Lost Literary Worlds: A Review of David Torollo’s edition of Yedaya ha-Penini’s Sefer ha-Pardes

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Tamar Ron Marvin

David Torollo. Sefer ha-Pardes by Jedaiah ha-Penini: A Critical Edition with English Translation (Open Book Publishers/University of Cambridge, 2022).

Yedaya ha-Penini (c. 1285-c. 1340) is a fascinating, lesser-known figure from medieval Provence, a Jewish community whose considerable contributions were disrupted, dispersed, and largely lost to subsequent Jewish culture on account of the expulsions of Jews from France in the fourteenth century. A new translation, with a brief contextual introduction, aims to introduce a youthful work of Yedaya’s to an English-speaking audience. Like Behinat Olam, the belletristic ethical poem for which he is best known, Sefer ha-Pardes is a poem of advice written in melitza, a turbid literary style often florid to modern ears but beloved of the chattering classes of medieval Sefarad and later Provence, too. One of the most interesting aspects of Sefer ha-Pardes is its closing section, which deals with rhetoric and poetics. We don’t have a plethora of medieval Hebrew writing on the topic, making this a rare treat for scholars and lovers of Hebrew literature. Undoubtedly, the work bears historical significance and literary interest, and David Torollo’s bilingual edition supports both Hebrew readers looking to check their understanding as well as English readers. But why Sefer ha-Pardes, and why now?

From the beginning of the academic study of Judaism in the nineteenth century and continuing apace until the mid-twentieth century, overlooked Jewish texts of scholarly significance were edited and introduced, usually in German, French, and later Hebrew. These freshly-edited texts were vaulted out of obscurity, often out of manuscript, and sometimes even back into the canon. Such editions remain important today, even as they lie in scattered volumes of defunct periodicals and dusty books tucked deep in the stacks (sometimes, in the recesses of the internet). It is no longer in academic fashion for doctoral students to select a forgotten text to publish as their dissertations, with the result that the field is still in want of many a critical edition—or any edition at all. This raises the question of priority: Which texts should be worked on next? And which should be furnished with a labor-intensive English translation? These questions are, of course, another way of asking: What deserves to be read?

For all the work of Artscroll and Koren, Sefaria and Al-HaTorah, the English-speaker with limited Hebrew bumps up against walls surprisingly soon. One only needs to go as far as the familiar Vilna daf to find that Rashi and Tosafot have no reliable direct translation. Of course, most English translations supply extra words based on Rashi, and the internet boasts at least one line-by-line English version of Tosafot, if a rough one. Still, reading Talmud commentary in English is a heavily mediated experience. It might be argued that the absence of Tosafot on the Talmud in English creates an urgent translation need, which is currently in the process of being addressed by Artscroll. If a minor character like Yedaya ha-Penini stands barely a chance to pass before the eyes of the twenty-first century Anglophone audience, perhaps that is a matter of priority.

Or, perhaps, we might maintain that works carry inherent value that cannot be algorithmically ranked or subjected to majoritarian concerns—that they are uniquely valuable and deserving of access. This tension between the cultural influence and aesthetic worth of a text must be reconciled by each capable editor-translator who selects their next project, and by each potential reader who selects theirs. It is acute pedagogically, where educators must decide whether to pursue Hebrew-Aramaic literacy or depth of content knowledge for those with limited original-language facility. Making Sefer ha-Pardes available in English stakes a claim that aesthetic value and depth of inquiry are important.

Sefer ha-Pardes is surely a window into a lost world, with its late-medieval interest in the liberal arts, the didactic pleasure it takes in instructing its readers morally, and the linguistic play that clearly delights its seventeen-year-old author. [Yedaya ha-Penini’s father was the noted Hebrew poet Avraham ha-Bedersi (of Béziers), who wrote, among other works, a poem called Elef Alefin (A Thousand Alephs), in which, as promised by the title, every word begins with the letter alef. Yedaya himself wrote a spin-off, Bakashat ha-Memim (The Request of the Mems), in which, yes, every word begins with a mem.)[1] “The king fears two people: the doctor and the artist,” Yedaya opines.[2] “Learning is like food, and stories arouse the appetite.”[3] Sections of such pithy epigrams are interspersed with longer parables, all within the conceit of the request of Yedaya’s friend for “a [written] memorial of universal principles on human moral attributes.”[4] Like the audience for whom Yedaya was writing, those with literary inclination will surely enjoy the peek into Yedaya’s cultural values.

A particularly intriguing parable is included in the “Chapter on isolation from this World and the Mention of meshalim [parables] about Its Hostility.” It involves a classical theodicy question: a woman whose pious husband dies young seeks to understand how a benevolent and judicious God could allow such a tragedy to occur. In Yedaya’s words:

When the man died, his wife, due to her great bitterness and fear, was utterly seized by suspicion of the order…as if she considered [his death a matter of] injustice and unfairness. She would go crying and lamenting to houses of learning and gatherings of rabbis, [asking whether] the judgment required [the death of a young man who never committed a sin or dwelt on idleness in his youth], and looking for an explanation, since it is supposed that the pursuit of integrity, fear of God, and perseverance in studying [Torah] prolong the lives of people…[5]

On display here is Yedaya’s youthful tendency to self-righteousness (though, it must be emphasized, filtered through an accepted literary genre) and his relative inexperience with crafting language, which would find greater maturity in his later works. The moral of his story will ring no sweeter to modern ears, as the women’s arrogance is revealed by a wise sage using the analogy of a fig tree:

The sage replied: ‘Look, my daughter, do you see if [the man picking figs] is differentiating between the thick and the thin ones while picking?’ She answered: ‘No sir, but I see that he is picking the ripe ones, whether they are thick or not.’ Then the sage said: ‘My daughter, the fig tree is this world, its owner is the Creator, may He be blessed; the picker of the figs is the will of God; his providence is the judges; men are the figs; the thin ones are the children and the thick ones are the elderly; the ripe ones are the God-fearing and eminent; while the unripe ones are those detested by God and the wicked…’.[6]

Bristle though we might at the sage’s, and Yedaya ha-Penini’s, insensitivity and moral complacency, we have here the opportunity to understand better the comfort the parable gave to its premodern readers. The deceased husband was, after all, beloved of God; he was simply ripe, ready to be picked, and his death should not be understood as punitive.

Much of the pleasure of reading Sefer ha-Pardes, it must be said, resides in the Hebrew, rather uncomplicated by medieval belletristic standards, and therefore plausibly accessible to most readers of Hebrew. The content of Sefer ha-Pardes is largely of interest to scholars of the period, also ostensibly Hebrew readers, though a lone scholar specializing in one or another European vernacular might benefit from having access to the text for comparative purposes. This begs the question of a need for a translation. Though lengthier, the more influential Behinat Olam, something of a best-seller, judging by the healthy number of extant manuscripts and early printings, is a contender. Yedaya is also the author of a literary-polemical response to Judah Ibn Shabbetai’s Minhat Yehudah Sonei ha-Nashim (Judah the Misogynist) in defense of love and women, arguably of greater interest, in spite of the literary pretensions of the medieval genre, to a contemporary audience.[7]

These questions are heightened by Torollo’s slim introduction, which is a focused look at Sefer ha-Pardes and its place in Hebrew literature. He chooses a narrow focus, largely omitting Yedaya ha-Penini’s other, multifaceted literary contributions from the introduction. The aptly-titled section, “Didacticism: What to Know and How to Feel about It,” is a welcome introduction to the genre. A more robust overview of Yedaya ha-Penini’s life, however, might have framed this youthful work within the larger story of Jewish Provence, providing the reader with additional material that is largely locked away in specialty literature and which, unlike Torollo’s work, is generally not open-access. But this is a road not taken, and this edition of Sefer ha-Pardes remains strictly specialized.

Torollo’s translation is, overall, clear and transparent. At times a more literal approach might have better captured the language of the original: for instance, where ha-Penini characterizes ethics (musar) as parperet, an appetizer or side dish, Torollo translates the phrase as, “musar comes second” (with musar untranslated; he does note, in a footnote, the literal meaning of parperet). Another translation choice Torollo makes is to render dat according to its modern meaning, “religion”; I tend to favor “law” or “legal tradition” but sometimes “custom” or “tradition” is appropriate. The relatively frequent use of the term in Sefer ha-Pardes is certainly worthy of note. The question of whether a fourteenth-century person could have had a conception of what we moderns mean when we talk about religion is a complex one, and worth raising rather than eliding.

From a scholarly and literary perspective, there is no question that Torollo’s edition of Sefer ha-Pardes has great merit. He writes in his acknowledgements that the translation originated in a larger, postdoctoral project comparatively examining Arabic, Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, and Castilian didactic literature. As such, it is a scholar’s gift to the reading public to make available completed work he had done in the course of the project. That being said, the English reader misses much in translation and attains little in terms of intellectual edification or historical meaning.

[1] The attribution of these two poems is debated, with some contending that they were both written by Yedaya.

[2] Sefer ha-Pardes, ed. Torollo, 116/117 [106a], l. 664.

[3] Sefer ha-Pardes, ed. Torollo, 114/115 [106a], l. 651.

[4] Sefer ha-Pardes, ed. Torollo, 23/24 [106a], ll. 8-9.

[5] Sefer ha-Pardes, ed. Torollo, 82/83 [104a], ll. 421-434.

[6] Sefer ha-Pardes, ed. Torollo, 83/84-85/86 [104a], ll. 447-455.-

[7] A substantial English translation of Yehudah Sonei ha-Nashim by Raymond P. Scheindlin is available in David Stern and Mark Jay Mirsky, Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 269-294.

Tamar Ron Marvin holds a Ph.D. in Medieval and Early Modern Jewish Studies and is currently a semikha student at Yeshivat Maharat. A 2022 Vatichtov Writing Fellow, her work has appeared in various academic and Jewish publications, including The Association for Jewish Studies Review, Medieval Encounters, and The New York Jewish Week.