Jerusalem – The first modern day translation of an epic 1,100 year old commentary on the Torah into contemporary Arabic may be one of several projects to make the works of a legendary Torah scholar accessible to the masses.
Kfar Chabad resident Rabbi Yom Tov Hakohen Guindi first began translating Rav Saadia Gaon’s writings from medieval Judeo-Arabic into modern day Arabic after realizing that existing Arabic translations of seforim were being performed by non-Jews who were accidentally introducing subtle changes to the texts.
Chabad.org reported that Rabbi Guindi was extremely disturbed after acquiring an Arabic translation of the Tanya and discovering that the finished product inadvertently included passages from Islamic and Christian texts.
Part of the problem stems from the difference between the characters of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets.
“Hebrew has 22 letters while Arabic has 28, of which three appear in eight different forms,” explained Rabbi Giundi. “If someone were to read the Arabic that Rav Saadia wrote in Hebrew letters, he wouldn’t be able to read it correctly and so errors have crept into his translation over the years.”
Rav Saadia Gaon’s work was considered to play a pivotal role in Jewish communities in the Arab speaking world, with the Rambam crediting him approximately 200 years later for keeping the study of Torah vibrant for generations. As centuries have gone by, however, the number of individuals familiar with Judeo-Arabic has steadily declined and Rabbi Giundi estimated that just three percent of Israeli teachers who are fluent in Arabic are able to teach Arabic written in Hebrew letters.
Managing to get his hands on the manuscript of Rav Saadia Gaon’s work was no small task but after acquiring a copy just over four years ago, Rabbi Giundi began the laborious process of translation, often spending 10 to 15 hours a day on his work.
Because Rabbi Giundi’s eyesight is extremely limited due to an injury sustained when he was in the Israeli army decades ago, his accomplishment is all the more impressive. A plan to use a computer program that would read the text aloud to Rabbi Giundi ran into a hitch when he discovered that the program could not process the handwritten manuscript.
Undaunted, Rabbi Giundi found a way to circumvent the problem.
“My son learned Arabic so he could read the text, letter for letter, word for word,” said Rabbi Giundi.
Rabbi Giundi, who escaped from Aleppo, Syria as a child, completed the translation last spring. He said that he has been contacted by various Arab professors and scholars who were impressed with his work and told him that they had been waiting for years for an authentic Jewish translation of the Torah.
“This made me realize that there’s another mission playing out here,” said Rabbi Giundi. “Bringing the light of Torah to the 300 million Arab-speaking people.”
Next up for Rabbi Giundi? An Arabic translation of the Tanya as well as translation of Rav Saadia Gaon’s commentary into English, French, Russian and Hebrew, bringing with it a wealth of Jewish philosophy, understanding of Hebrew grammar and deep Torah insights.