Rabbi YomTov Hakohen Guindi was silent for a moment when I mentioned that I was learning Arabic to advance my career as a journalist. Then he said: “If so, come home with me. I have something special to show you.”

I went along as a curious reporter hoping to leave with a good story, but after spending four hours there, I walked out an inspired man.

His project? Rendering Rabbi Saadia Gaon’s 1,100-year-old classic Torah translation and commentary—originally written in the Hebrew letters of medieval Judeo-Arabic—into modern Arabic. For centuries, Saadia Gaon’s work served as one of the foundations of biblical study in Jewish communities throughout the Arabic-speaking world.

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The resident of Kfar Chabad, Israel, began four years ago and completed and published his work just this spring, but he is alert to possibilities of other projects spinning off from this one, including translations of the works of Rabbi Saadia Gaon (also known as Rasag) into other languages, such as English, French, Russian, and, of course, Hebrew.

Guindi (who published the book under the alternative family name of HaKohen) was born in Aleppo in 1955 to a religious family that had been prominent in the local Jewish community for generations. There, he was raised under the oppressive eye of the Mukhabarat (secret police), which zealously hounded Syrian Jews, fearing their defection to Israel.

“Despite the obstacles, the sound of Torah study never ceased in Aleppo even at the worst of times,” says Guindi. “In my school, which was just one of the Jewish community’s many institutions, we studied Torah from morning to evening, even on Shabbat. Every child knew large parts of the Bible by heart.”

The first Arabic translation of the Torah to be produced by Jewish people in modern times.
The first Arabic translation of the Torah to be produced by Jewish people in modern times.

He eventually fled to Israel and became an aircraft engineer. His eyesight began to deteriorate about 35 years ago, when he was injured in an explosion caused by a cannon shot during his time in the Israeli army. What began as a minor problem grew worse, and for the last eight years, he’s only been able to see “shadows,” he says, “and the contrast between dark and light.”

Another man might throw up his arms in despair, but Guindi doesn’t let himself be ruled by self-pity or anger. As far as he’s concerned, he’s been handed a challenge, and it’s up to him to live with it.

Before discussing his project, he shares his approach to such things.

“In every army, a soldier who wants to be promoted has to prove himself competent on the obstacle course,” he explains. “The purpose is to see if the soldier can overcome difficulties that are placed in his path—a skill he’ll need on the battlefield. That’s how it is in life. If G‑d wants to promote someone, He gives him obstacles to overcome so he can prove himself. In my case, the obstacles I’ve had to overcome brought out abilities I never knew I had. It’s only because of them that I’ve been able to flex my spiritual muscles and accomplish what I have.”

The cover features English and Arabic titles for easy identification.
The cover features English and Arabic titles for easy identification.

The Torah in Arabic

When Guindi talks about accomplishments, he’s talking about his project of translating the Rasag’s rendering of the Torah into readable Arabic.

A few years ago, he heard from friends that they’d been translating parts of the Tanya into Arabic. He asked for a copy and when he read it (using special software for the visually impaired), he was horrified to discover that it had been done in a problematic way, and that passages from Islamic and Christian texts had been accidentally incorporated. When he asked how that had happened, he found that the main translator was a non-Jewish Arab, who had inadvertently translated the text through the prism of his own cultural and religious background.

Another challenge is that there are many languages called Arabic: There are a group of languages referred to as “spoken Arabic,” used for conversation, and there is “literary Arabic,” which is used in books, newspapers and academia.

Guindi explained the problem to his friends, and they stopped the presses.

He promised them that as long as he had his eyesight, he would translate the material for them. But once he started, he realized that it was going to be a long and complex job, whose principle difficulty was going to be translating unique Jewish terms in a way that would be faithful and understandable. To that end, he sought out Jewish translations of scriptures into Arabic to see how previous translators had rendered the unusual terms.

“I discovered that that there were almost none!” he declares. “The only one was the Tafsir of Saadia Gaon one of the greatest Jewish scholars ever—who translated the Bible into Arabic, but using Hebrew characters.”

(Note: An Arabic translation of the Tanya was printed in Morocco by a Chabad Chassid, but using a Moroccan dialect and not the Arabic that is in wider use in the Arabic-speaking world.)

“Of course, the book was very good in its time. But Hebrew has 22 letters, while Arabic has 28, of which three appear in eight different forms. If someone were to read the Arabic that Rav Saadia wrote in Hebrew letters, he wouldn’t be able to read it correctly, and so errors have crept into his translation over the years.”

Besides that, reading Arabic written in Hebrew letters is no small feat.

“Judeo-Arabic is an endangered language,” relates Guindi. “There are a few hundred Yemenite Jews who read Rasag’s translation every Friday as part of their review of the weekly Torah portion, but apart from them, not many can do it. In Israel, for example, thousands of teachers teach Arabic to 200,000 pupils, but only 3 percent of those teachers can teach Arabic written in Hebrew. It is likely that in a few years, this way of reading will be extinct.”

This handwritten edition features vowelized Hebrew verses (in large type), followed by Arabic translation (in smaller type), formatted to be used in the weekly review of the Torah portion as per the ancient custom of chanting the original Hebrew two times and a translation once.
This handwritten edition features vowelized Hebrew verses (in large type), followed by Arabic translation (in smaller type), formatted to be used in the weekly review of the Torah portion as per the ancient custom of chanting the original Hebrew two times and a translation once.

Esoteric Words and Concepts

One of the turning points of the project was the acquisition of a copy of a manuscript of Rasag’s rendering that was more than 1,000 years old.

“This is a story worth telling all by itself,” he says. “In the past, various professors tried to get a copy from St. Petersburg University, where the manuscript was housed, but they were pushed off and couldn’t even get a scan of a couple of columns of text. With an enormous amount of work and Divine intervention, I got my hands on the complete text.”

The project began in August of 2012; since then, he worked on it for 10 to 15 hours a day.

When I exclaim over the pace of his work and his dedication, he asks that credit be given to those who enabled him to dedicate himself to the project. “My dear wife Sara gave me time and peace of mind so that I could devote myself to this, and my dear son Shneur Israel sat by my side and helped.” Shneur, a native Israeli, learned the Arabic language so he could assist his father.

“As I’ve said, I rely a lot on the computer program that reads text aloud, but it wasn’t able to read the handwriting of the manuscript,” says Guindi. “My son learned Arabic so he could read the text, letter for letter, word for word, so that I could compare them with the new edition.”

Guindi speaks enthusiastically about Rasag’s unique translation.

“Look,” he explains. “He lived 1,100 years ago. In addition to being a Jewish philosopher, and an enormously knowledgeable and deep Torah scholar, he was the first person in Jewish history who wrote about Hebrew grammar in an organized, thorough way. So when he translates the Torah into Arabic, he’s integrating his explanation of the words of the Torah. Even someone who speaks excellent Hebrew doesn’t know certain words. I know that I can’t always understand the depth of the Torah. What’s special about this translation is that it’s a commentary that explains esoteric words and concepts. It gave me a new and unique understanding of the Torah.

“Rav Saadia took great care to ensure that every word of his translation would remain true to the most straightforward understanding of the Torah text (pshat), but his translation also reflects his deeper understanding of the deepest levels of Torah—that which it hints to (remez), the concepts that can be extrapolated from the text (drash), and the hidden depths of Torah (sod). What’s interesting is that more than other commentaries, his are Chassidic-like, almost foreshadowing the teachings seen from the Rebbes of Chabad.”

YomTov Guindi in Syria with a nephew
YomTov Guindi in Syria with a nephew

‘Thinking About Torah Verses’

Guindi opens a Hebrew Bible and pointed to some verses whose meaning would be unclear to anyone who lacks a deep understanding of Torah and Hebrew grammar. For example, in Numbers 12:8, it is said about Moses that “he beholds the image of G‑d.” What does that mean?

In two Arabic words, Rasag explains that Moses received a special gift, the ability to see the world “through G‑d’s eyes.” In other words, Moses—and all other true leaders of Israel who came after him—can “behold” from one end of the world to the other, can get a clear “image” of reality.

With this, we return to the beginning of our conversation, about how challenges and obstacles are there to raise a person to a new level.

“If my life had progressed normally, I would be busy earning a living or looking at WhatsApp,” he quipped. “I might study Torah for an hour in the evening, but I wouldn’t have more time for it than that. My poor eyesight prevents me from being distracted by the things that are happening around me. My memory and concentration have been improved by my legal blindness; it’s saved me from distractions and time-wasters, and that’s why I’ve been able to dedicate myself to delving to the depths of understanding of Rav Saadia’s thoughts.

“In general, even when I’m not sitting and working on the book, I’m thinking about Torah verses. I’ve found deep meanings and connections between verses and phrases that are not readily apparent.”

Guindi borrowed substantial sums to publish the book, and is looking for donations that will allow him to publish it in a much larger format and translate it into other languages, which he says will allow the light of Torah to illuminate thousands of homes. His next project is to translate the Tanya into literary Arabic.

Legally blind, YomTov Guindi spends the majority of his waking hours working with specially adapted software, bringing Torah to the Arabic-speaking world.
Legally blind, YomTov Guindi spends the majority of his waking hours working with specially adapted software, bringing Torah to the Arabic-speaking world.

An hour after I leave, he phones me.

“In my excitement, I forgot to tell you an important detail. In the course of my work, I was in touch with a number of Arab professors and scholars from various Arab countries, and they praised the professional quality of my work and said they’d been waiting to read the Torah in Arabic from an accurate translation that had been made by a Jew. This made me realize that there’s another mission playing out here—bringing the light of Torah to the 300 million Arabic-speaking people.

“This reminds me of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s explanation of why Moses translated the Torah into the 70 languages of the non-Jews: to bring about a unification of G‑d’s name in every part of human life.”

For more information visit the project web site here.