Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Donkeys laden with books

Years ago somehow I got signed up for a Daily Hadith email, which meant that every day a nugget of Islamic tradition arrived in my inbox. I would notice this or that thing which I knew of as a ma'amar Chazal. This was hardly my discovery. Abraham Geiger wrote a whole book about it, his doctoral dissertation Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen? (1833)

The expression חמור נושא ספרים is found in many Jewish sources, and is used colloquially as a dismissive insult. There are some who would say, not entirely without justice, that I am a חמור נושא ספרים; or if they are feeling particularly witty, not even that. It is also found in Sura 62.15 of the Quran (below is a translation from 1821):

As you can see, in its original context the phrase refers to the Jews. They are like an ass laden with books, because while they carry the law, they did not observe it, in the opinion of Muhammad.

Here is Geiger:

It seems to appear in Jewish sources for the first time in Chovos Ha-levavos, 3.4:

Below is Menahem Mansoor's translation:

An early list mention other, later sources, but surprisingly doesn't mention the Quran:

The above is from Otzar Nechmad vol. 2, in a letter by Leopold Dukes. Any חמור נושא ספרים (technically anyone who can cut + paste and press enter) can find numerous later sources using this aphorism (Chavos Yair, etc).

Here's an illustration of how it had entered popular Jewish culture, from Israel Zangwill's Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898):

As an aphorism it is found constantly in 19th century literature, seemingly having been adopted from Montaigne, who used in a 16th century essay on education, or from Swift (who probably got it from Montaigne).

Although I am not from those who automatically see a similarity and then give priority to the non-Jewish source (see the first paragraph of this post) it is exceedingly difficult to maintain that the author of חובת הלבבות (which was originally written in Arabic) did not adopt the expression from the Quranic source, although it is possible that in his time it was already a popular Arabic saying, and that was more directly his source (see a related post; see below for the saying:

In any case, it certainly is ironic that in the original meaning it is exceedingly derisive of the Jews, yet Rabbi Bahya took it like an אדמו"ר takes a tune.

Here's the complete passage from a 1764 edition:

Incidentally, I searched in vain for an edition of the Chovos ha-Levavos written in its original Arabic, but in Hebrew letters. I'm embarrassed to say that I poured over the 1569 Ladino edition for ten minutes before I realized it wasn't Arabic! In my defense, it's a really hard to read scan. See for yourself.

Post inspired by Michael Makovi.

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