It may come as a surprise to learn that the famous collection of stories known as The Arabian Nights is not Arab at all, but Persian. Even more surprising,some stories are of Jewish origin, contain Jewish characters, Jewish legends or Jewish proverbs. So popular were The Arabian nights among the Jews living in Arab countries that editions were published in Judeo-Arabic, ie Arabic using Hebrew letters. Expert Victor Bochman explains (via Drybones):
Almost 100 years ago, a Belgian orientalist, Victor Chauvin, declared categorically: “The Jews do not like the Arabian Nights” (“Les juifs n’aiment pas des mille et une nuits”). Chauvin was a leading expert on popular Arabic literature who had studied this cultural phenomenon for many years, but who was less knowledgeable about Jewish sources. During the 20th century, a great deal of new material has been published that has been found to disprove Chauvin’s assertion.
The present writer, who has studied this topic for some 30 years, will attempt in this article to present a survey of some of the most interesting observations and conclusions concerning the issue, to which there are three main aspects: 1. The Jewish contribution to the Arabian Nights; 2. Jews as personages in the Arabian Nights; 3. Jewish interest in the Arabian Nights.
The core of the Arabian Nights was a collection of Persian stories entitled Hezar Efsane (“Thousand Stories“), which was translated into Arabic, most probably in Iraq, as early as the ninth century. Some of the tales seem to be of Indian origin. The Arabic version, first named Alf Laila (“Thousand Nights”), was significantly enlarged in Iraq, Syria and later in Egypt. In the 12th century or possibly even earlier, it received its present name Alf laila wa-laila (“Thousand and One Nights”), a title which is virtually identical in both Arabic and Hebrew.
A most interesting fact is that the oldest documentary evidence of the latter title is preserved in a Jewish source – a notebook of a Jewish doctor and bookseller (unfortunately his name is not recorded) living in Cairo in the middle of the 12th century. This notebook was examined by the eminent Israeli scholar, Shlomo Dov Goitein (1900-1985), one of the world’s leading experts on Jewish-Arabic texts. Goitein was born and educated in Germany, emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s and was a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for over 20 years.
The most popular version of the Arabian Nights developed into its present form in Egypt evidently at the end of the Mamluk period (15th to early 16th century). It became a virtual encyclopaedia of oriental folklore including folk tales adapted into Arabic of many different peoples as well as some authentic Arabic stories. It combined ancient Egyptian and Babylonian subjects with tales composed in the late Middle Ages.
This variegated collection of material includes some stories of Jewish origin. The longest of them is a fairy tale about a traveller named Bulukiya, and is a Moslem adaptation of old oriental and Jewish legends. Bulukiya, the son of an Israelite king, finds a book his father has hidden from him containing a description of the prophet Mo-hammed. Bulukiya embarks on a journey in order to find the prophet. He meets the serpent queen, who tells him how to obtain a herb giving eternal youth and immortality. In Jerusalem he meets a sage named Affan who knows the secret of Solomon’s Seal. He crosses seven seas, seeing numerous wonders and facing adventures, and reaches Kaf Mountain (considered by mediaeval Arabs to be the world’s end), meets the king Barakhiya, the archangel Gibrayil (Gabriel) and the prophet Khidr (usually identified as the biblical prophet Elias). The latter, in a flash, returns Bulukiya home. But our hero does not succeed in obtaining the longed-for herb.
This tale is borrowed from collections of prophetic stories, where it is attributed to Abdallah ibn Salam (a Jew from Medina who converted to Islam after listening to Mohammed’s sermons). One of the main motifs in the stories (the search for the elixir of eternal life) had already appeared in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh (second millennium bce). The most probable origin of the story of Bulukiya seems to be the biblical passage about a Torah scroll found at the Temple of Jerusalem by the High Priest Hilkiah and brought to King Josiah by the scribe Shaphan (II Kings 22: 8-13). The name Bulukiya (not found in Jewish texts) might appear as the result of a misunderstanding of its spelling in some written sources of the Arabic story. Other proper names like Barakhiya are undoubtedly Jewish. Some motifs of this tale are also to be found in midrashic literature. While the cause for the hero’s travels might originally have been just the search for everlasting life, Moslem story-tellers might have added a more important motif, to their mind – Bulukiya’s desire to see the Prophet Mohammed.
There is also a cycle of short stories on pious Israelites – stories having their origins or parallels in talmudic and midrashic legends. For instance, one such story tells about an Israelite who lost his wife and two sons in a shipwreck. The waves cast him up on an island where he finds treasure and becomes king of the island. Ten years later, his sons (who also escaped from the ship but grew up in different countries) come to the island but do not recognize either their father or each other. Their mother, who was also saved and became the servant of a merchant, also arrives there with her master. The king orders his sons (who were also not recognized by him, and were taken into his service) to keep watch over the merchant’s ship. During the night, each of them tells the other his story, and thus they recognize each other as brothers. Their mother, being on board the ship, overhears her sons’ stories. The next day they appear together before the king and tell him the story, and thus the family is reunited.
But Jewish elements in the Arabian Nights are not limited only to complete stories. Some Jewish legends have been added to tales of Indian, Persian or Arabic origin. Especially interesting is a legend concerning King Solomon’s power over the genies, or djinns. The most ancient Jewish sources reflecting this legend are the apocryphical “Book of Solomon’s Wisdom” and the “Antiquities of the Jews” by Flavius Josephus. This power is also described in the Targum Sheni (“Second Translation”) of the book of Esther. Although this post-dates the Koran, it is based on earlier Jewish tradition. Legends concerning Solomon’s power over demons were already known to pre-Islamic Arabs; for instance, one prominent sixth-century Arab poet, Nabigah, told that Suleiman ibn Daud (the Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew name Shlomo ben David) had punished disobedient demons. The motif of punishment was mentioned in the Koran and was later developed in prophetic stories and historical works. This motif also appears in two fairy tales included in the Arabian Nights: those of “The Fisherman and the Genie” and “The Brass City.” In both tales, there is a legend about Solomon putting disobedient demons into copper jugs and throwing them into the sea. One such jug is caught by the hero of the first tale; the second tells about an expedition organized by the Caliph Abd el-Malik ibn Marwan (early eighth century) in order to retrieve the jugs.
There are also proverbs of Jewish origin in the Arabian Nights. For instance, the following proverbs are quoted in the tale of Sindbad the Sailor: “The day of death is better than the birthday, and a living dog is better than a dead lion, and the grave is better than poverty.” The first two proverbs are directly taken from Ecclesiastes (7:1 and 9:4); the third is similar to an aphorism repeated in several Jewish legends: a poor man is considered as a dead one.