Al-Nakawa, Israel ben Joseph

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AL-NAKAWA, ISRAEL BEN JOSEPH (d. 1391), ethical writer and poet. The Al-Nakawa family had lived from the 12th century in Toledo where a synagogue (Midrash Ben Al-Nakawa) had been established by Israel's uncle, Abraham b. Samuel (murdered in 1341). Israel studied with *Asher b. Jehiel and his son Jacob. During the attack on the Jewish community of Toledo in 1391, which claimed many victims and even more converts, the aged Israel was savagely attacked and dragged through the streets. He finally killed himself, an example followed by his brother Solomon. The harrowing details are described in a dirge by an otherwise unknown poet, Jacob ibn Albene. According to one interpretation of this poem, Israel was the ḥazzan of a Toledo congregation. His son Ephraim escaped to North Africa and became spiritual leader of the Tlemcen Jewish community. Israel is best known through his Menorat ha-Ma'or, a compilation of aggadic and halakhic material in 20 chapters. The author attributes the inspiration and name of his work to a vision (as other authors had before and after him) of the seven-branched holy candelabrum (cf. Zech. 4) and a scroll (cf. Ezek. 2:9–3:3), in which he was instructed to write a book with this title. Whatever the inspiration, the troubled times through which Spanish Jewry passed in the second half of the 14th century called for a handbook of ethical and ritual instruction such as the Menorat ha-Ma'or. After an introductory poem and an introduction in rhymed prose, the author describes the general need for a book such as his, in times of decline of religious knowledge and observance. The divisions of the book deal with the main themes of religious life: charity, prayer, repentance, humility, study of Torah, honor of parents, education of children, marriage, business morality, good manners, etc. Several supplements are appended to the work which, however, may not be by Al-Nakawa. The sources from which he drew his material include the whole range of rabbinic literature: the Talmud, the Midrashim, including some now lost, such as the Midrash Hashkem, the writings of the geonim, Maimonides, Naḥmanides, down to those of his teachers. Another work whose influence can be seen throughout the Menorat ha-Ma'or is that of Mitzvot Zemanniyyot by Israel b. Joseph. The Zohar is quoted under the otherwise unknown name of Midrash Tehi Or and in a Hebrew adaptation of the Aramaic original. It has been suggested that Israel was responsible for a Hebrew translation of the entire Zohar which was still current in the 16th century. The relationship between the Menorat ha-Ma'or and the Midrash ha-Gadol still needs investigation. In common with Isaac Aboab's Menorat ha-Ma'or (1514), Al-Nakawa's is of primary importance because of the texts, both extant and lost, quoted by the author. The originality of such a work lies in the arrangement of the material, in its emphases as well as in the "continuity" provided by the compiler. While Aboab's Menorat ha-Ma'or soon became one of the most studied and most often reprinted religious works, Al-Nakawa's remained relatively unknown. Though copies were current in Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries, only one complete manuscript has survived (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms. Opp. 146) which H.G. Enelow published in a monumental edition (4 vols., published 1929–32). The last chapter of the Menorat ha-Ma'or (on good manners) found its way into J.C. Wagenseil's Belehrung der Juedisch-Teutschen Red- und Schreibart (Koenigsberg, 1699), from a Judeo-German translation by Isaac b. Eliakim of Posen (Prague, 1620). Jacob Emden included the same chapter in the third part of his prayer book, Migdal Oz (Altona, 1748). The relations between Al-Nakawa's and Isaac Aboab's Menorat ha-Ma'or have been much discussed and it is generally assumed that Aboab used, adapted, and condensed Al-Nakawa. However, there can be no absolute certainty in the matter. The main differences are that Aboab's work is purely aggadic and more speculative, and that its structure is more logical; that it has practically no Zohar quotations and that many talmudic passages are quoted in the Aramaic original, whereas Al-Nakawa mostly translates them into Hebrew. Israel Al-Nakawa was renowned as a poet and as such is mourned by the writer of the elegy mentioned above. Davidson's Oẓar ha-Shirah ve-ha-Piyyut includes 16 of his compositions. Two piyyutim, with Al-Nakawa's acrostic, were published by Enelow (Menorat ha-Ma'or, 2:439–43) from a manuscript.


Baer, Spain, 1 (1961), 374; Schechter, in: mgwj, 34 (1885), 114–26, 234–40; Efros, in: jqr, 9 (1918/19), 337–57; Roth, in: jqr, 39 (1948/49), 123 ff.; Waxman, Literature, 2 (19602), 279–80.

[Moshe Nahum Zobel]

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Al-Nakawa, Israel ben Joseph

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