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Modern Jewish History: The Cairo Genizah

by Alden Oreck

The 1896 discovery of the Cairo Genizah was one of the greatest Jewish treasures ever found. It has provided the world with the some of the most important documents of the medieval Middle East.

A genizah, Hebrew for "hiding place," is a depository for sacred Hebrew books that are no longer usable. Since they cannot be thrown out because they contain God's name, these documents, often called shemot or "names," are put in a genizah. Genizot are usually found in the attic or basement of a synagogue, but can also be in walls or buried underground. Non-religious documents can be put there as well.

The best-known genizah, the Cairo Genizah, is located in the Ezra Synagogue in Fostat (Old Cairo, Egypt), built in 882. German poet, traveler and book dealer Simon von Geldern appears to be the first modern visitor to the Cairo Genizah in 1753. Although he mentioned it in his 1773 book, The Israelites on Mount Horeb, von Geldern never actually examined its contents because of the local superstition that claimed disaster would befall anyone who touched the sacred pages. A little over a century later, in 1864, Jacob Saphir, the scribe of the Ashkenazi community of Jerusalem visited the genizah, but again was turned away. Nevertheless, various pages were occasionally stolen or sold. In the late 19th century, Abraham Firkovich and scholar Albert Harkavy bought some leaves and brought them back to Russia. Firkovich, a Russian Karaite interested in piecing together the history of Karaite Jews, was more successful in obtaining documents at the nearby Karaite Genizah, also in Cairo, at the Karaite synagogue.

The importance of the Cairo Genizah became apparant in 1896, when two Christians brought some leaves to Solomon Schechter, who at the time was a professor of Talmudic and rabbinical literature at England's Cambridge University. Schechter recognized them as the Hebrew original "Book of Wisdom," ascribed to Ben Sira. The Book of Wisdom became part of the Christian biblical cannon (Ecclesiastics) when translated into Greek. Before its discovery in the Cairo Genizah, no known Hebrew version existed, some scholars even doubted its existence. Schechter led an expedition to Cairo where, over several painstaking months, he extracted thousands of pages from the genizah and took them to back to Cambridge. The sealed, dark room in the dry Egyptian climate allowed for the preservation the documents.

For many centuries, Cairo played an important role as one of the most prominent Middle Eastern economic, political and cultural centers. Consequently, the Jews of Cairo held a leading position among Jewish communities in the region. Soon after the Arab conquest of Egypt in the late seventh century, the newly built city of Fostat became the administrative center of the country until Cairo was built adjacent to it in the 10th century. In 882, the Jews of Fostat bought and renovated the destroyed Coptic church of Saint Michael, turning it into the Ezra Synagogue.

The discovery of the documents in the Cairo Genizah has been likened to the 20th century discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In addition to valuable Biblical and Talmudic documents, it gave a detailed picture of the economic and cultural life of the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean region over many centuries. No other library in the world possessed such an array of religious and private documents from the 10th to 13th centuries, when the Fatimid caliphs (10-12th centuries) and Ayyubid sultans (12th-13th centuries) ruled. The genizah revealed a wealth of information from this period, an era previously not well-known in Jewish history. Its leaves described the vital role the Jews played in the economic and cultural life of the medieval Middle East as well as the warm relations between Jews and Arabs, through community minutes, rabbinical court records, leases, title-deeds, endowment contracts, debt acknowledgments, marriage contracts and private letters. Pages from the genizah identify hundreds of previously unknown people as well as provide new information about well-known men such as theologian and philiogist Yosef al-Fayumi (842-942). More than 200 previously unknown poems by Yehuda Halevy (c. 1080-1145) were found in the genizah. Perhaps the most important papers found belong to Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides or the "Rambam," 1135-1204),the greatest medieval Jewish philosopher and physician. The genizah contained over thirty works authored by the Rambam, including commentary on some Mishna tractates and a number of letters. Before this discovery, only a few lines of original Rambam writings had ever been found.

Many genizah documents have become a unique historical source for the Middle East, providing important information for Muslim and Christian scholars in addition to Jewish ones. The rich store of linguistic works shed light on Hebrew grammar and lexicology as well as a history of Arabic dialects. Unique Arab manuscripts were found, such as the pharmacological work of 11th century doctor Ahmed Ibn Al-Djazzar and a love story of Umayyid caliph Al-Walid II dating from the mid-eighth century. There were fragments of Greek translations of the Bible by Aquila, the Covenant of Damascus and ancient Babylonian and Spanish piyyutim (medieval Jewish synagogue hymns and poems added to standard prayers of the talmudic liturgy). The Cairo Genizah also included abundant material on the history of the Karaites and numerous responsa from the Gaonic Period, including works by Saadiah ben Joseph, the gaon of Sura, in the early tenth century, and other Babylonian geonim. There was correspondence between Jews of the region to as far away as India. Fragments of the eighth century Aramaic law book by Anan ben David and other documents uncovered the laws and history of previously unknown Jewish sects such as the "Zadokites." A tenth century letter from Kiev found in the genizah provided the earliest evidence of a Jewish community existing in the Ukraine. The genizah's leaves also tell the history of the Caspian kingdom of the Khazar's and its widescale conversion to Judaism in the beginning of the ninth century. Among the most recent works are Yiddish letters and poems from the 13th to 15th centuries.

Today, a large portion of the Cairo Genizah's documents are available at the University Library in Cambridge, where documents are under glass, bound in albums or placed loosely in boxes. Smaller collections are spread out across the world, in libraries in London, Oxford, Paris Frankfurt, Vienna, Budapest, Leningrad and Philadelphia. The Cairo Genizah has provided scholars with such an abundance of information that scores of books have been written on topics ranging from Jewish religious practices to the standard of living in medieval Egypt.

Sources: Encyclopedia Judaica
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Bridger, David. Ed. The New Jewish Encyclopedia. NY: Behrman House, Inc. 1976. Wigoder, Geoffrey , Ed. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia. NY: Facts on File, 1992.