On Judeo-Persian Language and Literature | Part One: State of the Field

by Adam McCollum in


In a two-part series, Dr. Adam McCollum addresses the possibilities for the field of Judeo-Persian language and literature. Part One addresses the state of the field and Part Two includes a helpful bibliography and four text samples.
Yūsuf va Zulaykhā (Joseph and Zulaykha) Photo credit: The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary

Yūsuf va Zulaykhā (Joseph and Zulaykha) Photo credit: The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary

“By the head of the king of the world, by the religion of Moses” (sar-i šāh-i gihān bar dīn-i Mūsá)*: A brief look at Judeo-Persian language and literature, with four short text samples

*This line is from a Judeo-Persian poem: Seligsohn 1902: 94.14. 

Adam Carter McCollum, Hill Museum & Manuscript Library

The phenomenon of Jewish languages (or ethnolects; cf. Hary 1996), spoken and written, is well known. Social communities tend to use and change languages for their own purposes, and Jewish communities have been and are no different. These changes and characteristics may run the gamut of topics of linguistic description: that is, they may include special phonology, vocabulary, etc. In terms of specific languages, ancient Hebrew and Aramaic — with several subtypes for each — are the early foundations, and there is also Jewish Greek not long thereafter and concurrent with spoken and written Hebrew and Aramaic. Later well known Jewish languages include Judeo-Arabic — in its written form, Arabic language in Hebrew letters — Yiddish (Judeo-German), and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). (There is also a kind of reversed Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew text written in Arabic letters, surviving in a few manuscripts, for example British Library Or. 2553. Other varieties are less well known, although specialized scholars have devoted their attention to them: examples are modern dialects of Aramaic (some also used by some Christian communities), Judeo-Georgian, and Judeo-Persian. When these languages have been written or are still written, the writing system is generally Hebrew script, modified as necessary with diacritical dots or lines to indicate sounds not readily obvious from Hebrew script. (Generally on Jewish languages see http://www.jewish-languages.org and Journal of Jewish Languages. 

The purpose of this post is simply to cast a little more light on one of these languages — Judeo-Persian — for a wider audience. In addition to sharing some basic facts about the language and literature, I offer some short text samples with grammatical analysis as a brief and hopefully illustrative introduction to the language in action; I hope it will be accessible in some degree not only for readers who are familiar with (non-Judeo-)Persian, but also for those who are not.

Our focus here on Judeo-Persian (JP) considers exclusively literary JP as found in documents ranging from the eight century CE up until the early twentieth century, naturally with some variation across so long a period of time and across different genres of text. (Spoken JP is alive as the language of Jewish communities in Iran, but it falls outside of the focus here. For Judeo-Median, a NW Iranian — “Persian” is SW Iranian — spoken language used by Jews in Isfahan, Kashan, Yazd, and elsewhere, see Borjian 2014.) What are these JP texts? There is both translated literature and original compositions in JP. In the former group are parts of the Hebrew Bible and other Hebrew or Aramaic texts studied in Jewish communities, such as Pirqe Avot. In the latter group are inscriptions, commentaries, poems on biblical, teaching, and historical subjects, and occasional compositions such as letters, colophons, and legal documents. (For a survey of the literature, see Netzer 2009; cf. Lazard 1963: 128-134).

These texts were translated or composed in and around what are now called Iran and Afghanistan and into Central Asia. Much further east, the Chinese Jewish community of Kāifēng (開封, in Henan province) came from Persia and the community's books contain some passages and colophons in Judeo-Persian. There are JP documents from the so-called Cairo Geniza and the recently discovered Afghan Geniza, and we may mention the use of JP in Bukhara (including Jewish communities in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) in earlier and more recent periods.

The earliest JP texts — actually the earliest witness to New (i.e. not Old or Middle) Persian of any kind — are three short inscriptions on rock at Tang-e Azāo (Afghanistan, Herat province) dated 1064 AG (= 752/3 CE) and a contemporaneous or slightly later letter (on paper) found by Aurel Stein near the Buddhist Temple of Dandān Öiliq in Khotan (Chinese Turkestan, Xinjiang Province). Later than these two, but still another early document is the Ahwaz Law Report (1020/1 CE; see Margoliouth 1899, Asmussen 1965b, MacKenzie 1966, and Shaked 1971). These and other early JP documents have long been recognized as very significant for the study of the history of Persian, not least because they provide snapshots of the transition from Middle to New Persian and because they may show a dialect distinct from that of SNP. And as Lagarde (1884: 70) remarked specifically in terms of the Persian lexicon, “Henceforth no one who has not worked through these [JP] translations from beginning to end can claim to know the vocabulary of New Persian” (“von jezt ab wird niemand behaupten dürfen den wortschaz des neuPersischen zu kennen, der diese übersezungen nicht vom anfange bis zum ende durchgearbeitet hat”; the idiosyncratic German orthography is Lagarde’s). In terms of the continuing history of Persian, JP stands out for its “almost complete independence from the canons of Islamic Persian in every area of language use” (Paper 1976: 81).

Among the tafsīrs (commentaries with or without Persian translation) are those on Ezekiel (Gindin 2003, 2007a, 2007b), Genesis (Shaked 2003), and the Hagiographa (Khan 2000), the last two being Karaite. (The Hagiographa tafsīr is from a commentary originally covering the whole Bible, as is evident in phrases like “with regard to [biblical quotation] we have said (that)…” pʾ  [biblical quotation] gvftym kv…, where the biblical quotation is from another part of the Bible; see, for example, Khan 2000: 282-283 for a reference to Gen 16:3.) For a fragment of a Karaite Sefer Miṣvot see MacKenzie 1968 (also on Karaite JP materials see Shaked 2003: 196).

Later than the inscriptions of Tang-e Azāo are those on tombstones in the Jewish cemetery of Ġūr from the 11th-13th centuries (Stern 1949; Gnoli 1964; Rapp 1971, 1973; Shaked 1981). JP literature following the Mongol invasions in the 13th century embraces epic-style JP poetry — some famous poets being Šāhīn, ʿImrānī, Bābāi b. Luṭf, and Bābāi b. Farhād — translations of parts of the Bible, midrashim, and works of philosophy and theology. This literature, which Shaked (2003: 198) terms Classical JP, is more in line with SNP (albeit written in Hebrew script). For the most part, this literature, which includes poetic paraphrases of the Pentateuch by Šāhīn and poetic historical narratives by others, has barely been studied in detail.

JP manuscripts, some earlier, some later, now reside at the BnF, BAV, BL, Klau (HUC), JTS, Saint Petersburg, the Ben Zvi Institute, Klau Library, and elsewhere. Among the various catalogs, I only mention a few:

Some manuscripts are partially or fully vocalized, and the texts published in Jerusalem in the early twentieth century by Šimʿōn Ḥāḵām are vocalized.

The earliest interest and attention to JP texts from people outside of the communities that used them is due, not surprisingly, to biblical translations. Yaʿqūb b. Ṭāvus’ JP translation of the Pentateuch was printed at the Soncino Press, Constantinople, in 1546, where it appeared flanking the Hebrew text with Targum Onqelos, Judeo-Arabic, and Rashi. Over a century later this translation met far more readers’ eyes after its appearance — in Arabic script (thanks to Thomas Hyde) — in Walton's Polyglot, 1657. (The Soncino Pentateuch has Hebrew in the middle, is flanked by Aramaic and Judeo-Persian, with Judeo-Arabic above.)

From what was said above about Jewish languages/ethnolects, I hope two things are clear: language ≠ script and religion ≠ language. These two facts may sometimes be all too easily forgotten, but other linguistic and sociolinguistic data also affirm their validity. To consider another language, Arabic has been written in more than one script (e.g. Hebrew script [Judeo-Arabic] and Syriac script [Garšūnī]) and by writers and scribes not all Muslim. Returning to Persian, in addition to the best known writing system for the language (Perso-Arabic) and Hebrew script, discussed here, New Persian has been written with Syriac and Manichaean scripts, among others.

A relatively small cadre of scholars has focused on Judeo-Persian language and literature, yet there is enough for interested scholars to get started in the field, especially once they have some familiarity with literary New Persian, for which grammars and chrestomathies in various languages abound. Lagarde, Nöldeke, Margoliouth, and others worked on JP in the nineteenth century, and among the more prolific researchers later are Gilbert Lazard, Ernest Mainz, Jes Peter Asmussen, and Herbert Paper, and more recently Shaul Shaked, Ludwig Paul, and Thamar Gindin. (There are, of course, others.) Strictly for biblical materials, much Judeo-Persica is listed in the bibliography I have been compiling on the Bible in Persian in Zotero (https://www.zotero.org/groups/bible_in_persian/items).

Where might an aspiring student of Judeo-Persian begin? A basic familiarity with New Persian language will serve as a foundation. While Persian might not be so simple as E.G. Browne would have us believe — he said, “Persian is so simple a language that almost any decent grammar will serve the purpose…” (1908: 495) — would-be students will find plenty of accessible starting points for the language. Grammars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are legion. Among the best is that of Salemann and Shukovski (1889) in German. A skeleton grammar in English of some use, although perhaps a bit quaint, is Palmer (1882). In English from the early twentieth century, Ranking (1907) may be mentioned. More recent, and also in English, are Mace (2009), handy for reference and review, but with a view to more modern, even conversational, Persian, than literary, and Thackston (2009, with a key available), which offers lesson-by-lesson instruction especially for literary Persian. Finally, a chapter-length presentation focused on morphology is Perry (2007). A handy verb conjugator is available at http://persian.nmelrc.org/courses/PRS506/PVClist.html

These are all simply starting points for Persian broadly considered. Specifically for Judeo-Persian, parts of Lazard (1963) are especially valuable, and strictly for (early) Judeo-Persian we now have Paul (2013b). The bibliography in Part Two includes several articles that deal with specific grammatical and lexical points of Judeo-Persian. These may be consulted during or after a student’s first forays into studying Persian. Naturally, familiarity with Aramaic/Hebrew script is needed to read Judeo-Persian manuscripts and many publications, although transliteration is often used in the latter. Given the orthographic variability that Judeo-Persian scribes employed, students familiar with Persian but just beginning in Judeo-Persian must approach the spelling in the texts before them with a grain of salt. For lexicon, the basic (if sometimes too large) dictionary of Steingass (1892) will usually serve well, but given the fact that Judeo-Persian does not necessarily follow standard Persian language use, students might have to be resourceful in their analysis of the words they meet. In addition, Hebrew words and phrases also appear in Judeo-Persian, so the ability to search the appropriate Hebrew lexical sources is needed, and the more familiar a student is with Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic literature, the better.

In an article on a JP version of Isaiah, Herbert Paper several years ago expressed as follows one of the reasons for his work on JP texts: “…it is my hope that others will be attracted to these materials in order to focus more directly on them and to make it possible for more detailed study of the individual characteristics of each text” (Paper 1975a, p. 145). The “others” here in view may be scholars of the Bible or Jewish studies, historians, linguists, Iranologists, or otherwise, but in any case there remains much work still to be done in Judeo-Persian language and literature. I humbly second Paper’s remark and I hope this brief look at JP will encourage others to turn their efforts toward this body of literature and its language. As often in cases of translation and language contact (textual and otherwise), we find here needed reminders of the translucence of assumed linguistic and more general cultural boundaries, and these reminders, obviously meaningful in the past, may well be equally meaningful for the present and the future.

Stay tuned for Part Two as Dr. McCollum walks us through Judeo-Persian text samples.

You can find out more about Dr. McCollum's work at hmmlorientalia and  @adamcmccollum 

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