A Parrot from India Recites ‘Shema Yisrael’ in Cairo

A particular parrot mentioned in a manuscript from the famous Cairo Genizah possessed an impressive knowledge of Jewish scripture!

Cairo Genizah - A Micro History

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Kofim v’Tukim [Monkeys and parrots] are brought to King Solomon as precious merchandise in the book of Kings I, Chapter 10 in the Jewish Bible. The words originate from ancient Sanskrit, and the unusual merchandise brought from India arrived with their Indian names, which is how they were presented before the residents of the Mediterranean who were unfamiliar with such animals. This led to words in Sanskrit appearing in the Bible.

Hundreds of years later, in early 12th century Cairo, Yitzchak ben Shmuel Hasfaradi wrote a commentary to the book of Kings, and had to interpret the word Tukim – “Parrots”. At the same time trade between Egypt and India, via Yemen, was flourishing and Jews were active partners in this trade – as can be seen in documents found in the Cairo Genizah. The Cairo Geniza is a famous collection of ancient Jewish manuscript fragments, which for many centuries rested in the dusty storeroom of Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue. It contained around 300,000 items, some of them over a thousand years old. The collection was only discovered by European scholars in the 1750s, and it has since been dispersed among different intitutions around the world, including the National Library of Israel.

Yitzchak ben Shmuel Hasfaradi is a familiar figure from the Genizah – he was a prestigious Dayan [Rabbinic judge] in Cairo, and his signature adorns many certificates discovered in the collection. When Yitzchak ben Shmuel wanted to interpret the word Tukim, he could make use not only of his linguistic knowledge, but also of his personal acquaintance with Jewish merchants who arrived from India bearing precious products and exotic merchandise.

This is how Yitzchak ben Shmuel interprets the word Tuki:

“It means albabaj, (ببغاء, the Arabic words for parrot), which is green, and is a kind of bird which comes from the lands of India and knows how to talk.”

“It means albabaj, which is green” the manuscript of the Midrash Eltiziani kept at the National Library of Israel

Yitzchak ben Shmuel then offers a different explanation for the meaning of the word tuki, which he said comes from the word ‘b’tavech‘ – meaning in the middle, as it does not know how to talk like people, but is also not completely nonverbal like animals, “its language is similar to the language of people, and therefore they are called tuki, in other words, ‘middle'”. In Hebrew, the words tuki and tavech have a similar spelling.

After the linguistic interpretation, Yitzchak ben Shmuel adds personal testimony from Cairo, from the house of the Governor of Egyptian Jewry in the late 11th and early 12th century, Mevurach ben Sa’adia:

“And I saw a parrot in Cairo, at the home of our master Governor Mevurach which was given to him by a Jew who came from the lands of India, and he indeed taught it many verses, and I heard him reciting all of the Shema (a traditional Jewish prayer praising the one God), until the word echad, and he extended the word echad – as Jews customarily do, and the entire verse of Hashem Hoshia, and the entire verse of Tehillah L’David, in other words, chapter 145 of Psalms.”  

“I saw a parrot in Cairo”, the manuscript of the ‘Midrash Eltiziani’ in the National Library in Jerusalem.

Reading Yitzchak ben Shmuel’s description of a parrot who knows how to recite Jewish prayers helps us to better understand the critical words of his contemporary, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, about the Jews who recite their prayers ‘like the words of a bird and parrot’.

The article is based on the writings of Mordechai Akiva Friedman in his book ‘HaRambam, HaMashiach B’Teiman v’Hashmad’, pages 10-11. The photographs are of the ‘Midrash Eltziani’ manuscript kept at the National Library in Jerusalem, part of the Rosetta Project)  

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Cairo Genizah - A Micro History

The Ben Ezra Synagogue was built thousands of years ago in Fustat, the heart of ancient Cairo, and still stands today. In this synagogue was a special room in which the Jews of Fustat deposited their worn and torn writings - Jewish liturgy, marriage ketubot, divorce gets, court documents, private letters, and more. This page is dedicated to those people and their lives – who they married and when, with whom they feuded, what they cooked for shabbat, where they lived, what synagogue they prayed in, and which synagogue they swore they'd never step foot in.

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