The Muffled Cries of Jews under Muslim Rule
Targums are more than a pure translation of the Hebrew Torah text into Aramaic – once a common language among Jews. In addition to a plethora of Talmudic and Aggadic wisdom that illuminates the Biblical accounts, “these seemingly objective Torah translations can actually reveal important historical information, such as the muffled cries of oppressed Jews living under the rule of Islam,” notes Dr. Leeor Gottlieb of Bar-Ilan University’s Zalman Shamir Bible Department. “This is doubly important in light of statements expressed by some people that in contrast to the Jews of Christian Europe, the Jews in Islamic lands lived under benevolent rulers.”
Gottlieb – who has expertise in Targum studies, Biblical Aramaic, textual criticism and computer-assisted research of the Bible – relates that Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on the Torah (printed in some editions of the Pentateuch under the misnomer Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel) includes references that attest to the composer’s familiarity with the rise of Islam in the seventh century CE. One of the most notable is the use of the names Aisha and Fatima – Mohammed’s wife and daughter – in the verse pertaining to Ishmael’s marriage (Genesis 21:21).
Another appears further on in the text when following Abraham’s death, Ishmael’s descendants are recorded (Genesis 25: 13-15). Unlike other Aramaic translations (e.g. Onkelos) which list the names as they appear in the Hebrew, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan presents a play on words – modifying these names into common nouns which allude to the hardships endured by Jews under the rule of Ishmael/Islam. The name “Mishma” is translated as obedience, submission; “Duma” as silence; and “Masa” as a yoke. Expounding on this verse, the Midrash HaGadol (the Great Midrash, compiled in Yemen) comments “And Mishma and Duma and Masa – we hear our disgrace and are silent, and carry their yoke and are quiet… Woe to he who lives under Ishmael’s rule.”
In his 12th century letter to Yemenite Jewry (Iggeret Teiman), Maimonides mentions a similar interpretation, which he ascribes to the Sages, without clarifying the exact source. However, from its contents it appears to have originated from a time when the Muslim conquest had become firmly entrenched, and the Jews living under their rule experienced suppression.
The message resonating from Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and Maimonides is that life was tough for Jews living under Muslim rule; they were suppressed and oppressed, and sought spiritual guidance to confront their destiny.
As BIU’s Dr. Leeor Gottlieb observes, much may be learned from these sources about life centuries ago and specifically about the plight of Jewish communities in the lands ruled by the descendants of Ishmael. This does not mean that this was the case under all Muslim rulers throughout history, but we would be distorting history if we ignore the muffled cries of pain emanating from Pseudo-Jonathan and other Jewish literary treasures.