Sunday 18 November 2018


Tafsir Rasag - Arabic Translation (in Hebrew script) of the Torah by Rav Saadia Gaon.

In this article we are going to look at the fascinating, if not surprising, notion of Rav Saadia Gaon (882[1]-942) using some Islamic sources for his translation of the Torah into Arabic. Sometimes he changes the meaning of the text to conform to his own personal opinions and other times even to certain Islamic principles!
I have drawn primarily from Professor David M. Freidenreich’s scholarly work in this field, and this article is largely based on one of his research papers.[2]
We will examine just “why on several occasions the gaon [i.e Rav Saadia Gaon[3]] prefers Islamic interpretations over the existing rabbinic and biblical alternatives.”
Rav Saadia ben Yosef al-Fayumi[4] lived during the Abbasid Caliphate[5] and was one of the first rabbis to write in Arabic (not to be confused with Aramaic). He was an outspoken opponent of Karaite Judaism and hence a firm supporter of Rabbinical Judaism. His major work, Emunot veDeot was an early attempt to synchronize belief in Divine Revelation (emunot) with rational observation (deot).
He was appointed Gaon over Sura which was very unusual as that city only elected its own natives as its leaders.[6] In those times, each major centre was controlled by a Gaon and a Reish Galuta (or Exilarch). The Gaon was theoretically in charge of religious affairs while the Reish Galuta controlled the politics and administration. Unfortunately, his appointment to head the Sura Academy in 928 - by David ben Zakkai, the Reish Galuta himself - did not end well. This was because Rav Saadia refused to sign the ruling of the Reish Galutu regarding a certain inheritance case, despite the fact that it was signed in the rival city of Pumpedita.
The Reish Galuta’s son then threatened Rav Saadia, and Rav Saadia’s assistant retaliated. Soon the Gaon and Reish Galuta simultaneously excommunicated each other – and each appointed another candidate in place of the other.
R. Saadia’s translation of the Torah into Arabic is known as the Tafsir, which means ‘interpretation’ (or more accurately ‘interpretation; usually of the Qur’an’).
His Tafsir is not the first Arabic translation of the Torah but was the most authoritative. It was largely accepted and endorsed by rabbinic Judaism, is still considered, to this day, as the official Arabic translation of the Torah.
An interesting detail about Rav Saadia’s translation is that he completely eliminates anthropomorphic references to G-d. So, for example, during the creation narrative, he doesn’t use the expression “And G-d said” – instead he translates it as “And G-d willed”.
Also, the expression “And G-d descended” (upon Mt Sinai) is rendered as “And G-d revealed Himself”.
In the Hebrew text of the Torah, each day of creation has a concluding sentence, such as: “And it was morning and it was evening, Day One.” In R. Saadia's Tafsir, the order is switched to accommodate a more literary style with that sentence serving rather as an introduction to the next day. The paragraph is redesigned to start: “After the evening and morning of the first day...” and continues with a narrative of Day Two, and so on.
R. Saadia employed great latitude in his translations and often brought the text more in line with Halachic and rabbinic thinking. Thus, instead of “Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” becomes a far simpler: “Do not eat milk and meat together”.
R. Saadia Gaon frequently, and apparently glibly, gave Arabic names for places and animals. This prompted R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167), who was a severe critic of R. Saadia Gaon’s Arabic translation, to openly challenge him quite scathingly:
Freidenreich translates Ibn Ezra as follows:
 “[Saadia gave Arabic names][7] to families, cities, animals, birds, and rocks. Maybe he saw this in a dream. And he certainly erred in some cases...
Because he translated the Torah in the language of Ishmael [i.e. Arabic] and in their script, [he translated unknown Hebrew words] so that they will not say that the Torah contains words[8] which [the Jews] do not understand.”
[As an aside, see: Ibn Ezra Quotes Karaite Sources Several Hundred Times. - Did Rav Saadia’s known opposition to Karaites have anything to do with Ibn Ezra’s attack on him?]
R. Saadia Gaon openly acknowledges his taking of textual liberties from time to time.
However, he stresses that the purpose of his Tafsir is “solely a translation of the plain text of the Torah...And if it is possible for me to insert a certain word or letter through which the meaning and intention will be revealed to one for whom an allusion is more satisfactory than a statement, I have done this.”[9]
Freidenreich explains that some scholars believe that “Saadiah, breaking with the universal Rabbinite practice of using Hebrew characters, wrote the Tafsir in Arabic script for an Islamic audience.
By ‘script’ we are referring only to the script and not to the language, which all agree was in Arabic.
However, others (including Freidenreich himself) argue that he wrote his Arabic translation in Hebrew script for a Jewish audience. This view is corroborated by the fact that to date, no Arabic script texts have been found in any of the Genizahs. In fact, an 11th century Tafsir in Hebrew script has been discovered which strongly supports the latter view.
Freidenreich writes: “As Muslims at that time could not read Hebrew or Hebrew characters, this clearly indicates that Saadiah wrote his translation of the Torah with a Jewish audience in mind...”
Freidenreich then drops an ideological bombshell:
“It is my contention that Saadiah deliberately and selectively relied on Islamic sources...Saadiah’s Tafsir shows evidence of conscious attention by the author to the stylistic expectations of his assimilated audience and of his use of specifically Islamic terms, traditions, and sources to provide more detailed or more rationally acceptable interpretations of certain biblical passages.”
Then he adds in a footnote:
“Saadiah is the first rabbinic commentator to base his biblical interpretation on philological [the study of texts][10] and rational principles, as was standard in qur’anic interpretation of his day.”
‘NUR ALLAH’:        
Rav Saadia Gaon was not reluctant to use the term Allah for G-d.
When referring to G-d‘s presence he uses the expression ‘nur Allah’ or Light of G-d.
When R. Saadia comes to the word Kohen, he translates it as ‘Imam’.
Amazingly, Aharon haCohen become Aharan the Imam – this despite the fact that R. Saadia could have used another Arabic word Kahin for Cohen!
The reason could be that Kahin has astrological connotations. Either way, we still see R. Saadia’s open usage of highly nuanced terms from the dominant religion of his day.
R. Saadia Gaon also had no qualms about using the expression ‘rassul Allah’, or messenger of G-d, to refer to Moshe Rabbenu.
Other medieval rabbis also used that same expression to refer to Moshe, possibly to emphasize that Moshe was no “less worthy of divine revelation than Muhammad.” This would have been quite an assertive expression to use at that time especially under Moslem domination, although the Qur’an itself uses that same turn of phrase ‘rassul Allah’ to refer to Moshe as well.[11]
Lest one think that R. Saadia Gaon was an apologist or an assimilationist, Freidenreich quotes Eliezer Schlossberg who argues that in some of R. Saadia’s commentary, he in fact attacks Islam because the poor manner in which they treated the Jews.
However, Freidenreich argues that that would apply more to R. Saadia’s other writings, but not specifically to the Arabic translation of Torah known as the Tafsir.
Freidenreich cites Moshe Zucker who calculated that there are 350 instances where R. Saadia makes the text conform to rabbinic law, such as in the abovementioned case of ‘do not eat milk and meat together’.
By the same token, he also found forty-five instances where R. Saadia appears to offer translations that run counter to the rabbinic grain:
In the following example, R. Saadia contradicts a Babylonian Talmudic practice of ‘temporary marriages’. (Incidentally, this practice was rejected by the Talmud Yerushalmi.):
 The notion of a ‘temporary marriage’ was quite common amongst Babylonian rabbis (see here).
We find[12] that when Rav went to Darshish and when R. Nachman went to Shechantsiv, they asked; “Who will be my [wife] for a day?” This was also a common practice amongst the Persian societies where the Babylonian Talmud was incubated.

Although the Babylonian Talmud generally discouraged taking different wives in different places for fear that children born of these unions may unwittingly one day marry each other – exceptions were made for the great sages, who because of their importance, would rely on the likelihood of the mothers telling their children who their fathers were.
Interestingly, the practice of ‘temporary marriages’ was also debated in Islamic law: The Qur’an may have permitted ‘temporary marriages’, and Shi’is still practice it although it is outlawed by Sunnis.
R. Saadia Gaon was strongly opposed to such practices.
Thus we find that when the Torah warned; ‘There shall not be a promiscuous woman among the daughters of Israel’[13] – he changed the meaning entirely by substituting ‘one who enters a temporary marriage’ (mumta’a) for ‘promiscuous woman’ (kedeisha). 

He similarly translates the word ‘zonah’ (prostitute) in the Yehudah and Tamar story, as mumta’a (temporary marriage).[14]
Thus R. Saadia “effectively creates an unprecedented biblical prohibition against temporary marriage...”  This, he may have done do discourage Jews from following the then common cultural practice of ‘temporary marriage’ as a legalized form of prostitution. Remember, R. Saadia lived “in an environment dominated by Sunni norms and therefore internalized the strong Sunni condemnation of the practice of temporary marriage.”
 In Parashat Lech Lecha[15], the Torah describes how the angel of G-d meets Hagar after Sarah sent her away, and announces the imminent birth of Yishmael who was to have many descendants.
This event takes place ‘on the road to Shur’.
According to the Torah itself (Shemot 15:22), Shur is to the west of the Sea of Reeds, which places it on the Sinai Peninsula which is close to Egypt.
However, R. Saadia translates Shur (in the Hagar and Yishmael story) as hajr al-hijaz or the Rock of the Hijaz, which refers to the Black Rock of the Kaaba in Mecca!

Here we have an instance where R. Saadia Gaon intentionally ignores the biblical description of Shur as being in the Sinai. Instead, he changes it to refer to Mecca – which is where, as it happens according to Islamic tradition, Abraham took Ishmael and Hagar after they were expelled by Sarah and where Abraham built the Kaaba!
This is clearly an Islamic influence as no other Jewish tradition refers to the Hijaz region of Arabia as a place of historical or spiritual significance.
Although in this instance there are textual variants based on different manuscripts, R. Saadia again refers to Mecca in his translation of another verse[16] where Meisha and Sefara become Mecca and Medina respectively:

Interestingly, another Torah commentator, R. Avraham Ibn Ezra also refers to an Islamic reference regarding the spring where the angel meets Hagar, which is “associated with the Islamic pilgrimage.”
Another example of possible Islamic influence on the Tafsir of Rav Saadia Gaon, can be seen in how he translates Joseph’s ‘begged’ or garment which Potiphar’s wife ‘caught hold of him by’.[17]
Throughout the rest of the Tafsir, R. Saadia translates the Hebrew word ‘begged’ as ‘thawb’ in Arabic. However, in the story of Joseph, he suddenly translates that ‘begged’ as ‘qamis’ which specifically means ‘shirt’, and not just a garment.
This may parallel the version of the story of Joseph as recorded in the Qur’an[18] where ‘qamis’ is used to describe the ‘shirt’ (or coat) which Joseph wore. No Jewish sources specify that it was a shirt, only that it was a garment.
Another example of possible Islamic influence on the Tafsir, can be found in the story of the Parah Adumah or Red Heifer, whose ashes the Torah says has are to be used to purify those who have become impure from contact with the dead.

The Talmud (Shekalim4:2) specifies that the cow must be completely red, it must be older than three years, it must be unblemished, it must never have worked and it must be purchased with Temple funds set aside specifically for its purpose.
In the Qur’an, a parallel to the ‘Red Heifer’ is described[19]: The Children of Israel ask Moses to clarify details of the cow to be sacrificed. Moses responds that it should be middle-aged, unblemished, never used for work and the pleasing colour of 'tsafra'yellow (not red).

Freidenreich writes:
“There is, however, one significant departure from the [Hebrew[20]] biblical text: according to every manuscript and edition of the Tafsir which I have been able to examine, the color of the cow is safra [yellow[21]], the qur’anic word used to describe the cow’s color. It appears that Saadiah considers the red heifer to be yellow.”

Bamidbar 19

Freidenreich concludes that:
“Saadiah certainly was not trying to syncretize Judaism with Islam or write an Islamicized translation of the Torah for the benefit of Muslims; had he so desired, he could easily have incorporated many more references to the Qur’an into his Tafsir.
The gaon was, however, willing to take from Islam those terms, traditions, and insights which he found to be valuable for his own purposes, and he was able to integrate them successfully into a work that remains quintessentially Jewish, so much so that his Tafsir came to be accepted as the authoritative rabbinic translation of the Torah into Arabic.”

Bringing all the above into some form of modern context:
It may be of value to relate R. Saadia’s Tafsir, to R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s German translation and commentary to the Torah. This also created a stir amongst the more traditionally conservative Jews of his era. Yet, when one understands the milieu, background and environment in which he wrote - his works take on very different, if not crucial, meaning.
The same may be said for ‘The Pentateuch and Haftorahs of Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom Dr J.H. Hertz, which many too, have criticised for its more than occasional reference to non-Jewish commentators.
This is what Solomon Schechter wrote of Hertz in 1901:
 “[T]he new century does not open under very favourable auspices for Judaism…[O]ur Scriptures are the constant object of attack, our history is questioned, and its morality is declared to be an inferior sort…[T]he younger generation…if not directly hostile, are by dint of mere ignorance sadly indifferent to everything Jewish, and incapable of taking the place of their parents in the Synagogue…”
Schechter argued that an English commentary on the Five Books (and the rest of the Bible as well), written under Jewish auspices, was needed to respond to these challenges.[22]
Perhaps one must view the Tafsir of Rav Saadia Gaon in a similar manner.

[1] Some say 892.
[2] The Use of Islamic Sources in Saadiah Gaon’s Tafsir of the Torah, by David M. Freidenreich. (Columbia University).
[3] Parenthesis mine.
[4] Fayum was in Upper Egypt.
[5] The Abbasid Caliphate was the third Caliphate after Muhammad. The name comes from Muhammad’s uncle Abbas ibn Abdul-Muttalib (566-653CE). It was centred in Baghdad (established in 762) and succeeded the Umayyad Caliphate in the Abbasid Revolution in 750. ‘Persianate customs’ were adopted, and science, scholarship and art were encouraged in what was to become the Golden Age of Islam.
[6] Another ‘foreigner’ was Yehudai Gaon, about a century earlier, during the mid-700s, see here.
[7] Parenthesis mine.                          
[8] In some manuscripts ‘commandments’ (mitzvoth instead of milot).
[9] Translation by Freidenreich.
[10]Parenthesis mine.
[11] Qur’an 61:5.
[12] Yoma 18b, and Yevamot 37b.
[13] Devarim 23:18. “Lo tiheyeh kedeisha mi’bnot Yisrael
[14] Bereishit 38:15.
[15] Bereishit 16:7.
[16] Bereishit  10:30.
[17] Bereishit 39:12.
[18] Qur’an 12.
[19] Qur’an 2: 64-71.
[20] Parenthesis mine.         
[21] Parenthesis mine.
[22] The Story of the Hertz Chumash.


  1. "The Reish Galuta’s son then threatened Rav Saadia, and Rav Saadia’s assistant retaliated. Soon the Gaon and Reish Galuta simultaneously excommunicated each other – and each appointed another candidate in place of the other."

    A similar story is told about the conflict between Rav Saadia and Rav Aharon Ben Meir, Nasi of the Sanhedrin in Eretz Yisrael, which I mentioned before. A story of mutual excommunication. The truth will win through the power of the mind, through reason, and of course not through such excommunication. Yes, the truth will win, despite all. Your posts are some of the means. Yishar Koach!

  2. וַֽיִּקְרְא֥וּ בַסֵּ֛פֶר בְּתוֹרַ֥ת הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים מְפֹרָ֑שׁ וְשׂ֣וֹם שֶׂ֔כֶל וַיָּבִ֖ינוּ בַּמִּקְרָֽא׃ (ס)
    They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading.
    Nehemiah 8:8.
    Ezra Hasofer Hanavi was all for explaining the Torah to the local Jews.

  3. "It appears that Saadiah considers the red heifer to be yellow.”
    rav kapah explains that the hue in question is orange-ish,
    tsafra means morning in a number of languages, the morning sun is certainly orange not yellow. modern " red heifers " in the news are orange-brown . rabbeinu saddiah did not describe a yellow cow

    1. Thank you Unknown for your reference to R. Kapah (Qafih). Freidenreich mentions R. Kapah's suggestion - in his first collection published more than twenty years before the Torat Hayyim series - that Tsafra is yellowish-brown 'like the color of a dark egg yolk'.

  4. According to the Torah itself (Shemot 15:22), Shur is to the west of the Sea of Reeds, which places it on the Sinai Peninsula which is close to Egypt.
    The Torah says no such thing. The Torah says they traveled from Yam Suf into the desert of Shur, no direction given. If you [ mistakenly ?] assume that the REED SEA is the RED SEA then indeed the midbar shur is going to be the arabian peninsula

  5. R. Saadia describes Shur in three different ways over the course of four pesukim. In Shemot 15:22 it becomes the desert of Shur. In Bereishit 20:1, and 25:8, it becomes al-jifar. But in Bereishit 16:7 it becomes Rock of Hijaz.

  6. *if* be'er lachai roee is in the petra area [ plausible ] , then midbar shur could be on the road to mecca

  7. Yes. Either way we cant escape R. Saadia's reference to the road to Mecca.

  8. What about the torah commentary which rav saadia wrote in Arabic?