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Yā Nafs – A Judaeo-Arabic Reproof for Yom Kippur (?): RNL Yevr.-Arab. II:2682 and T-S Ar.36.134

Rachel Hasson


The Genizah includes more than twelve hundred Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts of popular literature. This corpus contains stories and poems on numerous topics,1 many of which deal with biblical and midrashic stories, as well as popular elegies and the praise of God. These stories and poems were read, recited or sung by the Jewish community during rituals and holidays. For example, Qiṣṣat Ester was read on Purim,Qiṣṣat Yusūf was read on Passover, and the elegy about Ḥanna and her seven sons (Qiṣṣat Ḥanna) was sung on the 9th of Av. Another form of poetry, known as Yā Nafs (= ‘Oh soul’), deals with ethics and reproof, and is the focus of this paper.

Yā Nafs poems are rhymed strophic songs, a type of zajal. The words Yā Nafs, which appear at the beginning of every strophe in the poems, are a call to the soul to repent and atone. To the best of my knowledge the songs of Yā Nafs were composed by Jews around the 16th or 17th centuries, in accordance with prevalent philosophical and ethical thought in the Arab world during the Middle Ages. It stands to reason that Yā Nafs songs were well-known popular poems sung at liturgical occasions on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement in Judaism). These claims are further clarified below.

The liturgical purpose and popularity of Yā Nafs

Several versions of Yā Nafs songs appear in twenty-seven Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts from the Genizah, twenty-four of which belong to the Karaite Firkovitch collection and the remaining three to the Taylor-Schechter Collection. The manuscripts include several versions of the song, T-S Ar.36.134 alone includes two Judaeo-Arabic versions of the poem. From the type of writing that appears in the manuscripts, it seems that they were copied between the 16th and 19th centuries. It appears that only T-S Ar.36.134 includes a complete version of Yā Nafs, although the manuscript itself is fragmentary. This particular manuscript is also exceptional because the poet’s name is mentioned at the end of the poem – אבן יוסף (‘son of Yūsuf’), while the other versions are anonymous. Yā Nafs is known not only from Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts discovered in the Genizah, but also from a 19th-century Arabic version found in printed booklets in Egypt and published by M. Bouriant.2 This Arabic version is different from our Judaeo-Arabic versions.

The Yā Nafs poems beseech the soul to abandon sins and fully repent as a warning against foreseen punishment in the afterlife. Its songs preach moral and righteous behavior as a means for gaining reward on Judgment Day. The songs glorify asceticism, abstaining from worldly pleasures, fearing God and obeying Him.

The purpose of Yā Nafs is presented in MSS RNL Yevr.-Arab. II: 1814, II: 2692:

נבדתי אלאן בעון אללה עז וגׄל פי ועטׄ אלנפס וחתׄהא אלתובה ואלכׄשוע ואלאבתהאל  בין ידי אללה תע׳ ואלאתצׄאע ואלציאן אן לא יעוד ואן כאן דאים מעתרף בכׄטאה והו נאדמן ויקול קאילא...

(We shall start now, with the help of God to Whom belongs Glory and Greatness, the admonition of the soul and its instigation to repentance and submissiveness and supplication before God the Supremely Exalted and (its) humbleness and keeping (the believer) from returning (to wrong), and if he is always aware of his sins and regrets, then the speaker should say...)

In view of the fact that the Yā Nafs poems address the soul, in T-S Ar.36.134 and Bouriant’s Arabic version the poem is titled Nafsiyya (i.e. a poem for the soul) حمل زجل النفسية or חמל זגׄל נפסייה (‘a zajal of Nafsiyya’).3 In other Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts the poem is titled ועץׄ ללנפס (‘preaching morality to the soul’, MS RNL Yevr.-Arab. II:2692) or ועצׄיה (‘preaching morality’ or ‘warning’, MS RNL Yevr.-Arab. II:2682). In MS RNL Yevr.-Arab. II: 1824 the title is מועצׄה ללאדמי (‘rebuke for the human being’) and at the top of the poem in MS RNL Yevr-Arab. II:1817 the title written is הדה אלמועצׄה יום אלנחמה, ‘this rebuke song is for consolation day’, which may suggest the poem was intended for Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). The large number of Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts that include the poem, and the fact that the word פזמון (‘refrain’, or the abbreviation פז׳) is written between the stanzas in most of them,4 supports our premise that the poem was composed for liturgical purposes, and seems to have been sung on Yom Kippur. This assumption corresponds with the words of the song, which call for personal introspection.


MS T-S Ar.36.134

A page of Yā Nafs poetry from T-S Ar.36.134 (P1 B)


A closer look at the poetry found in the Genizah implies that the melody for Yā Nafs songs was well known and popular among Jews. A reference to the melody of Yā Nafs appears above a Hebrew song written by the great poet Israel Najara (1555 Gaza – 1628 Damascus). Before Najara’s song אדוני רם ונעלה על כל תהלה, a song of praise and thanksgiving to God, the reader is given instructions regarding the melody of the song: עלי לחן יא נפס תובי מן אל דנובי (‘according to the melody of the song: Oh soul, repent from the sins’).5 This remark supports the assumption that Yā Nafs songs were very popular and that their melody (or one of its versions) was very well known among Jewish communities, at least in the time period and areas in which Najara worked or visited (these areas include Syria, the Land of Israel and Egypt, during the 16th–17th centuries).

A similar remark appears in MS RNL Yevr.-Arab. II: 1746 which includes Judaeo-Arabic and bilingual (Hebrew and Judaeo-Arabic) lamentations. These relate mainly to the destruction of Jerusalem, i. e. a booklet of liturgical poems for 9th of Av. The following words appear in the upper margin of a page of the abovementioned MS (f. 3v.): עלי לחן יא נפס (‘according to the melody of the song: Oh soul’). This example further supports our claim regarding the popularity and liturgical purposes of the Yā Nafs songs among Jewish communities at the time the manuscripts were copied.

A possible background for composing Yā Nafs

I wish to propose several ideas that may lie behind the composing of Yā Nafs. First, we will refer to the songs’ structure. The songs’ call to the soul with the words Yā Nafs, and the call’s reiteration at the beginning of each poetic unit, highly resemble the known hermetic composition in its Arabic translation كتاب معاذلة النفس (‘The Book of the Soul’s Rebuke’). Some researchers believe the book was composed in the 11th–13th centuries. Different speculations have been made regarding the author’s identity, including Hermes Trismegistus, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as Muslim authors or anonymous pagans. It is important to note that there are no traces of Christian and Jewish characteristics in the composition, which further strengthens the opinion among researchers that it was written by a Muslim. The composition consists of nine paragraphs, each of which begins with the words يا نفس (Yā Nafs). This is a similar structure to the one that appears in our song, in which each poetic unit begins with the same words יא נפס (Yā Nafs).6

As for the main theme of Yā Nafs songs, كتاب معاذلة النفس (‘The Book of the Soul’s Reproof’) also calls the soul to abandon worldly pleasures and desires and concentrate on the real world, namely the world of reason, which stands as an antithesis to the worldliness. Therefore, the soul must detach itself from this world and cleave to the afterlife. The composition was of particular interest to Jews, to the extent that several of its copies were discovered in the Genizah. However, the composition has a far greater impact – in fact, the composition’s underlying approach, i.e. the redemption of the soul, started to appear in Jewish liturgical poems, piyyuṭim, from the 9th century. Toward the end of the 9th century and the beginning of the 10th century in the East, and in the 10th and 11th centuries in Spain, reproofs began to appear in Jewish liturgical poems, focusing on man’s sins and encouraging him to mend his ways. These poems, which were the work of Rabbi Saadia Gaon, Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, Bahya Ibn Paquda and others, were written in rhyme and fixed patterns, as characteristic of poems that were an integral part of public prayer services, or without rhymes and open patterns for voluntary prayers.7

These liturgical poems (piyyuṭim), which drew special attention to individual and personal matters, as opposed to general and national, were considered an innovation in Jewish literature, and should probably be regarded as the product of Islamic influence. In this way, for example, the soul is at the heart of Rabbi Saadia Gaon’s liturgical poem, קינה היא וקוננוה בני אדם על נפשותם, as well as Bahya’s reproof נפשי עוז / ברכי נפשי, where each one of its stanzas begins with the word נפשי (‘my soul’). Similarly, each one of the poetic units of the reproof written by Shlomo Ibn Gabirol begins with the words שובי נפשי (‘Return, my soul’). These liturgical poems suggest a similar approach to the redemption of the soul. It appears the new piyyuṭim may have mirrored the philosophical ideas and contemplational beliefs that were accepted in the Arab-speaking world at the time.8

We should also note that the liberation of the soul is the core theme of the Arab زُهد (‘asceticism’) songs. Arabic zuhd songs, which call for the knowledge of God through asceticism and favoring the afterlife over this life, are known from as early as the Jahiliyya period. Zuhd songs thrived particularly during the Abbasid period and were composed thereafter as well.9

Another aspect, which cannot be overlooked, is the comparison between Judaeo-Arabic Yā Nafs songs and Sufi literature. The Sufi stream of Islam grew in response to the worldliness of Umayyad rule, reaching its peak in the 10th century. The doctrine of Sufi mysticism had a profound impact on Egypt during the Mamluk period, which influenced Judaism as well. Sufism is known to have made a considerable impact on Rabbi Abraham son of Maimonides and his group of followers.10 His teachings, in the spirit of Sufi mysticism, are apparent in his book כפאיה אלעאבדין (‘A Comprehensive Guide for the Servants of God’). Characteristics of Sufi mysticism are also evident in the doctrine of Bahya Ibn Paquda and are expressed in his songs, one of which is mentioned above.11

The description up until this point is important for our discussion in that it helps us recognize the philosophical-cultural foundation of the Jewish community in Egypt, where the Genizah manuscripts in question were found. So far, we have described its early philosophical grounds, which are an initial point of comparison for the recurring Yā Nafs calls in our popular Judaeo-Arabic songs. We then specified additional points of comparison in the field of Arabic poetry and Sufi mysticism in the Middle Ages. However, the adoption of Sufi songs by Muslims, Jews and Samaritans in Egypt is known to have occurred in later periods (the 16th–19th centuries) as well. The Genizah has revealed at least one poem that corresponds with the Sufi doctrine and was copied by Jews. This poem is al-Qaṣīda al-Fiyyāšiyya which was composed by the Sufi محمد ابن محمد ابن عبد الرحمان ابن علي البهنسيالعقيلي الشفعي الخلوتي النقشبندي شمس الدين in the 16th century. The song is known from various Arabic copies, among them versions gathered in Egypt during the 19th century, as well as Samaritan manuscripts from the 17th–19th centuries and Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts found in the Genizah (!), which date back to the 17th century. Al-Qaṣīda al-Fiyyāšiyya seems to have served the Jewish community in Egypt for liturgical purposes. This example clearly and unquestionably illustrates that popular Sufi literature was adopted by Jews at the time.12

In conclusion, to the best of my understanding the popular Judaeo-Arabic Yā Nafs songs found in the Genizah, together with النفسية, which was gathered in Egypt by Bouriant (see above) demonstrate the inter-cultural symbiotic relationships the Jewish community in Egypt had with its Islamic environment, a relationship whose cultural impact manifested itself in popular literature. It is important for me to note that the research of popular literature in the Genizah is in its very beginning, and our findings here are one chapter of a pioneering study in this field.13

The songs of Yā Nafs

RNL Yevr.-Arab. II:2682.1r:

יא נפס כם תג תדנבי

Oh soul, how sinful you are

יא נפס כם תגׄהלי

Oh soul, how ignorant you are

יא נפס כם תרגׄעי

Oh soul, do not you return [from your sins] (?!)

יא נפס מא תעקלי

Oh soul, do not you comprehend (?!)


יא נפס טיעי אלדי אנשאך

Oh soul, obey the one who created you

וקד צורך ואהדאך

And generated you and guided you rightly

לטרק אלצלאח נאדאך

To the ways of truth called you

טיעיה ומנה אקבלי

Obey him and approach him



יא נפס כוני אלזמי

Oh soul, cleave

טרק אלצלאה ואלציאם

To the ways of prayer and fasting

ואוי אלפקיר ואליתים

And protect the poor and the orphaned

אלכׄיר דאים אפעלי

And always do what is good





1 For comprehensive studies on the popular Judaeo-Arabic material in the Genizah see: Rachel Hasson-Kenat (רחל חסון קנת), Late Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts from the Firkovitch Collection – classification, description and sample texts, PhD Dissertation, Hebrew University (Hebrew; 2016); ‘Late Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts of popular literature from the Firkovitch Collection’ (Hebrew), Ginzei Qedem 15 (2019), pp. 55–124.

2 Urban Bouriant, Chansons populaires arabes en dialecte du Caire d'après les manuscrits d'un chanteur des rues: spécimen (Paris, 1893), pp. 40–43.

3 In T-S Ar.36.134 there is also written: מן אלסאלוס – ‘of unfaithfulness’ (?).

4 For example MS RNL-Yevr.-Arab. II: 2583, 

5 MSS: Shocken 1358 p. 102; ENA 1353.58.

6  Ayala Eliyahu, ‘Fragments of Hermetic Literature in the Genizah’ (Heb. קטעים מן הספרות ההרמטית בגניזה), Ginzei Qedem 1 (2005), pp. 11–22.

7  Eliyahu, ibid.; Jacques Schlanger (ז׳אק שלנגר), The Philosophy of Solomon ibn Gabirol (Hebrew; 1979), pp. 244–245.

8  Eliyahu, ibid.; Yedidya Peles, בחיי בן יוסף אבן פקודה - שירי קודש [Bahya ibn Paquda – religious poems] (Hebrew; Tel Aviv, תשל׳׳ז), pp. 78–83.

9 Electronic resource, محمد سراج الدين, الزهد في الشعر العربي. بيروت, بدون تاريخ. 

10 Paul B. Fenton, ‘Sufis and Jews in Mamluk Egypt’, in Stephan Conermann (ed.), Muslim-Jewish Relations in the Middle Islamic Period, Jews in the Ayyubid and Mamluk Sultanates (1171–1517) (Bonn, 2017), pp. 41–62.

11 Diana Lobel, A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya Ibn Paquda’s Duties of the Heart (Pennsylvania, 2013).

12 Rachel Hasson, ‘Al-Qaṣīda al-Fiyyāšiyya – an old-new poem found in Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts’ (expected to be published in this forum).

13 See fn.1.


Cite this article

Hasson, R. (2020). Yā Nafs – A Judaeo-Arabic Reproof for Yom Kippur (?): RNL Yevr.-Arab. II:2682 and T-S Ar.36.134. [Genizah Research Unit, Fragment of the Month, September 2020].


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