Discovering a Lost World: The Cairo Genizah

June 1, 2011 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

While traveling in the Middle East in 1896, two wealthy, erudite Scottish sisters bought some antique manuscripts. Little did they imagine that this souvenir purchase would lead to astounding discoveries in an ancient synagogue attic—known as the Cairo Genizah— that would illuminate 1000 years of Jewish history. This tale of adventure and discovery is well told in Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole and Sacred Treasure: The Cairo Genizah by Mark Glickman.

The formidable twin sisters, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, were staunch Presbyterians, accomplished linguists, and widows free to study and travel. After their Middle Eastern expedition, they returned to Castlebrae, their manor near Cambridge University, spread out their literary scraps on the dining room table, and began deciphering them. Puzzled by a curious manuscript fragment, they consulted Rabbi Solomon Schechter, reader in Talmudic and Rabbinic Literature at Cambridge (and subsequently president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York).

Solomon Schechter

Dr. Schechter quickly realized that the unimpressive-looking scrap (which Mrs. Gibson said looked “as if a grocer had used it for something greasy”) was from the long-lost Hebrew text of the Apocryphal book of Ben Sira, known for centuries only in Greek translation. Electrified, Schechter set off to explore the source of the fragment, an attic in the ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue of Fustat (Old Cairo).

Crammed with hundreds of years of discarded papers, the attic was a genizah, a storage chamber, for Hebrew texts bearing the name of God (too sacred to be destroyed, under Jewish law) and myriad cast-off documents pertaining to the Jewish community. The dry climate had protected the documents over the centuries, as did legends about an ancient curse and a poisonous snake guarding the genizah.

Amid the dusty debris, Schechter discovered a lost civilization. The papers in the genizah richly depicted centuries of everyday Jewish life. In addition to sacred texts, haggadot, and rabbinic rulings, the genizah contained marriage contracts, wills, shop inventories, court depositions, business receipts, medical prescriptions, poetry, and love letters. One treasure buried in the genizah was correspondence belonging to Maimonides, who in the 12th Century had lived a short distance from the synagogue.

Eager to study and preserve these historic finds, Schechter courted the Grand Rabbi and lay leaders of Cairo’s Jewish community over cigarettes and innumerable cups of coffee, winning permission to ship most of the genizah cache to England.

Schechter’s Successors

Back in Cambridge, Schechter feverishly examined the genizah fragments, covering himself in the medieval dust he called genizahschmutz. Despite herculean efforts, Schechter lamented that he would never be able to excavate all the texts’ riches: “Looking over this enormous mass of fragments,” Schechter wrote, “l cannot overcome a sad feeling stealing over me, that I shall hardly be worthy to see all the results which the Genizah will add to our knowledge of Jews and Judaism. The work is not for one man, and not for one generation.”

Jacob Mann, father of longtime Beth El congregant Daniel Mann z”l, led a second generation of genizah scholars. Described by one admirer as a “genius of indefatigable and Herculean industry,” Mann authored ground-breaking historical studies based on the genizah documents, beginning with a monumental 1920 work praised by a later scholar as “a classic almost immediately after its publication.”

More than 100 years after Schechter’s auspicious trip to Cairo, scholars continue to mine treasures from the genizah texts. Some thrilling developments may spring from modern technology, which uses facial recognition technology to identify and unite long-separated pieces of torn manuscripts, bringing more of the genizah’s still-concealed secrets to light.