Comparison to Arabic as an Exegetical Method in Tanḥum ha-Yerushalmi’s Commentary on the Bible

In: From Sībawayhi to ʾAḥmad Ḥasan al-Zayyāt: New Angles on the Arabic Linguistic Tradition
Author: Avi Tal

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The encounter of medieval Jewish scholars with Arabic linguistic literature during the last decades of the tenth century CE produced one of the most important branches of Hebrew linguistics, namely, that of comparative Semitic philology. This branch not only changed the nature of Hebrew philology but influenced considerably the philological exegesis of the Bible as well.

The main contribution to biblical philology, then as now, is in the area of decoding and explaining esoteric expressions and hapax legomena whose meaning was obscure as well as elucidating unclear syntactic structures. This literary activity spread in the Arabic-speaking area from Iraq in the east, through the Holy Land, Egypt and North Africa, to Andalusia in the west.

This article discusses the comparison between Hebrew and Arabic as an exegetical method in a commentary on the Bible written by Rabbi Tanḥum ha-Yerushalmi (Egypt, 1219–1291), who wrote in Judaeo-Arabic. Tanḥum’s commentary reflects an assimilation or an absorption of advanced linguistic knowledge, to which he was exposed as an eclectic exegete well informed in the Arabic grammatical tradition. As the article shows, Tanḥum did not hesitate to adopt and even improve notions and insights that he had found in the writings of Arab grammarians. It seems therefore that one should refer to him as an eclectic exegete who succeeded in innovating by suggesting some original commentaries, in a period which has been defined in modern research as a period of stagnation (from 1250 to 1550 CE).