“Jews have always been the greatest word nerds,” said Rabbi Mark Glickman, speaking at University Synagogue and introducing his recently published book, Sacred Treasure: The Cairo Genizah. “We study words, taking them apart, trying to get as much meaning from each word or turn of phrase as we can.” And, what’s more, we Jews don’t discard books or texts. We save them and store them to be buried later in a genizah.
A genizah, Hebrew for “hiding place,” is a depository for sacred Hebrew books that are no longer usable but cannot be thrown out because they contain God’s name. 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 most famous of them all is the Cairo Genizah of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Egypt.
Rabbi Glickman’s book, Sacred Treasure: The Cairo Genizah, has been called “the first accessible, comprehensive account of this astounding treasure trove of documents and their discovery.” The book explains why this enormous collection was amassed, how it was discovered and the many lessons to be found in its contents. These documents are still being “unpacked” today, and have forever transformed our knowledge of the Jewish past, Muslim history and much more.
The importance of the Cairo Genizah became apparent in 1896, when Agnes Smith Lewis 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. While this had become part of the Christian Biblical canon (Ecclesiastics) when translated into Greek, no known Hebrew version existed; some scholars even doubted its existence. Needless to say, Schechter was very excited and mounted an expedition to Cairo.
Upon entering the synagogue’s genizah, Schechter found nearly 300,000 individual documents, many of which were over 1,000 years old. The sealed, dark room in the dry Egyptian climate allowed for the preservation of the documents. He brought them back to Cambridge where they are still being studied today. The texts are currently dispersed among a number of libraries, including the libraries of Cambridge University, the University of Manchester, the Jewish Theological Seminary and universities around the world. The documents date from about 870 AD to as late as 1880.
From his first year in rabbinic school, Rabbi Glickman was intrigued with the history of the genizah. “I’ve always been a book nerd,” he said. “And the opportunity to see these ancient texts, and visit where they had been stored was the opportunity of a lifetime. Traveling with his 15-year-old son Jacob, carrying all the approvals and recommendations from the necessary officials, Rabbi Glickman’s first stop was the Cambridge University Library where the majority of the texts are stored.
In the conference room of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, Rabbi Glickman and his son viewed a variety of documents: children’s books, a Hebrew primer very much like the one Jacob had studied, music, personal letters and the page of Ben Sira that Solomon Schechter had seen in 1896.
Perhaps the most important papers found in the genizah 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 Mishnah tractates and a number of letters. Before this discovery, only a few lines of original Rambam writings had ever been found. While all of this was truly remarkable, “perhaps the most moving of the Maimonides documents,” said Rabbi Glickman “was the letter he received from his brother just before his brother’s death on a trip to India.”
From personal documents like these to business agreements, children’s books and religious texts, the genizah yielded a great deal of information about a time and place unknown to most of the world
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 Khazars and its wide-scale 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.
“One of the greatest gifts the genizah yielded,” said Rabbi Glickman “was a picture of Judeo-Arabic culture.” 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.
It is not widely known that the language spoken by the majority of Jews up until the mid-20th century was Arabic. The genizah documents are invaluable as evidence for how colloquial Arabic of this period was spoken and understood. They also demonstrate that the Jewish creators of the documents were part of their contemporary society: they practiced the same trades as their Muslim and Christian neighbors, including farming; they bought, sold and rented properties to and from their contemporaries. 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.
“The picture it portrays” said Rabbi Glickman, “is one in which we see Jews and Arabs getting along and functioning together in mostly peaceable ways in the past. And,” he added, “hopefully this can lead to such a co-existence in the future.”
One of the other surprises Rabbi Glickman encountered was somewhat less scholarly. Cairo’s Genizah is not an attic, but a room behind a wall, with the only access an inside window that had to first be reached by an outdoor stairway and then by climbing a ladder. If he wanted to get into the genizah, he had to jump – about 15 feet without touching the walls. Rabbi Glickman wisely took a picture of the emptied room instead.
Rabbi Glickman also discussed the newest project of the genizah documents – the Friedberg Project where scholars have begun to digitize the texts and put them on line. The most exciting aspect is a computer program that will match up the fragments of a single document that may be scattered among different libraries to reunite the texts into what they once were. It will take many decades or longer before the majority of the documents can be identified. But as technology improves, we may all have access to some of these remarkable treasures.
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville, Washington and his book Sacred Treasure: The Cairo is published by Jewish Lights Publishing Company.