Dunash ben Labrat

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Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, Center for Advanced Judaic Studies Library, Cairo Genizah Collection, Halper 317, f. 2v, from the tenth to twelfth century CE. Lines 21ff. contain a twenty-line riddle attributed to Dunash ben Labrat.

Dunash ha-Levi ben Labrat (920×925-after 985)[1] (Hebrew: דוֹנָש הלוי בֵּן לָבְרָט; Arabic: دناش بن لبراط‎) was a medieval Jewish commentator, poet, and grammarian of the Golden age of Jewish culture in Spain.


Dunash was, according to Moses ibn Ezra, born in Fes,[2] the name Dunash being of Berber origin. In his youth he travelled to Baghdad to study with Saadia Gaon.[3] On returning to Morocco he wrote many poems and became famous, and there were even poems written about him. He taught grammar and poetry.

Hasdai ibn Shaprut, who lived in Córdoba, invited Dunash to Spain. Córdoba was then the center of culture and poetry in the Islamic world, and Hasdai endeavored to bring the best minds there. In Córdoba, Dunash met Menahem ben Saruq, also an important grammarian, though the two did not get along because of their many grammatical disputes as well as Menahem's tough criticism of Saadia Gaon, Dunash's mentor. Their dispute turned into personal rivalry, which included many polemic compositions and exchanges of accusations to Hasdai ibn Shaprut.[4]

Dunash died in Córdoba in 990.


Dunash is called the founder of Andalusian Hebrew poetry.[5] He first introduced Arabic meter into Hebrew poetry. Traditional Arabic poetry was built on patterns of long and short syllables. Dunash's innovation came in drawing a parallel between the šəwâ (ə) and ḥāṭēp̄ (ĕ/ă/ŏ) and the Arabic short vowels (i/a/u), so as to create a new Hebrew meter. This meter formed the basis for all subsequent medieval Hebrew poetry. At the time, however, it opened him up to severe criticism, particularly among the students of Menahem ben Saruq, that he was corrupting the Hebrew language by introducing Arabic forms, and changing traditional Biblical styles to conform to Arabic meter and rhyming schemes.[4] For instance, in his classic poem D'ror Yikra, he begins the second line: Ne'im shim'chem ("pleasant [is] your name"), with a modified form of the adjective "pleasant," which properly should be na'im.

This body of poetry includes the riddles of Dunash ben Labrat, among the first known Hebrew riddles.[6]

In the field of grammar, Dunash's major work was a book attacking Menahem ben Saruq and his Mahberet ("Notebook") for violating religious standards and opposing the teachings of the sages. He dedicated his work to the leader of the Jews of Spain at the time, Hasdai ibn Shaprut. In his book, he was the first Hebrew grammarian to distinguish between transitive and intransitive verbs, the first to list verbs by their three-letter roots in the Paal construction, and the first to distinguish between "light" and "heavy" roots. He also condemned Menahem ben Saruq for failing to see the relationship between Hebrew and Arabic. Dunash also wrote a book containing two hundred reservations about the teachings of his old mentor, Saadia Gaon.

The students of Menahem ben Saruq responded with a scathing attack on Dunash, condemning him for using Arabic meter and grammar in studying the Hebrew language, as well as on issues of Jewish philosophy about which they were at odds. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra also wrote a response to Dunash's work, in defense of Saadia Gaon. These challenges were met by Yehudi ben Sheshet, one of Dunash's students, who wrote a work in defense of his master that strongly opposed all of his detractors.[7]

The debates between Dunash and others were finally decided in the centuries after his death by Rabbeinu Tam, a grandson of Rashi, who attempted to judge between the two schools of thought, and by Rabbi Joseph Kimhi, father of the noted grammarian Rabbi David Kimhi (RaDaK), who supported Dunash's positions. Nevertheless, many of the issues raised by Dunash have yet to be resolved today. Dunash is remembered as a poet and a grammarian who uncovered many of the major problems of Hebrew grammar.

Poetry of Dunash's wife[edit]

Though her name is unknown, Dunash's wife is held to be the author of a poem on the subject of Dunash's exile. This makes it the only known medieval Hebrew verse by a woman (and the only known medieval verse by a Jewish woman apart from those of Qasmuna and, if she was Jewish, Sarah of Yemen).[8] As translated by Peter Cole, it reads:

הֲיִזכוׂר יֵעֲלַת הַחֵן יְדִידָהּ

בְּיוׂם פֵּירוּד וּבִזְרוׂעָהּ יְחִידָהּ

וְשָׂם חוׂתַם יְמִינוֹ עַל שְׂמׂאלָהּ

וּבִזְרוׂעוׂ הֲלאׁ שָׂמָה צְמְידָהּ

בְּיוֹם לָקַחָה לְזִכָּרוׂן רְדִידוׂ

וְהוּא לָקֵח לְזִכָּרוׂן רְדִידָהּ

הֲיִשָׁאֵר בְּכָל אֶרֶץ סְפָרַד

וְלוּ לָקַח חֲצִי מַלְכוּת נְגִידָהּ[9]

Will her love remember his graceful doe,
her only son in her arms as he parted?
On her left hand he placed a ring from his right,
on his wrist she placed her bracelet.
As a keepsake she took his mantle from him,
and he in turn took hers from her.
Would he settle, now, in the land of Spain,
if its prince gave him half his kingdom?[10]

Dunash's reply to his wife is only incompletely preserved:

Were you seeking the day of my death when you wrote:
‘Have you betrayed and abandoned your vows?’
Could I betray a woman so wise
given by God as the bride of my youth?
Had my heart ever thought to leave you
I would have torn it into pieces.
For those who betray their beloved companion,
God brings down with the trials of foes.
Lions soon will devour his flesh,
and vultures will consume his blood.
Who resembles the stars of dawn […]

The poem was discovered only in the 1980s, in a probably eleventh-century fragment from the Cairo Geniza (where it is now catalogued as Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, T-S NS 143.46), and first edited by Ezra Fleischer.[11] Another, fragmentary copy survives in two fragments from one eleventh-century manuscript, Mosseri IV.387 and Mosseri VIII.202.2.[12]

It is thought that Dunash's wife composed her poem shortly after Dunash's departure, around 950.[13]

Editions and translations[edit]


  • Aluny, Nehemya (ed.), 'Ten Dunash Ben Labrat's Riddles', The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, 36 (1945), 141-46.
  • Cole, Peter (trans.), The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 23-27 ("Dunash Ben Labrat" and "The wife of Dunash").
  • Del Valle Rodríguez, Carlos (trans.), El diván poético de Dunash ben Labraṭ: la introducción de la métrica árabe (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigciones Cinetí cas, 1988).


  • Allony, Nehemiah (ed.), Dunash ben Labraṭ: Shirim (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1947).


  • Filipowski, H. (ed.), Teshuvot Dunash ben Labraṭ (London and Edinburgh: Meorere Yeshenim, 1855).
  • Sáenz-Badillos, Angel (ed. and trans.), Tešuḇot de Dunaš BenLabraṭ (Granada: Univ. de Granada, 1980).
  • Schröter, Robert (ed.), Tešuḇot Dunaš ha-Levi ben Labraṭ ʻal R.Seʻadyah Gaʾon (Breslau, 1866).

Manuscript facsimiles[edit]


  1. ^ José Martínez Delgado, 'Dunash ben Labraṭ ha-Levi', in Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World, ed. by Norman A. Stillman and others (Leiden: Brill, 2010), s.v.
  2. ^ David Goldstein, Hebrew Poems from Spain, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1965, p. 13
  3. ^ Peter Cole, The dream of the poem: Hebrew poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 23
  4. ^ a b Talmide Menaḥem, Tĕšubotde los discípulos de Mĕnahem contra Dunaš ben Labrat, ed. and trans. by S. Benavente Robles (Granada: Univ. de Granada, 1986).
  5. ^ D.G. Blaunder, "The Early Literary Riddle", Folklore, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Spring, 1967), pp. 49-58.
  6. ^ Archer Taylor, The Literary Riddle before 1600 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1948), pp. 33-35.
  7. ^ Yehudi ben Sheshet, Tešubotde Yĕhudi Ibn Šešet, ed. and trans. by E. Varela Moreno (Granada: Universidad de Granada, 1981).
  8. ^ The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, ed. and trans. by Peter Cole (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 27.
  9. ^ Hebrew Feminist Poems from Antiquity to the Present: A Bilingual Anthology edited by Shirley Kaufman, Galit Hasan-Rokem, and Tamar S. Hess (New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1999), p. 62; ISBN 1-55861-223-8.
  10. ^ The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, ed. and trans. by Peter Cole (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 27.
  11. ^ E. Fleischer, 'ʿAl Dunash Ben Labrat veIshto uVeno', Mehqerei Yerushalayim be-Sifrut Ivrit, 5 (1984), 196.
  12. ^ Poetry (T-S NS 143.46).
  13. ^ Emily Taitz, Sondra Henry, and Cheryl Tallan, 'Wife of Dunash Ben Labrat of Spain, Hebrew Poet (10th century)', in The JPS Guide to Jewish Women: 600 B.C.E. to 1900 C.E. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2003), pp. 58-59 (p. 59).

Further reading[edit]