Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ibn Ezra's verses on chess

Here is the first page of the poem on chess attributed to Ibn Ezra as it was published for the first time by Thomas Hyde in his De Historia shahiludii tria scripta hebraica (1689), after an Oxford manuscript:

Whether or not Ibn Ezra wrote it, presumably the introduction, חרוזים על שחוק שח-מת, are from the manuscript. It is interesting that some have changed this quasi-title in reprintings. For example, one has חרוזים על שחוק שקאקי and another is חרוזים על שחוק הסקאק.

Incidentally, the famous interpretation of Rashi on Kesuvos 61b that נדרשיר is אישקקי"ש, or chess, may or may not have any basis (it seems more probable that it was the kind of backgammon precursor nard), but I think the question of the antiquity of the game itself is less important in light of the view that sees the Talmud as developing long after Ravina and Rav Ashi.

See the very interesting letter about chess in Jewish sources in Reggio's Iggerot Yashar v.2 (Vienna 1834), where he refers to other sources, including the איסקונדרי of Kidushin 21b, which Kohut would later interpret fancifully as chess, which he assumes was named after Aleksander the Great. Reggio, incidentally, correctly realizes that the name of the game is Persian, not Arabic, writes מט and not מת.

If anyone thinks Artscroll's translation of נדרשיר as "chess" is silly, I would just point out that Soncino translated it as "checkers." But see the notes.


  1. Techumin had an essay about Rabbanim and chess. I think it was in volume 6, but it might be one of the earlier ones.

  2. Is is so strange to see chess mentioned in the Gemara? The Mishna in D'mai already mentions Monopoly.

  3. Ibn Ezra's poem is printed in other places as well, including at the back of Sfat Yeter - see:

    Interesting that the Latin translation refers to "Edomaeos & Cushaeos" instead of simply red and black pieces.

  4. It's been published countless times. This is the first.

  5. I discussed shachmat a bit here:

    But I think Philologos may have done a better job:

    (He knew about the Ibn Ezra and I didn't...)

  6. Well, you can see that in the 1830s Reggio had the sense to spell it with a tet, and the current consensus is that really its "mat" from the Persian, not Arabic, so fanciful theories about the role of Bialik are just that.

  7. My favorite Jewish chess story is the legend of the origin of the feud between Ibn Gikatilla and and Ibn Balam:



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