A chance purchase by the Westminster sisters (twins Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson) in Cairo during the spring of 1896 led to one of the greatest manuscript discoveries—and contributions to the study of Second Temple period Jewish literature—of the 19th century.

The Scottish sisters—Semitic scholars, world travelers and generous benefactors—were traveling through Egypt on the hunt for Biblical manuscripts. Among other successes,a they purchased a bundle of fragments in Cairo. Upon returning to their home, Castlebrae, in Cambridge, they invited Solomon Schechter, Cambridge University’s Reader in Talmudic Literature, to investigate their latest acquisitions.

Among the manuscript fragments, Schechter discovered a scrap of Ecclesiasticus, also known as the Wisdom of Ben Sira—the first to be found in its original language, Hebrew. The discovery was announced to the scholarly world, and others began to search through their recent manuscript purchases. The librarians at Oxford University found nine sheets from the same manuscript of Ecclesiasticus, also purchased in Cairo.

Schechter published the Lewis-Gibson fragment, named after its finders, and speculated that these 11th-century fragments were part of a complete manuscript of the text.

A clue to the origins of these documents presented itself in another of the twins’ documents: On one of the fragments the word “Fostat” was written—the name for Old Cairo. After further investigative work, Schechter had good reason to believe that the source of the medieval manuscripts was the genizah at the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. A genizah—from the Hebrew root gnz (גנז), meaning to keep or hide—is an area in synagogues to store worn-out religious texts written in Hebrew before burying them properly since it is forbidden to destroy a text bearing God’s name.

Schechter traveled to Cairo in December 1896 to further investigate. He discovered a treasure-trove of ancient Hebrew texts kept in the Cairo Genizah, which had not been emptied for centuries (see diorama of the Cairo Genizah from Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv). After some persuasion, the chief rabbi of Cairo permitted Schechter to remove as many documents as he pleased from the genizah and transfer them to a university library for safekeeping.

Over the course of a month, Schechter filled 30 bags with 140,000 fragments from the genizah, which he then transported to Cambridge University Library, where they remain to this day.

Back at Cambridge, while sifting through the documents, he found an interesting, previously unknown text: the Damascus Document. This document detailed the history of a Jewish sect that opposed the religious leaders in Jerusalem, as well as listing some laws for the group. Schechter named it a Zadokite Work since the priests in the text are called “the sons of Zadok,” who was the high priest during King David’s reign.

Schechter conjectured that this Jewish sect possessed a manual of rules. He would be proven correct 50 years later when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered at Qumran. Fragments of the Damascus Document—Schechter’s Zadokite Work—as well as the sect’s Manual of Discipline were uncovered.

For this reason, even though it was initially discovered at the Cairo Genizah, the Damascus Document is known as the first Dead Sea Scroll.—M.S.