has a catchword, and, on the top of each page, there is a sign ‘bh‘ (‘baruch hashem’?) written in the same ink. The first page of most quires has a special sign also done with the same ink and apparently by the same hand.

While the text is written in black ink, the bottom-left corner of the first page of most quires displays a Hebrew letter written in brown ink and indicating the number of the quire. The numeration is done alphabetically (after yod goes kaph, lamed, etc.). Perhaps this numbering was done later by another hand.

In the upper-left corner of each leaf (up to 120) there is numeration with Arabic digits. On top of the verso leaves is written ‘kanto primero‘ (up to noveno on f. 40 v.), while ‘del furiozo is written on recto leaves (up to 41 r.).

Additionally, there are some Judeo-Spanish marginalia and several marginalia in Latin letters. Most of them are words of the first line of the poem but seem to be transliterated from the text written with Hebrew letters: ‘Damas, armas, enprizas y amor‘. The Latin letters look as though they were written by somebody who was learning to write.

All these marks and marginalia attest to the fact that the manuscript was read, and most probably by more than one person.

Though I only recently began working on this manuscript, I already can make some tentative conclusions. The manuscript, created by a highly professional scribe, is a work commissioned by somebody with wealth. It is a Hebrew-letters transliteration of a printed edition of Orlando, which means:

  • Printed editions of European books were available in the Ottoman Empire quite quickly after their publication in Europe;
  • Romance castellano was a language still commonly used by Jews in that part of the world;
  • It was easier for them to read it in Hebrew letters; and
  • Sephardic Jews enjoyed reading chivalric novels in Spanish even in the Ottoman Empire.
Alla Markova
OSRJL Visiting Fellow Hilary Term 2022, OCHJS; Senior Librarian, Brooklyn Public Library

Work With Us!

The OSRJL is accepting applications for the part-time role of Administrator. The position will be one of remote and flexible working with part-time hours ranging throughout the year, but possibly averaging 12 hours per week, 40 weeks per year (with concentrated times of work during the academic year). The post holder will be line managed by the OCHJS Academic Registrar & OSRJL Coordinator (Ms Madeleine Trivasse). Further information about the role and how to apply may be found here: Now Hiring: Administrator of the Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages – Oxford Centre for Hebrew & Jewish Studies ( Details about the OSRJL may be found here: Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages – Oxford Centre for Hebrew & Jewish Studies (

Judeo-French Judeo-German

A Medieval Judeo-French Bible Glossary on Exhibit in Leipzig

One of the presentations in the 2021 lecture series on Jewish languages organized by the French Institute for Linguistic Heritage and Diversity (ILARA) inspired me to include a rare manuscript in a temporary exhibition of the Leipzig University Library: a thirteenth-century Bible glossary in Hebrew script assumed to have been written by Rabbi Samson ben Isaac of Chinon (c. 1260-1330). It is generally agreed that this Bible glossary was compiled in Rouen in northern France. The glossary contains translations of thousands of biblical terms in Hebrew as well as explanations (glosses) originally only into Judeo-French. Some time after it was originally written, a list of translations into Judeo-German was added, also in Hebrew script. Additionally, this list of terms in Judeo-German is written in a slightly lighter tone of ink. The parchment is attractively decorated with miniatures of imaginary creatures.

The medieval Leipzig Bible glossary (Vollers 1099) lists terms in Hebrew and translations into Old French (Judeo-French) and Old German (Judeo-German). It also shows miniature drawings of mythical creatures.

The Leipzig Bible glossary manuscript is an important source for understanding how scholars communicated about biblical texts and their meanings in vernacular languages, such as French or German, of their local social environments. Medieval scholars rarely wrote in these vernacular languages, and only very few of such texts have survived. Since the Leipzig manuscript is in pristine condition, we chose to feature this seldom-shown work in the dedicated exhibition hall of the Leipzig University Library for four months until February 2022.

This academic exhibition, which I conceived and curated, is titled “Translated Religion: In a Forest of True Words” (Übersetzte Religion. Im Dickicht der wahren Worte). It outlines the history of religion as a history of translation using manuscripts and books from the Leipzig University Library and provides information about translators’ efforts to translate religious texts and images. More than seventy items from two millennia exhibited give testimony to translational work in the context of religion. The exhibition and the accompanying 112-page catalogue are the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration.

Impression of the temporary book exhibition “Translated Religion: In a Forest of True Words” at the Bibliotheca Albertina in Leipzig. Photo by Thomas Kademann.

Also of interest for scholars of Jewish languages in the exhibition is a small book with the title Or lě-ēt ʿerev (Light in the Evening), an eighteenth-century work in Yiddish and Hebrew used in the Christian Judenmission (missionary work to convert Jews). Additionally, visitors may view books and manuscripts with translations of the stirring psalms from the Hebrew Bible into languages used in Christian contexts—ranging from Coptic, an everyday language descended from Ancient Egyptian and widely used in Egypt until the seventh century; to Sahidic, a Coptic dialect; to Greek. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the lyrical translation of the psalms into standard German by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), an important proponent of the Jewish haskala (Enlightenment).

The exhibition emphasizes some of the challenges met by translators of religious texts who often had to master other writing systems. Religious texts are meant to be universally meaningful. Therefore, the translator’s task of conveying sacred words from a language that is, for instance, not spoken or whose cultural contexts have vanished is especially challenging. The Leipzig exhibition points out some of the answers past translators found to this challenge, thereby disclosing some often overlooked accomplishments that remain indispensable also for contemporary scholarship: encyclopaedias and glossaries, such as our Bible glossary.

When you enter the darkened exhibition hall, the manuscript parchment and the other exhibited items “look” into the room at you, no matter where you are standing since they are placed as vertically as possible, following the concept of all temporary exhibitions in the Leipzig University Library. There is a certain tranquillity in the hall that—in the words of director Ulrich Johannes Schneider—is created by the radiance of the objects, which are conjured out of the surrounding black by focused lighting alone.

Having come into the light, our rare Judeo-French Bible glossary, which miraculously has survived to this day, tells us of the diligence of Jewish scholars in medieval Rouen so that their work might provide guidance “in a forest of true words”.

Dr Katja Triplett
Exhibition Curator;
Senior Research Fellow for the Study of Religions, Leipzig University; Adjunct Professor, Marburg University
Italian Judeo-Italian

A Rare Judeo-Italian Ledger of a Jewish Pawnshop in Medieval Bologna (Ms. Oxford, Corpus Christi College Library 469)

Despite the rich holdings of medieval Hebrew manuscripts of Italian origin preserved in many libraries around the world,[1] Jewish moneylending registers are rare—and, even more so, are those written in Judeo-Italian, an ancient language in danger of extinction and mostly known from early writings. It is in this context that we find an early-15th-century Jewish pawnshop’s account book that has survived the hurly-burly of life and speaks to us today, offering an original perspective on bookkeeping practices, Jewish-Christian financial networks as well as credit systems in a fascinating combination of history, economics and linguistics.

The manuscript ledger, now held at the Corpus Christi College Library in Oxford, is the earliest known volume of its kind, and was kept by two moneylenders, who practiced pawnbroking business in the Bologna area during the years 1407-1411.[2] The book is limited to debtors’ accounts, combining the functions of a borrowers’ ledger and loans register. The account for each loan is headed with details of the borrower’s name, the amount advanced and witnesses. Sometimes, guarantors are recorded, followed by particulars of the items left in pledge, as well as of repayment of the borrower or someone on his behalf. Most of this information is reported in Judeo-Italian (basically Italian of the time or vernacular inserted into the Hebrew text and written in Hebrew characters), using a specific vocabulary to describe each pledge. As is often the case with daily-life documents of a personal nature, the writing is idiosyncratic and the linguistic mixture between Hebrew and the local dialect does not make for easy reading.

Figure 1 – Courtesy Corpus Christi College Library, Oxford, Ms. 469, f. 1r.

Among the various clauses of the condotte—the bilateral agreements that regulated the relations between local authorities and Jewish moneylenders—there was one specifying that Jewish lenders had to keep regular records of transactions undertaken. Although at first Jewish pawnbrokers used to draw up ledgers in Judeo-Italian, following the notorious bull Cum nimis absurdum (“Since it is completely senseless …”) issued in 1555 by Paul IV Carafa, they were forced to abandon Hebrew characters and adopt Latin or Italian as the official language for their registers in order to be checked by Christian authorities.[3]

Today considered an example of immaterial Jewish heritage, Judeo-Italian was employed as a literary vehicle in the medieval period and survived to the end of the 16th century in local dialects spoken in the ghettos. It should be noted that the evolution of Judeo-Italian and its sub-dialects surely must have been influenced by the development of the Italian language itself, which became standardised in later times. As is known, Italian emerged in the 14th century from the Florentine vernacular thanks to the work of the “Supreme Poet” Dante Alighieri, rightly considered the father of the Italian language, and coexisted with a myriad of dialects for centuries up to the present day. Similarly, in Judeo-Italian we also can find a vast array of sub-categories of local dialects, such as Judeo-Roman, Judeo-Venetian, Judeo-Florentine or Judeo-Emilian (the language adopted in the manuscript under consideration herein).

The dialectal varieties, both within the Italian language itself and in its Jewish variants, reflected the social, cultural and political differences of the Peninsula, which could be divided into a number of oligarchic regimes and boundaries, where lineages, princes, governors and factions colluded and collided over the centuries. Despite the causes of disunity, these Italian states ended up sharing linguistic and cultural factors, which led to the Italian national movement, achieved by the Risorgimento and the eventual political unification in 1861.

The register contains a large number of words in Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Emilian, mainly used to indicate the items left in pledge as a security for the repayment of loans, such as household utensils, silver sets, private belongings, books, farm tools, weapons, jewels, precious metals, gemstones and even some sets of knightly armour. In particular, a huge quantity of clothing was left as a pledge: tunics (יופיטי – giuppetti), overgowns (יורניי giornee), cloaks (גבאני – gabani), hose (קלצי calzi), shirts (קמישי camise) and dresses (קוטי cotte) formed a fraction of the inventory.

Names, patronymics, provenance or city of origin and profession of the borrowers are written in Judeo-Italian, being essentially a transliteration in Hebrew characters of Italian names, such as Bartolomeo of Joani, tailor (Bartolomeo di Joani, sarto); Tomaso of Jacomino, wool producer from [the parish of] Saint Michael (Tomaso di Jacomino, lanarolo di San Michele); and Luca of Franceschino from Fossolo and his son Joani (Luca di Franceschino da Fossolo e suo figlio Joani).

Jewish moneylenders were able to write fluently in the sacred language of their fathers, using specific terminology or formulas borrowed from the rabbinic-normative tradition with its Talmudic debates and conclusions, which came to them through the legal compendia of Maimonides. One could therefore wonder why the register was written mainly in Judeo-Italian instead of Hebrew. The answer may lie in the fact that the Jews who lived in medieval Italy did not speak Hebrew, having adopted the predominant dialects of the place, thus creating a mixture of Italian, vernacular, Latin and Hebrew, which represented the ideal Jewish-Italian cultural combination.

The ledger gives us a reliable insight into the reality in which Jewish creditors lived: a busy pawnshop active in Bologna at the beginning of the 15th century, in a period when the conflict between the Guelfs and Ghibellines led to the domination of the city by a series of signori. It was frequented by a diverse clientele—in most cases lowly customers, but also members of the higher echelons of Christian society, in addition to many clergymen and bishops, who sometimes even pledged sacred objects—which benefited from the services of lenders. It certainly had to be a jumbled ambiance, a place of discussion and encounter, where different people and traditions overlapped, and in which, at least, the language could express itself and evolve freely as a result of a perfect Jewish-Italian symbiosis without borders as well as religious, ethnic or political limits.

[1] About a half of all the extant complete Hebrew manuscripts bear evidence of Italian provenance either because they were copied in Italy during the Renaissance, or because they were brought to Italy by Jewish immigrants. For further information see: B. Richler, Hebrew Manuscripts: A Treasured Legacy, Cleveland-Jerusalem, 1990, pp. 66-67 and 76-77; C. Sirat, Hebrew Manuscripts of the Middle Ages, trans. N. de Lange, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 8-11; B. Richler, Italy, the “Breadbasket” of Hebrew Manuscripts inS. Simonsohn-J. Shatzmiller (eds.), The Italia Judaica Jubilee Conference, Leiden-Boston, 2013, pp. 137-141; M. Perani, Italia “paniere” dei manoscritti ebraici e il loro esodo, nel contesto del collezionismo in Europa tra Otto e Novecento in Il collezionismo di libri ebraici tra XVII e XIX secolo, Supplemento al vol. 82, Nn. 2-3 (2016) de «La Rassegna Mensile di Israel», pp. 63-91.

[2] Today, kept separately from its “host volume” under the shelfmark CCC 469, the manuscript is a fine example of what has been called the “European Genizah” as its leaves were dismembered and reused to bind a different book of Italian origin. In particular, the leaves were part of a number of manuscripts compiled by Robert Proctor. Bibliographer, expert on incunabula and early typography, Robert Proctor became Junior Librarian of Corpus Christi College in 1891 and had permission to dismantle the boards of the volume which formerly hosted the account book, leaving them as separate leaves which had been bound together in a modern binding in the late 19th or early 20th century. See P.E. Pormann, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Hebrew Manuscripts of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, D.S. Brewer, Oxford, 2015, p. 111.

[3] «[…] 8. Nec in libris rationum et computorum, quae cum christianis pro tempore habebunt, aliis, quam latinis literis et alio quam vulgari italico sermone, uti possint, et si utantur, libri huiusmodi contra christianos nullam fidem faciant […]». The full text of the edict may be consulted on Bullarum Diplomatum et Privilegiorum Sanctorum Romanorum Pontificum, Taurinensi editio, 1860, VI, pp. 498-500.

Dr Elena Lolli
Research Fellow, OCHJS; Rothschild Postdoctoral Fellow; Research Associate, Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Aki Yerushalayim: The Digital Revival of a Fascinating Ladino Magazine

Dr Carlos Yebra López teaches Ladino at the OSRJL.


Aki Yerushalayim (1979-2016, 2019-present) is the oldest and arguably most authoritative all-Ladino magazine in the world. Making sense of its sociopolitical and community impact requires us to venture into the changing role of Sephardim since the inauguration of the modern State of Israel.

Issue 105 of Aki Yerushalayim, published online in September 2021

As explained by Prof. Shmuel Refael in his anthology Un Grito en el Silencio (“A Scream in the Silence”, Tirocino, 2008), it took decades for the descendants of the Sephardim in Israel to be considered part of the national narrative. The turning point was arguably the election of Yitzhak Navon (1921-2015) as the fifth president of Israel. In 1978, he became the first Sephardi Jew to serve in that office, which he did until 1983. In 1979, Navon was appointed the first chairman of the board of Aki Yerushalayim, whose first issue was launched that very year. The magazine was published by the cultural organisation Sefarad, in cooperation with the National Authority for Ladino (1996), of which Navon also became the first chairman in 1997. The editorial committee of Aki Yerushalayim featured three emblematic Sephardic authors: Moshe Shaul (editor-in-chief), Mordehay Arbell and Zelda Ovadia.

Its 2-3 yearly issues contained articles about Sephardic personalities, history, literature and various organisations, as well as sections on topics such as food, philately, upcoming cultural events, poetry, short stories, books and CD reviews. More importantly, it featured three iconic and unique rubrics: El kantoniko de haketía (“Haketía Corner”, devoted to the vernacular linguistic variety spoken by the Sephardim that settled in northern Morocco); El kantoniko de solitreo (“Solitreo Corner”, featuring texts written in the cursive script used by Sephardim in the Ottoman empire); and El kantoniko de letras Rashi (“Rashi Corner” devoted to the semi-cursive Sephardic script). Other than its content, a further significant contribution of Aki Yerushalayim to Sephardic language and culture was the standardisation of Ladino in the Latin script by, of and for Sephardim across the world, courtesy of the pronunciation table elaborated by Moshe Shaul and adopted almost unanimously in subsequent Ladino publications.

However, due to budgetary constraints, low subscription renewals and the advanced age of its readers and editors, in 2016, the adventure of Aki Yerushalayim seemed to come to an end. The announcement of Aki Yerushalayim’s supposed final issue (99-100) was met with dismay from the global community of Ladino lovers (most of whom were Sephardim, though not all). To date, I still remember reading at that time numerous poignant testimonies of regret and nostalgia from dozens of members on the Ladino email list Ladinokomunita (Rachel Amado Bortnick, 1999- ). Yet as the motto of the Turkish Ladino-only newspaper El Amaneser reminds us, “kuando muncho eskurese es para amaneser” (“when it’s dark out, that’s because dawn in coming”), an adage whose truth has stood the test of time for the global community of Ladino speakers.

In 2019 and upon the initiative of Haim Carmi, a new generation of Ladino scholars and activists took upon themselves the challenge of restoring Aki Yerushalyim and assuming its editorial board, which nowadays includes the following activists: Aldo Sevi (editor-in-chief), Nava Cohen, Esther Rute Cediel, David Atias, Orit Salinas and Hedva Perahia. Now exclusively published in digital version, Aki Yerushalayim continues to feature the above-mentioned sections and kantonikos, as well as a new website ( containing old and new issues (though this is still a work in progress).

As a Ladino scholar and CEO of Ladino 21 who specialises in revitalising this language by digital means, I have had the opportunity to interview and converse with most of Aki Yerushalayim’s current editorial board members. In my daily interactions with them, I have the fortune of witnessing their relentless passion and selfless devotion to Ladino.

Based on the above, I am confident that the future of the most authoritative all-Ladino magazine in the world is in the safest and warmest hands, and would like to take advantage of this post to acknowledge and celebrate everybody that has made possible the existence and continuation of Aki Yerushalayim, all of which has granted this publication a place of honour in our Jewish Languages Bookshelf.

Dr Carlos Yebra López
OSRJL Ladino Teacher; Spanish and Portuguese Post-Doc/Lecturer,
Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literature,
New York University

Italian Judeo-Spanish

MS. Canonici Oriental 6: A Judeo-Spanish Copy of an Italian Bestseller

Sometime before 1580, somebody transliterated a Spanish translation of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso into Hebrew letters (aljamiado). This took place somewhere in the Ottoman Empire, probably in Anatolia. At some point later on, four folios were added to the transliteration containing an epitaph for a woman composed in Patras (present day Greece) in 1580.

MS. Canonici Or. 6 © Bodleian Libraries

The question is ‒ why would somebody go to the trouble of doing this? The Orlando Furioso was one of the undisputed bestsellers in Renaissance Europe. An Italian epic romance in verse, it was first published in 1516, and then again in a revised edition in 1521 as well as in a revised and enlarged edition in 1532. Soon it had been translated into several European languages ‒ French, Spanish (1549), English (1591) and German. The first Spanish translation, by Jerónimo de Urrea, was reprinted ten times in the first 34 years. Two complete translations more would be published before the end of the sixteenth century.

The volume took as its main characters Orlando (Roland) and the other paladins of Charlemagne’s court at war with the Saracen army that had invaded France. The work in its final version comprised forty-six cantos (forty-five in the Spanish translation) with 4,842 stanzas (4,902 in the Spanish translation), which makes for an astonishing 38,736 (39,216) lines in total. The appetite for chivalric romance in the sixteenth century was clearly limitless.

The work itself originally had been published well after the expulsions of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, and the Spanish translation even more so. Still, several generations after the 1492 Expulsion, Jews of Sephardi origin continued reading the same works as their Christian contemporaries; this phenomenon took place not only in the West, but also, as our work shows, in the Eastern Mediterranean. For, indeed, it was in the Ottoman Empire that the manuscript under discussion herein was produced, according to Malachi Beit-Arié. Adolph Neubauer, the Hebraica Curator who produced the Catalogue of Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, thought the work was written in transliterated Italian and had been written somewhere in the Italian peninsula. This is a plausible guess, but does not stand up to a closer examination of the manuscript. Laura Minervini, an Italian scholar, studied it more recently and wrote about it.

It is very unlikely that an Italian Jew would want to read the Orlando Furioso in Spanish. Furthermore, a Sephardi descendant of those expelled from Iberia residing in the Italian lands would not need to read the work in Hebrew letters, in the unlikely case that they could not read the Latin alphabet.

The work offers a fascinating view into a world where Jews in the Ottoman Empire kept up with the reading preferences of their contemporaries in the Hispanic world, yet found it more congenial to read them in the Hebrew alphabet. Curiously, the work was transliterated following the source word for word, with no attempt to “judaise” the original’s Christian phrasing, as is often the case for similar works. The very world described in the Orlando Furioso, a world of valiant Christian and Muslim knights (some of them women), ladies, sorcerers, flying steeds, enchanted castles and exotic lands would seem totally alien to traditional Jewish culture, and yet somebody clearly saw it as worth the effort to produce this transliteration. Thirty-six of the Spanish translation’s forty-five cantos were transliterated, with the only apparent difference between the two being the suppression of thirty-eight of the seventy-two stanzas added by Urrea to Canto 34 (35 in the Italian original), eulogising the great figures of Spanish history.

The Spanish Orlando Furioso in Hebrew letters (aljamiado) gives us a glimpse of a world of which very little has remained, where the descendants of Jewish exiles from the Iberian Peninsula read a widely successful Italian chivalric romance in a Spanish translation written in Hebrew letters, comprising thousands of stanzas relating the wildly improbable adventures of knights and ladies. For all these reasons and specificities, it throws light on a fascinating corner of Jewish life.

Dr César Merchán-Hamann
Fellow Librarian & Director of the Leopold Muller Memorial Library, Bodleian Libraries; Victor Blank Curator of Hebraica & Judaica, Bodleian Library

Inauguration of The Jewish Languages Bookshelf

Professor Judith Olszowy-Schlanger is the founder of the OSRJL.


We are honoured to launch today The Jewish Languages Bookshelf, an online blog series of short articles on specific manuscripts, printed books, notes, documents and ephemera written in any of the multitude of Judeo-languages from late antiquity until today. This new series of brief and accessible yet scholarly articles is a publication of the Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages (OSRJL), recently created by the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. As of October 2021, the OSRJL offers free, online classes in twelve different rare Jewish languages, some still spoken today, others known only from texts, and most of them threatened by extinction.

For the past two thousand years in all the communities of the Diaspora, Jews spoke the vernacular languages of their non-Jewish neighbours while using their ancestral Hebrew and Aramaic for education, religion and literature. With time, these spoken vernaculars acquired linguistic specificity and began shaping Jewish culture and identity. While originally means of communicating with the world outside Jewish communities, these languages eventually became the means of expressing emotions and daily concerns within Jewish families themselves.

These “mothers-tongues”—reputed to convey frivolous messages such as magic recipes; wedding songs; lullabies; tales and stories of knights, princesses and dragons; or special, simplified adaptations of Biblical accounts for the supposedly less educated women and children—were nonetheless often committed to writing. The vernacular sounds of home and street seeped through the walls of synagogues, institutions of learning and printing houses to penetrate the learned spheres of liturgy, education and literary creation.

Manuscripts, books, almanacs, newspapers, magazines, tracts and written notes on a variety of mundane and intellectual subjects written in Judeo-languages, usually in Hebrew letters, became inseparable companions of the Jews throughout their history. The Jewish Languages Bookshelf celebrates these writings and their roles in shaping Jewish life. The editors are delighted to share with our readers the insights and discoveries of little-known writings, and invite the growing community of scholars of Judeo-languages to contribute to The Bookshelf. We are proud to open the series with a glimpse at the Judeo-language treasures of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, as detailed by Dr César Merchán-Hamann.

Professor Judith Olszowy-Schlanger
President, OCHJS; Director, Centre for Hebrew & Jewish Studies; Professor of Hebrew Manuscript Studies, EPHE, PSL; Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford

The Jewish Languages Bookshelf

This blog, known as The Bookshelf, accompanies the newly founded Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages (OSRJL), created at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies (OCHJS), University of Oxford, in collaboration with the Institut des Langues Rares (ILARA) at EPHE, Paris. The aim of the blog is to publish, on a regular basis, short and illustrated, scholarly but accessible articles on manuscripts, printed books, newspapers or documents in one of the numerous vernacular Jewish languages spoken and written by Jews from the Middle Ages until today.

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