The Wise Men of Chelm: The Unfair Shaming of a Jewish Community

How did the Jews of Chelm, a city in Poland, acquire their reputation as a "town of fools"? Could Chelm have actually been a community of great sages? We set out in search of the true story behind this odd piece of Jewish folklore…

The Wise Men of Chelm. Cover illustration of the book The King's Golden Shoes (Hebrew). Adapted by Nurit Yuval. Illustrations: Shay Cherka

There is no wise man whose wisdom is as famous as the foolishness of Chelm, with the exception of the wisdom of King Solomon

—Yiddish writer Eliezer Bloom, a native of Chelm

The most famous story about the foolishness of the wise men of Chelm, and the one story that appears in every book about them, tells of how the town’s men attempted to move their neighboring mountain. Years after the town’s founding, as the people of Chelm married and raised children, the community eventually became overcrowded with young and old alike. Despite the rumors concerning their questionable mental capacity, the Chelmites realized correctly that their town had no choice but to expand as the population grew. There was a problem, however: the adjacent mountain was preventing the town from spreading out naturally.

For seven days and seven nights Chelm’s residents deliberated over the best way to solve the issue, until they decided to simply push the mountain out of the way. The next day, all the townsmen rallied together and gathered at the foot of the mountain to begin pushing with all their might. As the sun beat down on their toiling bodies, they became hot and sweaty, eventually removing their coats and leaving them in a big pile. Thieves who happened to be passing by noticed the pile of coats and without hesitating made off with the whole lot. When the people of Chelm finished their day’s work of pushing their mountain they turned back to survey the scene. With the pile of coats nowhere to be seen, they concluded that the mission had been a success and that the mountain had been pushed so far that their coats were no longer visible.

The city of Chelm expands. This is the version I read as a child: The Wise Men of Chelm, collected and adapted by Nurit Yuval. Illustrations: Dani Kerman. Inbal Publishers, 1986

Those who came across the humorous tales of Chelm as children could be forgiven for thinking that Chelm was a place of legend, a kind of Jewish Atlantis populated by Jewish fools. Yet a bit of historical research reveals that Chelm is not a fictitious place at all, but rather a very real location with an extensive and rich Jewish history.

The Jewish community in the town of Chelm in southeastern Poland prospered for over five hundred years. Its representatives were even quite active in the “Council of Four Lands” (Va’ad Arba Aratzot), the central administrative body of Polish Jewry from the 16th century to the 18th century. From the population censuses conducted in Poland, we know that at the outbreak of World War II, there were 15,000 Jews living in Chelm, accounting for fifty percent of its residents. The Holocaust did not spare the Jews of Chelm, some of whom were murdered in the town itself, though most were sent to the Sobibor extermination camp.

An image of the “Jews’ street” in the town of Chelm, Poland. The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard collection

Contrary to the widespread stigma, the town of Chelm actually produced quite a few proper Torah sages. One of the most prominent was Rabbi Solomon of Chelm, who became famous for his work Merkavat HaMishneh (or Mirkeves HaMishneh). According to his own testimony, Rabbi Solomon of Chelm also studied philosophy and science—a rare thing in his day—and he is considered one of the forerunners of the Jewish Enlightenment. In the preface to Merkavat HaMishneh, Rabbi Solomon prided himself on his broad secular knowledge, and even called on others to study secular subjects: “And the Bible stands wide open, ‘She has hewn her seven pillars’, and why do you not keep this on your lips, for ‘this is your wisdom and understanding to the nations’,” he wrote in reference to the seven liberal arts.

These are just a few of the Hebrew books collecting stories of the Wise Men of Chelm

Indeed, the labeling of Chelm as a community of fools seems in itself to be quite silly. That is to say, it is not based on historical truth (how can it be?), nor even on a well-known group of fools who originated in Chelm. The accepted hypothesis for the origin of the mislabeling is much simpler. In his Hebrew book Mila Be’Sela (“Word in Stone”) writer and linguist Uri Sela writes: “In the Slavic languages, ḥolem means fool. And since the pronunciations of ḥolem and Chelm are similar, ḥolem became the city of fools in our treasury of proverbs.” In other words, an entire community was mislabeled due to a fluke of pronunciation, and that is a hard label to shake off.

The inhabitants of historical Chelm were well aware of the funny (in their opinion, misguided) stories concerning their intellect—or rather their amusing lack of it. In fact it seems they actively tried to dispel the stigma – the authors of the Chelm pinkas (the community ledger) recall their town as a place that was home to a great number of scholars. According to them, immediately after the six days of creation, angels set out from the spirit world with three sacks full of souls: one sack contained the souls of fools, another sack contained the souls of the wise and a third sack held the souls of great sages. The angels flew over the cities and villages distributing just the right amount of souls from their sacks. By the time one of these angels reached the skies over Chelm, he was already quite tired and didn’t notice the big tree growing on the top of the huge mountain next to it. The tree ripped open the sack containing the souls of great sages, scattering them over Chelm. And ever since then, the town has been full of extraordinarily bright and wise individuals.

The origin of the wise sages of Chelm. Illustration from The Wise Men of Chelm, collected and adapted by Nurit Yuval. Illustrations: Dani Kerman. Inbal Publishers, 1986

The idea of ​​a city populated by fools is not an originally Jewish one. The first historical city to be burdened with this unflattering stereotype was the ancient Greek city of Abdera. Although it was one of the great centers of Greek foreign trade as well as the birthplace of the philosophers Democritus, Protagoras and Hecataeus, Abdera’s citizens were known throughout Greece as being quite foolish. The Abderites were the Chelmites of the ancient world.

We do not know the exact origin of the tales surrounding the intellect of the Chelmites. Similar legends about cities whose inhabitants weren’t the sharpest crayons in the box were already popularized even before the Common Era. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore a question that has been troubling us since we began writing this article: Were the stories about the wisdom of the people of Chelm really intended to be meanspirited or did they have an ulterior motive?

Obviously, these stories were not typical tales of heroism and sacrifice. No wise man from Chelm ever saved a princess from a dragon or defeated a cruel enemy in battle. And yet, this is precisely their strength: the stories and jokes about the wise men of Chelm are stories “about the day-to-day, about regular folk and their naïve and occasionally ridiculous struggles to survive, to overcome adversity, to live”. This is how writer Adir Cohen, an expert in education and bibliotherapy, explains the humor of the wise men of Chelm.

The poet and literary scholar Israel Haim Biletzky, who recorded many of the stories, writes about another aspect: “The Chelm tale is silent where its wisdom commands it to be silent. Its eyes are wide open wherever the situation requires. It is charged with life’s tribulations. It is reconciliation with man and with God, it is not a clenched fist, ready for the punch. Those who are willing to, will treasure it.” In other words, the next time you need a pick-me-up, instead of watching the latest light-hearted comedy or stand-up special on Netflix, how about reading a story or two about Chelm and its wise folk? It’s guaranteed to make you smile

And we’ll conclude with a final Chelm story to brighten your day, this time about the building of Chelm itself. After the souls of the wise were scattered at the foot of the mountain, the Chelmites decided to build themselves a large and beautiful town to live in. They built their houses out of wood, cutting down the tries on the mountaintop. To transport them down the mountain, each Chelmite carried a large wooden log on his back.

One day, a Jew from another city happened by the construction site and asked the residents why they did not simply roll the logs down the mountain. When the Chelmites tried out his idea, they discovered that this was the wise and proper thing to do. Once again they convened the city council and debated the proposal for seven days and seven nights. In the end they concluded that it was indeed better to roll the logs from the top of the mountain to the bottom. As soon as the decision was made, the wise men of Chelm understood what they had to do – they proceeded to carry all the logs that already sat at the foot of the mountain back up to the top, and from there they rolled them all back down.

Besides the more recent adaptations there are also classics such as the book by Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Fools of Chelm and Their History


Further Reading:

Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Fools of Chelm and Their History, pictures by Uri Shulevitz, translated by the author and Elizabeth Shub, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973

אדיר כהן, “ההומור של חכמי חלם”, מעגלי קריאה 30, מאי 2004

אורי סלע, מלה בסלע, הוצאת כתר, 1990


The First Jewish Book Printed in England

With the return of Jews to England in the 17th century, the developing community’s members surprisingly saw no need for a Jewish printing house. The first printed book was published decades later and only in the wake of a controversial internal dispute…

An 18th century view of London. Credit: Cleveland Museum of Art

Not many years after Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid-15th century, printed books began to appear targeting Jewish audiences. In Spain, Italy, the Ottoman Empire and other places, Jews could enjoy scholarly texts and prayer books that were either printed in their own countries or imported from other places.

This important development skipped over England.

The Jews, expelled from its shores in the year 1290, were only allowed to return in 1656. Even after their return, primarily from Holland and Germany, there was no rush to establish a printing house to publish new or existing books for the Jewish community’s own purposes. For decades, Jewish books continued to be brought over from the continent.

A handful of works featuring Hebrew print were published in England before the Jews were allowed back into the realm, but these were usually individual words or brief Hebrew passages printed for Christian scholars who were interested in the language or in the early roots of Christianity.

The first book published in England to include Hebrew letters was Oratio de laudibus & utilitate trium linguarum: Arabicae, Chaldaicae & Hebraicae. This was a printed copy of a lecture given by Robert Wakefield, a scholar and lecturer at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. The lecture was delivered in 1524 and printed soon after in London. Later, books featuring Hebrew words were also printed in Oxford and Cambridge, among them several books on Hebrew grammar and language. The first complete Hebrew text to be published was a translation of the Book of Psalms in 1643. The next twenty years saw the printing in England of Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance, and the Mishnah tractates Berakhot and Yoma. All of these were intended for Christian scholars of one sort or another.

Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah in Latin translation, Oxford, 1655

The first publication in Hebrew intended for the Jews of England was only published in 1705, in response to an acute controversy that had engulfed London’s Sephardic community.

The community’s rabbi, David Nieto, was born in Venice in 1654. He studied medicine at the University of Padua after which he worked as a physician, rabbinical judge and rabbi in the city of Livorno. It was in Livorno that he wrote his first work entitled Pascalogia – a study in Italian that dealt with efforts to determine the date of the Christian festival of Easter and the differences between the Catholic, Greek and Jewish calendars. He dedicated the work to a powerful Italian nobleman – Francesco Maria de’ Medici, a member of the famous family from Tuscany. Throughout his life, Rabbi Nieto continued to grapple with matters related to the Jewish calendar.

Pascalogia by Rabbi David Nieto, 1765, the second edition, printed after his death

In 1701, Rabbi Nieto was invited to serve as the leader of the Sephardic community in London on the condition that he promise to not practice medicine there. Shortly after his arrival he had already composed and published a prayer for the success of King William III in Spanish.

Portrait of Rabbi David Nieto, 1654–1728

One Shabbat in November 1703, a few days before Hanukkah, Rabbi Nieto gave a sermon in which he stated, among other things, that God and “nature” are one. Even today, these words might seem provocative and even offensive to some, but for English Jews in 1703, most of whom had come to London from the Netherlands, the rabbi’s words had a particularly negative resonance.

Some who were present at his sermon must have been familiar with their Dutch Jewish compatriot Baruch Spinoza, a philosopher whose views were contrary to the principles of Judaism. Among other things, Spinoza (like other philosophers of his time) claimed that nature itself was the true God, not the spiritual entity accepted by Jewish believers. This worldview, known as pantheism, claims that God did not create the universe, but that the universe and the laws of nature are an infinite entity that creates and animates reality. According to this view, the concepts of reward and punishment, good and evil, as well as personal providence, do not exist.

For some listeners, Rabbi Nieto’s sermon was an expression of heresy, in the spirit of Spinoza.

The philosopher Baruch Spinoza, 1632-1677

Some members of the London community expressed concern and even anger at the words of their new rabbi. The climax came when a member of the congregation, Yehoshua Zarfati, refused to take part in a wedding attended by Rabbi Nieto on the grounds that he was an apostate. In response to the division and strife that arose in the community, Rabbi Nieto published his book De La Divina Providencia on the subject of divine providence. The book contains a dialogue between two Jews, Reuven and Shimon, in which one explains to the other the principles of individual providence and God’s relationship to nature. The book was published in London in 1704. It was written in Spanish and surprisingly, was never translated into Hebrew.

In his book, Rabbi Nieto claimed that the very use of the word “nature” (teva טבע, in Hebrew) was new to Judaism, in circulation for only a few hundred years. Before that, there had been no need for a word to describe God’s creation. It was only after Greek philosophy became known to the Jews through its translation into Arabic that the need arose for an appropriate term with which to contend and debate with those holding other scientific and philosophical opinions. Rabbi Nieto emphasizes that God and nature are the same and cites Psalm 147:

Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving, make music to our God on the harp; He covers the sky with clouds, he supplies the earth with rain, and makes grass grow on the hills.

Nature’s meaning is “providence” and providence is divine. Those who claim otherwise, says Rabbi Nieto, are “Karaites and apostates.”

De La Divina Providencia, 1716, second edition, London

The book did not do what its author had hoped and the storm did not subside even after the rabbi’s opponents were banned and some members of the community expelled from the synagogue.

The community decided to turn for help to the prestigious rabbinical court of Amsterdam to rule on the matter. For various and perhaps not entirely innocuous reasons, the Amsterdam rabbinical court did not deliver a clear answer. The members of London’s Sephardic community then thought to turn to the Sephardic community in Hamburg, but that community was without a rabbi at the time, and so the leaders of the London community turned to Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi of Altona (in Germany), who was known as “the Hakham Tzvi” and was considered one of Europe’s greatest rabbis in his day. Rabbi Ashkenazi, who was born in Moravia, had served for a significant part of his life as a rabbi of Sephardic communities, and thus the Sephardic community of London also saw him as a trustworthy figure.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi (the Hakham Tzvi), 1656–1718, the Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

In August 1705, a letter arrived in London from the Hakham Tzvi, in which he placed his full support behind Rabbi Nieto.

In his answer, he quoted from 16th-century Italian preacher Rabbi Judah Moscato’s commentary “Kol Yehuda” on the Sefer HaKuzari (“Book of the Khazar”) by Judah Halevi.  Moscato explains that the Hebrew root teva – that is “nature” – also appears in the Hebrew word hatba’ah (הטבעה), meaning the act of imprinting or stamping. The context here being the stamping or imprinting of the seal and very essence of God, the Holy One, blessed be He, on all of His deeds and creations.

In his answer, Rabbi Moscato discusses the semantics of the Hebrew word teva, “nature” and the differences between general nature and individual nature in the context of divine providence. The issue was a theologically and philosophically complex one, but the Hakham Tzvi saw no point in delving more deeply into the matter since the purpose of the correspondence was mainly to hear his opinion about Rabbi Nieto. Hakham Tzvi reassured those who feared the use of the word “nature” in relation to God and noted that other great rabbis, such as Rabbi Isaiah Halevi (1555–1630), also used “nature” in this way in their writings.

The Hakaham Tzvi concluded his answer with the following words:

“We must give thanks to the wise and exalted Rabbi David Nieto for the sermon he preached warning the people not to let their hearts follow the opinion of the philosophers who speak of nature for this has led to many faults and rather enlightened them with his true belief that everything is by His blessed providence.”

This letter sent by the Hakham Tzvi was printed at a non-Jewish printing house in London and distributed by the community’s leadership among the Jews of London in 1705. Although comprising only a few pages, and not an actual book, it was the first publication in Hebrew to be published in England explicitly for a Jewish audience. Later, the letter was also printed in a book of Hakham Tzvi’s halakhic responsa (questions and answers about Jewish religious law).

The reply of the Hakham Tzvi to the matter of Rabbi David Nieto’s sermon, London 1705

The controversy subsided and the life of the London Jewish community returned to normal. In the end, it had all been either a simple misunderstanding on the part of those who had come to hear Rabbi Nieto’s sermon or an unclear explanation of a charged philosophical issue.

Two years later, two slightly longer books were printed in Hebrew. In this case as well, the books were published in the wake of a debate that arose in the community. Only this time it involved the Ashkenazi community of London, but more on that another time…

The Woman Who Conjured Up Cruella de Vil

She went from selling furniture to becoming a successful screenwriter and author, but she wrote her best-loved and best-known work, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, when she was sixty years old. Her own nine Dalmatians were her inspiration, along with a passing remark made by a friend, that sparked an idea for one of the most beloved villains in popular culture…

Dodie Smith with her black and white companions

When you hear the word “Dalmatians,” the first thing that probably comes to mind is the Disney movie, though the particular version might vary, depending on your age.

Promotional material for a Hebrew version of the 1961 Disney film, 101 Dalmatians

There is also a slight chance that you might also remember the book on which the films are based, and which had considerable success when it was first published. But do you also remember the author’s name? No, it wasn’t Walt Disney. It was an Englishwoman named Dorothy Smith, who was affectionately called Dodie. She gave the world The Hundred and One Dalmatians and the supervillain Cruella de Vil. She was also the author of another bestseller, I Capture the Castle, which was chosen as one of the BBC’s 100 Novels That Shaped Our World, and which was also adapted into a film.

The Hebrew translation of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, by Dodie Smith, from 1966

Dodie Smith was born in 1896 and when her father died two years later, she went to live with her mother in her grandparents’ house along with her mother’s unmarried brother and sisters. Little Dodie was everyone’s favorite and she absorbed her family’s great love for the theater. At the age of 18, she enrolled in the Academy of Performing Arts in London, but after a few years she realized that she was not meant for an acting career. To make a living, Dodie began working in a furniture store, but this did not diminish her love for the stage, and she soon turned to playwriting. She managed to sell a screenplay for a motion picture under the pen name Charles Henry Percy and published a stage play under the pseudonym C.L. Anthony, which was also a success.

The writer Dodie Smith

We’ll never know if she would have been as successful had she published them under her own name, but when her identity was revealed, the furniture saleswoman turned playwright became a sensation (“Shop-Girl Writes Play” blared the headlines). From there Smith went on to become one of the most successful playwrights of her time. Her writing career took a new turn during World War II, when she moved with her husband to the United States. Her longing for home led her to write I Capture the Castle, a book centered on a teenage girl who describes the world around her in her journal, while telling the story of her extraordinary family who live in a crumbling castle in the English countryside. The book captivated readers and was reprinted many times, making Smith not just a successful screenwriter but also a novelist.

A cover of a 2018 Hebrew translation of I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

But Smith’s most successful book came a few years later, when she was 60 years old. The inspiration for the book were her and her husband’s nine Dalmatians, the first of which was named Pongo, naturally. A friend of Smith’s once commented that Pongo would make an excellent fur coat, and in that instant, the character of Cruella de Vil was suddenly born in Smith’s mind. The rest of the plot would gradually develop around the figure of Cruella.

The book’s success led to a phone call from Walt Disney who offered to turn her story into a movie. The animated film was released in 1961 (Smith loved the film, but was disappointed to not have her name featured more prominently in the opening credits), leading to a rise in books sales, and likely also to the translation of the book into Hebrew in 1966. About ten years after the first book was published, Smith published a sequel titled The Starlight Barking, but it was not as successful as the first and, in fact, the Disney sequels are not based on it at all. Incidentally, Disney also acquired the rights to I Capture the Castle, which was supposed to star Hayley Mills, but due to disputes between the screenwriter and Smith, the project was shelved. After Smith’s death, Disney eventually released the film rights and in 2003 a feature film was made by BBC Films.

Disney released a live action adaptation of 101 Dalmations in 1996, starring Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil.

Smith, however, did not live to see the film. She passed away in 1990, four years after her husband, who had died unexpectedly, and left her heartbroken. Her Dalmatian Charlie served as her faithful companion, support and source of strength in her later years.

As inevitably happens when a book is adapted to film (even one starring Glenn Close) there will always be nuances that cannot be transferred to the big screen. So it is with Cruella de Vil who in the book is even more ruthless and has an even darker back story. The same goes for the book’s sense of humor, especially as it applies to human-dog relations, as can be seen from the book’s opening lines, “Not long ago, there lived in London a young married couple of Dalmatian dogs named Pongo and Missis Pongo. (Missis had added Pongo’s name to her own on their marriage, but was still called Missis by most people.) They were lucky enough to own a young married couple of humans named Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, who were gentle, obedient, and unusually intelligent—almost canine at times.”

So if you’re a dog person or have an appreciation of finely-crafted villains, or if you’d simply like to read a work by a talented, but unfortunately long-forgotten best-selling author, I recommend adding Dodie Smith’s books to your reading list.

And finally, a full disclosure to readers of I Capture the Castle—I didn’t write this article while sitting in the kitchen sink. 😉

“Israel is a graveyard for Jewish languages”: An Interview With Dr. Tamar Eilam Gindin

The culture of Iranian Jews in Israel is bound up with a language that is nearly lost: Judeo-Persian. According to Dr. Tamar Eilam Gindin, a linguist and scholar of Iran, Judeo-Persian is not just one language. It is rather like a tapestry woven over thousands of years of Jewish history in Persia, so that sometimes different dialects were even found in the same city. In this interview, Dr. Eilam Gindin discusses the fate of Judeo-Persian in Israel as well as the secret language of Persian Jewry…


A story written in Judeo-Persian, 17th-18th century. Courtesy of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, accessible through the National Library of Israel’s Ktiv project

When was the last time you heard someone speaking Judeo-Moroccan, Ladino or Judeo-Persian? You may be familiar with a few words that come up in conversations at home with family members, but the truth is that most Jewish languages are no longer spoken, certainly not on a daily basis. Yet, these languages carry a great deal of cultural baggage, each one telling the story of a whole community, stories that for the most part have disappeared into the mists of time.

One of these Jewish languages that has been nearly forgotten ​​in Israel is Judeo-Persian, which is why we turned to Dr. Tamar Eilam Gindin, a linguist and scholar of Iran, who is herself fluent in quite a few languages. We wanted to focus on the story of Judeo-Persian but we very quickly learned how mistaken we were in making such a generalization. “It is highly inaccurate to speak about Judeo-Persian as one language. In fact, there are many Iranian-Jewish languages, not all are even Persian, and all of them have undergone quite a few changes. What began as Judeo-Persian is today a language very similar to Persian and is not written in Hebrew,” she explains with a smile.

Dr. Tamar Eilan Gindin. Screenshot courtesy of Kan Broadcasting Corporation

How did this group of languages we call Judeo-Persian come about?

[Dr. Tamar Eilam Gindin]: “In general, wherever Jews settled, as with any immigrant community, the first generation probably spoke Hebrew, but the second generation spoke the local language. What preserved the language was the desire to maintain a Jewish identity and this was expressed in the preservation of the “family slang”, that was spoken in Grandma’s house. In addition, given the sacred status of Hebrew, there was always a scholarly elite that continued to speak Hebrew, which remained the common language (Lingua Franca) of all the Jewish communities in the world. Through that elite, Hebrew words continued to permeate the local Jewish language. Specifically in Iran, there are many dialects. Some imagine it like the branches of a tree, but in fact it’s more like patterns on a carpet—between neighboring villages there are small differences, but a few villages away, it’s a completely different dialect. Anywhere with a large enough Jewish community, a Jewish language developed. In Yazd, the language was different from one Jewish neighborhood to the other, so that while the residents of the northern neighborhood understood both languages, the residents of the southern neighborhood didn’t understand the northern one.”

Do the Jewish languages share any characteristics?

“It was once common to speak of the three characteristics of a Jewish language—it had to be written in Hebrew script, it had to have a Hebrew element, as well as archaisms. Yet we now know that none of these are necessary nor sufficient. Most of the Jewish languages ​​today, including Judeo-Persian, are written in local script but are still Jewish and used mainly by Jews. The other two characteristics are not always present either. Take for example, Jewish-American English, we can’t claim that it’s archaic. Also, the Hebrew component in it is not exclusive to the language: Hebrew words have permeated common English. Likewise, today’s Judeo-Persian is not archaic. Contact between Jewish society and the general society in Iran grew closer during the mid-20th century, so that today Judeo-Persian is almost indistinguishable from Persian and the Hebrew component in it is very minimal.”

A manuscript of a Judeo-Persian piyut (liturgical hymn), late 19th century. National Library of Israel, a gift of the President of the State of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, from the estate of his father Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin

What singles out Judeo-Persian among all the Jewish languages?

“What’s beautiful about Judeo-Persian is that because it’s been around for so long, you can see different stages in its development. You can see the first stage in books like the Book of Esther, which is Hebrew with a Persian element. The Talmud contains a lot of Persian words, but it’s still Hebrew and Aramaic with a Persian element. This is the beginning. In fact, the books of Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah also contain a Persian influence, and in modern Hebrew there are quite a few words that derive from Persian and are deeply rooted in the Hebrew language, such as pardes (orchard), egoz (nut), zman (time) and handasa (engineering).”

When was the first written documentation of Judeo-Persian?

“Ancient Judeo-Persian is recorded from the 8th century CE. In fact, it is the earliest recorded writing of New Persian. The Muslims, who spoke Persian at home at the time, wrote in Arabic, so there is no record of their spoken language. The Zoroastrians were still trying to write in Middle Persian, which reflects a phase before New Persian. The Jews wrote in the language they spoke, using the letters they knew—the Hebrew alphabet. This is equivalent to Israeli Arabs writing in Arabic in Hebrew letters, or “Penglish”, Iranians writing Persian using the English alphabet.”

A manuscript of a poem in praise of Moses, written in Judeo-Persian, 19th century.  National Library of Israel collections

“The same early Judeo-Persian documentation also contributed to the study of Iranian languages ​​in general. The earliest document in Persian in Hebrew letters, from the 8th century as mentioned, is an inscription found in Afghanistan. Researchers were unable to decipher it. They tried all kinds of Middle Persian scripts and were unsuccessful, until they realized that the letters were Hebrew written in a script that was something between Rashi script and square script. And voila! They were then able to decode this Persian text. In fact, the different languages ​​of the Jews in Iran make it possible to study the history of the Iranian languages, because while the local population was already speaking a different language, the spoken Jewish language remained faithful to the original local dialect. As mentioned, there were many local Jewish dialects in Iran and most were descended from the Median language. Few of them have been studied, mainly those of Isfahan, Yazd, Kerman, Shiraz, Hamadan and Kashan.


How did all these languages ​​develop?

In Iran, the Jews first adopted the local language and then preserved it in a changing environment, which was relatively easy within a closed community. It turned out that like many small and closed communities, they preserved the original language while the Muslim communities around them advanced linguistically. In the Muslim communities, the language was lost in favor of Persian or changed in another direction. The Zoroastrians, for example, are also a minority in Iran, and there are other ethnic minorities and not just religious ones. Every minority in Iran, even in different villages, has different dialects. This is possible because these are closed communities and these dialects remain more archaic, that is, more similar to the original language. So often times, when we want to understand what Iran looked like linguistically, we have to go to the Jewish languages ​​and the local languages ​​and to see through them. What’s also interesting is the Jewish secret language that developed there.”

Judeo-Persian tales. Courtesy of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, NY, accessible through the National Library of Israel’s Ktiv project

A secret Jewish language in Iran?

“Yes, Loterāʾi is a Persian dialect that uses a Hebrew lexicon which developed at the same time as Judeo-Persian, and was designed to prevent Iranians from understanding what was being said. A whole jargon of a hidden language developed, which Iranians usually could not decipher. Only those in the know, meaning the Jews, could.

The Jewish community in Iran maintained its Jewish language, but after most of the community immigrated to Israel, the Iranian-Jewish languages ​​suffered a severe blow. I call the unique phenomenon occurring to the Jewish languages in Israel “sandwich languages”: the bottom layer, which we call the substrate language, is the language of the conquered—not necessarily in a military or political sense, but it can certainly be cultural—and affects the language from the bottom up. The top layer is the superstrate language, that is, the influence of the conqueror on the conquered to the point where the language of the conquered is lost and a new language forms. Hebrew was the substrate of all the Jewish languages ​​around the world and the need to maintain a distinct identity is what preserved the Jewish languages ​​in the Diaspora. Jewish language, which was created everywhere, was the product of the dialogue between Hebrew and the local language. With the immigration to Israel, the superstrate of Israeli Hebrew went into action. Because of the melting pot policy, Israel became a giant cemetery for Jewish languages, because not only is there no longer a reason to preserve these languages. The need to remain separate has been removed as well and in its place is the need to come together and unify in the melting pot.

A manuscript of Judeo-Persian piyutim, 19th century. National Library of Israel, a gift of the President of the State of Israel Reuven Rivlin, from the estate of his father Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin

In Israel today, the Judeo-Persian language of those who emigrated from Iran is heavily influenced by everyday Hebrew. It’s a similar situation to that of the Persian communities in the US, who preserved their Persian heritage but who have also assimilated into society, so that Persian has naturally disappeared over time.”