Today it is often not known that for more than half a millennium – from the Arab-Islamic Conquest to long after the Crusades – most Jews lived under Arab and Islamic rule, with important communities in Mesopotamia, Egypt, North Africa, Persia and Israel itself, as well as the emerging community in Islamic Spain.
(The primary Jewish communities still not under Islamic rule were to be found in what remained of the Byzantine Empire, as well as France, and Italy, and the fledgling communities along the Rhine.)
To add to our difficulty to imagine this period: During much of this time, there was a kind of Jewish pope – the Ga’on – and the yeshivot of Israel and Mesopotamia were still engaged in something of a rivalry for intellectual and halachic leadership of the Jewish people.
Linguistically, for Jews this period saw important advances in Hebrew grammar in the Land of Israel – the emergence of the Tiberian vowel system we still use today and the related codification of the Masoretic text of the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures), thought to be signs that the oral Hebrew tradition was being forgotten, requiring action – alongside the large-scale abandonment of Aramaic in favor of Arabic as the daily spoken language across the bulk of the Middle East.
This created the need for Jewish texts in Arabic, and the person who rose to the occasion was none other than the Ga’on himself, the spiritual leader of world Jewry, Rabbeinu Sa’adia Ga’on, known also as the Rasag. His translation of the Torah – the Tafsir – is included in chumashim used in synagogues belonging to the Yemenite Jewish tradition to this day, and is studied regularly among formerly Arabic-speaking communities in Israel and the Diaspora, as well as by Jews of all backgrounds. Some of Sa’adia’s interpretations departing from those of Onkelos and Rashi were picked up in later interpretations and translations, including modern English-language Bible editions.
Though it is written in Hebrew lettering, the Tafsir Rasag can sound rather Islamic at first. “Allāh” is used to translate the primary Hebrew names of the Creator – both “Elohim” and YHVH, and Kohen is translated as “imām” – he who stands “in front” to represent the community.
On a deeper level, reverence for the Creator / Allāh is shown somewhat differently than in the mainstream Jewish tradition, which avoids pronunciation of YHVH altogether even during the liturgical Torah reading, substituting it with “Adonai” and sometimes with “Elohim” (if the word “Adonai” appeared immediately beforehand). In writings and speech, G-d is often referred to as “H’” for “HaShem” (The Name), sometimes a hybrid form “Adoshem”, “Ha-Qadosh Barukh Hu” (the Holy One Blessed be He), among others. The list is long, and the intention is to not just say “G-d” and leave it like that, but to create distance, so as to be sure that one is not taking the divine name in vain.
Perhaps the use of the Arabic word Allāh – “The [One] G-d” – is also the Rasag’s way of reverently avoiding the Hebrew names. (As such, and since it is used for translating the Tetragrammaton as used in chumashim, I’ll represent it with H’ in English.)
In the Tafsir though, Rasag takes it a step further, with two related phenomena: (1) Almost no verse is allowed to simply end with the phrase “I am Allāh” or “I am Allāh Rabbukum (your Lord)”. (2) A word or short phrase is added at the end of such verses, representing the divine attribute that is reflected in the verse, or the verse is reformulated to end with such a phrase.
Many instances of this double phenomenon appear in the current weekly Torah portions. Already at the beginning of Parshat Kedoshim (in Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:2), the verse is rearranged from its original wording (“[…] you shall be holy, for holy am I, H’ your G-d”, קדושים תהיו, כי קדוש אני ה’ אלהיכם) to read in the Tafsir’s Arabic as: “[…] kūnū muqaddasīn, li’anni Allāh Rabbukum al-Quddūs” (כונו מקדסין, לאני אללה רבכם אלקדוס), “be holy, for I am H’ your Lord, the Holy One.”
A similar reordering of the verse is seen in Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:25, which in Hebrew reads “And in the fifth year you will eat of its fruit, to add unto yourselves its produce, I am H’ your G-d”, but in the Tafsir the last two clauses are switched around, “fa’anni Allāh Rabbukum azīd lakum fī ghallatuh” * (פאני אללה רבכם אזיד לכם פי גלתה), “as I am H’ your Lord, I add unto you of its produce.”
Mostly though, this is done through outright additions that seem to categorize the verses according to the divine aspect shown in it, perhaps reflecting an otherwise lost tradition that the Rasag was drawing from. It is perhaps more likely that this custom appeared during the period of the Geonim, as a result of Arab-Islamic influence, since the custom of alluding to God through divine attributes is well known in Arab-Islamic culture. Most familiar, of course, are variations on the name ‘Abdullah – Servant of Allāh – built on the divine attributes as conceived in Islam, such as: ‘Abduljabbār (Servant of the Overpowerer), ‘Abdulqādir (Servant of the All-Capable), ‘Abdulkhāliq (Servant of the Creator), ‘Abdulkarīm (Servant of the Generous One), ‘Abduljalīl (Servant of the Magnificent), ‘Abdurrahmān (Servant of the Merciful One), ‘Abdulwahīd (Servant of the Only One), ‘Abdulhaqq (Servant of the Truth), ‘Abdulhakīm (Servant of the Wise One), ‘Abdunnāsir (Servant of the Victorious One, also written ‘Abdel Nasser), and the list goes on, all meaning essentially the same thing.
But how can such a custom find expression within Jewish tradition? A few examples of the use of divine attributes from the Tafsir Rasag illustrate how they relate to the relevant verses of the Torah:
Verses instructing against idol worship, such as Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:3 or 26:1, which end in Hebrew simply “Ani H’ Eloheichem” (אני ה’ אלהיכם), are signed in the Tafsir: “Ana Allāh Rabbukum al-Wāhid” (אנא אללה רבכם אלואחד) – “I am H’ your Lord, The One”. A more ominous attribute is tacked on to the end of Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:31, which commands against turning to superstitions, such as oracles and fortune-tellers (אובות וידעונים ‘ovot and yidd’onim): “Ana Allāh Rabbukum ‘Ālim ul-Ghayb” (אנא אללה רבכם עאלם אלג’יב) – “I am H’ your Lord, Knower of the Hidden”.
Commandments to respect the sanctity of the Ohel Mo’ed (The Tent of Assembly serving as a mobile temple), and by extension the Jerusalem Temple, such as Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:30, 21:12 and 22:2, are marked with attributes of honor and respect: “Ana Allāh, Sharraftuhuma” (אנא אללה שרפתהמא) at the end of 19:30 – “I am H’, I imparted honor upon them”; “Ana Allāh Musharrafan” (אנא אללה משרפא) at the end of 21:12 – “I am H’ who Imparts Honor”; “Ana Allāh, Sharraftuh” (אנא אללה שרפתה) at the end of 22:2 – “I am H’, I imparted honor upon him” [Aharon and his descendants, the Kohen priesthood charged with handling the sanctity of the Temple]. By respecting the Sanctuary in which the Divine Presence dwells among them, the People of Israel are in turn honored. This relates perhaps to the idea behind carrying the Ark of the Covenant into battles (as in the days of King David), and in Moses’ invocation when those carrying the Ark would start the journey to a new destination: “Rise up H’ and may your enemies scatter, may those who hate you flee before you!” (BeMidbar / Numbers 10:35).
One related verse however – requiring a thanksgiving offering to be eaten on the day it is slaughtered, without any meat left over for the following day (Vayiqra / Leviticus 22:30) – ends in Hebrew with “I am H’” (אני ה’), and in Arabic contains a seemingly quite general addition: “Ana Allāh, amartu bi-dhālika” (אנא אללה אמרת בדאלך), “I am H’, I have commanded this.”
Verses containing commandments perhaps thought to require the fear of God to ensure the necessary scrupulousness are signed accordingly: “And you shall not swear in my name with a lie, profaning the name of your God, I am the Lord”. This verse ends in Hebrew with “Ani H’”, but is sealed in the Tafsir with the phrase “Ana Allāh al-Mu’āqeb” (אנא אללה אלמעאקב) – “I am H’, the Punisher” (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:12, and similarly in 22:33). This signature is also appended to the commandment against cursing the deaf and placing a stumbling block before the blind (19:14), which are offenses that theoretically could have no witness, as well as gossiping and standing idly by when someone is being killed (19:15), mutilating oneself in mourning or getting a tattoo (19:28), approaching holiness in a state of spiritual impurity (22:3), rendering oneself spiritually impure by eating carrion or treifa – meat of an animal that has been improperly killed (22:8).
More positive reinforcement is used to stamp the verses relating to the commandment to wear tzitzit, ritually knotted tassels with a sky-blue thread tied onto one’s clothing to always remind one of the Mitzvot (BeMidbar / Numbers 15:37-41). The verse, ending “I am H’ your God” in the Hebrew, ends in the Tafsir with the statement: “Ana Allāh Rabbukum Da’īm ul-Baqa” (אנא אללה רבכם דאים אלבקא) – “I am H’ your Lord, who is Eternally Present”.
Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:33-34, which contain commandments requiring fair treatment of foreigners seeking refuge in the Land of Israel, and even to love them, “since you were foreigners [גרים] in the Land of Egypt; I am H’ your G-d”, ends in the Tafsir with: “Ana Allāh Rabbukum ajma‘īn (אגמעין)”, meaning roughly “I am H’ your Lord, of all [of you] together.”
A different phrase is more commonly used to mark commandments related to caring for others, social justice and harmony (19: 10, 19:18, 23:22), however, as well as for verses including the commandments to keep Shabbat (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:3, 26:2), or to keep commandments in general (19:37, 22:31). For instance: “And when you are reaping the harvest of your Land, do not finish off the corners of your fields, and don’t pick up the gathering of your harvest [fallen ears of grain]; to the poor and the stranger [ger] you will leave them, I am H’ your G-d.” This verse (Vayiqra / Leviticus 23:22) ends in the Tafsir with the statement: “Ana Allāh Rabbukum, ajāzīkum khayran” (אנא אללה רבכם אגאזיכם כירא), meaning ostensibly something like “I am H’ your Lord, I reward you with goodness”. This is seemingly a very close relative of the traditional Arab-Islamic blessing, “Jazāk Allāh khayran”, “May G-d reward you with goodness”. However, it is in a slightly different verbal form – fā’ala (فاعل / פאעל) instead of fa’ala (فعل / פעל) – which often contains an aspect of mutuality, indicating an action done together.
It could be that the Ga’on wanted to transmit the idea that through such commandments – keeping Shabbat, honoring one’s parents, leaving grain and grapes in the field for the poor and uprooted, not bearing grudges nor seeking vengeance from one’s fellow, and loving one’s fellow as oneself – not only does one bring blessings upon oneself and one’s community, but also upon G-d. “Sanctifying the Name”, whether pronounced HaShem or Allāh.
* A quick note to Arabic learners: The Teimani chumash (also known as the tāj) includes some indications of vowels and clarifications of consonants. For instance a small dot above the letter gimmel (ג) indicates that it is to be read without the dagesh, as a soft “ghimmel”, identical in pronunciation to the Arabic ghayin (غ), which it then represents in the Arabic of the Tafsir. On the word גלתה, there is also a small horizontal line above the lamed, indicating that it is doubled (in place of an Arabic shadda or Hebrew dagesh hazaq), and a small vertical line between the last two letters, symbolizing a small letter vav or short “u” sound (in place of the Arabic vowel damma, also a small letter waw). This last diacritic mark indicates that the word’s traditional pronunciation in the Jewish community would be “ghallatuh”, as in Spoken Arabic (the male possessive suffix being pronounced “-uh” or “-oh”, depending on the dialect), and not according to the genitive case form of the possessive suffix (-ihi), which the word would have within the Classical Arabic noun declension system (i‘rāb).