Posts tagged ‘Cairo Geniza’

April 13, 2011

In a Word…

An interview with the authors of a new book called Sacred Trash brought my attention to the Cairo Geniza.
The Cairo Geniza is a collection of some 280,000 documents found in the genizah, or hiding place, of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in what is now Cairo. Because the documents were written in Hebrew, which is considered God’s writing, they could not be destroyed. They were simply put away, although some were buried in the Jewish cemetery. The documents date back to 870 AD. The last additions to the genizah were made in the 1880s, right before Western scholars got their hands on the treasure and blew the whole thing wide open.

From the articles I’ve read and the interview I heard, it seems that the story of the Cairo Geniza is always told through the focal point of the moment in 1896. That is when Solomon Schechter, a Romanian born Jewish scholar (who would later become one of the founding figures of Conservative Judaism in America) learned about the genizah, the hiding place, and brought it to the attention of the West. The Geniza, meaning the collection of documents, is now broken up among several European and American libraries, with the majority of it in Cambridge, where Schechter worked.

The documents contain everything from medieval Jewish poetry, tracts written by famous scholars, letters to the elders of the community, to legal documents and private letters. They were all written in Hebrew script, but most are in Aramaic. And since the documents cover trade with other communities, there are documents from Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Sicily, and there is mention of Morocco, Rouen in France, Kiev in Ukraine and India.

Not only have scholars found the writings of Maimonides and Saadia Gaon, both rabbis and philosophers, and the poetry of Yehuda Halevi, but the Geniza mentiones 35,000 individuals, 200 prominent families, 450 professions.

…in a word, an entire civilization.