The road to Shur, the origin of the Zamzam Well? (Rabbi Sa’adiah ben Yosef Gaon)

Reblogging another great article by Eric bin Kisam 

In the story about the wife of patriarch Abraham, Hagar, and his firstborn son, Ishmael, in the Torah in Genesis/Bereishit 16:7 there was mention of a place named Shur שֽׁוּר.

וַֽיִּמְצָאָ֞הּ מַלְאַ֧ךְ יְהוָ֛ה עַל־עֵ֥ין הַמַּ֖יִם בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר עַל־הָעַ֖יִן בְּדֶ֥רֶךְ שֽׁוּר

An angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the road to Shur  (JPS 1985)

According to Jewish and Christian interpretation Shur was the desert between the south of Canaan, where Hebron was situated, and Egypt.

Interestingly, Rabbi Saadia Gaon ben Yosef (882-942) or Saʻīd bin Yūsuf al-Fayyūmi in Arabic also known by the acronym “Rasag” (who is considered one of the greatest Jewish sageS from the geonic era – an intellectual tower in the field of biblical exegesis, Jewish philosophy, Hebrew language, prayer, and Halakha) in his magnum opus Arabic translation of the Torah Attarjamah Al’arabiyyah Attawrah الترجمة العربية للتوراة rendered Genesis 16:7 as follows:


فو جدها مالك اللّٰه على عين ماء في البرية على على التي في طريق الحجاز

My literal translation : “The Angel of Allah found her on a spring of water in the wilderness on the way in the Hijaz (Al Hijaz)”

To me this is remarkable discovery. Rasag did not mention Shur but Al Hijaz, he seemed to confirm the origin of the Zamzam Well, a miraculously generated source of water from God, which according to traditional Islamic report began when Hagar and her infant son Ishmael was wandering in the wilderness thirsty and desperately in need for water. It was then that God sent his angel Gabriel to help Hagar. Later Ishmael and his father Abraham rebuilt the Bayt Allah (“House of God”) called the Kaaba, a landmark building which Muslims around the world visit and face in prayer. The place which Rasag mentioned as Al-Hijaz is in the region west of present-day Saudi Arabia where the holy city of Mecca in which the Kaaba is situated.


Rasag originally wrote his original Torah translation using Hebrew scripts not Arabic (Judeo-arabic scripts). This also has been bolstered by the fact that no texts of the Arabic script have been found in any of the Genizah collections. As Muslims at his time could not read Hebrew or Hebrew characters this clearly indicates that Rasag wrote his translation of the Torah with a Jewish audience in mind, an assumption supported by Rasag own description of his work. So there is little possibility that Rasag deliberately choose the wording in order to fit Islamic audience as later a Jewish commentator such as 12th century Abraham Ibn Ezra had been speculating.


It comes to my attention from brother Abdullah in his comment – more support that Rasag himself chose to refer to the Al -Hijaz region in his Torah translation can be found in his rendering of Genesis/Bereishit 10:30, in which he translates the locations Mesha  מֵשָׁ֑א  and Sephar סְפָ֖רָ as Mecca مكة and Medina المدينة.

Please refer to Rasag tarjamah text below:


Categories: Bible, Eric bin Kisam, History, Islam

9 replies

  1. Hi Eric

    Very interesting article indeed!

    While there are some variants in the surviving manuscripts it might be of interest to notice that in at least one manuscript the word “hajr” is inserted between “tariq” and alhijaz, so the text in the Judeo-Arabic reads:

    ווג֗דהא מלאך אללה עלי עין מא פי אלבריה עלי אלעין פי טריק חג֗ר אלחיג֗אז

    “The angel of Allah found her near a spring in the desert, the spring on the way to/of the rock of al Hijaz”.

    The rock of Al Hijaz can of course be nothing else but the black stone of the Kaaba.

    For reasons that deserve more study Rabbi Saadia Gaon often included Islamic interpretations in his translation even in cases where it differs from the traditional rabbinical understanding.

    Do you have any insights into Rabbi Saadia Gaon’s use of Islamic material in his translation of the Torah?

    • Greetings Roy,

      Thank you for your interest in the article, 

      As for your question, I have a different view, I dont think Rasag adopted “Islamic” materials for his translation.  Jews had lived in what is known now as the middle east  long before the appearance of Islam, they have been familiar with the Arabic designations  for just as long.  Therefore I believe Rasag must have been understood about the prophetic nature of Islam, I see little chance the man of his calibre purposedly mislead his people by giving fallacious translation of the Torah.


      • Dear Eric,

        I am not sure I understand then. I hope you could clarify your perspective.

        Do you mean to say that Rasag relied on pre-Islamic (Arabic?) sources rather than Islamic? And if so what would these sources have been and how does this tie in with the statement that “Rasag must have been understood about the prophetic nature of Islam”?

        I never meant to imply that Rasag would “mislead his people by giving fallacious translation of the Torah”. I take it that he considered his rendering of Gen. 16:7 valid, even if not, strictly speaking, a literal translation.


      • Greeting Roy,

        I imagine Rasag must posses a knowledge about all these places and its narrative, yes it could be an “established” jewish oral tradition prior to Islam (it does not necessarily mean to be “Arabic” sources because mostl likely the jews of the Hejaz had also been arabs culturally). Perhaps the statment of the prophetic nature of islam may have no tie with Rasag knowledge, but the fact that he preserved those words which are conformed with Islamic tradition at odd with the “canon” of later jewish narration to me is quite telling.


    • Roy I just want to say I appreciate your tone and kind and calm engagement. Hopefully you’ll stick around on this blog. Glad to have you.


      • Atlas, thank you for your kind words. Bloggingtheology deals with many extremely interesting topics, so I will certainly be sticking around for a bit! Thanks again for your kindness and peace to you too.

  2. 13 And she called the name of the LORD that spake unto her, Thou God seest me: for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me?

    14 Wherefore the well was called Beerlahairoi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.

    Nowhere near Mecca.

  3. Hi Erasmus

    I think you misunderstood me. It is true, in the original text of Gen. 16:7 the angel found Hagar and Ishmael on the road to Shur and not on the way to the Kaaba, so to speak. You are correct that Shur cannot easily be taken to be near Mekka.

    The point is that the 9-10th century Rabbi Saadia Gaon made the connection in translating the text and my question concerns his reasons for doing so.

  4. Very interesting, thank you Eric

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