An Excellent year
It is never easy to forecast the reactions which a new publication will produce, particularly one which sets out to cater for both the scholar and the interested layman. Any lingering doubts which we may have had about the need for this newsletter have, however, now been removed by the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to its appearance, examples of which appear later.
Encouraged by this interest, and assisted by the suggestions kindly made, we have in this issue continued to provide general information about the Unit's work, but have also included more details about particular manuscripts in the Collection.
We have also taken advantage of the presence of visitors to record outside impressions of our activities. Those activities continue to make excellent progress and , thanks to the outside supporters who contributed over £37,000 in the last financial year, and to the University, which has again provided financial as well as all kinds of other assistance, projects such as the conservation of all remaining fragments and the computerisation of the bibliography look like being completed before the appearance of our next number.
By that time, no doubt, another few hundred individuals will have heard lectures about the Collection, or viewed exhibits at the Library. As for those who will not have such first-hand experiences, we hope that this newsletter will keep them in touch and informed.
Stefan C. Reif
Dr and Mrs Reif and other members of the Unit take this opportunity of wishing all the Unit's Jewish friends, supporters and correspondents a happy and healthy New Year in 5742.
Goitein birthday volumes
Professor Shelomo Dov Goitein, formerly of the Hebrew University and now at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, USA, has done more than any other scholar to bring to life those Genizah fragments dealing with the everyday life of Jews in the Mediterranean area eight hundred years ago.
Now his students, colleagues and friends have, on his eightieth birthday, dedicated to him two volumes of essays on topics close to his heart, edited by Professors S. Morag and I. Ben-Ami of Jerusalem assisted by Professor N. Stillman of Binghamton, New York.
Although there are general studies of the language, literature and culture of the Jews living in Arab lands, and papers on the Islamic environment in which they were reared, a dominant theme of the thirty-one contributions is, of course, the Genizah.
Some authors have found new poems among the fragments, some have used them to add to our knowledge of important personalities and events, while others have traced linguistic or legal developments through these worn old leaves.
Among contributors, Professors Ezra Fleischer, Nehamya Allony, Norman Golb, Mordechai Friedman, Shelomo Morag and Shaul Shaked have all in recent years helped to classify and describe fragments in the T-S Collection. Professors Alexander Scheiber, Moshe Gil and Mark Cohen have recently spent time working in Cambridge.
Simon Hopkins, who once worked in the Unit and is now Professor of Hebrew in the University of Cape Town, South Africa, surveys the earliest known manuscripts from the Genizah and other sources.
Stefan Reif analyses the first verse of the fourth paragraph of the evening Shema and demonstrates how Genizah fragments can help to fill in the earliest history of the Jewish prayer-books.
The English volume is entitled Studies in Judaism and Islam and the Hebrew Studies in Geniza and Sepharadi Heritage.
Left to right: Dr F. W. Ratcliffe, Cambridge University Librarian, Dr J. S. Boys Smith, former Master of St John's College, Dr S. C. Reif and Professor F. H. Hinsley, Master of St John's, admiring the portrait of Dr Charles Taylor, by Dr H. A. Chase, unveiled at a Library reception for the Master and Fellows and for Library staff connected with Oriental Studies
Conservation nears end
Conservation work on the Taylor-Schechter Collection is within weeks of completion.
During the past year the conservation team cleaned, flattened, repaired, numbered and placed in Melinex a total of 11,853 classmarked fragments, or 16,464 actual pieces.
Work over the past eight years has brought to fruition the conservation of all 140,000 Hebrew and Jewish fragments in the T-S Collection. The comprehensive programme of identification, description and publication is expected to continue for some years yet.
It is hoped to celebrate this achievement in a suitable manner in the near future.
Wellcome research gift
The Wellcome Trust have made an important grant of £10,800 to Cambridge University to enable Dr Penelope Johnstone to study the medical fragments in the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection and their special significance for the history of medicine. She took up her appointment this month.
Dr Johnstone, formerly lecturer in Arabic at Manchester University, will conduct a survey of all the medical fragments in the Collection with a view to identifying and evaluating some of the more outstanding manuscripts.
As a result of these initial efforts, a clearer view of the Collection's importance for medical history will be obtained and the exploitation of specific items will serve as a pilot project for future scholarly work on fragments of special historical value.
It is envisaged that the project will take two to three years and that the fruits of the investigations will be published.
Preliminary classification of medical fragments in a sample of T-S Genizah boxes has revealed such topics as plants, anatomy, remedies, alchemy, ailments and "magic".
More support for T-S Unit
The Unit is delighted to welcome among its major new supporters the Georges Lurcy Charitable and Educational Trust (Chairman: Dr Edward M. Bernstein), of Washington DC ($2,000); Dr Davide Sala, of London (£1,000); and Mr Peter Littman of Switzerland (£300).
It is also happy to report new associations with its efforts on the part of Professor S. J. Prais, of London (£100), and the Max Richter Foundation (President: Professor Jacob Neusner) of Rhode Island ($200); and donations of £50 each from the B'nai B'rith First Women's Lodge of England, Golders Green Group and Stanmore Synagogue.
Special thanks are due to Mr and Mrs Ronald Stekel, of London, for arranging a dinner in their home at which Dr Stefan Reif spoke and as a result of which £215 was raised for the work of the Unit.
Those responsible in the United Kingdom for some of the world's most expensive and valuable collections of Hebrew manuscripts and printed books came together at a conference in Cambridge in March to discuss their mutual problems and their plans for future co-operation.
Representatives of larger institutions such as the British Library and Cambridge University Library joined with their colleagues from the university and college libraries of Edinburgh, Durham, Glasgow, Manchester, School of Oriental and African Studies and University College London, and the Librarians of Jews' College, the Kressel Archives at the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, Leo Baeck College, The Wellcome Institute and Cambridge's Faculty of Oriental Studies.
Participants voted to form a Hebraica Libraries' Group and Dr Stefan Reif was elected as its first convenor. Among the Group's aims is to exchange information about holdings and activities and to encourage the study of the Hebrew book.
Obadiah the proselyte
The number of Jewish converts to Christianity between the years 1000 and 1492 has to be estimated in hundreds of thousands, while that of proselytes to Judaism in dozens, or even less. Yet the degree of attention given to every scrap of evidence about such proselytes is remarkable.
Most of this scholarly activity is concentrated on a few Genizah fragments, many of them at Cambridge, from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, on paper and parchment. They can hardly be said to look like remnants of "a Golden Age of proselytism," as one enthusiastic Hungarian scholar has labelled the period. Their historical value is, however, hard to over-estimate.
In an age of intense family and local attachments, of legal sanctions and abysmal ignorance and hostility among differing religions, the feat of having acquired enough information about Judaism, enough determination to abandon ties of family and society and enough courage to brave a death penalty are sufficient warrant for the interest they arouse.
It is hard to determine what drove such people to Judaism. "It is not for a dinar or a dirhem that I have taken the trouble to move to a foreign place," says a woman proselyte, and it is hard to imagine anyone wishing to convert for the doubtful benefits of living off Jewish charity.
Most of them seem to share the then rare trait of literacy and a consequent access to Scripture and the theory has been advanced that the eschatalogical tensions which characterise the period are responsible for a wish to return to older forms of religion (as they are for much else that happened between 1000 and 1200).
Although these proselytes were prepared to leave everything behind them, the concern of Cairene Jewish society to acknowledge lineage and maintain a hierarchy ensured that their former social positions were not forgotten. We may not know their precise dates or origins, but we are informed that they were "of a great family," "an archbishop," and that a widow had left "great wealth at her father's house."
Of all these proselytes, the most commonly discussed must be Johannes of Oppido (a town in Southern Italy in which there is now intense interest in his life); he was a former priest who changed his name to Obadiah on adopting Judaism in 1102.
The restless Italian seems to have gravitated towards the communal authorities when he travelled to Syria, the Holy Land, Egypt and Mesopotamia, retaining all the while certain traits of his early background, as well as a sense of his own uniqueness. Unfettered by literary conventions, he could produce a very rare phenomenon: a pre-Renaissance autobiography, a delightful blend of Italian irony, biblical idiom and a Norman nobleman's sensitivity to slighted honour.
When meeting a Messianic candidate in his travels in the Middle East, he asks him what diet he is on; his paragraphs tend to begin, as do those of the Pentateuch, with phrases such as "In those days," "and these are the cities"; he describes persecutions as do many other mediaeval Jews, but takes the trouble to add to the story of physical attack details of ridicule and humiliation, something a Jew by birth would rarely do.
The best known of his contributions are the neumatic notations to piyyutim with formulas characteristic of Gregorian chant, one of which is here illustrated. Neither this innovation nor his use of autobiography as a literary form seems to have influenced his community.
Perhaps the Jews of Cairo were not yet ready to accept such daring imports, particularly if they originated in a social group which receives more attention in the charity lists than it does in the writings of the communal leaders.
A unique treasure
As a centre of Hebrew studies, the University of Cambridge regards the Taylor-Schechter (Genizah) Collection as a great asset. Hebrew has been studied in the University for some centuries and is at present taught in both the Faculty of Oriental Studies and the Faculty of Divinity. We are fortunate to have Hebrew scholars in both faculties and to have the resources of the University Library represented by other Hebrew manuscripts as well as books and periodicals. But the Genizah Collection is a unique treasure.
The Collection has already contributed much to biblical studies, with its manuscripts of parts of the Hebrew Bible and of the ancient Aramaic translations known as Targums, and has provided rich material for the study of Hebrew pointing and grammar.
It was here, too, that the Hebrew original of the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus was first rediscovered after being lost for many centuries; indeed, the Hebrew text was known only from the Genizah material until further (though far less extensive) parts of the text were found more recently at Masada.
Similarly, the Zadokite Document, which Schechter found in the Collection here in Cambridge, has become of particular importance for scholarship since the discovery of the existence of the Qumran sect, with which it originated.
I have written so far of biblical and related studies, which are closest to my own interests. But, of course, the Collection is also of importance for other fields of scholarship, especially various aspects of post-biblical and mediaeval Jewish studies, Arabic studies, and the history and social life of the Mediterranean region in the Middle Ages.
It is because of the great importance of the Taylor-Schechter (Genizah) Collection for research in various branches of scholarship that the Faculty Board of Oriental Studies have welcomed Dr Reif's initiative and have made grants from Tyrwhitt's Hebrew Scholarships Fund to help the work of conservation and cataloguing and the other aspects of the project. They recognize the remarkable success that the project has already achieved, and they welcome the plans to continue the work.
I described the Collection above as a unique treasure. This treasure is not something for Cambridge alone, for the project is making its contents available throughout the world.
Saved for posterity
So many Jews today, old as well as young, are not aware of the heritage of our people and, if they were challenged, they could not attempt to define the nature of our purpose. Without knowledge, a commitment to the Jewish community, to Israel, to Jewish education and indeed to any of those causes which we sustain and which sustain us is remote and unlikely.
The whole of the Genizah project is precisely the stuff to stir the imagination, to open eyes and to stimulate a search for roots. It links past with present; it breaks down geographical barriers; it awakens memories; it arouses very potent Jewish feelings of nostalgia; and - in very real and practical terms - it conveys knowledge and information about periods in Jewish history which are fascinating and entrancing.
Moreover, the story of the discovery of the fragments (which, if told in the pages of fiction, would be described as utterly lacking in credibility) link us personally in Britain with an amazing piece of Jewish history.
Furthermore, the scholars who have worked on the Collection - from Solomon Schechter onwards - have enabled our community to play a signal role in Jewish scholarship. Their work has placed us on that important map of the world which shows those spots - sometimes towns, but often villages - whose names will live forever in Jewish annals because they have been places of learning. (Jewish maps are very different from other maps!)
Every synagogue should arrange a visit of its members to see the Collection and to gain some idea of the work which is being done. For, literally, the whole world of the Genizah derives from a synagogue. (I wonder whether the archives of any of our synagogues in this country, if they survive the next five hundred or thousand years, say, will yield as much material of interest and excite scholars in the same way as the Cairo Genizah?)
The ultimate fascination for me lies in the total identification I am able to make with the social life portrayed in the documents and fragments. The people seem so close in their ideas, in their worries and in their concerns, I feel I could walk into their lives and be able to take up a conversation with them as friends.
There was no expectation whatever on the part of the writers of most, if not all, of the documents that their work would be seen and read hundreds of years later. Hence, there is a freshness about them which is probably the chief ingredient for that feeling of intimacy they purvey.
As for the painstaking work of those scholars who were involved with the Genizah from the outset and those whose work is more recent, tribute has been paid by persons much more eminently qualified than I. I can merely echo their praise. The inspiration of those scholars has ensured for us that we have recognized and saved for posterity some of the great treasures of our people.
If you would like to receive "Genizah Fragments" regularly, or to know how you may assist with its preservation and study, please write to: Dr Stefan Reif, Director, Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, Cambridge University Library, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DR, England.
All contributions to the Unit are made to the "University of Cambridge", which enjoys charitable status for tax and similar purposes. In the USA, contributions may be made to "The American Friends of Cambridge University" at 1611 35th Street, NW, Washington DC 20007, USA. The AFCU is recognised by the IRS as a charitable organisation and contributions are legally deductible for United States income tax purposes.
Friendship between Jews and Muslims
One of the most important aspects of Genizah study is its capacity to provide documentary testimonies for facts which history has preferred to forget. One such area upon which new light has been shed and which has a very modern relevance is the question of inter-faith relations between Jew and Muslim in bygone times.
Despite the limitation of Genizah documents being mainly concerned with transactions between Jews, they have nonetheless much to contribute on the relationship between Jew and Muslim in the society of mediaeval Cairo.
In the heyday of Muslim commerce, the Jews of Egypt were indispensable elements and, unlike their brethren of mediaeval Europe, enjoyed freedom of choice of occupation. Their widespread contacts and their knowledge of languages secured for them a prominent position in international trade and they virtually had the monopoly of the India trade route.
Genizah letters indicate that the business world knew no social or religious boundaries, and it is not uncommon to find mention of commercial partnerships between Jews and Muslims. It is particularly ironical in these days of Arab boycotting to learn that it was not a rare occurrence, in fact, for Muslims to provide capital for Jewish enterprises.
Documents show that dealings with Muslims were carried out with a deep sense of ethical responsibility and familiarity. There is even an instance of a Jew sending an Arabic letter to a Muslim associate, written in Hebrew characters, suggesting that another Jewish acquaintance read it for him.
A rather comical form of co-operation was the dispatching of Jewish goods with Muslim agents so as to avoid paying the double rate of custom duties imposed only upon Jews as a discriminatory measure.
Although Islamic law enforced other harsh measures on Dimmis (non-Muslims) at other times, such as the wearing of distinctive clothing and the prohibition to build synagogues, it seems that they were not always rigorously observed.
However, the Genizah often testifies to the harsh burden which the annual payment of the head-tax to the Muslim authorities constituted for the poorer classes, some of whom, unable to be ransomed and faced with probable death, were induced to convert to Islam.
Moreover, Jews were required to be subservient; thus, any public display of their faith, such as a funeral procession, was invariably put down with harassment by the Muslim majority.
Despite this religious hostility, contacts on a personal level, especially among the middle-class, were often quite close. Members of the two faiths mingled, there being at that time no special Jewish quarter. Nevertheless, with the exception of those who converted to Islam, usually under duress, not a single case of intermarriage is recorded in the Genizah documents.
There is evidence to show that Jewish officials maintained friendly relations with Muslim colleagues, to whom regards are often sent in letters. Indeed, the Muslim courts would sometimes refer cases to their Jewish counterparts and vice-versa when matters were considered to be of a denominational character.
There are even instances of Muslims entreating Jewish notables to use their friendship with certain Muslim officials in order to intervene on their behalf.
In their letters, businessmen, who were often men of considerable learning, evince keen interest in the beliefs of their non-Jewish associates. That this interest was widespread is borne out by the rich variety of Muslim literature, both religious and secular, which the Genizah contains. As well as for polemical reasons, these texts were probably read with a view to conversing with Muslims.
The most remarkable testimony to Jewish-Muslim relations is the presence of Islamic mystical texts written in Hebrew characters by Jews, members of the Maimonides family among them, who practised a sort of Judaic Sufism.
A mecca for scholars of Talmudica
Since the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, and even more since the 'fifties (when the magnitude of its importance was realised), Cambridge University Library, the depository of the greatest Genizah collection has been a mecca for scholars of Talmudica as much as for those of Jewish history.
It may even be unambiguously asserted that no research into talmudic literature in the wider sense - from the Mishna to the mediaeval commentators - is possible without use of the Genizah.
The fact that there are complete, or almost complete, manuscripts for many works does not detract from the importance of the Genizah fragments of those works. This being the case, the lack of serious attention to the Genizah fragments - and their inadequate examination - on the part of scholars who had complete manuscripts of a certain work caused them to err in its identification or attribution, or in locating its provenance.
There are others, engaged in preparing critical editions of texts, who still ignore the Genizah fragments when in fact every sentence, work, or even letter in an early hand has its value in dealing with talmudic literature.
If this is the case with mediaeval literature, that is to say, "late" literature, all the more so does it apply to the Talmud proper (Mishna, Tosefta, halakhic Midrashim and Talmud), a literature in which every sentence has its own relevance and importance and every variant can have great significance in the fields of philology, history and Halakha.
The talmudic scholars of the last generation who were aware of the Genizah's importance published fragments from it with or without exegetical or critical introductions, but since the material has been made available in microfilms and photostats, researchers have contented themselves with consulting this photographic material.
The fact is, however, that there is no comparison between consulting a microfilm and the practical experience of handling the manuscript itself. Once one has seen the original fragment, its physical form and handwriting remain inscribed in the memory and at a later date one can identify another piece which belongs to the same manuscript.
It has to be said that, despite the vast amount of material in the T-S Collection, it has been conserved, numbered and classified, and is at the scholar's disposal to his complete satisfaction. All the fragments are available and when their classmarks have been changed, there is an explicit indication to that effect.
Above all, the conservation of the material is such that it will survive for a long time and be available to everyone who wants it.
All this is the achievement of Dr Reif, Director of the Unit, and his colleagues, who apply themselves to the task with endless enthusiasm and devotion, as is obvious to the researcher when he comes into contact with the material and the Unit's staff.
The technical aids which are at the disposal of the reader of damaged fragments, the attractive, general atmosphere of Cambridge University Library, the pleasant and helpful attitude of the assistants in the Manuscripts Reading Room complete the picture of this intellectual experience. I look forward to my next sabbatical year.
Mr Joe Grizzard (on the left)
Visit of Guild of Jewish Journalists
Some thirty members of the Guild of Jewish Journalists visited Cambridge University Library in June to become better acquainted with the priceless Hebrew and Jewish manuscripts in the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection.
By special arrangement with the University Librarian, the Library was opened on a Sunday and Dr Reif and some of his team of researchers, including Dr P. B. Fenton and Dr E. Gutwirth, mounted a special exhibition in the Munby Room of some of the most exciting pieces in the Collection.
Dr Reif also spoke to the group about the fascinating way in which the Collection had been discovered and brought from Cairo to Cambridge and showed slides illustrating various points he wished to make. Questions and a tour of the exhibition followed and Dr Reif was thanked for his lecture and exhibition by Mr Joe Grizzard, Chairman of the Guild.
Among the comments received on the publication of the first issue of "Genizah Fragments" were the following:
"The newsletter is fascinating and our students will be able to make use of your publication in several of their courses." - Liba Borck, Librarian, Hebrew University Graduate school of Library and Archive Studies, Jerusalem.
"Permettez-moi de vous féliciter pour la publication de 'Genizah Fragments'. C'est une excellente initiative et j'ai été trés interessée." - Professor Colette Sirat, L'Institut de Recherche et d'Histoire des Textes, Sorbonne, Paris.
"I like your Genizah newsletter very much." - Professor W. O. Chadwick, The Master's Lodge, Selwyn College, Cambridge.
"Congratulations on your first newsletter, which is full of very interesting material. I am also very impressed by the development of your Unit and what you have achieved." - Dr Julius Carlebach, Chairman, Sociology, Sussex University School of African and Asian Studies.
"Mit großem Interesse habe ich in diesen Tagen No. 1 des von Ihnen herausgegebenen Mitteilungsblattes mit dem Titel 'Genizah Fragments' erhalten und gelesen. Es freut mich, daß Sie sich entschlossen haben, diese Veröffentlichung zu wagen, und ich übermittle Ihnen und Ihren Mitarbeitern meine besten Wünsche." - Professor Dr Karl H. Rengstorf, Leiter, Forschungsstelle Antike und Christentum, Münster.
"Thank you very much indeed for sending me your lovely 'Genizah Fragments' newsletter. I found it very useful and interesting. Keep publishing such letters in the future." - Professor Moshe Gil, Diaspora Research Institute, Tel Aviv University.
"I read your bulletin with fascination and admiration and congratulate you warmly on the massive achievements so far." - Rev. A. Gelston, Lecturer in Theology, Durham University.
"I have read the newsletter of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit with great interest. It contains most valuable information for us here." - Dr I. O. Lehman, Office of the Curator of MSS Emeritus, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati.
"We hasten to congratulate you on a job well done. We look forward to many more issues and additional information about the T-S Unit." - Rabbi Barry A. Kenter, Office of Public Information, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York.
"Please accept my congratulations on your excellent newsletter. It is an impressive achievement, and you deserve every success." - Dr David Patterson, President, Oxford centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies.
Edited by Stefan C. Reif and printed at Cambridge University Library
Edited by Stefan C. Reif
If you have any questions, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Return to the Genizah Fragments index
Return to the Taylor-Schechter Home Page
Return to Cambridge University Library's Home Page