Cambridge University Library

Taylor-Schechter Genizah - A Priceless Collection

 

Solomon Schechter at his deskThe Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection is a priceless accumulation of centuries-old Hebrew manuscript material and Judaica, recovered from the Cairo Genizah in 1896-97. It has occupied a place of honour among the literary treasures of the University of Cambridge for more than a century and is housed at Cambridge University Library.

The Collection was the gift in 1898 of the noted scholar Dr Solomon Schechter - who later became President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America - and his friend and patron, Dr Charles Taylor, Master of St. John's College, Cambridge.

In 1896 Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson showed some leaves of a Hebrew manuscript which they had purchased in the Middle East to Schechter, then Reader in Talmudic and Rabbinic literature at Cambridge. He then conceived the idea of bringing to the University the precious manuscript material he suspected could be found in the Genizah (depository for worn-out copies of sacred Jewish writings) of the thousand-year-old Ben Ezra Synagogue of Fostat (Old Cairo). Taylor, an enthusiastic student of Hebrew, joined him in his effort to add to the knowledge of Jews and Judaism, and made it financially possible out of his own means.

In a now famous expedition, Schechter journeyed to Cairo and secured the approval of the Synagogue authorities to 'empty' the Genizah. He chose what seemed to be its most promising material and sent it on to England for scholarly study. Although some fragments had already found their way elsewhere his haul was destined to become by far the most important.

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A new era of Jewish learning

The 140,000 fragments of documents and texts now at Cambridge are mainly in manuscript, many of them on vellum. They include a wide variety of secular as well as religious material and are written in several languages. Although they were gathered in less than two months it has taken over a century to preserve, classify and house the greater part of them in a way that makes them easily available for study - and much still remains to be done.

Yet in these hundred years the Taylor-Schechter Collection has already served to usher in a whole new era of Jewish learning. There is hardly an area of Hebrew and Jewish studies that has not been revolutionized by findings that originated in the Genizah Collection.

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The sacred, the heretical and the mundane

A section of the Zadokite Fragment (T-S 10K6) on Sabbath lawsTaken together, the Collection's fragments make up a literature of the sacred, the heretical and the mundane which reaches back to Biblical times and extends forward to the 19th century

The sacred is represented in splendid quantity and variety by thousands of fragments of Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Law and Liturgy, reflecting many periods of Jewish thought and custom.

Among the many lost Hebrew books recovered from among the fragments is the original version of the Wisdom of Ben Sira, a work dating from the second century BCE. Jewish doubt about just how sacred this book was had led to its exclusion from the Hebrew Bible and eventually to the loss of its Hebrew text. But the Genizah ensured that it was not lost for ever by preserving a 10th century copy.

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The first Dead Sea Scroll

The heretical is present in the writings of various dissident Jewish sects, compositions probably banished to the Genizah whenever they appeared in Old Cairo. Nearly forty years before the momentous discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, Schechter called attention to just such a group, the unknown religious brotherhood we now know produced the Scrolls, when he published their story in his 'Fragments of a Zadokite Work', the first volume of his Documents of Jewish Sectaries. His research was based on the analysis of certain unique pieces he had found in the Collection, and created a sensation in its own time. The 'Zadokite' fragments have since been referred to as 'The First Dead Sea Scroll'.

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The ordinary literature of life

But the Collection's considerable quantity of the ordinary literature of life - mundane legal papers, business correspondence, medical prescriptions, musical notations, illuminated pages, marriage contracts, children's school books and everyday letters - has also proved to be of remarkable value for research purposes. Individual pieces of a secular nature have given us eye-witness accounts of the Crusader conquest of the Holy Land, have confirmed the 8th century conversion of the Khazars to Judaism and have presented us with some of the oldest known texts of Yiddish (Judaeo-German).

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Overall contribution to scholarship

Last lines of letter of reference with the signature of Moses Maimonides (T-S 12.192)Part of a note by Yehuda Halevi (T-S 8J18.5)End of a letter signed by Joseph Karo (T-S 13J24.28)Overall, the results of work on the Genizah Collection can be summed up as follows:

  • It has provided us with detailed accounts of the social, economic and religious activity of the vibrant Near Eastern Jewish communities of the 11th-13th centuries.
  • It has shown us how Jewish law developed during the Geonic period (7th-11th centuries) when the heads of the Babylonian academies were called upon to make rulings for Jews throughout the Islamic Empire.
  • It has deepened our knowledge of famous scholars, including Saadia (882-942), Maimonides (1135-1204) and Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141), sometimes bringing to light texts in the handwriting of such great men.
  • It has made possible the restoration and collation of important early texts of the Midrash and the Talmud, especially the Jerusalem Talmud, otherwise known only in later corrupt versions.
  • It has given us new insights into the way that Hebrew was pronounced and its grammar understood by the leading Jewish linguists of Eretz Yisrael and Babylonia more than a thousand years ago.
  • It has led to the recovery of Greek and Syriac texts - one of them a 6th century version of the translation of the Bible into Greek by Aquila, contemporary of Rabbi Akiva. This has been achieved through a close examination of 'palimpsests' - manuscripts on vellum in which the original writing was scraped away and inscribed with a fresh text, often Hebrew.
  • It has made possible the reconstruction of synagogue customs and rites in ancient Palestine and Babylonia.
  • It has led to the rediscovery of a large proportion of the important Hebrew poetry of medieval Spain and Provence.
  • It has ushered in a new era of language studies through the publication of its important Judaeo-Arabic material (Arabic written in Hebrew characters and once the lingua franca of Jews under Islamic rule).
  • It has produced rare examples of Jewish artistic, musical and scientific efforts in the 11th and 12th centuries.

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A brilliant company

The many scholars who have done major work in the Collection since Schechter's day make up a brilliant company.

A list of just a few of these famous names would have to include:

  • Ernest Worman of Cambridge University Library who did so much groundwork on the Collection before his untimely death in 1909.
  • Hartwig Hirschfeld of Jews' College, London, who inaugurated the Judaeo-Arabic studies.
  • Jacob Mann of the Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, who uncovered the history of the Jews of Egypt and Palestine under the Fatimid Caliphs (10th-12th centuries).
  • Louis Ginzberg of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, collector and editor of Talmud and Midrash texts and Geonic Responsa.
  • Israel Davidson of the same Seminary, who began the systematic recovery of much of Jewish liturgical poetry.
  • Simcha Assaf of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, who, with his colleague, David Baneth, built up a picture of Jewish activity in the Mediterranean in the days of Islamic rule on the basis of Rabbinic Responsa.
  • Menahem Zulay of the Schocken Institute, Jerusalem, who recovered and edited several hundred compositions of the legendary 6th century liturgical poet Yannai.
  • Paul Kahle of Bonn and Oxford, who enlarged our understanding of the development of Hebrew through his investigations into the Babylonian and Palestinian systems of pointing Hebrew.

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Recent names

More recent scholars have also, in the course of their important research, lent a hand with the sorting of unclassified parts of the Collection. They have sought no more reward for their efforts than the privilege of spending fascinating hours puzzling over the secrets of each tantalizing fragment. In this way each of them has added to our knowledge of the field in which he is expert.

Shelomo Dov Goitein and a whole school of scholars, beginning with Norman Golb, most of whom had had the benefit of his training and advice, rewrote the history of Jews in Arab lands in the Middle Ages. Alexander Scheiber and Shalom Spiegel illuminated the dark corners of medieval Hebrew literature, while Naphtali Wieder brought to light the earliest versions of the Jewish prayer-book and Jacob Teicher, then Lecturer in Rabbinics at Cambridge, did similar groundwork for the first printed Hebraica. Michael Klein carefully described many of the fragments of Targum.

Missing links in the history of talmudic study were located by Shraga Abramson and similar lacunae in Hebrew grammar and lexicography were made good by Nehemiah Allony and in Bible commentary by Moshe Zucker. Schirmann and other students of liturgical poetry continued the work they had earlier commenced, and Shelomo Morag and Alejandro Diez-Macho updated and expanded Kahle's pioneering efforts in masoretic studies.

Among more contemporary scholars it is no longer possible even to attempt to list the hundreds outside Cambridge University Library whose research is heavily dependent on the material that Schechter brought from Cairo.

Ezra Fleischer and Joseph Yahalom in liturgy and poetry; Israel Yeivin, Ilan Eldar, E. J. Revell and Geoffrey Khan in Masorah; Jacob Sussmann, Menahem Kahana, Robert Brody, and Neil Danzig in Talmud; Joshua Blau, Haggai Ben-Shammai and Simon Hopkins in Judaeo-Arabic; Malachi Beit-Arié and Colette Sirat in palaeography; Moshe Gil, Menahem Ben-Sasson and Mark R. Cohen in medieval Jewish history; Mordechai Friedman on Palestinian marriage documents and Joel Kraemer on women's correspondence; Shaul Shaked and Peter Schäfer on material relating to magic; Paul Fenton on Jewish mysticism; Abraham David on sixteenth-century Palestinian Jewry and Eleazar Gutwirth on Judaeo-Spanish - these scholars have been among the most active and industrious, but the list could be greatly multiplied.

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The Taylor-Schechter Collection today

A vellum fragment being repairedThe discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and related scholarly developments in Israel and the Bible lands have helped to bring about a renewed interest in Jewish studies and study resources. The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, established in 1974, is helping to serve this interest through a new, comprehensive programme designed to meet all the Collection's various needs.

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