Unlocking Maimonides’ Spanish Jottings

July 24 2023

Working through some of the fragments found in that enormous repository of discarded Jewish manuscripts known as the Cairo Genizah, José Martínez Delgado—a scholar of Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic literature—found something that caught his eye:

I had the fragment listed in my notes as a small glossary, translating some Judeo-Arabic terms into a medieval Romance language. Just as I was about to close the window and move on to the next text, two words, fustaq (pistachio) and qastal (chestnut), winked at me from the bottom corner of the fragment as if I were a friend. It was like the old Grace Jones song: “Strange, I’ve seen that face before.”

I recognized the handwriting but I couldn’t quite believe who was winking at me through the window.

The script, Delgado and his colleagues concluded, was none other than that of Moses Maimonides, who was born in southern Spain (Andalusia) but spent most of his adult life in Egypt. There are about 60 other genizah fragments in his hand, but this is the only one in a Romance language.

What was Maimonides doing in making this little vocabulary list of colors, flavors and smells, actions, and foods? The terms aren’t arranged in alphabetical order but rather with a kind of intuitive or associative logic. In listing colors, Maimonides begins with black and white, moves on to primary colors and then to derivative ones (vinous, or wine colored), before proceeding to flavors and aromas. In doing so, he moves from sight to taste to smell.

I do think that we are seeing the writing of an idle Maimonides for the first time. This is not philosophy, medicine, law, or important correspondence. He is not thinking about the nature of God or the world or the welfare of his community; he is tinkering in a language we did not think he knew—and still do not know how well he knew.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Arabic, Cairo Geniza, Jewish language, Moses Maimonides, Sephardim


Syria’s Druze Uprising, and What It Means for the Region

When the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011, the Druze for the most part remained loyal to the regime—which has generally depended on the support of religious minorities such as the Druze and thus afforded them a modicum of protection. But in the past several weeks that has changed, with sustained anti-government protests in the Druze-dominated southwestern province of Suwayda. Ehud Yaari evaluates the implications of this shift:

The disillusionment of the Druze with Bashar al-Assad, their suspicion of militias backed by Iran and Hizballah on the outskirts of their region, and growing economic hardships are fanning the flames of revolt. In Syrian Druze circles, there is now open discussion of “self-rule,” for example replacing government offices and services with local Druze alternative bodies.

Is there a politically acceptable way to assist the Druze and prevent the regime from the violent reoccupation of Jebel al-Druze, [as they call the area in which they live]? The answer is yes. It would require Jordan to open a short humanitarian corridor through the village of al-Anat, the southernmost point of the Druze community, less than three kilometers from the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Setting up a corridor to the Druze would require a broad consensus among Western and Gulf Arab states, which have currently suspended the process of normalization with Assad. . . . The cost of such an operation would not be high compared to the humanitarian corridors currently operating in northern Syria. It could be developed in stages, and perhaps ultimately include, if necessary, providing the Druze with weapons to defend their territory. A quick reminder: during the Islamic State attack on Suwayda province in 2018, the Druze demonstrated an ability to assemble close to 50,000 militia men almost overnight.

Read more at Jerusalem Strategic Tribune

More about: Druze, Iran, Israeli Security, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy