Comparing the translated sections in Yaʿaqūb al-Qirqisānī’s Parashat Bereshit with those of R. Saʿadya Gaon

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by Rachel Hasson

The Karaite Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqūb ibn Isḥāq al-Qirqisānī lived in the first half of the tenth century in Babylonia; he is indisputably considered knowledgeable and educated of stature. Unlike his contemporary R. Saʿadya Gaon, who composed a Tafsīr (“explanation”) to the Torah that comprised a full and systematic translation of the biblical text, none of al-Qirqisānī’s works include a continuous translation of entire Biblical verses, nor of Parashat Bereshit.[1] However, he has two commentaries on Parashat Bereshit: 1. Tafsīr Bereshit – his long commentary on Parashat Bereshit, a work that has survived partially in manuscripts. 2. A short commentary on Parashat Bereshit (included in Kitāb al-Riyāḍ wal-Ḥadāʾiq (“Book of Gardens and Parks”), which is a commentary on the non-legal parts of the Torah).[2] We may find partial translations of biblical verses or translations of individual words in these two works. Nevertheless, the examples are extremely limited.

Saʿadya’s translation revolutionized the medieval Jewish tradition of Bible translation. While the pre-Saʿadyan tradition of Bible translation into Arabic had involved clinging to a literal translation based on parallels between the vocabulary and syntax of the biblical text and the Arabic translation, Saʿadya’s translation reveals the adoption of independent Arabic structures especially in syntax, for example, preceding the verbal predicate to the subject (as opposed to Hebrew syntax). Saʿadya knew all these early experimental translations, of which he did not think very highly, and used them.[3]

In his writings, al-Qirqisānī mentions a treatise with the title al-Qawl ʿalā al-Tarjama (“Speech on Translation”) – written by him, in which he, apparently, discussed his approach to biblical translation. This work, however, has not survived. Al-Qirqisānī comments on his preferred method of translation in his Kitāb al-Anwār wal-Marāqib (“Book of Lights and Watchtowers”).[4] It emerges from these passages that he adhered to a literal method of translating the Bible. Al-Qirqisānī disparages expansive or interpretive translations like Targum Onkelos. In his opinion, the translator should distinguish between common phrases in the Bible, which must be translated literally, and unique words and phrases, which should be translated based on some interpretation.[5]

T-S Ar.28.24 as an example for the commentaries of al-Qirqisānī. For scans of the commentary used as an example below, visit the digital library of the National Library of Israel.

Scholars believe that Saʿadya’s commentaries on the Bible were studied in depth by al-Qirqisānī and even formed one of his sources for Tafsīr Bereshit.[6] My comparison of his translation units with those of Saʿadya’s strengthens this claim. For example:

Genesis 1:3:   

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר

“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (EST)

al-Qirqisānī (RNL Yevr.-Arab. I:1366, f.13r):

וקד זעם קום אן קו’ ויאמר אלהים מענאה ואראד אללה נט’יר קו’ ויאמר להשמידם אלדי מענאה ואראד יסתאצלהם וכדלך מה תאמר נפשך ואעשה לך פהדא יג’וז להם פי ג’מיע אלכ’ליקה חתי יבלג אלי קו’ ויאמר אלהים נעשה אדם פיבטל מא אדעו אד כאן לא יג’וז אן יכון מענאה ואראד אללה יעמל אדמי

Translation: And some claim that its saying ויאמר אלהים means “and God wanted” like its saying ויאמר להשמידם (Psalms 106:23) that means “and he wanted to destroy them” and the same in מה תאמר נפשך ואעשה לך (1 Samuel 20:4), and this is permissible for them in all the (verses) of (the story of) creation until they reach its saying ויאמר אלהים נעשה אדם (Genesis 1:26) and that thwarts what they claim, because it is not permitted for that to mean “and God wanted that a human being be made.”


ושא אללה אן יכון נור פכאן נור

Translation: and God wanted that there be light, and there was light.

Al-Qirqisānī states that there are those who claim that the meaning of the words וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים is “God desired,” as in the verse from Psalms 106:23— ויאמר להשמידם (“and desired to destroy them”) and 1 Samuel 20:4 מַה תֹּאמַר נַפְשְׁךָ וְאֶעֱשֶׂה לָּךְ  (“what doth thy soul desire, that I should do it for thee”). In his view, the biblical text can be understood in this manner throughout the creation story until reaching Genesis 1:26 ויאמר אלהים נעשה אדם (“And God said: Let us make man”) as it is not possible that the verse says: ‘God desired, Let us make man’ but it should say: ‘God said,’ etc.

With these words al-Qirqisānī agrees with Saʿadya’s interpretation. The latter translated Hebrew ויאמר “and he said” with שא (shāʾa) “he desired”, which is identical in meaning to אראד (arāda = “he wanted”). At the same time he expresses his discontent with this translation. The connection between the works of the two commentators can also be seen in a manuscript that was identified by Moshe Zucker as a short version of Saʿadya’s commentary to Bereshit 1: 1-14.[7] In this text Saʿadya  quotes the same biblical verses from Psalms and 1 Samuel which al-Qirqisānī mentions in order to justify his translation of וַיֹּאמֶר as שא. It can be assumed that when al-Qirqisānī says זעם קום (zaʿama qawm = “some claim”) in our example, he relates to Saʿadya, and his argument refers to Saʿadya’s words.

Another example:

Genesis 1:4:

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאוֹר, כִּי-טוֹב; וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱלֹהִים, בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁך

“And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.” (EST)

al-Qirqisānī (RNL Yevr.-Arab. II: 3266, ff. 3r-3v):

וראי אללה אן אלנור ג’יד ואפרז אללה בין אלנור ובין אלט’לאם פקולה וירא אלהים יעני אנה עלם אן אלנור צאלח ג’יד

Translation: and God saw that the light is good, and separated between the light and the darkness. And its saying וירא אלהים means that He (God) knew that the light is positive, good.


למא עלם אללה אן אלנור ג’ייד יפצל אללה בין אלנור ואלט’לאם

Translation: When God knew that the light is good, God differentiated between the light and the darkness. 

In this example al-Qirqisānī indeed prefers to translate וַיַּרְא as ראי (raʾā), that is a literal representation of the word.  Yet immediately after his translation, he brings in עלם (ʿalama), which is used in Saʿadya’s translation, as a definitely possible meaning of וַיַּרְא. The two examples show a connection between al-Qirqisānī’s commentaries on Genesis and Saʿadya’s translation of Genesis. It could be that criticism appears in al-Qirqisānī’s commentaries relating to Saʿadya’s translation. As al-Qirqisānī translates literally and immediately afterwards explains himself (using the term יעני, yaʿnī = “that is/which means”), I propose that even if he supported literal translation of the Bible, in contrast with Saʿadya’s translation method — he did not see any great significance to a translation without interpreting and detailing the meanings of the biblical text.[8]

Dr. Rachel Hasson is a teaching fellow in the program for Jewish-Arab Culture Studies at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. She is a Genizah researcher. Her main fields of interest are: al-Qirqisani’s commentaries to Genesis, popular literature written in Judaeo-Arabic, intercultural relationships between Jews and Muslims in the Middle Ages, late Judaeo-Arabic and Arabic dialects.


* I would like to thank Prof. Haggai Ben-Shammai, Prof. Ronny Vollandt, Dr. David Sklare and Dr. Nathan Gibson who read an initial version of this blog contribution and drew my attention to several issues, I am deeply grateful for their corrections and constructive comments.  

[1] Sklare, David. “Science and Biblical Exegesis in the Tenth Century: Ya’quv al-Qirqisani’s ‘Tafsir Bereshit’.” Ginze Qedem 15 (2018): 67-88. [Hebrew]

[2] Some parts of this work have been preserved in manuscripts, but many others are still unknown (see ibid.).

[3] Ben Shammai, Haggai. Studies in the Philosophical and Exegetical Works of Saadya Gaon. Jerusalem, 2015, pp. 293, 440 [Hebrew]; Blau, Joshua and Hopkins, Simon. “The Buds of Biblical Interpretation in Judaeo-Arabic Based on the Book of Psalms.” In Meir M. Bar-Asher et al. (eds.), A Word Fitly Spoken: Studies in Mediaeval Exegesis of the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an: Presented to Haggai Ben-Shammai.Jerusalem, 2007, pp. 246 – 251 [Hebrew].

[4] This book is basically about the commandments but also includes Halachic and theological issues, a history of Jewish sects and polemics with Christianity and Islam.

[5] Polliack, Meira. “RASAG’s Comprehension of Translating the Torah as Compared to the Karaite Concept.” In J. Blau and D. Doron (eds.) Tradition and Change in the Judaeo-Arabic Culture of the Middle Ages. Ramat Gan 1999, pp. 191-201 [Hebrew]; “Medieval Karaite Views on Translating the Hebrew Bible into Arabic.” Journal of Jewish Studies 47,1 (1996): 64-84.

[6] Hirschfeld, Hartwig.  Qirqisani Studies, London 1918, p. 9; Chiesa, Bruno. “A New Fragment of al-Qirqisani’s Kitab al-Riyad.” Jewish Quarterly Review 78 (1988): 175-185.
On the pre-Saʿadyanic tradition of translating the Bible we can learn from the extensive corpus of surviving fragments of Judaeo-Arabic Bible-related texts written in phonetic spelling, published recently by Joshua Blau and Simon Hopkins. (Early Judaeo Arabic in Phonetic Spelling, vol. 1: General Introduction and Biblical Texts. Jerusalem 2017. [Hebrew])

[7] The text is found in Moshe Zucker’s Rav Saadya Gaon’s Translation of the Torah. New York, 1959 [Hebrew] in the introduction, p. lamed.

[8] Chiesa, Bruno. “The Interpretive Method of Abu Yūsuf Yaʿaqūb al-Qirqisānī.” In Meir M. Bar-Asher et al. (eds.), A Word Fitly Spoken. pp. 297 – 299 [Hebrew]. Compare with Saʿadya’s different attitude towards a separated translation and a translation that accompanies a commentary, see Ben Shammai, ibid, pp. 146 – 151, 310 – 314.

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