Hiding the Arabs’ Books in the Garden

I had the great good fortune last week to be able to sit with some of the treasures from the Valmadonna Trust library before they were sold off at Sotheby’s last week. There was no crowd there on a Friday afternoon, and I’ve gotten to know one of their Judaic people, who seems very happy to let scholars look at the books that are being sold before they potentially disappear onto a collector’s mantle-piece on Park Avenue or into his vault in London.

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I’m just chuffed to death with this picture and still a little bit bowled over by having had the chance to sit with a Bible that my guys or the guys in their extended intellectual circles might have themselves read.

I’ve been looking back at some of the media coverage when it was first announced several years ago that the collection was going to be broken up and sold, as a last resort, after no buyer could be found for the entire collection. The Times’ Edward Rothstein made note of some of the quotations that were written on the walls of the exhibition space then, including: “Make books your companions. Let your bookshelves be your gardens,” which Rothstein identifies as “the words of a 12th-century Spanish Jewish scholar, Judah Ibn Tibbon, translated on one gallery wall.”

The epigram is taken from a lengthy letter written by Judah ibn Tibbon to his son, which survives in a single manuscript copy in Oxford:

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Bodleian Mich. MS 50.3 f. 116 v

That is a correct attribution as far as it goes, but there is much more to that quotation, how it ended up at the tip of Judah ibn Tibbon’s pen, and what he omitted in the process of transposing it from his native Spain to the France where he would spend most of his life in exile.

Before Judah ibn Tibbon wrote those words in a letter to his son, a poet in Córdoba wrote a short epigram whose echoes we hear in Ibn Tibbon’s words. The poet, Dunash ben Labrat (d. 990ish), was a linguist who was one of the pioneers of the foundational ideas that underpin the methodologies that today we collectively call Comparative Semitics.  He believed, correctly, that Hebrew verbal morphology could be understood comparably to Arabic verbal morphology, and it was one of his students, known as Ḥayyuj, who was the first to recognize that Hebrew words, like Arabic ones, are all built up from three-letter roots.*

His linguistic comparison gave way to more literary forms of adaptation and accommodation. Dunash’s greatest innovation was the adaptation of the complex and highly regimented system of Arabic poetics for use in Hebrew (click here and read the poetry chapter if you are interested in more detail on Arabic poetics). Prior to that, Hebrew poetry had no quantitative meter, and Dunash’ innovation brought Hebrew poetry into a completely different cultural milieu, one in which the very best poets battled to prove the supremacy of their skill and their creativity within a framework that would seem to stymie them at nearly every turn. To students of modern poetry, who see Dickinson and Eliot and cummings throw away the conventions of meter and rhyme, it seems strange. But imagine an atemporal world in which the only English poetry was Ezra Pound’s and from that Shakespeare imagined the sonnet form after reading the poetics and poetry of classical antiquity; such was the magnitude of Dunash’s achievement.

I love this video because it’s a modern equivalent to the kinds of things that the Arabizing Hebrew poets of Spain would do to challenge themselves within this new literary framework:

In any event, when Dunash, the grammarian, poet, and poetical thinker, wrote “Let your Garden of Eden be your holy books, and your orchard the Arabs’ books,” he was illustrating the different uses of Hebrew and Arabic amongst the Jews of al-Andalus.

Judah’s version of the quotation was abbreviated on the Sotheby’s wall, but when we look at the complete phrase, both the similarities and the differences between it and Dunash’s original are self-evident: “My son, make your books your companions and your garden; and your shelves and bookcases your orchards.” Both quotations use garden and then orchard as the botanical comparison for the books; but where Dunash contrasts Scripture in Hebrew with secular works in Arabic, Judah contrasts books with bookshelves.

The similarities are clear, but how to explain the differences?

Two centuries later, Judah ibn Tibbon found himself in a distinctly different cultural context. He had left Islamic Spain for Christian Provence following a change in political leadership and the rise of a political dynasty that is generally seen as having been somewhat more repressive towards religious minorities; nevertheless, he remained steeped in the intellectual and cultural traditions of al-Andalus. He resettled in the city of Lunel and began to translate Andalusi works of philosophy and religion from Arabic into Hebrew. For his new, non-Arabophone audience, he could not simply quote Dunash but instead had to adapt the epigram  in order to speak simultaneously to two audiences: first to the Andalusi audience that would recognize the source of the quotation , and second to the Provençal readers who could read his adaptation without finding themselves alienated by books they could not, and perhaps did not wish to, read.

By giving attendees at the viewing Judah’s version of the quotation rather than Dunash’s original, the auction house is effectively doing the same thing that Judah did: speaking in one way to the audience that will hear the echoes of Dunash’s original, and in another to the audience that might see Arabic books in Arabic or in translation, falsely, as the antithesis to a Judaica collection.

*A footnote to stave off the pedants: Yes, there are also biliteral, geminate, and quadriliteral roots, but most of them are triliteral.

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