A Rare Translation of the Mishnah into Judeo-Arabic

Among the manuscripts found in the Cairo Genizah are fragments of a translation of the Mishnah—the older stratum of the Talmud, compiled around 200 CE—into Judeo-Arabic. This dialect, which is Arabic written in Hebrew characters, was the everyday tongue of Jews in North Africa and parts of Spain and the Middle East for much of the last millennium. David Wasserstein describes the fragments and their significance:

Translations of the Bible into the vernacular . . . are widely known and preserved in hundreds, if not thousands, of manuscript copies [in the Genizah]. Less well-known, and less frequently found, are translations of important rabbinic texts. . . . Jacob N. Epstein published this and another related fragment [of the Mishnah] in 1950. As he pointed out, the translation demonstrates that the Mishnah was being studied by people who needed a version in their daily language. The format reminds us of modern-day Loeb editions of Greek and Latin texts, with Greek or Latin on the left-hand pages facing English versions on the right. . . .

Since then, however, several more fragments from what seems to be the same manuscript have turned up in the Genizah. . . . The spread of passages, from six tractates in all, across three of the six orders in the Mishnah provides additional support for Epstein’s belief that the entire Mishnah was included in this manuscript.

These are not the only fragments of Judeo-Arabic versions of mishnaic tractates, but they all come from a single manuscript and for that reason may have much more to tell us than we might learn from isolated fragments of other manuscripts. On the basis of the pages we have, we can . . . compute that the entire Mishnah, with its translation, in this single manuscript must have filled nearly 6,000 pages, making for an enormous and, in view of the thickness of the paper, unwieldy, multivolume copy of the text. . . .

Epstein [dated] it to the 10th or 11th century, suggesting that it was copied in North Africa or Spain, with what looked like a preference for Spain reflecting the magnificence of the Golden Age. More recently, however, Edna Engel . . . has suggested a later date, and that in its turn may hint rather at a North African provenance.

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More about: Cairo Geniza, History & Ideas, Jewish language, Mishnah, Translation

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Election 2019, Israeli politics