Dunash ben Labrat

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DUNASH BEN LABRAT

DUNASH BEN LABRAT (mid-tenth century), Hebrew poet, linguist, and exegete. Most medieval scholars believed that he and Adonim ha-Levi were the same person. Moses Ibn Ezra described him as a Baghdadi by origin and a man of Fez by education. He could have been born around 925, in Baghdad or in Fez, and was one of the last students of *Saadiah in Baghdad. After the death of his master (942) he established himself first in Fez and later on in Córdoba, where he was teaching around 960. Some years later, after having had problems with *Ḥisdai ibn Shaprut, he abandoned Andalusia; in 985 he wrote a poem in honor of a prominent Andalusian Jew. We have no more concrete references about the rest of his life or about his death.

Dunash as a Poet

It was Dunash who applied the Arabic poetic forms, genres, and meters to Hebrew, adapting them to the biblical language and thus laying the foundation of medieval Andalusian Hebrew poetry. Though initially there was some opposition in Córdoba, in the circle of Menahem ben Saruq, the innovation was immediately accepted and developed. Ibn *Gabirol speaks of Dunash as the greatest poet of his generation and imitates his style in one of his compositions. Only some of Dunash's poems have been discovered and a few of them are known only by the lines quoted in his philological work. As was common at the time, his secular poems include panegyrics (in honor of Ḥisdai ibn Shaprut and other Jewish notables), songs of friendship and love, with praise to nature, the good life, and wine, and also didactic and wisdom poetry. The ambivalence of Jewish life in a Muslim atmosphere left deep traces in his verses. He expressed his sadness for the situation of his people, among Muslims and Christians, and for the ruins of Jerusalem. His religious poems include the Sabbath song Deror yikra and Devai hasser, which has become part of the Grace said after the wedding meal. He also wrote piyyutim as is clear from the remains of a kerovah for the Day of Atonement and other fragments. A genizah fragment indicates that ten rhymed riddles, previously thought to be the work of Ibn Gabirol, were written by Dunash. E. Fleischer published a short poem possibly written by Dunash's wife when her husband was leaving Andalusia.

Collections of Dunash's poems were published by D. Kahana in 1894 and by N. Allony in 1947 (see Mirsky, in: ks, 24 (1947/48), 16–19; Shir u-Fulmus, ed. by Y. Zmora, 1944); M. Zulay, in Sinai, 29 (1951), 36ff.; E. Fleischer, in Tarbiz, 39 (1970), 33ff., and in Jerusalem Studies in Hebrew Literature, 5 (1984), 189–202; in 1988 C. del Valle published 56 poems by Dunash with Spanish translation and commentary (El diván poético de Dunash ben Labraṭ: la introducción de la métrica árabe).

Dunash as a Linguist

When Dunash arrived in Córdoba, *Menahem b. Jacob ibn Saruq, Ḥisdai ibn Shaprut's secretary, was working on his dictionary of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic in Hebrew, the Maḥberet. Dunash, worried about some possibly heterodox interpretations and dissenting from him in basic grammatical views, wrote some replies against Menahem and presented them, with praise and thanks, to Ḥisdai (shortly after 958). The grammatical and lexical study of the language of the Bible became for Menahem and Dunash a passionate question that gave rise to one of the hottest debates that took place in the Middle Ages. Dunash claimed to have disputed 200 items, but in the text which has been preserved there are 180 entries. Sixty-eight are included in the poem Le-doresh ha-ḥokhmot which is explained by parallel prose paragraphs, a literary form borrowed from technical Arabic literature. Many of Dunash's comments deal with those grammatical or lexical explanations which, in his opinion, are likely to lead to error in matters of halakhah and belief. This religious factor may explain the severity of his attack. From our perspective, it is not easy to understand that the meaning of a word or its appropriate grammatical classification could give rise to such vicious and scornful attacks. But it was not a mere question of words: upon this discussion depended the entire Jewish conception of God and his relation to the world, the way of understanding the moral obligations of mankind, and the confirmation of rabbinic tradition over sectarian views. Therefore, his could not be just a cold and objective science. For Dunash the meaning of the biblical text and theology could never be at odds. In some cases Dunash criticized interpretations of his adversaries which seemed to be close to Karaism. Though Menahem was relieved of his position as a result of accusations of heresy, there is no proof that Dunash deliberately caused his downfall or that he benefited from it in any way. Three of Menahem's students, Ibn Kapron, Isaac ibn Gikatilla (Ibn Janaḥ's teacher), and Judah Ḥayyuj, came out against Dunash though Ḥisdai was still alive. They wrote responsa dealing with 50 items, which imitated Dunash's poem in their form. Dunash's student, *Yehudi b. Sheshet, answered sharply in the same manner. Rashi, who knew of the argument between the school of Menahem and the school of Dunash, quotes Dunash about 20 times, and many more times Menahem. R. Tam wrote "decisions" on the disagreements between Dunash and Menahem, and Joseph Kimḥi, in his Sefer ha-Galui, wrote against these decisions in favor of Dunash. Although Dunash was correct in many of the points under discussion, his grammatical method is no more advanced than that of Menahem. Both shared, for example, the search for the "bases" of Hebrew words and verbs, a set of firm consonants very different from the diachronic concept of "root" used in later philology. However, while Menahem rejected for ideological reasons the comparison of Hebrew with other languages, Dunash accepted the comparatist method, in particular in relation to Arabic.

The book Teshuvot 'al Rav Sa'adyah Ga'on ("Responsa on R. Saadiah Gaon") is also attributed to Dunash, but many scholars doubt if he was the author, since it is written in prose full of Arabisms and, moreover, dissents on several points from the opinion of Dunash in his dispute with Menahem and recognizes that hollow roots are also triliteral. There are some who believe that Dunash wrote this work when an old man, perhaps after being influenced by Ḥayyuj, whom all consider to be the founder of the new method in Hebrew grammar.

Dunash's responsa were edited by Filipowski in 1855, and in a critical edition with new materials by A. Sáenz-Badillos in 1980; the arguments, written in verse by students of Menahem and Dunash, were edited by S.G. Stern (1870); S. Benavente published the answers of the students of Menahem (1986); the replies by Yehudi ben Sheshet were published by E. Varela (1981); the Teshuvot 'al Rav Sa'adyah Ga'on, by R. Shroeter (1866).

Dunash as an Exegete

Dunash did not write complete commentaries to biblical books, but practiced, like Menahem, a kind of grammatical analysis that was a true literal exegesis. For Dunash philology was not an end in itself, it was an instrument for the adequate comprehension of the Bible, the only correct way of interpreting the Scriptures. Dunash was very respectful toward the interpretations of the Targum and the Masorah, remaining faithful to the literal meaning of the text. This did not mean disregarding the fact that the Scriptures uses metaphors and analogies that should be understood as such, above all in the case of the anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms in Scripture. Dunash applied linguistic knowledge to the interpretation of the Scriptures, complementing it with "the 13 rules by which most of the precepts, laws, norms, and instructions are governed and measured." He made moderate use of the methods of permutation or metathesis applied by some traditional interpreters, and continued the comparative methods initiated by Saadiah and other grammarians in North Africa in order to understand the most difficult words of the Bible.

bibliography:

W. Bacher, Die hebraeische Sprachwissenschaft… (1892), 27–33; idem, in: zdmg, 49 (1895), 367–86; idem, in: mgwj, 46 (1902), 478–80; H. Hirschfield, Literary History of Hebrew Grammarians and Lexicographers (1926), 26–31; Davidson, Oẓar, 4 (1933), 378; Englander, in: huca, 7 (1930), 399–437; 11 (1936), 369–89; 12–13 (1937–38), 505–21; Brody, in: Sefer ha-Yovel… S. Krauss (1936), 117–26; Yellin, ibid., 127–35; idem, in: Sefer Zikkaron… Gulak ve-Klein (1942), 105, 114; idem, Toledot Hitpatteḥut ha-Dikduk ha-Ivri (1945), 67–93; D. Herzog, in: Saadya Studies, ed. by E.J. Rosenthal (1943), 26–46; N. Allony, in: jqr, 36 (1945), 141–6; idem, in: Leshonenu, 15 (1946/47), 161–72; idem, in: Dunash ben Labrat, Shirim (1946), 5–46 (introd.); idem, Torat ha-Mishkalim (1951). add. bibliography: E. Ashtor, The Jews of Moslem Spain, 1 (1973), 252ff.; Schirmann-Fleischer, The History of Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain (Heb., 1995), 119–143; A. Sáenz-Badillos and J. Targarona, Gramáticos Hebreos de al-Andalus (Siglosx–xii). Filología y Biblia (1988), 39–89; idem, Los judíos de Sefarad ante la Biblia (1996), 55–76; A. Sáenz-Badillos, in: M. Saebo et al. (eds.), Hebrew Bible. Old Testament. The History of Its Interpretation. Vol. 1, Part 2 (2000), 96–109.

[Chaim M. Rabin /

Angel Sáenz-Badillos (2nd ed.)]

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