Poona is a city seventy-five miles south-east of Bombay (now Mumbai, its Marathi name). During the time of the British Raj, it was a favorite summer retreat for the upper classes, giving them the opportunity to flee the heat and crush of the big city, which is one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the world. Mumbai is a great commercial and financial center, and as such was attractive to Baghdadi Jews, who migrated to India in search of greater opportunities. These Jews were Arabic-speaking, and culturally quite different from the dark-skinned "Benei Israel" who also lived there and spoke Marathi. Early in the nineteenth century the British decided that they would bend education in India in the direction of western traditions, rather than fostering the local Hindu culture, and Indians of the upper classes rapidly absorbed the English language and modes of thought.

The Song of Songs

In 1870 a Hebrew printing press was established in Poona which produced many works in Hebrew with Judeo-Arabic translations for the benefit of the Baghdadi community, and Text 118, The Song of Songs, is a typical example. It was published in 1888, with a translation by Abraham  D. Ezekiel. In all probability the translator had access to English Bible translations, perhaps in the Authorised (King James') version, perhaps in the translation of the Bible according to the Jewish tradition by Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia. Both these versions are still in print after so many years. [Note, 2008:11:03. This is no longer true. The Leeser Bible was published by the Hebrew Publishing Company of New York state, and the company is no longer in business.]

Now the Hebrew Bible has been translated into various vernacular languages since earliest times. The Septuagint (known as "LXX") is a pre-Christian Greek Translation which remains the standard Bible of the Orthodox Church, just as the Latin version the Vulgate became the text used by the Catholic Church. There were several Jewish translations into Aramaic known as Targumim, which are notable for being periphrastic, often introducing additional homiletic material which explains, and sometimes explains away, the original text.

The Song of Songs has been particularly prone to allegorical exposition, since its position in the Hebrew Bible among inspired Scripture would be strange if it is merely a secular, passionate love poem. Among the Jews it was explained as a complex, beautiful parable of God's love for his people Israel, and the promise of their ultimate redemption, and among Christians it has been considered to paint the love of Christ for his Church, and his ultimate second coming. An extreme example of this allegorical interpretation may be seen in a recent edition (1977, reprinted several times, most recently in 2002) in the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll series, translated by Nosson Scherman, which declares that "the only 'literal' translation of Shir HaShirim [the Song of Songs] is allegorical." This book has substantial liturgical use among Jews, being universally read publicly on the feast of Passover (which occurs in the springtime so eloquently described in the Song) and by many pious individuals on each and every Sabbath Eve.

The Arabic translation by Ezekiel before us knows nothing of allegory. It is a quite accurate, literal translation of the original Hebrew into a rather fine Arabic, quite close to the classical language. We may note, for example, the preservation of the final -u vowel in the first person past tense of verbs; the use of the wâw does not imply that the vowel is long, as it would in standard Arabic orthography, it is put in merely to prompt the reader to enunciate a final vowel. Outlandish renderings are not to be found. The text alternates lines of the Hebrew original and the Arabic translation; only the Arabic text is reproduced here, since the original is readily available in both Hebrew and English, and the precise order of the verses is found in the Arabic. Accordingly the page and line number to the left of the text represents alternate lines, and the first, title page is unnumbered and designated 0.

I have seen little necessity to annotate heavily the Arabic text; this is not the place to attempt an exposition of such a difficult little book, about which the literature is vast. The text is an interesting example of the heritage of a cultured, often very wealthy, branch of the Jewish people which constituted the Arabic-speaking Jews of India.

The Book of Lamentations

The first synagogue was founded in Bombay, as it then was, in 1796. From 1841, prayer books for the Benei Israel community there were published, sometimes including translations into Marathi. An interesting illustration of The Elementary Hebrew Reader by B.S. Ezekiel, with explanations in English and Marathi, is to be seen in Encyclopædia Judaica volume 4, column 498. Eventually over a hundred books in Judeo-Arabic were published in the city by no less than four Jewish publishing houses. Jews flocked here from Cochin in south India, Yemen, Afghanistan, Bukhara in central Asia, and Iran. Text 119 is a Judeo-Arabic version of the biblical Book of Lamentations by Elijah Salih Cohen, which appeared one year after the Poona book referenced above. Similarly, it is quite a literal translation of this book which has liturgical usage on the fast of the Ninth of Ab, which commemorates the destruction of the ancient Jewish temples. On that sad day of the Jewish calendar, it is forbidden to read most Jewish sacred literature, because its study gives happiness and satisfaction to the devotee. Only such books as Lamentations, Jeremiah and Job, which tend to depress the spirit, may be studied, hence the need for this volume. Annotations added to the text reproduced on this website are mostly of a grammatical nature, since an English version of the text is readily available in English Bibles.

Go to Arabic Text of the Song of Songs
Go to Arabic Text of the Book of Lamentations
Go back to Index
Alan D. Corré