Judeo-Arabic Purim Literature
By Jay Levinson
Slowly, Judeo-Arabic is becoming a lost language. It is the “Yiddish of the Arab World,” written in the Hebrew script and mixing Hebrew words with variations of standard Arabic.
Judeo-Arabic literature contains centuries of classical texts which cannot be forgotten or lost.
Medieval translation into Hebrew has saved the works of Bahya ibn Pakuda (Chovot HaLevavot), Judah Halevi (Kuzari) and the Rambam (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Guide to the Perplexed). There are, however, many lesser-known works which should be saved for future generations. One of these, Al-Hamdu li-Lah (Praised be the Al-mighty), has recently been the object of a linguistic study by Uri Melamed of Hebrew University.
Purim in Judeo-Arabic
Al-Hamdu li-Lah is a Purim story that starts in an unlikely venue --- the Yemeni port of Aden. The natural harbor, known from ancient times, was ruled by the Portuguese between 1513–1538 and 1547-1548. In the interim and from 1554 Aden was under Ottoman control. In 1838 the British took possession of Aden, not to leave until 1970.
The rest of Yemen, on the other hand, has been a poor country throughout the centuries. Its topography has encouraged little contact with the outside world. Books were rare, Hebrew books were even more rare, and an extensive oral tradition played a major part in Jewish life. Aden, as a port to the world, was more open than the rest of Yemen, but it was still very strict from a religious perspective.
It is not surprising that a true working knowledge of Biblical Hebrew was superficial (if at all existent) for the masses, and the same is true for the translation of HaRav Saadia Gaon, who wrote in an elegant Judeo-Arabic style typical of the Middle Ages that became difficult for later generations to understand.
Regarding Purim, Al-Hamdu li-Lah fills the religious gap. It is the story of Purim in more modern Judeo-Arabic. Its poetic verses relate the story, mixing biblical text with rabbinic Midrash, and the singing of the stanzas makes it easy to remember. There were three local traditions to reciting Al-Hamdu li-Lah --- on Parshat Zachor on the Shabbat preceding the holiday, at the Purim Feast, and on the night after Purim. As some immigrants from Yemen still remember, the poem was often sung in the synagogue.
As best can be discerned the allegorical references in this poem derive more from the traditions of Medieval Egypt and Babylonia than from Europe. After all, at this time Jewish culture was stifled in Europe, whereas there was a much freer possibility of expression in the Moslem world of the East.
This, however, was by no means in lieu of reading Megilat Esther. It was in addition. It was telling the story of Purim, showing reward for the righteous and punishment for evildoers. Yet, one custom associated with Al-Hamdu li-Lah was retained. Elders still remember banging with sticks at the mention of Haman’s name. (The names of Haman’s ten sons are not listed, and likewise the names of the eunuchs are omitted, yet Haman is called by a rich list of derogatory epithets.)
Some of the words of Yemeni Judeo-Arabic are amusing. The piyyut calls both Esther and Mordechai in Hebrew and Aramaicized forms of their names, using poetic license to fit the rhyme. Even Estheri.
Yet, where did this extra-liturgical piyyut (poem) originate? The author is reportedly Yosef al-Tubrani, and the oldest version is to be found amongst the documents of the aforementioned Cairo Genizah, yet this does not answer the basic question.
Although this piyyut is best known in Yemen and its 1904 Aden printing, Uri Melamed has convincingly postulated that it probably originated abroad where it was also printed and was only introduced to Yemen through the port of Aden, not a unique phenomenon. According to his theory, the author was not Tubrani, but possibly Tabrani (T’vera = Tiberias). Other printings give other possibilities. There are smaller printings known even as far away as Djerba (Tunisia) and Mesopotamia. The Judeo-Arabic language of the poem has taken certain very Yemeni characteristics, but Melamed places probable authorship near the Aleppo Jewish community and the Syria-Iraq border.
Judeo-Arabic can be divided into roughly five periods: Pre-Islamic or “Jahiliya” (pre-eighth century), Early Judeo-Arabic (eighth/ninth to tenth centuries), Classical Judeo-Arabic (tenth to fifteenth centuries), Later Judeo-Arabic (fifteenth to nineteenth centuries), and Modern Judeo-Arabic (twentieth century). The basic sources of Classical Judeo-Arabic are documents from the Cairo Geniza
Judeo-Arabic underwent a basic change in the late fifteenth century as many Jews, especially in North Africa, began to associate less with Arabs, the Arabic language and Islamic culture. The basic implication is that Judeo-Arabic began to be increasingly local wherever it was spoken. Written Judeo-Arabic at that time incorporated more dialectal elements, and works increasingly appeared in Hebrew.
Localisms appeared. In the Yemeni dialect, for example, shiktse (Yiddish, non-Jewish woman) had no religious connotation and was used as a negative term for a woman, as was zerash (Haman’s wife in the Book of Esther).
In the final analysis what is most important is that there is a wealth of Jewish literature. It must be preserved and translated, so that it can be available and understood for generations to come.
from the March 2011 Purim Edition of the Jewish Magazine