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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia


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Peninsula lying between the mainlands of Africa and Asia. It is separated from Africa on the south by the Red Sea and on the north by the Sinaitic peninsula and the strip of land which in modern times has been cut through for the Suez canal. On the south and southeast its shores are washed by the Indian Ocean, which has been constantly receding and allowing more of the land to emerge. On the east it is separated from Persia by the Persian Gulf, and on the north is bounded by the Syrian desert, which is but a continuation of the great desert lying in the heart of Arabia itself. This desert is relieved by a number of oases, on which grow palms and tamarisks in abundance, providing food and shade for the Bedouins. Arabia has no rivers, but is artificially irrigated. The land outside the desert is very fertile, especially on the western side; it is known on this account as Arabia Felix. Arabia has an average width of 600 miles and alength of about 1,200. Egress from the country is possible by the two land routes to the east and west; the eastern road leads into Babylonia and thence northward into Syria, the western into Egypt and thence southward, or directly north along the coast plain, which at some places furnishes an entrance into the interior of Palestine.

In Biblical Passages.

—Biblical Data:

Arabia is mentioned in the Bible in the following passages: Ezekiel 27:21; Jeremiah 25:24a; Isaiah 13:20, 21:13; Jeremiah 3:2; Nehemiah 2:19, 4:1, 6:1; 2 Chronicles 9:14, 17:11, 21:16, 22:1, 26:7. To these might be added the doubtful passages: Jer. 1. 37; 1 Kings 10:15; Ezekiel 30:5; Jeremiah 25:24b. An examination of these, however, proves that the terms "Arabia" and "Arabians" are used in a number of senses. (1) In Jeremiah 3:2 ("In the ways hast thou sat for them, as the Arabian in the wilderness") and in Isaiah 13:20 ("Neither shall the Arabian pitch his tent there") reference is made to the wandering marauding Bedouin who looks for opportunities to plunder, or stops here and there to eat the fat of the land. In neither case is this "Arabian," strictly speaking, an inhabitant of Arabia.

Conflicts with Arabs.

The passage in Isaiah presupposes frequent incursions into Babylonia of the tent-dwelling Bedouins referred to in the Assyrian inscriptions. Sometimes, however, the Bedouins traveled in companies large enough to do serious injury. To such is reference made in 2 Chronicles 17:11, of whom Jehoshaphat exacts tribute, which they pay in rams and goats—the gold and silver of a nomadic people. The home of these marauding bands is vaguely indicated by the phrase, "which were near the Ethiopians" (2 Chronicles 21:16). They appear again in Jehoram's reign, when, owing to the weakness of the kingdom, they are able to make an incursion and, after plundering the land, escape with their booty. In Uzziah's reign they make a similar attempt, but with no success (2 Chronicles 26:7). It would seem that these attacks were directed from the west, because the Arabians are named with the Philistines.

Trade with Arabia.

(2) In the strict sense of the word, Arabia is mentioned in Jeremiah 25:24a; but the addition, "All the kings of mingled multitude" ("Ereb"), to the phrase, "all the kings of Arabia," appears to be a dittography. From Arabia, gold and silver were sent to Solomon (2 Chronicles 9:4), and, in accordance with this passage, in its parallel (1 Kings 10:5) "Ereb" must be changed to "Arab." A similar change, suggested by Cornill, following Aquila, Symmachus, and the Peshiṭta, must be made in Ezekiel 30:5 (Smend, on the passage), where Arabia is mentioned in connection with Lud, Put, and Egypt. The classic passage is Ezekiel 27:21, where Arabia is referred to as one of the contributors to the wealth of Tyre. As in the other citations, "Arabia" here means only the northern part. It contributed lambs, rams, and goats; other districts in Arabia sent their share, Kedar, Sheba, and Eden sending lambs, spices, gold, and precious stones. There is evidence that after and perhaps even during the Exile, Arabians made their fixed abode in Palestine. At the rebuilding of the walls they gave Nehemiah much annoyance (Nehemiah 4), particularly Geshem, the Arabian (Nehemiah 2:1,19). Jer. 1. 37 is a doubtful passage, but it can hardly refer to the Arabians. One other might be mentioned. In the Elijah story (1 Kings 17:4), ravens ("'orebim") bring food to the prophet. The Talmud (Ḥul. 5a) reports an interesting discussion, wherein it is suggested that "'orebim" might be the name of men (Judges 7:25), or perhaps men of a certain locality, this of course implying the reading "Arabians." And despite the fact that all the ancient versions read "ravens," the reading "Arabians" or "Bedouins" is still a possibility. The hiding-place of Elijah lay directly in the path of the bands who, in the period of drought, would have reason to remain near a brook (1 Kings 10 7:6).

(3) In later times "Arabian" signifies the more restricted Nabatæan. II Macc. 5:8 mentions Aretas, prince of the Arabians, who is known from other sources to have been a Nabatæan. The same restriction applies to the New Testament (Galatians 1:17, 4:25; 2 Corinthians 11:32).

Arabs in Assyrian Inscriptions.

The Arabians are mentioned also on the Assyrian inscriptions with the same ambiguity (Bedouins or Arabians) as in the Hebrew sources, being variously given as "Aribu," "Arubu," "Arabi," or even "Arbi." They are first found in the days of Shalmaneser II. In a battle fought in 854 at Karkar, Gindibi the Arabian, with his 1,000 camels, took part. Tiglath-pileser III. makes an invasion into Arabia, and among others who pay homage and tribute are found the two queens, Zabibe and Samsi. In Sennacherib's reign the "tent-dwelling" Arabs have moved northward and, in conjunction with the Arami and the Kaldi, make trouble for the king. His son and successor, Esarhaddon, defeats them at Bazu. They are by no means destroyed, however, for they are still found in the empire in the reign of Asurbanipal.

Arabia as Home of the Semites.

The constant migration of the hordes from central Arabia into Babylonia, and thence along the Euphrates into Palestine, has been going on at all times, as appears from the Bible and the inscriptions. The episode of Abraham's journey is but one stage. From Arabia the wanderers poured into Babylonia and settled there. Pressure from Arabia dispersed them and they wandered north. On the west the Arabs entered Egypt and went south into Yemen and Abyssinia. It is quite probable that Semitic customs, mythology, and national traits were carried in successive stages from central Arabia to the other parts where Semites were found. Hommel, von Kremer, and Guidi assume that Mesopotamia was the original home of the Semite; but, as has been pointed out by De Göje, agriculturists and inhabitants of mountains never become nomads. The reverse is often true. Sayce, Sprenger, and Schrader favor Arabia. Schrader points out that on mythological, historical, geographical, and linguistic grounds Arabia must be the starting-point of Semitic culture. Nöldeke suggests Africa as the original home of the Semites—a view adopted by Brinton, Jastrow, and Barton; but this in nowise conflicts with Arabia as the Semitic centerin Asia (see see SEMITES, and Barton, "Semitic Origins," ch. , New York, 1901).

J. Jr.
G. B. L.

—Settlement of the Jews:

In the history of the Jews of Arabia three epochs may be noticed: (1) The pre-Islamic period; (2) Mohammed's lifetime; and (3) the period from Mohammed's death to the expulsion of Jews from the peninsula.

Pre-Islamic Period:

Nothing certain is known as to the time of Jewish immigration into Arabia; but from various passages in the Mishnah (Shab. 6:6; Ohalot 18:10) may be inferred the existence of Jewish settlements in northern Arabia (Ḥijaz) shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple. There is no doubt that whatever civilization existed in these parts in the first six centuries of the present era was fostered by the Jews. They evidently brought some knowledge of the Bible, the Talmud, and the prayer-book with them; but it does not appear that regular study had found a home among them, nor did they produce any rabbinic authority beyond those so considered by Mohammedan authors. Yet this sufficed to give them a much higher moral standing than that of their Arab neighbors.

The Jews not only tilled the soil and reared palmgroves, but were also skilled armorers and jewelers. Outwardly they hardly differed from the Arabs, whose customs they adopted, not only in the matter of tribal life, but also in other respects. From extensive lists of names it is seen that typically Jewish or Biblical names were in the minority. Even the names of the tribes are purely Arabic, and offer hardly any clue to their origin.

Early Accounts.

Although the settlement of the Jews did not extend further south than the town of Medina, the spread of their religion was not confined to that district. The accounts of this are rather fantastic and include the following: When Abu Karîb, the last of the Tobba kings of Yemen, besieged Yathrib (the ancient name of Medina), he was persuaded by two rabbis (to whom later sources give the names of Ka'ab and Asad) not only to raise the siege, but also to adopt the Jewish creed. Taking the two rabbis with him, he converted his army and subsequently his people; but it was not till the time of Dhu Nuwas (sixth century) that Judaism was more widely spread in Yemen.

Medinian Jews.

Jewish colonies were probably to be found in the whole northwestern coast-line; but only a few are known to history. These were at Taima, Fadak, Khaibar, Wadi al-Kura, and in the immediate vicinity of Medina. It was in the last-named place that Jews lived in large numbers, forming three tribes, viz., the powerful Banu Kainuka, in the north of the town, where they possessed a market named after them; the Banu al-Nadhir, who were their neighbors, and the Banu Ḳuraiza, who occupied the eastern suburbs. The last two tribes claimed their descent from the family of Aaron, and therefore styled themselves Al-Kahinan (the two Priests). Besides building villages, all three tribes constructed a number of forts, which afforded them protection during the numerous feuds of the Arab tribes. Through recent discoveries of inscriptions the names of several "kings" of tribes have been unearthed, and Glaser has arranged them chronologically in the following order: Talmay, Hanaus (Al-Aus), Talmay, Lawdan, Talmay.

Such was the position of the Jews in North Arabia, when, about the year 300, two Arab tribes, the Banu al-Khazraj and Al-Aus, moving northward with the stream of immigrants from the southern shores, found habitations in the environs of Medina. Like the Jews, the intruders built a number of castles for themselves and sought to insure their own safety by making allies of the former. Peaceful times had, however, gone forever. The Arab historians—the sole source regarding these events—consider the acts of violence committed by one of the Jewish tribes to be the cause of the outbreak of hostilities; but this is only natural. Following their report it is learned that part of the Banu al-Khazraj had settled in Syria under the sovereignty of the Ghassanide prince Abu Jubaila. Malik, chief of the Medinian Khazrajites, invoked his aid against the Jewish oppressors. Glad of the opportunity, he marched with an army toward Medina, whereupon the Jews retired to their castles. Pretending to be engaged in an expedition against Yemen, he assured them of his peaceful intentions, and invited them to a banquet in his camp. Those who availed themselves of the invitation were assassinated, and the murderers seized their wives and children. The fate of the unhappy victims was bewailed in elegies by the Jewess Sarah and by another poet, whose name is not known.

The only revenge taken by the Jews was to manufacture an uncouth effigy of the traitor, which they are said to have placed in their synagogue—a most unlikely place—where they showered blows and curses on it. This, if true, would enable one to form some idea of their intellectual status, and would seem to show that, in spite of their religious views, they shared their neighbors' belief in magic. That Arabs regarded such punishment as effective can be proved by occurrences which took place even in Islamic times; but compare Haman in Rabb. Lit.

After this event, which considerably weakened the power of the Jewish tribes, nothing is heard of their affairs for about a century, except that they took part in the quarrels of the two Arab clans with whom they intermarried, and that they fought occasionally on both sides.

Samau'al b. Adiya.

In the middle of the sixth century there flourished the Jew Samau'al b. Adiya, who lived in his castle Al-Ablaḳ in Taima, eight days' journey north of Medina. "More faithful than Al-Samau'al" became a proverbial saying. The following is the circumstance which gave rise to it: When the famous poet Imr al-Kais fled from the King Al-Mundhir of Ḥira, he confided his daughter and his treasures to the care of his friend Samau'al. Al-Mundhir besieged Al-Ablaḳ, and having captured a son of Samau'al, threatened to kill him unless his father gave up the treasures of his friend. This Samau'al refused to do, allowing his son to be slaughtered before his eyes in preference. Samau'al alluded to the incident in verse, thus securing for himself aplace among the ancient Arab poets. Of other Jewish contemporaneous poets the best known is Al Rabi ibn Abu al-Ḥuḳaiḳ, who competed in poetic improvisation with another prominent Arab minstrel.

Mohammed's Lifetime:

The second period in the history of the Jews in Arabia, viz., the rise of Islam and its effect on their fate, may now be considered. When the news spread that a Meccan prophet had arisen who endeavored to replace paganism by a monotheistic belief, the cureosity of the Jews was naturally aroused. Their own political prestige had by that time declined to such an extent that they were daily exposed to acts of violence from their pagan neighbors. They looked forward to the advent of a Messiah; and Moslem historians, chronicling these hopes, point vaguely to Mohammed. About this time, ambassadors from Mecca arrived in order to learn the Medinian Jews' opinion of the new prophet. The report which they are supposed to have brought throws very little light on this subject. On the other hand, the curiosity of the Jews was so great that they could not rest, but sent one of their chiefs to Mecca to ascertain what they had to hope for or to fear. Mohammed was plied, directly or through an intermediary, with questions; but with no satisfactory results. Probably, as long as he lived in Mecca, the Jews thought but little of the whole movement; indeed, there was little prospect of Islam ever assuming large proportions in Medina.

Mohammed Crushes the Jews.

Notwithstanding all that is related about Mohammed's having used the Medinian Jews as a source of information, their share in the actual building-up of Islam was but small. When Mohammed came to live among them, the essential portions of the faith had already been created. Such learning as he owed to Jews he had acquired at a much earlier period, probably in Syria. It was only natural, however, that Mohammed should be anxious to win the Jews over; but, being afraid of their intellectual superiority, he wished to accomplish this by intimidation rather than by persuasion. His first step was to advise the Medinians, who invited him to take up his abode with them, and dissolve their alliances with the Jews. The seemingly friendly attitude toward the Jews, that he at first assumed, and to which he gave expression in the treaty that he concluded with the Medinians, was but a stratagem. As soon as he perceived that they did not feel inclined to make advances, he covered them with abuse; this can be seen in the Medinian portions of the Koran. Observing that they remained obstinate, he proceeded to crush them as soon as his political power had become strong enough to enable him to do so with impunity. He commenced by expelling the Banu Kainuka, who retired to Adraat in the north. Subsequently he ordered the assassination of the poet, Ka'ab b. al-Ashraf, chief of the Banu al-Nadhir, who, by his verses, had incited the Meccans to revenge the defeat they had suffered at Badr. In the following year, to retrieve the disaster of the Moslem arms at UḦud, the whole tribe Al-Nadhir was expelled. Their expulsion formed the burden of an elegy by the Jewish poet Al-Sammak. Finally, the Banu Ḳuraiza were besieged, and on their surrender were put to death by Mohammed. They numbered upward of seven hundred, and included the chiefs Ka'ab b. Asad and Ḥuḳaiḳ; their women and children were distributed among the Moslems.

Mohammedan authors have much to say about the Jewish apostate, Abdallah ben Salam, who is supposed to have become a follower of the prophet soon after the entry of the latter into Medina; but from more reliable sources it is gathered that the apostasy did not take place till shortly before Mohammed's death. Only a little of what Mohammed learned from this man appears in the Koran; but much more is given in the "Ḥadith," the traditional supplement to this book.

Lastly came the turn of the Jews of Khaibar to be attacked. After an unsuccessful fight they, as well as those of Fadak, Taima, and Wadi-al-Kura, surrendered. Being more skilled agriculturists than the Arabs, Mohammed permitted them to stay on the condition that they hand over one-half of their harvests to the Moslem authorities. But they lived in dread of ultimate expulsion; and this state lasted till Mohammed's death. His successor, Abu Baḳr, also found it well to continue the same policy, from which the Moslem commonwealth derived considerable benefit. Omar, however, fearing that the danger Islam might undergo through continual contact with Jews would be greater than their material usefulness, drove them out of the country, and they left for Syria. For the history of the Jews in Arabia after Mohammed

  • Hirschfeld, Essai sur l'Histoire des Juifs de Medine, in Rev. Et. Juives, 7:167 et seq.;
  • ib. 10:10 et seq.;
  • idem, New Researches into the Composition and Exegesis of the Qoran, London, 1902;
  • Wellhausen, Juden und Christen in Arabien, in Skizzen und Vorarbeiten, 3:197 et seq. (compare Nöldeke's criticism, Z. D. M. G. 12:720);
  • Grimme, Mohammed, 1:66 et seq.;
  • ib. 90 et seq.;
  • ib. 109 et seq.;
  • ib. 118 et seq.
  • also articles Islam, Mohammed, Himyarites, Dhu Nuwas, etc.

H. Hir.

—In Rabbinical Literature:

Both the land and the people of Arabia were familiar to the Jews of Palestine and Babylonia; and the notices of the Arabians, as given in the Talmuds and the Midrashim, are among the most valuable and reliable data extant concerning the pre-Islamic Arabians.

The Arabians are designated by the Jews , and more rarely , the latter name being used principally to indicate the inhabitants of the desert (M. Ḳ. 24a) to emphasize their kinship to the Jews (Shab. 11a). In Babylonia the Arabians were also known by the name of ("Tayite"), after the great Arabian tribe of the Tayites; and the Hebrew transliteration with is based upon a popular etymology which connected this Arabic name with and ("to wander," "to wander about"). By the term "Arabians" the Jewish sources sometimes also indicate the Nabatæans, the Aramaized Arabians, although the word "Nabatæan" is also found.

The Land.

It is impossible to tell to what extent the Arabian peninsula was known to the Jews during the first five centuries of the common era. With the exception of a passage in 'Erubin 19a, the Talmud and the Midrash speak of Arabia in a general way,without mentioning any particular locality. As regards the passage Lam. R. 3:7, it is doubtful whether "Sugar" (thus in Buber's edition) is the name of a place at all, although Arabia has towns bearing the names of "Sajur" and "Sawajir." It is evident, from a remark in the Tosefta (Ber. 4:16) and the Midrash (Gen. R. 84:16), that the Arabs traded only in skins and naphtha, and not in spices and sweet-scented stuffs, and that southern Arabia must therefore have been altogether unknown to the Jews of Palestine.

The Arabs are spoken of as typical nomads. A very ancient source (Ohalot 18:10) speaks of their tents as unstable abodes, because the occupants wandered about from one place to another. Thus the settled Arameans looked down with contempt upon the Arabs, to whom, about the year 70, the phrase "contemptible nation" () came to be applied (Ket. 66b); and even in later times it was regarded as most humiliating for a woman to marry an Arab (Yer. Ned., end). Concerning the gods of the Arabs, mention is made ('Ab. Zarah 11b) of the idol Nashra (or Nishra), a deity revered by the tribes of both the south and the north (see Wellhausen, "Reste Arabischen Heidenthums," 2d ed., p. 23, and the literature cited there). The passage states that this god's temple was open the year round; and it is further recorded that the "Ḧajj [annual pilgrimage] of the Tayites" () was not always held upon the same date, or (according to Rashi) not regularly every year. A peculiar religious custom is mentioned (Yer. Ta'an. 2:65b; Midrash Jonah, in Jellinek, "B. H." 1:100, and Ta'anit 16a). The tribes are also especially characterized as being given to immoral excesses; and the proverb runs that "the Arabs are guilty of ninetenths of all the immorality in the world " (Ḳid. 49b; Esther R. [1:3], however, has "Alexandria" in place of "Arabia," and assigns to the Ishmaelites nine measures of "stupidity"[]).

Habits and Customs of the People.

In a passage badly mutilated by censors (Shab. 11a) Abba Arika (Rab), who lived about the first half of the third century, remarks that he would rather be ruled by an Ishmaelite than by a Roman, and by a Roman rather than by a Parsee. A century later, however, conditions seem to have changed for the worse. It is known that in the first half of the fourth century the Arabs seized the lands of both Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants of Pumbedita, and compelled the rich proprietors to make out deeds of sale to them (B. B. 168b). Similar conditions at that time prevailed at Nehardea, where it was unsafe to leave cattle unguarded in the fields because the Arabs (Bedouins) that frequented the district stole whatever was within their reach (ib. 36a). Interesting, also, as bearing upon the life of the Arabs, are the allusions in the Mishnah to "the caldron of the Arabs," by which is meant an improvised fireplace for baking, and which consisted of a cavity, lined with clay, in the ground (Men. 5:9; Kelim. 5:10). At a much later period, the chief food of the Arabs seems to have consisted of meat (Ḥul. 39b).


As to the garb of the Arabs, the Mishnah states (Shab. 6:6; see Rashi's reference to the passage, p. 65a) that it was already then the custom for women—even for Jewesses living in Arabia—when they went out-of-doors, to cover the entire face, except the eyes, with a veil. In their journeys in the desert the men, too, used a face-cloth, about an ell square, as a protection from the flying sand (M. Ḳ. 24a; Mishnah Kelim 29:1; compare commentary of Hai Gaon). Among the Jews, however, this covering of the face was customary only as a sign of mourning (M. Ḳ. c.). There was, furthermore, a difference between the sandals of the Arabians and those of the Arameans, the latter being provided with an easy lacing arrangement, whereas the former were bound firmly to the feet with leather thongs (Shab. 112a; Yeb. 102a; compare Hananeel on the passage in Shab., which is also cited in 'Aruk, s. , ed. Kohut, 3:436a). Of the arms of the Arabs little is said in rabbinical literature. Their usual weapon on their travels through the desert was the spear (B. B. 74a); and a small shield is mentioned as having been also used in mock combats (Kelim 24:1). Another Arabian custom noted in the Talmud is that of wrapping meat in the skin of the animal and carrying it home on the shoulders from the slaughter-houses (Pes. 65b). Mention is also made of the wonderful faculty the Arabs were held to possess, of ascertaining, by merely smelling the ground, how far removed they were from a spring or other source of water (B. B. 73b).

Religion and Language.

The Arabs are represented in Jewish sources as magicians and idolaters of the lowest type. An authority of the third century relates that he himself witnessed an Arab slaughter a sheep in order to make predictions from its liver (Lam. R., introduction, ). Another source of about the same period notes that the Arabs worshiped the dust that remained clinging to their feet (B. M. 86b). In regard to the language of the Arabs, Jewish sources contain more than twelve "Arabic" words, expressly designated as such, which have been collected by Brüll, not all of which, however, are really Arabic. Thus, for instance, for 'awila, "boy" (Gen. R. , beginning), is given the Arabic 'aiyil; for patia, "youth" (ib. ), = Arabic, fatan; while the other words adita, "robbery," sakkaia, "prophet," and others, are originally Aramaic words used by the Nabatæans. Other words, again, like yubla, "ram," ḳabaa', "to rob," can not be found either in the Arabic or in any dialect of the Aramaic, and can only refer to the dialect of Arabian Jews.See Ishmael and Rabba bar bar Ḥana.

  • Brüll, Fremdsprachliche Redensarten und Ausdrücklich als Fremdsprachlich Bezeichnete Wörter in den Talmuden und Midraschim, 1869, pp. 40-46;
  • Fränkel, Aramäische Fremdwörter, pp. 2, 38, 39;
  • Nöldeke, in Z. D. M. G., 25:123.
J. Sr.
L. G.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Arabia'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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