Jonah ibn Janah

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Yonah ibn Janach
Personal details
Born 990
Córdoba, Spain
Died 1055 (aged 64–65)
Occupation Physician

Jonah ibn Janah or ibn Janach,[1] also known as Abu al-Walīd Marwān ibn Janāḥ,[2] (c. 990 – c. 1055), was a Rishon, physician and Hebrew grammarian. Born in Córdoba, ibn Janah trained under Isaac ibn Gikatilla and Isaac ibn Mar Saul before moving to Saragossa in 1012 due to the expulsion of the Jews. There he wrote Kitab al-Mustalbag, which expanded on the research of Judah ben David Hayyuj and led to a series of controversial exchanges with Samuel ibn Naghrillah that remained unresolved during their lifetimes.

His magnum opus, Kitab al-Anqih, contained both the first complete grammar for Hebrew and a dictionary of Classical Hebrew, and is considered "the most influential Hebrew grammar for centuries"[3] and a foundational text in Hebrew scholarship. Despite fading into obscurity for several centuries due to the shift in scholarship towards Ashkenazi communities which did not speak Arabic, ibn Janah is considered a foundational scholar in the field of Hebrew grammar, and his works and theories remain widely cited.

Early life[edit]

Little is known of his family or early life (even his surname is a loose translation of the Hebrew meaning of Jonah, "dove", into Arabic). What is known is that he was born in Córdoba, Spain and studied under Isaac ibn Gikatilla and Isaac ibn Mar Saul.[1] As well as studying Hebrew, he also became fluent in Arabic, which became his language of choice for writing. A brief attempt at writing Hebrew poetry was unsuccessful. He then became a doctor and published a (now lost) medical textbook.[2] With the expulsion of the Jews from Córdoba in 1012, ibn Janah moved to Saragossa, where he joined a group of Hebrew grammarians including Solomon ibn Gabirol, who strongly supported his research. ibn Janach's first book, Sefer HaHasagah, was a challenge to the work of Judah ibn Chayug.[4]


Kitab al-Mustalbag[edit]

The study of Hebrew, when ibn Janah first became active, was dominated by the work of Judah ben David Hayyuj. Earlier Hebrew grammarians, such as Menahem ben Saruq and the Saadia Gaon, had believed that Hebrew words could have letter roots of any length. Hayyuj proved that this was not the case, and Hebrew words are consistently triliteral. ibn Janah strongly supported Hayyuj's work, but found space within it for expansions and improvements. As a result, he wrote Kitab al-Mustalbag or Sefer HaHasagh, "the Book of Criticism", which (while agreeing with Hayyuj) elaborated on the triliteral theory and added around 50 new word roots which had not been discovered.[2]

Although ibn Janah had intended this to be an uncontroversial, supportive work, many of Hayyuj's students were deeply offended by the implication that there were flaws in his research.[4] One of them, Samuel ibn Naghrillah, wrote a book critical of the Sefer HaHasagah: discovering this (and the nature of ibn Naghrillah's critiques) in advance of its publication, ibn Janah quickly wrote a counter-argument, Sefer HaHashva'ah, claiming that ibn Naghrillah was merely jealous. This led to a long exchange of pamphlets between the two, which were later of great benefit to Hebrew grammarians.[4]

Kitab al-Anqih[edit]

After resolving his dispute with ibn Naghrillah, ibn Janah wrote what is considered his magnum opus,[2] the Kitab al-Anqih, or Sefer HaDikduk.[4] The book is divided into two sections: Kitab al-Luma, or Sefer HaRikmah, a complete grammar for Hebrew, and Kitab al-Usul, or Sefer HaShorashim, a dictionary of Classical Hebrew words arranged by root.[2]

Kitab al-Luma was the first complete Hebrew grammar ever produced,[2] and introduced the concept of lexical substitution in interpreting Classical Hebrew, which drew from the Arabic language research of Ibn Qutaybah. This was a controversial concept, with Abraham ibn Ezra strongly rejecting it and calling it "madness" that could lead to heresy.[5] Other than Ibn Quataybah, ibn Janah also drew from the Arabic grammatical works of Sibawayh, Al-Mubarrad and others, both referencing them and directly copying from them.[6]

Kitab al-Usul, the dictionary, was arranged into 22 chapters - one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each entry started with the three-letter root of the word, and incorporated examples of its usage in the Talmud, Tankah or other classical Jewish works. ibn Janah also made comparisons to the Arabic equivalent for each word, which was a noted departure from the approach of previous grammarians. This was controversial, but justified by ibn Janah, who pointed to the many examples of comparative language in Babylonian works, along with the Talmud itself.[7]


ibn Janach died in approximately 1055,[2] and his research is considered deeply important. Michael L. Satlow writes that Kitab al-Anqih is "fundamental to the study of Hebrew grammar";[8] Zion Zohar calls it "the most influential Hebrew grammar for centuries", and an example of where "medieval Judeo-Arabic literary culture reached its apogee".[3] David Tene "rhapsodizes" on Kitab al-Luna, calling it "the first complete description of Biblical Hebrew, and no similar work - comparable in scope, depth and precision - was written until modern times...[it was] the high point of linguistic thought in all [medieval grammatical] history".[9]

Despite these plaudits and his fame during the two centuries following his death, ibn Janach became unknown for many years. The shift in the focus of Jewish scholarship away from Sephardi communities and towards Ashkenazi ones, which did not speak Arabic, made his works inaccessible. Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon translated Kitab al-Anqih into Hebrew in 1214, but this was not widely distributed: as a result ibn Janach was mostly known not directly, but through citations to him in the works of Abraham ibn Ezra and David Kimhi.[10] In 1875 Kitab al-Usul was published in English as "The Book of Hebrew Roots", and a second printing with some corrections occurred in 1968. It was republished in Hebrew in 1876.[7]


  1. ^ a b Scherman 1982, p. 63
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Brisman 2000, p. 12
  3. ^ a b Zohar 2005, p. 46
  4. ^ a b c d Scherman 1982, p. 64
  5. ^ Cohen 2003, p. 80
  6. ^ Becker 1996, p. 277
  7. ^ a b Brisman 2000, p. 13
  8. ^ Satlow 2006, p. 213
  9. ^ Waltke & O'Connor 1990, p. 35
  10. ^ Scherman 1982, p. 65


  • Becker, Dan (1996). "Linguistic Rules and Definitions in Ibn Janāḥ's "Kitāb Al-Lumaʿ (Sefer Ha-Riqmah)" Copied from the Arab Grammarians". The Jewish Quarterly Review. 86 (3). }
  • Brisman, Shimeon (2000). A History and Guide to Judaic Dictionaries and Concordances, Part 1. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press. ISBN 0881256587. 
  • Cohen, Mordechai Z. (2003). Three approaches to biblical metaphor : from Abraham Ibn Ezra and Maimonides to David Kimhi (Revised ed.). Leiden: Brill. ISBN 9004129715. 
  • Satlow, Michael L. (2006). Creating Judaism history, tradition, practice ([Online-Ausg.]. ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231509111. 
  • Scherman, Nosson (1982). The Rishonim (1. ed.). Brooklyn, N.Y.: Mesorah Publ. u.a. ISBN 0899064523. 
  • Zohar, edited by Zion (2005). Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry: from the Golden Age of Spain to the Modern Age. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0814797059. 
  • Waltke, Bruce K.; O'Connor, M. (1990). An introduction to biblical Hebrew syntax ([Nachdr. ed.). Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns. ISBN 0931464315.