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The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit



Genizah Fragments

The Newsletter of Cambridge University's
Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit
at Cambridge University Library

No. 10 October 1985


Academy's aid for rabbinics

The British Academy's latest award of 1,976 brings to a total of over 12,500 its support of the Genizah Unit over the past eight years.

The Academy's admirable assistance has enabled Dr Ephraim Wiesenberg to continue his description of the Rabbinic fragments in the New Series and has also demonstrated the enthusiasm with which leading orientalists in the United Kingdom have greeted the academic projects undertaken by the Unit.

It is hoped that the Academy will be able to offer further help for this or other parts of the Unit's research in the future.

Other major funding obtained in the past few months has included generous contributions by Mr Cyril Stein (1,000), who continues to guide the fundraising effort; Sir Michael Sobell (1,000); and Mr John Rubens (1,000).

Renewals of their annual grants have kindly been made by Mr and Mrs Michael Phillips (500); the Ellison Marsden Charitable Trust (500 through its Trustee, Mr Cecil Ellison); and Mr and Mrs David Lauffer (300). A warm welcome is extended to a new supporter, Mr Cesare Sacerdoti (500).

The Unit is grateful to Mr and Mrs Conrad Abrahams-Curiel (250), Bank Hapoalim (250), and St John's College, Cambridge (200), for renewing their awards; and thanks are also due to Messrs Clifford Barclay, Joe Dwek, Gerard Hankinson and Conrad Morris, and to Withington Congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, for each contributing 100.

Other smaller or anonymous donations amounting to over 300 have been made and are much appreciated.


Playing a major role

Wherever one finds Hebrew and Jewish scholarship these days, one finds references to the Genizah. Last year in Oxford and Chicago, earlier this year in Jerusalem, and at about this time in Cordova and Montreal, international meetings are heavily dependent on that exciting source for many of their topics.

The world-wide celebrations to mark the 850th anniversary of the birth of Maimonides have all used facsimiles of the draft copies of his own handwritten works found in the Genizah, and a major exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem was devoted to these famous fragments from Cairo.

There are few recent issues of academic journals in the field that do not include one or more articles based on researches in the various Genizah collections.

At the more popular level, too, there has been a growth of interest in the Genizah and, as a result, in the history of Jews and Judaism a thousand years ago. It is no longer rare to find radio, television, magazines and newspapers enquiring about the significance of this collection and giving coverage to its remarkable story.

Demands for lectures on the subject in adult education courses demonstrate the search for a better understanding of the origins of a people's history and culture.

It is gratifying to know that the Cambridge Genizah Unit has played a major role in all these developments. The conservation and microfilming of all the fragments in a Collection that contains almost three-quarters of all known Genizah manuscripts have provided a source for scholarship that is widely and easily available.

The training of a number of young scholars over the past ten years and the presence of a team in Cambridge have influenced the direction of research. Attempts to bring an awareness of the importance of the Genizah to a wider public have begun to yield cultural and educational rewards.

As the tenth issue of Genizah Fragments goes to press, it is an appropriate time to thank all those who have worked with us in many different respects in recent years and to express the hope that we shall enjoy their continuing co-operation and enthusiasm as we plan new initiatives for the future.

Stefan C. Reif,
Director, Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit.


[Ambassador, Mrs C. W. Squire, and Dr S. C. Reif]

Ambassador and Mrs C. W. Squire with Dr S. C. Reif

UK envoy calls in on Library

Having seen the work of the Unit and the importance of the Genizah Collection featured in the Israeli press, the British Ambassador to Israel, Mr C. W. Squire, took advantage of a visit to Cambridge to call at the University Library and view some of the Collection.

Accompanied by his wife, Sara, a former Second Secretary (political) at the Embassy in Tel Aviv, Mr Squire heard about the origins and history of the Collection and discussed the Unit's achievements and its future plans with its Director.

The daughter of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922), compiler of the famous Hebrew dictionary that bears his name, took a particular delight in reading the Hebrew personal letters from the Middle Ages preserved in the Genizah Collection.

Mrs Dola Ben-Yehuda Wittmann and her husband, Max, were the guests of the Regius Professor of Hebrew, John Emerton, who is also the Honorary Keeper of the Collection, and Mrs Wittmann lectured at the Faculty of Oriental Studies on her father's work.

While spending a day at Cambridge University Library, the Chief Executive of the British Library, Mr Kenneth R. Cooper, acquainted himself with the Taylor-Schechter fragments and was able to relate them to the smaller collection of Genizah material housed at the British Library.

Distinguished visitors from the United States have included Dr Michael Neiditch, Director of Education for B'nai B'rith International in Washington D.C., who was particularly interested in the educational potential of the Genizah treasures; and Ms Hanna F. Desser, Executive Editor of Present Tense magazine in New York, who was considering writing a feature on the Unit and its activities.

Among visitors from Israel were the writer, Yitzhak Ben-Ner; the Deputy International Secretary of the Labour Party, Richard Bell; and the Professor of Experimental Physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, William (Ze'ev) Low.

Special exhibitions and introductory talks were arranged for a visiting American group organized by the Biblical Archaeology Review; for those participating in the summer conference of the Society for Old Testament Study; and for the Leeds branch of the Jewish Historical Society of England.


Israel visit

While in Jerusalem in August, the Director of the Unit, Dr Stefan Reif, had meetings with President Chaim Herzog at his official residence; with one of the Knesset's most senior parliamentarians and diplomats, Mr Abba Eban, at the Knesset; and with the Director-General of the Ministry of Education, Mr Eliezer Shmueli, at the Ministry.

Discussions centred on the work done on the Cambridge Genizah Collection in recent years and on plans for future developments.

Arrangements are under way for such leading personalities to visit the Genizah Collection in Cambridge in the coming months.

Contact was also made with Israeli press and television about future features on the Cambridge Genizah Collection.


[Dr Paul Fenton]

Dr Paul Fenton studying a microfilm of Genizah fragments

Leningrad treasures

Although the distinguished collection of the Genizah manuscripts housed in Cambridge University Library is undoubtedly the most important, other collections, scattered across the globe but originating from the same Old Cairo synagogue, have their role to play in unravelling the long-hidden mysteries of Jewish history and literature.

Among these, that of the Saltykov-Shchedrin State Public Library in Leningrad ranks very high in significance. Indeed, Paul Kahle, author of The Cairo Geniza (Oxford, 1959), wrote of the Leningrad collection that "no doubt some of the most valuable fragments from the Geniza are in the Second Firkowitch Collection in Leningrad."

The story of how these manuscripts came to Leningrad is almost as exciting as that of Schechter's thrilling expedition, mainly because the man who brought the Russian collection together, Abraham Firkovitch, was such a colourful figure.

Born in 1786, Firkovitch was a Lithuanian Karaite who, in his determination to prove the antiquity of the Karaite community in Russia, resorted even to forgery.

Notwithstanding his academic notoriety, Firkovitch rendered an inestimable service to scholarship by collecting rare and precious manuscripts, an activity he began at an early age. His various communal positions as Karaite hakham and his wide travels enabled him to bring together one of the most incredible private collections of Hebrew, Arabic and Samaritan manuscripts.

His passion for travel and manuscripts inevitably brought him, in 1863, to the Cairo Genizah, the importance of which he realized some thirty-four years before Schechter's famous visit. The manuscripts acquired on this visit, and forming his Second Collection, were bought in 1876 after Firkovitch's demise by the St. Petersburg Imperial Library, later to become the Leningrad State Public Library.

Though numerically less impressive than Cambridge's holdings, containing 13,700 items in comparison to Taylor-Schechter's 140,000, the Second Firkovitch Collection may nonetheless claim to be of equal scholarly importance.

The uniqueness of its contents is owed not only to the fact that Firkovitch was a seasoned and discerning predator who knew what he was hunting, but also to his having enjoyed, as an early visitor, the first choice of the spoils.

The result is that a larger proportion of important and almost complete manuscripts is to be found in Leningrad than in other libraries, where Genizah collections are mainly fragmentary.

Unfortunately, for the past fifty years this advantage has proved of little value to scholars in the West because of the difficulty in obtaining copies of Jewish manuscripts to be found in the Soviet Union.

Among the treasures in Leningrad is to be found a manuscript of the Garden of Metaphors, an aesthetic appreciation of Biblical literature written in Judeao-Arabic by one of the greatest of the Spanish Hebrew poets, Moses Ibn Ezra.

Having devoted my doctoral dissertation to a study of this work based on the only available manuscript, in Jerusalem, I was interested in obtaining a microfilm from Leningrad of the other known copy, in order to start on a critical edition, but at first had no success.

As a former Research Assistant at the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, I submitted to the British Academy a project to travel to Leningrad for the purpose of comparing the two collections of Genizah material in the context of its cultural exchange programme with the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

After two years, my proposal was accepted by the Russian authorities and, in April 1984, during a month's visit to the Leningrad State Public Library, I was at last able to look at the coveted Garden of Metaphors and to examine some of the other Judaeo-Arabic treasures in the Second Firkovitch Collection, of which I drew up a tentative hand-list.

Because of Firkovitch's habit of concealing his sources, no one actually knew where the Second Collection had come from, and some had even denied that it derived from the Cairo Genizah.

I can, however, now state categorically not only that the material I examined comes from the Cairo Genizah, and that the paper, scripts and palaeographical characteristics are identical with those of other Genizah collections, but that I recognized pages and parts of manuscripts the remainder of which are to be found in Cambridge!

All this emphasizes that, for the sake of progress in the important field of Genizah research, scholars will need improved facilities of exchange and scientific co-operation and co-ordination between Cambridge University Library, in particular, and the Leningrad State Public Library.

It is hoped that in the wake of the cordial relations I was able to initiate in the Soviet Union, a more comprehensive exchange of information between Cambridge and Leningrad might be implemented to mark the forthcoming bicentenary of Firkovitch's birth.

Paul B. Fenton,
Senior Lecturer in Hebrew, University of Lyons, France


Arabic manuscripts in the Genizah
Part one

The vast majority of Genizah fragments are written in Hebrew characters. This is not surprising, since reverence for the Hebrew script was the chief motivation for placing manuscripts in the Genizah.

The language of well over half of them, however, is Arabic rather than Hebrew. The proportion of fragments penned in Arabic script is very small, but, given the vast size of the collection, there are a fair number of them.

I have calculated that there must be some 7,000 fragments in Arabic script in the Cambridge Genizah collections, which would be 5 percent of the estimated total of 140,000.

Predictably, the language of most of these is Arabic, though a few are Hebrew in Arabic transcription. The latter, mainly biblical and liturgical texts, are generally thought to have been written by members of the Karaite sect.

The presence of manuscripts in Arabic script in the Genizah is rather unexpected. They were probably originally kept in a family archive or library together with Hebrew writings, and when the collection was discarded, some were accidentally mixed up with the manuscripts in Hebrew script which were consigned to the Genizah.

Like the majority of the Genizah papers, the fragments in Arabic characters are mostly datable to the High Middle Ages (eleventh to thirteenth centuries). They are of a very varied content.

Some of them are legal documents which were written by Muslim notaries for settlements or contracts (especially of sale and of lease) between a Jew and Muslim or a Christian, or even between two Jewish parties.

Although the Jewish authorities frowned upon members of their community who applied to non-Jewish courts, the Genizah shows us that Jews sometimes brought a lawsuit before the Muslim authorities in order to seek more favourable terms after they had lost in their own court. In other words, they used the Muslim judiciary as a kind of court of appeal.

On the other hand, the motivation of two Jewish parties to have contracts of sale and of lease drawn up by a Muslim notary was that the conveyancing of immobile property was taxed and had to be certified by a Muslim authority.

A number of fragments are petitions which were sent by Jews with grievances to the Muslim ruler or a high government official in order to seek redress. These were returned to the sender with a decree written on the back. If the decree was of considerable length, it was put on a separate sheet of paper.

Several fragments of such independent decrees are found in the Genizah, as well as other types of documents which emanated from the Islamic Chancery, such as official reports to the ruler and letters of appointment.

Of particular value are the numerous Fatimid chancery documents which have been preserved, since only a very small number of these is known to be extant elsewhere.

A large proportion of the manuscripts in Arabic script are literary, philosophical and scientific works. Many of these were probably used by Jews who trained for government service or for the medical profession. Several of the philosophical and scientific fragments are from texts which were previously thought to have been totally lost.

Geoffrey A. Khan,
Research Assistant


[Professor Moshe Gil]

Professor Moshe Gil at work on an historical fragment

Reconstructing Jewish history

It is now 88 years since Solomon Schechter transferred the greater part of the Cairo Genizah to Cambridge University Library.

One of the leading students of Jewish history of that time, David Kaufmann, noted in an article published shortly afterwards in Hashiloah that, besides having an immense value for research in such fields as Bible and Talmud, these manuscripts were also "enormously important since they enrich our knowledge of our nation's history. It is as if whole pages missing from the volumes of our history have been restored to their places."

And then, further: "These wonderful discoveries shed light not only on the history of our brethren in Egypt, but also on the history of the Jews in all lands of the Diaspora."

Most of the attention given by Jewish historians engaged in the study of the Genizah documents has been directed towards Palestine. If it were not for the Genizah, our knowledge of Jewish history in Palestine between the Arab conquest of the seventh century and that of the Crusaders over four and a half centuries later would have been next to nothing.

One can easily verify this by examining early Jewish historiography, such as Graetz's History of the Jews; and even the works of later polyhistors give the same impression.

It is thanks to the well known Genizah scholars, Schechter, Harkavy, Poznanski and others, and their most important and productive successors, Mann and Goitein, that we can now reconstruct several important chapters of Jewish life in Palestine.

For the past fourteen years, I have myself devoted much of my time and energy to locating and deciphering the whole corpus of documents pertaining to the topic, and to summing up the findings - of others as well as of myself - in one comprehensive book (Palestine during the First Muslim Period [634-1099], Tel Aviv, 1984).

Much credit for the completion of this enterprise - whether academically successful or not is for others to judge - goes to Dr Reif and his staff, in whose care is to be found the greater part of these documents.

There are in that corpus of documents pertaining to Palestine a total of 618 manuscripts, mostly in Judaeo-Arabic; several of these have been pieced together from fragments found under a variety of classmarks or even in different libraries. One may safely assume that through further Genizah study some additional ones - not many, I believe - will surface.

The following is a very succinct survey of the main topics covered by this corpus:

(1) Information on Jerusalem, beginning with the location of its Jewish quarters, both Rabbanite and Karaite.

(2) Data on many other Jewish communities, such as Tiberias, Ramla, Tyre (then the main port serving the needs of Palestine), Ashkelon (conquered by the Crusaders only in 1153), Hebron, Baniyas and various other localities in Galilee.

(3) Eye-witness accounts, by contemporaries and survivors, of the Crusader conquest.

(4) A most surprising account of the Yeshiva of Palestine, of which almost nothing had previously been known. It turns out to have been not simply an institution of learning, or academy (as often wrongly translated), but rather the true leader of a substantial part of the Jewish Diaspora, including those communities which had formerly been under Byzantine rule. This means Palestine itself, Egypt, Syria, Sicily and, to a certain extent, North Africa; the communities still in Byzantine lands, such as Constantinople and other parts of Byzantium; and even Southern Italy.

This Yeshiva was the successor to the ancient Sanhedrin (= Greek synhedrion, precisely corresponding to the Hebrew yeshiva). We now become familiar with its personalities of the eleventh century, the bulk of manuscripts having their initial date around 1000. We also read about their internal policies and frequent conflicts as well as their relations with the Muslim (then Fatimid) authorities.

(5) New data on circumstances and events of a general nature, concerning the history of Palestine during the first period of Muslim occupation. Thus, for instance, some 60 letters of Jewish merchants engaged in Mediterranean maritime trade give us an interesting picture of the economic life of the period. There is also fresh evidence about political and military developments.

In conclusion, I have to stress that the information thus obtained from the Genizah material acquires its full significance only if seen in the general framework of the history of Palestine in that period. In other words, it must constantly be compared with the non-Jewish - that is, Muslim and Christian - sources.

Moshe Gil,
Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University


Various readers have recently expressed interest in knowing how many copies of Genizah Fragments are printed and distributed.

The total number of names appearing on our latest mailing list, updated on computer at the end of September 1985, is 985.

A breakdown of the figures shows that 562 copies are sent to the United Kingdom, 275 to the USA, 96 to Israel and 52 to other places abroad.

The print run is usually in the region of 1,500 and the remaining copies are distributed to interested visitors and to those attending lectures given by members of the Unit.


[Participants in conference]

Participants in the Hebraica Libraries' Group conference in London under their chairman, Mr P. S. Salinger (front, centre)

Librarians confer

The first afternoon of the annual conference of the Hebraica Libraries' Group, held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in the spring, was devoted to important Hebrew collections in Oxford and Cambridge.

Professor M. Beit-Arie, Director of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, and currently revising and updating the catalogue of Hebrew manuscripts at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, spoke about clues that provide the key to the dating of undated Hebrew manuscripts.

Among the points he covered were the identification of the palaeographical units of a manuscript (i.e.,whether one - or more - manuscript was bound together); the problems of different handwriting within a particular manuscript; the different types of script (e.g. Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Yemenite); and the localisation of a manuscript and its possible date.

Dr S.C. Reif, Director of the Cambridge Genizah Unit, gave a summary of developments and efforts to conserve the Collection over the past 100 years. Between the time of Solomon Schechter and the 1960s, the arrangements and identification of the fragments had been carried out by scholars visiting Cambridge as and when this was possible.

In 1960, a University committee was set up to put the conservation and identification of the fragments on a more systematic basis. Since 1973, thanks to many generous donations, a major conservation project had been completed whereby all the fragments are now protected and can be examined without risk of their being damaged.

The microfilming project had made the material available to scholars all over the world, and the policy of engaging Research Assistants had given a rare opportunity for young scholars to work with manuscript material. Many items had now been identified, computer technology was being employed, and a number of noteworthy publications, such as the Genizah Series, had appeared.

Dr Reif pointed out, however, that many items remain to be identified and published. He also noted that, although the Genizah Collection is one of the world's major manuscript treasures, there was a yet very little teaching done on the material as a source for the study of Jewish origins and their historical links with Christian and Muslim religious traditions.

He expressed the hope that an international campaign could soon be launched to extend the current project into a major educational resource.

The remainder of the conference, attended by delegates from London, Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds and Glasgow, included business meetings and a seminar on Hebrew library resources in London.


Meeting in Jerusalem

The Cambridge Genizah Collection was in various ways well represented at a number of conferences held in Jerusalem this past summer.

Professor John Emerton, Honorary Keeper of the Collection, Dr Stefan Reif, Director of the Genizah Research Unit, Dr E.J. Wiesenberg, Research Associate, and Dr Geoffrey Khan, Research Assistant, participated in the World Congress of Jewish Studies, the second international meeting of the Society for Judaeo-Arabic Studies, and the Workshops on University Teaching of Jewish Civilization.

They lectured, chaired sessions and contributed to discussions and were approached about organizing the next international meeting of the Society for Judaeo-Arabic Studies at Cambridge in 1987.

Professor Emerton and Dr Reif were elected to the Council of the World Union of Jewish Studies, presided over by Professor Ephraim E. Urbach. They will hold these posts until the next Congress in 1989.

At the World Congress, held on the Mount Scopus Campus of the Hebrew University, the Cambridge Genizah featured in a large number of lectures, particularly those relating to mediaeval Jewish history, the history of Jewish law, Hebrew poetry and liturgy, and the languages spoken and used by the Jews in the Middle Ages.

Dr Reif's paper, delivered in Hebrew, dealt with "Festive Titles in Liturgical Terminology".

Among participants in the Congress who had previously been researchers at the Cambridge Unit were Dr Paul Fenton, Dr Eliezer Gutwirth, Dr Simon Hopkins and Dr Menahem Ben-Sasson.

The shorter conference held by the Society for Judaeo-Arabic Studies at the Ben-Zvi Institute and at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities was, in fact, even more concerned with the Genizah.

Subjects covered at this important three-day meeting, under the presidency of Professor Joshua Blau, ranged from Maimonides and Saadya to language, law, history and philosophy, and included sessions devoted in the methodology of research and the contribution made by the late Professor S. D. Goitein to the field.

The common element in most of the subjects was the extensive use of the Cairo Genizah material as a major source for most of the research undertaken by Society members.



Edited by Stefan C. Reif and printed by the University Printing Services of Cambridge University Press

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University of Cambridge; last updated October 2003