Hassidism in Arabic

The Tanya is the most sacred hassidic text to have been translated into Arabic.

Berslover Hassidim 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Berslover Hassidim 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
One of the visible markers of Lubavitch Hassidim is their earnest and concerted efforts to reach Jews in all corners of the globe. This includes posting emissaries in far-flung places and the effective use of modern media to deliver their message to the masses. The Lubavitch endeavor has also aimed to improve accessibility to Jewish tradition, including translating the works of Lubavitch hassidic masters.
For instance, the legal code of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1747-1812), the founder of the Chabad school of thought, of which Lubavitch is the only surviving branch, has been translated into English and into Spanish. This is not the only halachic work that the Lubavitch printing house – Kehot Publication Society – has translated; Kehot has also translated a non- Lubavitch work into Spanish – the Kitzur Shulhan Aruch (The Concise Code of Jewish Law) by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (1804- 1886).
But the work that has been most frequently translated is Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s seminal volume outlining Chabad thought.
This volume goes by a variety of names, but is most commonly known as the Tanya, and was first printed in 1796 in Slavuta. The Tanya has been translated into many languages: Yiddish (1955-58), English (1962-8), Italian (1967-74), French (1968-80), Spanish (1969-70), Portuguese (1981), Russian (1976-79) and most recently into German (2011) and Georgian (2011).
Perhaps the most surprising edition of Tanya is its translation into Arabic. This edition was printed in sections in Casablanca, Morocco in the years 1976-80, and then printed in 1984 as one volume. The Casablanca edition of the Tanya includes a page of the original Hebrew text followed by three to five pages of translation into Judaeo-Arabic – that is, Arabic in Hebrew letters. The 1984 edition has Arabic letters embossed on the cover of the volume, and there is also a title page – printed at the front and at the back – in Arabic letters.
In a public talk delivered in early 1977 – a few weeks after the first section of the Arabic translation became available – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch (Ramash, 1902-1994) described this edition as a further stage in spreading the wellsprings of Torah and Hassidism. He explained that the goal of translating the Tanya was to reach each person where that person stood. It was therefore imperative to offer the work in as many languages as possible, rather than waiting until the person studied Hebrew and was able to access the original text.
The Ramash further explained that by discussing Torah in non-Jewish languages, we elevate the mundane language to a holy plane. This is all the more so when we translate the very words of Torah into foreign languages. The effect is even more pronounced when the translated Torah is printed, giving it a fixed form that will last for generations.
The Ramash added that he was particularly pleased that the Tanya had been translated into Arabic, for he saw this as a language that did not belong to one particular nation – like French for the French or Italian for the Italians – rather, it was the language of all the descendants of Ishmael.
While the Tanya is probably the most famous hassidic work to have been translated into Arabic, it was not the first.
Rabbi Yaakov Ketina (d. 1890), was a hassidic rabbi who served on the rabbinical court in the town Huszt – then in Hungary and today in Ukraine. His hassidic allegiance was to Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz (Divrei Chaim, 1797-1876). Rabbi Ketina wrote two works, both of which he published anonymously. The first, published in 1865, was titled Rahamei Ha’av (The Mercies of the Father), and dealt with character refinement. Rabbi Ketina’s second work, titled Korban He’ani (The Sacrifice of the Pauper), was a compilation of hassidic ideas on the weekly Torah portion. Korban He’ani was first published in 1872, and an expanded edition was published in 1882 under the title Korban He’ani He’hadash (The New Sacrifice of the Pauper), also without the author’s name.
Rahamei Ha’av was an extremely popular book, going through seven editions – all anonymous – during the author’s lifetime.
The sixth edition included a short poem with the author’s first name in an acrostic.
It was only in the 11th edition – published in Munkacs, Hungary in 1932 – that Rabbi Ketina’s grandson, Rabbi Meir Yehuda Ketina acknowledged his grandfather’s authorship.
Interestingly, the grandson had published Rahamei Ha’av previously in Munkacs in 1898 – the eighth edition of the work – but had not revealed that he was the grandson of the author.
To date, this short work has been printed at least 32 times. Recently. in 2008, Rahamei Ha’av was translated into Yiddish, but this was not the first time it was translated.
In 1938, Rabbi Haim Houri (1884-1957), one of the most famous rabbis from Djerba, Tunisia, translated Rahamei Ha’av into Judaeo-Arabic. This edition also included translations of other material that had been appended over the years to Rahamei Ha’av, including Tzetil Katan (Little Note) – the succinct list of recommended guidelines for conduct by Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717-1786).
While Judaeo-Arabic dialects are considered endangered languages, for those who still read Judaeo-Arabic there are two hassidic works available to read: the Tanya by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and Rahamei Ha’av by Rabbi Yaakov Ketina.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.