The Jews and The Arabian Nights
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

 The Jews and The Arabian Nights


 The Israel Review of Arts and Letters - 1996/103
The Jews and "The Arabian Nights"

Victor Bochman

(Background) Page from a 17th century Judeo-Arabic Manuscript of "The Arabian Nights"

(Inset) Title page of a Judeo-Arabic Edition of "The Arabian Nights", Tunis, 1888










Title page of Mar'ot hatzva'ot ("Sights of the Hosts"), Wansbeck, Germany, A Yiddish version of "The Arabian Nights", 1718
  Almost 100 years ago, a Belgian orientalist, Victor Chauvin, declared categorically: "The Jews do not like the Arabian Nights" ("Les juifs n'aiment pas des mille et une nuits"). Chauvin was a leading expert on popular Arabic literature who had studied this cultural phenomenon for many years, but who was less knowledgeable about Jewish sources. During the 20th century, a great deal of new material has been published that has been found to disprove Chauvin's assertion.

The present writer, who has studied this topic for some 30 years, will attempt in this article to present a survey of some of the most interesting observations and conclusions concerning the issue, to which there are three main aspects: 1. The Jewish contribution to the Arabian Nights; 2. Jews as personages in the Arabian Nights; 3. Jewish interest in the Arabian Nights.

The core of the Arabian Nights was a collection of Persian stories entitled Hezar Efsane ("Thousand Stories"), which was translated into Arabic, most probably in Iraq, as early as the ninth century ce. Some of the tales seem to be of Indian origin. The Arabic version, first named Alf Laila ("Thousand Nights"), was significantly enlarged in Iraq, Syria and later in Egypt. In the 12th century or possibly even earlier, it received its present name Alf laila wa-laila ("Thousand and One Nights"), a title which is virtually identical in both Arabic and Hebrew.

A most interesting fact is that the oldest documentary evidence of the latter title is preserved in a Jewish source - a notebook of a Jewish doctor and bookseller (unfortunately his name is not recorded) living in Cairo in the middle of the 12th century. This notebook was examined by the eminent Israeli scholar, Shlomo Dov Goitein (1900-1985), one of the world's leading experts on Jewish-Arabic texts. Goitein was born and educated in Germany, emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s and was a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for over 20 years.

The most popular version of the Arabian Nights developed into its present form in Egypt evidently at the end of the Mamluk period (15th to early 16th century). It became a virtual encyclopaedia of oriental folklore including folk tales adapted into Arabic of many different peoples as well as some authentic Arabic stories. It combined ancient Egyptian and Babylonian subjects with tales composed in the late Middle Ages.

This variegated collection of material includes some stories of Jewish origin. The longest of them is a fairy tale about a traveller named Bulukiya, and is a Moslem adaptation of old oriental and Jewish legends. Bulukiya, the son of an Israelite king, finds a book his father has hidden from him containing a description of the prophet Mo-hammed. Bulukiya embarks on a journey in order to find the prophet. He meets the serpent queen, who tells him how to obtain a herb giving eternal youth and immortality. In Jerusalem he meets a sage named Affan who knows the secret of Solomon's Seal. He crosses seven seas, seeing numerous wonders and facing adventures, and reaches Kaf Mountain (considered by mediaeval Arabs to be the world's end), meets the king Barakhiya, the archangel Gibrayil (Gabriel) and the prophet Khidr (usually identified as the biblical prophet Elias). The latter, in a flash, returns Bulukiya home. But our hero does not succeed in obtaining the longed-for herb.

This tale is borrowed from collections of prophetic stories, where it is attributed to Abdallah ibn Salam (a Jew from Medina who converted to Islam after listening to Mohammed's sermons). One of the main motifs in the stories (the search for the elixir of eternal life) had already appeared in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh (second millennium bce). The most probable origin of the story of Bulukiya seems to be the biblical passage about a Torah scroll found at the Temple of Jerusalem by the High Priest Hilkiah and brought to King Josiah by the scribe Shaphan (II Kings 22: 8-13). The name Bulukiya (not found in Jewish texts) might appear as the result of a misunderstanding of its spelling in some written sources of the Arabic story. Other proper names like Barakhiya are undoubtedly Jewish. Some motifs of this tale are also to be found in midrashic literature. While the cause for the hero's travels might originally have been just the search for everlasting life, Moslem story-tellers might have added a more important motif, to their mind - Bulukiya's desire to see the Prophet Mohammed.

There is also a cycle of short stories on pious Israelites - stories having their origins or parallels in talmudic and midrashic legends. For instance, one such story tells about an Israelite who lost his wife and two sons in a shipwreck. The waves cast him up on an island where he finds treasure and becomes king of the island. Ten years later, his sons (who also escaped from the ship but grew up in different countries) come to the island but do not recognize either their father or each other. Their mother, who was also saved and became the servant of a merchant, also arrives there with her master. The king orders his sons (who were also not recognized by him, and were taken into his service) to keep watch over the merchant's ship. During the night, each of them tells the other his story, and thus they recognize each other as brothers. Their mother, being on board the ship, overhears her sons' stories. The next day they appear together before the king and tell him the story, and thus the family is reunited.

But Jewish elements in the Arabian Nights are not limited only to complete stories. Some Jewish legends have been added to tales of Indian, Persian or Arabic origin. Especially interesting is a legend concerning King Solomon's power over the genies, or djinns. The most ancient Jewish sources reflecting this legend are the apocryphic "Book of Solomon's Wisdom" and the "Antiquities of the Jews" by Flavius Josephus. This power is also described in the Targum Sheni ("Second Translation") of the book of Esther. Although this post-dates the Koran, it is based on earlier Jewish tradition. Legends concerning Solomon's power over demons were already known to pre-Islamic Arabs; for instance, one prominent sixth-century Arab poet, Nabigah, told that Suleiman ibn Daud (the Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew name Shlomo ben David) had punished disobedient demons. The motif of punishment was mentioned in the Koran and was later developed in prophetic stories and historical works. This motif also appears in two fairy tales included in the Arabian Nights: those of "The Fisherman and the Genie" and "The Brass City." In both tales, there is a legend about Solomon putting disobedient demons into copper jugs and throwing them into the sea. One such jug is caught by the hero of the first tale; the second tells about an expedition organized by the Caliph Abd el-Malik ibn Marwan (early eighth century) in order to retrieve the jugs.

There are also proverbs of Jewish origin in the Arabian Nights. For instance, the following proverbs are quoted in the tale of Sindbad the Sailor: "The day of death is better than the birthday, and a living dog is better than a dead lion, and the grave is better than poverty." The first two proverbs are directly taken from Ecclesiastes (7:1 and 9:4); the third is similar to an aphorism repeated in several Jewish legends: a poor man is considered as a dead one.

Besides ancient Israelites, Jewish characters in the Arabian Nights comprised some considered as contemporaries of the readers. Characteristic of this is the story of a pretty Jewish girl, Zein al-Mawasif. Her name is significant (this is typical of Arabic tales in general): its literal meaning is "Embellishment of the Beauties." This woman has a lover, a Christian merchant named Masrur. She converts to Islam and tries to divorce her Jewish husband, but four Moslem kadis (judges) dealing with her case fall in love with her and die of unrequited love, one after another. After a series of interesting adventures (including the heroine's stay in a convent), the lovers are reunited and Masrur, too, converts to Islam.

In some tales, Jews play only an episodic role, but sometimes even in such cases play an important part in the development of the plots. For instance, in some versions of the story of Ala ad-Din Abu-Shamat, the story is told about a meeting of the hero's mother with a Jewish fortune-teller. The woman tells him about her main problem: she has no children. The fortune-teller guesses the cause - the husband's impotence - and recommends a medicine of Indian origin. After taking the medicine, the husband is able to impregnate his wife, and nine months later, the hero comes into the world. Two of these stories seem to be of Egyptian origin, and both of them were most probably composed during the Mamluk period.

Much fascinating and diverse material reflecting the interest of Jews for many centuries and in many countries in the Arabian Nights is unknown even to scholars. There are three sources of this material:

  1. Documents containing evidence of old versions of the Arabian Nights;
  2. Manuscripts of the entire collection or of separate tales in Jewish languages;
  3. Printed editions of the entire collection of separate tales in Jewish languages.

It is not surprising that most of this material is written in Arabic (the original language of the Arabian Nights), though in Hebrew characters. For centuries, Arabic was the spoken and literary language of Jews living in Arab countries. The Jewish population in Babylonia (modern Iraq) appeared as early as the eighth century bce after the transfer of the Israelites to Mesopotamia by the Assyrian king Sargon, and it increased after the fall of the First Temple (586 bce). A few centuries later, Jews settled in Arabia. In the fifth and sixth centuries ce, Judaism was so strong in Arabia that some of the Arabian tribes in both the northern and southern parts of the peninsula and even some south Arabian kings accepted the religion. Some of these tribes lived in Medina and its hinterland, and among them were Jews who contributed much to Mohammed's knowledge of Judaism and biblical legends, later reflected in the Koran and in the hadith (Moslem religious tradition ascribed to the prophet Mohammed).

However, in his last years, the founder of Islam fell out with the Jews and, according to Arab sources, ordered their expulsion from the Arabian peninsula. This order was only partly carried out by the caliph Omar (634-643): the Jews were expelled from north Arabia, but remained in the southern part of the peninsula until modern times. Those Jews expelled migrated to Syria, Egypt and north Africa, joining their brethren who were already living there. Some Jews had always remained in Palestine, and its conquest by the Arabs (634-640) promoted the first immigration of Arabian Jews. In all these regions, as well as in Iraq, Aramaic, the spoken language of the Jews, was replaced by Arabic. In 711, the Arabs conquered the Iberian peninsula, and Arabic became the spoken language of both Moslems and Jews in Spain and Portugal. In short, Arabic became the lingua franca of a large number of Jews who played an important role in the development of Jewish culture and of world civilization in general. Jews living in Arab countries and in mediaeval Spain used Arabic for their own compositions as well as for transcribing Arabic works into Hebrew characters.

The anonymous 12th-century bookseller wrote in the notebook examined by Prof. Goitein, that he had sold a manuscript of "Thousand and One Nights" to a certain al-Madjd al-Azizi. This client is unknown from other sources, and it is impossible to say whether he was an Arab or a Jew (the name is Arabic-Moslem, but Jews in Arab countries often had such names). Recently, the present writer located another document (which may be even earlier). It is a list of manuscripts, including Arab translations of the Haftarot (those portions from the books of the prophets read in the synagogue), a prayer-book, a book of theological content and "Thousand and One Nights" containing a story of Harun ar-Rashid. This brief note is very interesting from many points of view. First of all, the oldest Arabic form of the book's title Alf laila is mentioned. It is also remarkable that early versions of the Arabian Nights contained stories about the caliph Harun ar-Rashid, a popular personage in Arabic folklore and literature. Moreover, it is the oldest-known evidence for the existence of Arabian Nights manuscripts in mediaeval Jewish libraries.

Remnants of other manuscripts can be found in different libraries. I found fragments of two 17th-century Judeo-Arabic versions of the Arabian Nights in the Firkovich Collection (Saltykov-Schedrin State Public Library, St. Petersburg) and in the Taylor-Schechter Collection (Cambridge University Library). The manuscripts are numbered in Hebrew characters in the margins.

The only known complete Judeo-Arabic manuscript of the Arabian Nights is in the Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem. It was written in 1866, in Calcutta. A large group of Jews migrated from Iraq to India in the 1830s, settling in Bombay, Calcutta and other Indian cities. They continued to speak Arabic (or, more exactly, the Judeo-Arabic dialect of Iraq). Bombay and Calcutta became important centres of Indian Jews with intensive economic and cultural life, and we shall return to Bombay in connection with printed editions of the Arabian Nights.

As for separate tales included in the Arabian Nights, in the Firkovich collection alone are to be found 22 Judeo-Arabic fragments of 13 tales - in total 60 folios. The oldest fragments belong to manuscripts written in the 14th century. The following tales are presented: "The Fisherman and the Genie"; "Anis al-Djalis"; "The Brass City"; "The Wise Slave-Girl Tawaddud"; "Hassan the Jeweller"; "Ala ad-Din Abu-sh-Shamat"; "The King Badr"; "Saif al-Muluk the Hunchback." It is significant that the Jews showed particular interest in the tales and stories where Jews were mentioned or which were ancient Jewish legends retold. One of these fragments - a part of the tale of "The Fisherman and the Genie" - in Arabic-Egyptian dialect (17th century) - was published in 1930 by the Russian scholar, Mikhail Salier. Similar fragments can also be found in the Cambridge University Library and the Alliance Israélite, Paris. Some complete manuscripts of separate tales (Adjib and Garib, Kamar az-Zaman, Hassan from Basrah, etc.), but written much later, (the end of the 19th and early 20th century) in northern Africa are preserved in the Ben-Zvi Institute, Jerusalem. Some of the manuscripts of the latter group were used for popular editions of the tales published in Tunis.

But the first Jewish editions of the Arabian Nights were not printed in Arabic. Printing of Jewish books in Arab countries began only in the 19th century. Jewish printers had existed for some time in Safed, Cairo and Damascus, but were limited almost only to religious texts. It is surprising that no Judeo-Arabic editions of the Arabian Nights appeared in Egypt, where most of the known mediaeval manuscripts of the tales originated and where, since 1835, the entire Arabic text was published many times. By the time Jewish publishers in the Arab countries decided to publish the work, it was already known widely outside the Arab world and had become available in many countries of the world, including, of course, to European Jews.

Undoubtedly, some stories from the Arabian Nights were known in Europe centuries ago. Scholars have noted a similarity between some tales of the Arabian Nights and Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and to some part of Bocaccio's Decameron (both 14th century). Jews might well have been among the mediators in the process of rendering Arabic plots into European literature, due to their knowledge of languages (especially Spanish and Sicilian Jews who knew Arabic). But the entire work had been unknown in Europe until a French diplomat, Antoine Galland, brought to Paris a 14th-century manuscript of the Arabian Nights and translated it into French. Galland's translation was published in Paris in 12 volumes in 1704-1717. Publication of this edition had not yet been completed when, in 1712, the first translation of Galland's translation appeared in Leipzig. This German version was translated by Prof. August Bohse.

Six years later, in 1718, a first Yiddish adaptation appeared entitled, in Hebrew, Mar'ot Tsov'ot ("Graceful Images,") and in Yiddish, Shpigl fun der Welt ("Mirror of the World"). It was more a rehash of the Nights than an accurate translation; even the original title and Sheherezade's name were not mentioned.

The first real Yiddish translation appeared in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder in 1796. Later Yiddish editions seem to be simply reissues of the first one. The language of these editions is a far cry from the Yiddish spoken then in eastern Europe or used in Mendele's and Sholom Aleichem's works. It is Yiddish-Deutsch, the oldest literary form of the language, which is closer to German.

It is curious that the first Judeo-Arabic edition of the Arabian Nights was based not on the original Arabic text but on Galland's French translation. It was rendered into Algerian Arabic in Hebrew characters and was published in Oran, Algeria by Nissim Zadok on 20 February 1882 (the exact date is given on the title page).

Six years later, in 1888, two Judeo-Arabic editions based on original Arabic sources were published in different countries. In Bombay, Yehezkiel Nisan published the first part of the collection, and in Tunis, Sion Uzan and Castro started a multi-volume edition and published four volumes up to 1907. The Uzan-Castro edition is the largest one of the Judeo-Arabic editions, but, like the others, it was not finished. The reason for all the editions remaining incomplete was evidently a financial one: selling a comparatively cheap book did not cover the publication expenses. The number of copies printed was small and now copies are very rare.

Jewish publishers in Tunis and India preferred to print separate stories from the Arabian Nights, and about 100 were published from 1880 until the middle of the 20th century. All these editions were based on Judeo-Arabic manuscripts, and some of these manuscripts have been preserved to this

day. There were enthusiastic amateurs of Arabic popular literature copying, collecting and publishing such manuscripts. One such enthusiast was a Tunisian Jew, Hai Sarfati (c. 1820 - 1895) who amassed an entire library of Arabic popular romances, tales and stories. Part of Sarfati's manuscripts are preserved in the Ben-Zvi Institute, Jerusalem.

Some interesting editions of the stories were also published in Baghdad. For instance, between 1905-1908, Shimon Muallim Nissim began publication of the tale of Sindbad the Sailor. At approximately the same time (c. 1910), at the same printer, belonging to Ezra Reuben Dangor, two editions of the story of a hunchback appeared in a language that is none other than the Arabic dialect of Baghdadian Jews. This text seems to be a record of an oral performance of the tale and is of great interest from both folkloristic and linguistic points of view.

Shortly before World War I, a Ladino version of the Arabian Nights was published. Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) is the spoken language of a large group of Sephardic Jews (i.e., the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, who settled mainly in the Mediterranean and Balkan countries). Ladino was especially widespread in northern Morocco, Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey. This only known Ladino translation of the Arabian Nights was published in the Turkish city of Izmir, and the translation, by Daniel Balansi, was based on the French translation. Two parts were published in 1913; however, this edition too, remained incomplete as did a Bukharian-Jewish translation made by Azaryah Yusupov published in kokand, Uzbekistan, in 1915.

Some years earlier, a first attempt at a Hebrew translation had been made. David Yellin translated a part directly from Arabic and published it in Odessa in 1912; it was republished in Tel Aviv in 1930, being the first Hebrew edition of the Arabian Nights in Eretz-Israel. Meanwhile, in Warsaw in 1922, a special edition "for youth" in Hebrew by Katznelson-Feinstein was brought out, translated not from the original text but from some European version.

Why no Hebrew translations of the Arabian Nights had been made earlier is easily explained. The Jews in Arab countries were not in need of such a translation as they were perfectly familiar with Arabic. Moreover, by the beginning of the 20th century, the work had been translated into almost every European language and had thus become available to people throughout the world.

But the growth and development of Jewish immigration to Palestine, as well as the rebirth and expansion of modern Hebrew, brought about the need for translation into Hebrew of this, one of the great masterpieces of world literature. And finally an enthusiast was found who was prepared to undertake the complete Hebrew translation of the Arabian Nights. This enthusiast was Joseph Yoel Rivlin, a well-known Arabic scholar. His translation was published in Jerusalem in 30 volumes over a period of more than 20 years (1950-1971).

Rivlin was not the only Jewish scholar to study the Arabian Nights. As mentioned earlier, Prof. Goitein had found the oldest documentary evidence for the title Alf laila wa-laila. The document is of great importance since it provides the date when the title Alf laila wa-laila began to be used. A famous Arabist, Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921) wrote about the Arabian Nights in an essay on Arabic literature. A German orientalist, Joseph Horovitz (1874-1930) contributed two important articles on the Arabian Nights: the first one (1915) deals with the poems and verses, and the second one (1927) relates to problems of origins and composition of the Nights.

Another aspect of Jewish interest in the Arabian Nights is the use of its plots and motifs by writers of Jewish origin writing in different languages. One instance will suffice: in the 1930s, a Soviet writer, Lazar Lagin, wrote a fantastic narrative for children, Starik Khottabych ("Old Man Khottabych.") The hero is a djinn punished 3,000 years ago by King Suleiman ibn Daud (Solomon), who put him into a copper jug and threw him into the sea. The story's hero, a boy named Volka, finds the jug while swimming in the Moscow River, brings it home, and opens it. The djinn, Hassan Abdurrahman ibn Khottab, escapes, and wonderful adventures begin. The Arabian Nights itself was the product of a similar inter-cultural mingling, and one can see how much Jews contributed to its emergence, development and circulation. Sheherezade - a legendary narrator of the Nights - so to say, spoke Yiddish 200 years ago and Hebrew and Ladino 120 years later. It is this writer's belief that the future will reveal new evidence as to Jewish interest in the Arabian Nights. Some unknown old manuscripts reflecting this interest may well be found, as well as the works of Jewish writers and artists inspired by the wonderful images and charming plots of the Arabian Nights.

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