Menahem ben Jacob Ibn Saruq

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


MENAHEM BEN JACOB IBN SARUQ (Saruk ; tenth century), Spanish author and lexicographer. Born in Tortosa, he moved at an early age to Cordova, where Isaac, the father of *Ḥisdai ibn Shaprut, became his patron. After Isaac's death, Menahem went back to his native town for a short interlude, and then returned to Cordova, where he lived under the patronage of Ḥisdai and worked as his secretary. Besides eulogies on Ḥisdai's parents, Menahem composed Ḥisdai's famous letter to the king of the *Khazars. Ḥisdai encouraged him to compile his Maḥberet, a biblical dictionary in Hebrew. However, Menahem endured poverty because Ḥisdai was not a very generous patron. Later, when Menahem fell into disgrace, Ḥisdai even persecuted his former protégé and forced him to return to Tortosa. Here Menahem wrote a touching letter of complaint to Ḥisdai, a gem of epistolary style and an important historical document concerning its author's life.

Menahem's most important work, intrinsically and historically, is the Maḥberet, whose original name was probably The Book of Solutions. Because Menahem's dictionary was originally written in Hebrew, its style surpasses that of biblical dictionaries of greater quality translated into Hebrew from Arabic, such as Judah ibn *Tibbon's translation of *Ibn Janaḥ's Book of Roots. More importantly, because the dictionary was in Hebrew, it was also understood by Jews in Christian countries where it exerted great influence. For example, in France, the Maḥberet was used extensively by *Rashi. Menahem carefully refrained from linguistic comparisons between Hebrew and Arabic, presumably as Hebrew was considered a holy language. Menahem's theological concern is further reflected in his attempt to show that ehyeh which is referred to as a name for God in Exodus 3:14 is not derived from the verb hayah ("to be").

Often original in terminology, the dictionary attempts, without reference to its predecessors, a systematic summation of the lexicographical and grammatical knowledge of the time. Menahem shows awareness of ellipses and pleonasms occurring in the Bible, and brings into relief poetic parallelism, or constructions in which, as he put it, "one half instructs us in the meaning of the other." However, he did not have a systematic knowledge of grammar, and his approach tended to the empirical. Although Menahem carried out the investigation of the Hebrew roots systematically and built his dictionary accordingly, he thought that letters of the root that disappear in conjugation are not radical, and therefore established, on the synchronic level, biliteral and even uniliteral roots, e.g., náṭâh, root ṭ; hikkâh, root k. Thus, the Maḥberet can only be regarded as a summary of past achievements and it was, according to some authorities, reserved to Menahem's pupils to initiate the new period of linguistic research. Shortly after the Maḥberet appeared, it was vehemently attacked by *Dunash b. Labrat who claimed that certain definitions were likely to lead the reader to erroneous interpretations of halakhah and belief. The expectation that the dictionary would therefore become a source of heresy explains the bitterness of the attack. Menahem himself did not reply to Dunash's criticisms, but three of Menahem's pupils took it upon themselves to defend their master. One of the pupils was Judah ibn Daud whom some scholars think is identical with Judah b. David *Ḥayyuj, the great initiator of the theory of the triliterality of Hebrew roots, while other scholars consider this identification doubtful. However, Isaac ibn *Gikatilla, another of the three, was the teacher of Ibn Janaḥ, the greatest medieval Jewish lexicographer and philologist. The controversy between the two camps continued; Yehudi b. Sheshet defended his master Dunash against the attacks of Menahem's pupils, and the famous tosafist Jacob b. Meir *Tam in his Book of Decisions (appended to the Filipowski ed. of the Maḥberet) tried to prove that Menahem's definitions were valid. Several decades later, Rabbi Joseph *Kimḥi, the first of the philologists of the Kimḥi family, wrote Sefer ha-Galu'i in his own effort to settle the disputes, this time in light of Ḥayyuj's theory. A modern scholar, D. *Yellin, demonstrated that, from the scientific point of view, Dunash's criticisms were generally well founded (Sefer Zikkaron le-A. Gulak ve-S. Klein (1942), 105–14; Leshonenu, 11 (1941–43), 202–15).


W. Bacher, in: zdmg, 49 (1895), 342–67; idem, in: J. Winter and A. Wuensche (eds.), Die juedische Litteratur, 2 (1894), 145–9; H. Hirschfeld, Literary History of Hebrew Grammarians and Lexicographers (1926), 24–31; Ashtor, Korot, 1 (19662), 160–170, cf. also 310f. as to the identification of Judah ibn Daud with Judah Ḥayyuj; the Maḥberet was edited by Z. Filipowski (1854) from five manuscripts; for additions from a Berne Ms. see D. Kaufmann, zdmg, 40 (1886), 367–409; the response of Menahem's pupils, Liber Responsonuim, was edited by S.G. Stern (1870; where introd. 23–37 Menahem's epistle to Ḥisdai first edited by S.D. Luzzatto, in: Beit ha-Oẓar, 1 (1847), 26a–33a is reprinted. It was re-edited by Schirmann, in: Sefarad, 1 (1955), 8–30). add. bibliography: A. Sáenz-Badillos, Menahem Ben Saruq, Maḥberet (1986). On this edition see I. Eldar, "Askolat ha-Dikduk ha-Andalusit: Tekufat ha-Reshit," in: Pe'amim, 38, 2 (1989), 24; idem, "Early Hebraists in Spain: Menahem ben Saruq and Dunash ben Labrat," in: M. Saboe (ed.), Hebrew BibleOld Testament: The History of its Interpretationi/2: The Middle Ages (2000), chapter 25.5, 96–109; A. Maman, Comparative Semitic Philology in the Middle Ages from Saadia Gaon to Ibn Barun (10th–12th cent.) (2004), 276–283; idem, "Menaḥem ben Saruq's Maḥberet – The First Hebrew–Hebrew Dictionary," in: Kernerman Dictionary News, 13 (2005), 5–10.

[Joshua Blau]

More From