A CBS News story reports on an exciting discovery:

A trove of ancient manuscripts in Hebrew characters rescued from caves in a Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan is providing the first physical evidence of a Jewish community that thrived there a thousand years ago.
On Thursday Israel’s National Library unveiled the cache of recently purchased documents that run the gamut of life experiences, including biblical commentaries, personal letters and financial records.
Researchers say the “Afghan Genizah” marks the greatest such archive found since the “Cairo Genizah” was discovered in an Egyptian synagogue more than 100 years ago, a vast depository of medieval manuscripts considered to be among the most valuable collections of historical documents ever found. […]
The Afghan collection gives an unprecedented look into the lives of Jews in ancient Persia in the 11th century. The paper manuscripts, preserved over the centuries by the dry, shady conditions of the caves, include writings in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judea-Arabic and the unique Judeo-Persian language from that era, which was written in Hebrew letters.

Unfortunately, they only acquired “29 out of hundreds of the documents believed to be floating around the world,” but hopefully they’ll be able to get more. I’m not sure what’s intended by the phrase “unique Judeo-Persian language” in the last quoted paragraph; Judeo-Persian is no more and no less unique than any other language (and of course there were comparable Jewish forms of just about every language spoken in areas where there were substantial Jewish communities). At any rate, you can see a selection of images at the library site. Thanks, Paul!


  1. marie-lucie says

    the unique Judeo-Persian language
    Actually, LH, the article says “the obscure Judeo-Persian language”. “Obscure” probably means that this language or language variety has never been identified before, and that no one (well, perhaps a very few old scholars, themselves “obscure”) knew that it had existed. But “unique” could very well have been used in this context to mean that the language has some features of its own which differentiate it from all other varieties of Persian.

  2. @marie-lucie: The article uses both phrases; in one place “the unique Judeo-Persian language from that era, which was written in Hebrew letters”, in the other “The obscure Judeo-Persian language, along with carbon dating technology, helped verify the authenticity of the collection, he said.”

  3. It’s not like ‘obscure’ is any better…

  4. marie-lucie says

    LH: Apologies for my mistake. You and Ran are right. I must have been already sleepy when I read the article.
    Bulbul, “unique” was not the proper word, but since the language was hidden for centuries, “obscure” is not really wrong, although it is misleading.

  5. I must have been already sleepy when I read the article.
    Especially since I said “in the last quoted paragraph,” so you could have just cast your eyes a couple of centimeters upward! But I cast no stones, since I do that sort of thing all the time myself.

  6. In journalism — not to mention common parlance — “unique” has become more or less meaningless. It means, if anything, “unusual/strange/unfamiliar/odd in some way that I don’t know enough to be precise about so I’m just going to go with unique.”

  7. Here’s what gave me pause:
    “[Ben Shammai] said [the documents] were already significant since no other Hebrew writings had even been found so far from the Holy Land.”
    How can that be? What about Iberia? What about the Dunhuang caves in western Gansu?

  8. Язык бухарских евреев
    The language of Bukharian Jews (in Russian). The text itself doesn’t amount to much, but there’s a magnificent picture by Prokudin-Gorsky.

  9. Can we have the text of one of the “personal letters” here?
    I’m curious what they would have to say to each other.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    I’ve seen Hebrew writings with my own eyes in California, which is a lot further away from the Holy Land than Afghanistan or even Iberia. It didn’t seem newsworthy at the time.

  11. Calling Judeo-Persian “unique” or “obscure” is perhaps beside the point. A more relevant question, to my mind, is: did Judeo-Persian, as a distinct language or distinctive dialect, even exist?
    Just because we have texts in Persian written in Hebrew script needn’t imply that the Persian spoken by Jews was in any significant way unlike the Persian spoken by non-Jews. Despite there existing texts in Old French written in Hebrew script, it has been argued (to my mind convincingly) that there did not exist any distinctive variety of Old French spoken by Jews.
    The cases of Yiddish or Judezmo (AKA Judeo-Spanish) are special: in both instances the languages were transplanted in non-German-, non-Spanish-speaking environments. In these new settings, language change and language contact, combined with isolation from the varieties of these languages spoken by non-Jews, caused the Spanish or German spoken by Jews to become autonomous languages.
    Tellingly, in the case of Judezmo, it has been argued (again, to my mind, convincingly) that before their expulsion from Spain in 1492 Jews were not, linguistically, in any way different from the Christian majority.
    (I can supply the references for both scholarly claims above, should anyone on this thread be interested)

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    This article (linked from the wiki article linked in the OP) distinguishes “Judeo-Persian” as a distinctive literary dialect supposedly used only by Jews from the varied spoken dialects used from time to time by Jews living in Persian-speaking lands, some of the latter of which were apparently not necessarily particularly distinctive from the speech of the adjoining goyim.

  13. John Emerson says

    The Polish Tatars write Polish in Arabic script, or once did. So I’ve been told, anyway. I wonder if they spoke a distinct dialect too. They came to Poland before 1400 and were originally Turks.

  14. David Marjanović says

    distinguishes “Judeo-Persian” as a distinctive literary dialect supposedly used only by Jews from the varied spoken dialects

    Perhaps similarly, some Wikipedia article or other says, Djudezmo has a literary dialect that is simply a literal translation from Hebrew, with things like la noche la esta instead of the spoken esta noche.

    The Polish Tatars write Polish in Arabic script

    Poland is relative. Most, though not all, of that Polish is actually Belarusian.

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