Description by Dan Shapira


Torat Mosheh, the earliest known Judeo-Persian text of the Pentateuch, 1319


Merchant’s letter, Dandan Uiliq, a trading center on the Silk Road in present-day Chinese Turkestan 8th century


A letter dealing with financial and family matters (Afghan Genizah collection at the National Library of Israel); 11th century

Judeo-Persian is the common name for both the literary and spoken forms of Jewish Iranian language varieties. In addition to Judeo-Persian from Persia/Iran, it frequently includes Judeo-Tadjik / Tajik / Tadzhik (otherwise known as Bukharan, Judeo-Bukharan, Bukhari, Bukharit) and sometimes also Judeo-Tat (Cuhuri / Juhuri / Dzhuhuri, the language of the Mountain Jews in Dagestan and Northern Azerbayjan, known in Israel under such misleading names as Kavkazit / Qawqazit, and even Dagestanit).

More precisely, Judeo-Persian refers to a literary form of New Persian specific to Jewish texts. It should be differentiated from spoken dialects current among the Jews. The best equivalents are Ladino, literary Judeo-Arabic, and Ivri-Taytsh, as opposed to Judezmo, spoken Judeo-Arabic, and Yiddish.

Brief excerpts of folk songs in the Gilaki dialect of the Caspian region by a Jew from Herat, Afghanistan

There has never been a variety of spoken JP common to all Persian Jews. The Jews spoke their local dialect, with some "Jewish" traits, just as their Muslim, Christian, or Zoroastrian neighbors spoke basically the same dialect, with their own communal, professional, or caste-based traits. These dialects varied from area to area. In some cases, they were dialects of Persian, but in other cases they were non-Persian Iranian (or other) dialects. In the pre-Mongol period such non-Persian dialects were sometimes used for writing, as is indicated by a literary document found in the Cairo Geniza (Shaked 1988). During the same period dialects of Persian were also written, as is indicated by the Tafsir of Ezekiel (Salemann 1900, Shaked 1986, Gindin 2000, forthcoming). Persian Muslims of the pre-Mongol period also used local dialects in written texts, such as in translations of the Qur'an (Ravaqi, Lazard 1978). For information about spoken Persian and Iranian dialects, see Judeo-Iranian.

Judeo-Persian attracts considerable interest by linguists and historians of Persian, for it preserves numerous archaic traits and words lost in New Persian. Like many other Jewish languages, the earliest examples we have of New Persian are written in Jewish characters.

For centuries, literary Judeo-Persian co-existed alongside vernaculars, exactly as was – and to some degree, still is – the case with Common (i.e., Muslim) New Persian. The result is diglossia, or even triglossia or quatroglossia and more. In the case of Jews, there can be: (a) a domestic vernacular, i.e., a dialect of New Persian or another spoken Iranian language; (b) a local form of spoken Persian Koine; (c) literary Judeo-Persian; to these can be added (d) standard Common New Persian; (e) Hebrew and Aramaic; and, in some cases, (f) another language current in the area, such as Pashto in Afghanistan, Uzbek in Buchara and Samarkand, Arabic in Western Iran, or Azeri in Northern Iran. As we can see, although written Judeo-Persian served as the main tool of literary expression, it was merely one of the linguistic layers used by Iranian Jewry.

Linguistic Classification

Judeo-Persian should be treated as a variant of New Persian, which is the most important of the Iranian languages. This branch of the Indo-European language family includes the many varieties of Kurdish (Kurmanji / Kirmanci, Sorani, Gurāni, Zaza, etc.), Pushtu / Pashto / Pakhto in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ossetic in the Caucasus (Russia and Georgia), Beluji / Baluchi, and dozens of smaller languages in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and even Western China.

Three important points should be observed:

  1. Persian is one of the most ancient languages with a long literary tradition, divided as follows: (a) Old Persian written in cuneiform and Aramaic characters, (b) Middle Persian written in alphabets of Aramaic origin (Manichean Middle Persian, Zoroastrian Middle Persian or Pahlavi / Pehlevi, Christian Middle Persian, and apparently Jewish Middle Persian (Shapira 2001)), and (c) New or Classical Persian written in Arabic, Jewish, Roman, or Cyrillic characters.

  2. In the 20th century there are three written forms of New Persian used in three different countries: (a) Persian of Iran / Persian proper, (b) Dari or Farsi-Kabuli, one of two official languages of Afghanistan besides Pashto, and (c) Tajiki in formerly Soviet Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, for which Cyrillic characters have been used and recently traditional Arabic characters have been reintroduced. The differences between these three variants are reminiscent of those between peninsular Spanish and Latin American Spanish, for example. There was – and still is – a correlation between the varieties of Judeo-Persian used in Iran proper and in Central Asia.

  3. In Iran, Persian is the main tool of education and written expression, though less than half of the population speak it at home and many dialects, Iranian and Turkic as well as Semitic, still exist. As the history of Judeo-Persian reflects the history of Common Persian, there is no single spoken Judeo-Persian comparable to Yiddish or some other Jewish languages. This may be understood against the background of the high status of New Persian.


19th-century manuscript of a poem by Imrani, a Judeo-Persian poet from Isfahan, 15th-16th centuries

Linguistic Features of Written Judeo-Persian

Judeo-Persian texts can be divided into two periods: before the Mongol invasion in the mid-13th century and afterwards. Like in the Common Persian literary tradition, the Mongol onslaught was a period of serious cultural and linguistic change. Judeo-Persian texts dating from before the Mongol invasion exhibit considerable dialect variety; in the post-Mongol period all this changed. Since the invasion, the lingua franca of the Jews has been a colloquial form of Classical Persian / New Persian / Common New Persian (CNP). For writing the Jews used the same language as their Muslim compatriots, with minor differences (fewer Arabic words, some Hebrew and Aramaic words, Hebrew characters). The spelling was sometimes phonetic, due to the lack of Muslim education. These lapses in orthography are important for determining the historical Persian pronunciations.

The literature before the Mongol invasion comes mainly from geniza finds made in the 19th century and during archeological excavations. In the 14th-17th centuries Judeo-Persian literature flourished. In Bukhara the peak was in the 17th-19th centuries, with renewed activity in Jerusalem in the late 19th - early 20th century.

As a Jewish language, written Judeo-Persian belongs to the same type as written Judeo-Arabic of the Classical period, as it uses CNP as a model, is written in Hebrew characters, and includes some Hebrew loanwords (but not as many as in Yiddish). The presence of Aramaic loanwords is significant, probably going back to the earliest stages of Judeo-Persian. There are many Iranian archaisms that have been lost in other varieties of Persian, but generally, the lexical composition is that of the CNP, with a smaller percentage of the "educated" Arabic elements.

Phonologically, medieval Judeo-Persian texts demonstrate, due to peculiarities of orthography which do not always follow the CNP models, the same traits as modern spoken CNP. The syntax of the translations from Hebrew mostly follows the Hebrew models, closely resembling Ladino and other calque languages in this respect. One of the most interesting facts about Judeo-Persian literature is that it includes many Muslim-Persian literary works, especially poetry, transcribed into Hebrew characters. Original Judeo-Persian poetry, especially rewriting of Biblical books and Mishnaic tractates, is another distinctive mark of medieval Judeo-Persian literary production.

Non-literary Persian and Other Iranian Languages

Literary Judeo-Persian is now extinct; some literary activities are carried on in Israel in Judeo-Bukharan and, to a much lesser extent, in Judeo-Tat; Iranian Jews in Israel and the USA use standard New Persian (as well as Hebrew and English) for their literary production.

However, spoken varieties of Persian and other Iranian languages are still common among Jews:

  1. New Persian (Iran, Israel, USA, Europe, and elsewhere). This is standard New Persian of Iran, esp. as spoken by the younger and more educated; many elder speakers in Israel still use local vernacular forms of New Persian, not necessarily specifically Jewish.

  2. Local dialects of Persian (of Iran), especially by elder and less educated immigrants in Israel; the distinction between dialects of New Persian and local vernacular forms of New Persian is frequently blurred.

  3. Non-Persian Iranian languages of Iran, mostly in their specifically Jewish varieties, such as Yazdi, etc., but also Kurdish; these are spoken by elderly immigrants in Israel and seem to be withering in Iran, due to the spread of education and the mass media.

  4. Judeo-Tadzhik, or Judeo-Bukharan, which is spoken mostly by recent immigrants from the FSU in Israel, USA, and Europe; it is interesting to observe that in Israel this language is currently being replaced not only by Hebrew, but also by Russian.

  5. Judeo-Tat, spoken both in its standard Dagestani variant, and in dialects of Northern Azerbayjan; the language is spoken in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria in the Russian Federation, and in Kuba in Northern Azerbayjan; new thriving centers have recently appeared in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Israel (esp. Or Yehuda), and elsewhere; in Israel, as well as in Russia and Azerbayjan, the younger speakers prefer Russian. In fact, after the break-up of the USSR and emigration to Israel, Judeo-Tat in Israel has also begun to be replaced by Russian. This interesting phenomenon may have some bearing for Jewish sociolinguistics.


Joshua and the Israelites carrying the Ark of the Covenant and crossing the Jordan river, from the Fath Nama, Iran, end of 17th or beginning of 18th century (British Library)

Selected Bibliography (* = Basic References)

  • Adler, E. N. 1898. The Persian Jews: Their Books and Their Ritual. Jewish Quarterly Review 10: 584-625.

  • Asmussen, J. P. 1965. Judeo-Persica I: Shahin-i Shirazi's Ardashir-Nama. Acta Orientalia 28: 245-261.

  • Asmussen, J. P. 1965. Judeo-Persica II: The Jewish-Persian Law Report from Ahwaz, A.D. 1020. Acta Orientalia 29: 49-60.

  • Asmussen, J. P. 1966. Judeo-Persica IV. Einige Bemerkungen zu Baba ben Nuriels Psalmenüebersetzung. Acta Orientalia 30: 15-24.

  • * Asmussen, J. P. 1968. Jewish-Persian Texts. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

  • * Asmussen, J. P. 1973. Studies in Judeo-Persian Literature. Brill: Leiden.

  • Asmussen, J. P. 1969. A Select List of Words from the Vatican Judeo-Persian Pentateuch (Genesis). In K. R. Cama Oriental Institute Golden Jubilee Volume. Bombay: K. R. Cama Institute. 93-102.

  • Bacher, W. 1896. Ein Hebraeisch-Persisches Wörterbuch aus dem 15 Jahrhundert. Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentlische Wissenschaft 16. 201-247.

  • Blieske, D. 1968. Šāhīn-e Šīrāzīs Ardašīr-Buch. Tübingen: Fotodruck Präzis.

  • Fischel, W.J. 1952. The Bible in Persian Translation. Harvard Theological Review 45: 3-45.

  • * Fischel, W. J. 1960. Israel in Iran. In L. Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews, Their History, Culture, and Religion 2. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. 1149-1190.

  • Garbell, I. 1947. מבטא העיצורים העבריים בפי יהודי איראן. לשוננו 15: 62-74.

  • Gindin, T. 2000. The Commentary on the Book of Ezekiel in Early Judaeo-Persian. Pe’amim 84: 40-54.

  • Gindin, T. E. Forthcoming. The Tafsiīr of Ezekiel: Four Copyists or Four Authors? In: L. Paul (ed.), Persian Beginnings: Proceedings of a Conference on Early Judaeo-Persian Held in Göttingen, December 3-4 1999 Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

  • Lazard, G. 1963. La Langue des plus anciens monuments de la prose persane. Paris: Klincksieck.

  • * Lazard, G. 19??-19??. Judeo-Persian. Encyclopedia of Islam 4: 308-313.

  • * Lazard, G. 1968. La Dialectologie du Judéo-Persan. Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 8: 77-98.

  • Lazard, G. 1989. Le judéo-Persan Ancien entre le Pehlevi et le Persan. Studia Iranica Cahiér 7: 167-176.

  • Leslie, D. 1969. The Judeo-Persian Colophons to the Pentateuch of the Kaifeng Jews. Abr-Nahrain 8: 1-35.

  • MacKenzie, D. N. 1966. Ad Juadeo-Persica II Hafniensia. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 69: ?-?.

  • Mackenzie, D. N. 1968. An Early Jewish-Persian Argument. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 31: 249-269.

  • Mainz, E. 1977. Vocabulaire Judéo-Persan. Studia Iranica 6: 73-95.

  • Minorsky, V. 1942. Some Early Documents in Persian (I). Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society ?: 181-194.

  • Moreen, V. B. 2000. In Queen Esther's Garden: An Anthology of Judeo-Persian Literature. New Haven: Yale University Press.

  • Moreen, V. B. 1985. Miniature Paintings in Judeo-Persian Manuscripts. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press.

  • Moreen, V. B. 1987. Iranian Jewry's Hour of Peril and Heroism: A Study on Baabaa Ibn Lutf's Chronicle (1617-1662). New York: American Academy for Jewish Research.

  • Moreen, V. B. 1990. Iranian Jewry During the Afghan Invasion: the Kitaab-Sar Guzasht-i Kaashaan of Baabaa Ibn Farhaad (1721-1731). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

  • Netzer, A. 1969. A Study of Kh(w)aaje Bokhaaii's Daaniyaal Naame. PhD Dissertation. New York: Columbia University.

  • * Netzer, A. 1985. Manuscripts of the Jews of Persia in the Ben Zvi Institute. Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute.

  • * Netzer, A. (ed.). 1996. Padyavand. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda.

  • * Netzer A. & Shaked, S. (eds.). 19??-19??. Irano-Judaica 1-5. Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute.

  • Paper, H. 1968. Judeo-Persian Bible Translations: Some Sample Texts. Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 8: 99-113.

  • * Paul, L. (ed.). Forthcoming. Judeo-Persian Beginnings.

  • Ravāqī, A. 1985. Qur'ān quds: kuhantarīn bargardān-i Qur'ān bih Fārsī. Tehrīn (Mu'assasah-'i Farhangī-i Shahīd Muhammad Ravāqī)

  • Seligsohn, M. 1903. The Hebrew-Persian Manuscripts of the British Museum. Jewish Quarterly Review 15: 278-302.

  • Shaked, Sh. 1971. Judeo-Persian Notes. Israeli Oriental Studies 1: 178-182.

  • Shaked, S. 1977. Jewish and Christian Seals of the Sasanian Period. In M. Rosen-Ayalon (ed.), Studies in Memory of Gaston Wiet. Jerusalem: Institute of Asian and African Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 17-31.

  • Shaked, S. 1988. And Early Geniza Fragment in an Unknown Iranian Dialect. In Barg-s Sabz - A Green Leaf: Papers in Honour of Professor Jes P. Asmussen. Leiden: Brill. 219-235.

  • Shapira, D. 1993. Tafsir Hosea in Judeo-Persian. MA Thesis, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. [In Hebrew]

  • Shapira, D. 1999. Qissa-ye Daniel or 'The Story of Daniel' in Judeo-Persian: The Text and its Translation. Sephunot 22: 337-366.

  • Shapira, D. 2001. Biblical Quotations in Pahlavi. Henoch 23: 187-195.

  • Yeroushalmi, D. 1995. The Judeo-Persian Poet Emrani and His Book of Treasure, Edited, Translated and Annotated Together with a Critical Study. Leiden: Brill.


Online Resources