Dunash ben Labrat

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Dunash ha-Levi ben Labrat (920-990) (Hebrew: דוֹנָש הלוי בֵּן לָבְרָט‎; Arabic: دناش بن لبراط‎‎) was a medieval Jewish commentator, poet, and grammarian of the Golden age of Jewish culture in Spain. He was, according to Moses ibn Ezra, born in Fes.[1] the name Dunash being of Berber origin. In his youth he travelled to Baghdad to study with Saadia Gaon.[2]

Dunash is called the founder of Andalusian Hebrew poetry.[3] He first introduced Arabic meter into Hebrew poetry. Traditional Arabic poetry was built on interspersing long and short vowels. In contrast, Hebrew distinguishes between the quality of the vowels, rather than their length. Dunash's innovation came in drawing a parallel between the šəwâ (ə) and ḥāṭēp̄ (ĕ/ă/ŏ) and the Arabic short vowels (i/a/u), so as to create a new Hebrew meter. This meter formed the basis for all subsequent medieval Hebrew poetry. At the time, however, it opened him up to severe criticism, particularly among the students of Menahem ben Saruq, that he was corrupting the Hebrew language by introducing Arabic forms, and changing traditional Biblical styles to conform to Arabic meter and rhyming schemes. For instance, in his classic poem "Dror Yikra," he begins the second line: Ne'im shim'chem ("pleasant [is] your name"), with a modifying form of the adjective "pleasant," where properly it should be na'im.

In the field of grammar, Dunash's major work was a book attacking Menahem ben Saruq and his Mahberet ("Notebook") for violating religious standards and opposing the teachings of the sages. He dedicated his work to the leader of the Jews of Spain at the time, Hasdai ibn Shaprut. In his book, he was the first Hebrew grammarian to distinguish between transitive and intransitive verbs, the first to list verbs by their three-letter roots in the Paal construction, and the first to distinguish between "light" and "heavy" roots. He also condemned Menahem ben Saruq for failing to see the relationship between Hebrew and Arabic. Dunash also wrote a book containing two hundred reservations about the teachings of his old mentor, Saadia Gaon.

The students of Menahem ben Saruq responded with a scathing attack on Dunash, condemning him for using Arabic meter and grammar in studying the Hebrew language, as well as on issues of Jewish philosophy about which they were at odds. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra also wrote a response to Dunash's work, in defense of Saadia Gaon. These challenges were met by Yehudi ben Sheshet, one of Dunash's students, who wrote a work in defense of his master that strongly opposed all of his detractors.

The debates between Dunash and others were finally decided in the centuries after his death by Rabbeinu Tam, a grandson of Rashi, who attempted to judge between the two schools of thought, and by Rabbi Joseph Kimhi, father of the noted grammarian Rabbi David Kimhi (RaDaK), who supported Dunash's positions. Nevertheless, many of the issues raised by Dunash have yet to be resolved today. Dunash is remembered as a poet and a grammarian who uncovered many of the major problems of Hebrew grammar.


  1. David Goldstein, Hebrew Poems from Spain, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1965, p. 13
  2. David Cole, The dream of the poem: Hebrew poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 23
  3. D.G. Blaunder, "The Early Literary Riddle", in: Folklore, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Spring, 1967), pp. 49-58

Further reading

  • Cole, Peter. The dream of the poem: Hebrew poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 23-27 ("Dunash Ben Labrat" and "The wife of Dunash").
  • Eisenberg, Ronald (2006). Lash Balint, Judy; Barak, Daniella, ed. The Streets of Jerusalem. Devora Publishing Company. p. 56. ISBN 1-932687-54-8. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Kolatch, Yonatan (2006). "Chapter 6: The Spanish Linguists". Masters of the Word: Traditional Jewish Bible Commentary from the First through Tenth Centuries. Jersey City: KTAV Publishing House. pp. 331–337. ISBN 0-88125-936-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Maman, Aaron. Comparative Semitic philology in the Middle Ages, Brill, 2004, p. 289-295 (Chapter 11, "Dunash ben Labrat").