“There isn’t an area of Jewish learning that the Cairo Genizah material hasn’t revolutionized—and I mean revolutionized.” The speaker is Dr. Stefan Reif, Director of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, talking with a recent visitor to his office in the Cambridge University Library, in Cambridge, England.
Since 1973, the young, enthusiastic Semitics scholar, with the support of the Library authorities, has been creating a quiet revolution of his own, turning the famous—but formerly down-at-the-heels Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection into a revitalized, highly effective research facility in the service of today’s Hebraists.
The scholarly revolution of which Reif speaks began 85 years ago on a spring day in 1897 when the Jewish scholar, Solomon Schechter, sat down to his worktable in the old Cambridge University Library and one by one began examining the great hoard of ancient manuscript fragments he had retrieved from the Cairo Genizahc 051only weeks before. In the next several decades he and other scholars would utilize these fragments to write whole new chapters of Jewish history and to rewrite many old ones.
The 140,000 pieces in the collection, which Schechter and his patron for the expedition, Dr. Charles Taylor, gave to Cambridge, are both vellum and paper. They are written in many languages, but three predominate: Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Arabic (a combination of Arabic and Hebrew, written in Hebrew characters).
Taken together, the fragments make up a literature of the sacred, the heretical and the mundane, which reaches back, in a sense, to Biblical times and extends forward to the 19th century.
The sacred literature includes thousands of fragments of Bible, Talmud, Midrash and liturgy that reflect many periods of Jewish thought and custom. More than a few lost Hebrew books have been recovered from these pieces, including a Hebrew text, of “The Wisdom of Ben Sira,” a Jewish writing from the second century B.C.
The heretical is present in the writings of dissident Jewish sects. The collection’s best known document of this type is the famous Zadokite (Damascus) Document, a 10th century copy of a work scholars now know was written by the Dead Sea Scrolls sect, and which gives the sect’s history. (See accompanying article “Solomon Schechter and the First Dead Sea Scroll.”)
Finally, there is the mundane, the ordinary literature of life in the collection—marriage contracts, wills, business correspondence, community records, children’s school books and a host of similar items. Fortunately for today’s scholars, the Jews of Fostat—Old Cairo—came to regard even mundane material as special and sent it off to the Genizah when it lost its usefulness, just as they sent worn-out copies of sacred works. From these items of everyday life, 052contemporary scholars have been able to reconstruct vivid pictures of the way the communities lived, worked and coped with their problems in almost-forgotten periods of the past. One outstanding work of this ‘reality” school is the widely praised two-volume work by S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World, as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Genizah.
The Genizah collection has made possible detailed accounts of the social, economic and religious activity of the vibrant Near East Jewish communities of the 11-13th centuries. It has shown us how Jewish law developed during the Geonic period (7th–11th centuries) when the heads of the Babylonian Yeshivot (academies) were called upon to make rulings for Jews throughout the Islamic empire.
The collection has provided new information about famous scholars, including Saadia (882–942), Yehuda Halevi (1075–1141) and Maimonides (1135–1204). One item (T.S. 12.192) is a letter signed by Maimonides himself, the great rabbinic authority, codifier, philosopher and physician. The collection has also made possible the restoration and collation of important early texts of the Midrashd and the Talmud,e especially the Jerusalem Talmud which was once known only in later corrupt versions.
The collection has led, as well, to the discovery of important Greek and Syriac texts—one of them a sixth century version of Aquila’s second century Greek translation of the Bible. The Aquila text was recovered by a close examination of palimpsests—manuscripts on vellum from which original writing has been scraped away and then reinscribed with a fresh text, often Hebrew. (The original writing generally can he seen faintly under the new text, or can be made visible by ultra-violet rays.)
Scholars have also been able to reconstruct synagogue customs and rites in ancient Palestine and Babylonia from Genizah manuscripts. For example, in the field of liturgy, they have found that some early congregations took three years to complete the reading of the Torah rather than one year, as is the practice today.
Fragments of Hebrew poetry found in the collection from medieval Spain and Provence have led to the rediscovery of large portions of this important literary output.
Finally, the Genizah collection has inaugurated a new era of language studies through the publication of its important Judeo-Arabic material. (Judeo-Arabic was once the lingua franca of Jews under Islamic rule.)
A number of individual secular pieces in the collection are especially noteworthy. One has given us an eyewitness account of the Crusader conquest of the Holy Land. Other fragments have confirmed the eighth century conversion of the Khazars 053to Judaism. The collection also contains the oldest known piece of Yiddish (Judeo-German) literature, written in 1382. The Yiddish work is a “material book” of a wandering entertainer—a spiritual predecessor of the Jack Bennys, Danny Kayes, and Milton Berles of our own day.
When Dr. Reif came to Cambridge in 1973, nearly 100,000 of the Genizah’s 140,000 fragments still needed to be cleaned, preserved, listed and housed in a way that would give scholars easy access to them. In eight years, Reif and his staff finished processing the fragments. In addition, they completed the required re-processing of the several thousand fragments which were first conserved 60 and 70 years ago.
Reif has also launched an impressive publications program. Two volumes of a four-volume catalogue that will describe each of the 24,000 Hebrew Bible fragments in the collection have already been issued. Specialized works on other categories of manuscripts are being prepared by leading scholars. These include volumes on the collection’s vocalized Talmudic manuscripts, its Targum manuscripts (Aramaic translations of the Bible), its post-Talmudic Rabbinic manuscripts, its philological manuscripts, and its Palestinian vocalized piyyutim (Hebrew liturgical poetry). In preparation also is a computerized bibliography of works based on Genizah materials. It will list more than 40,000 published scholarly articles and books.
Reif stresses that the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection is far more than an accumulation of ancient manuscript fragments. He regards it as a precious commentary, stretching over 2,000 years, on the Hebrew Bible. And he believes, too, that, from the worn pages and faded texts of the Genizah collection, there is still much to extract of the Bible’s universal message.