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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. 40 October 2000

On other pages


Unit wins extra 78,000 funding

The Genizah Unit's fund-raising campaign has had important successes in recent weeks. Through the generosity of several sources of support, additional funding of 78,000 has been promised for the research year beginning on 1 October 2000.

The Friedberg Genizah Project in New York has increased its financial commitment to various projects being run by the Unit, and its managers are co-ordinating their plans with the Unit's Director.

The Trustees of the John S. Cohen Foundation, chaired by Dr David Cohen, have pledged the sum of 11,000 towards the cost of completing a research project in Judaeo-Arabic.

Other work in the same general area is to receive the substantial financial backing of the R and S Cohen Foundation, which has recently sent a contribution of 17,000.

Major donations to Genizah funds have been received from the Georges Lurcy Charitable and Educational Trust ($5,000); the Samuel Sebba Charitable Trust (1,500); and the George Balint Charitable Trust (1,000).

Others who have provided substantial assistance are J. Davies Charities (500, through Mrs Felice Davies and Mr Malcolm Kayne); the H. Joels Charitable Trust (500); the Kohn Foundation (500, through Ralph and Zahava Kohn); Mr and Mrs Stephen Lewis (500); Betty and Cyril Stein (500); the Goldberg Charitable Trust (350); and Mrs Denise Cattan (270).

Welcome renewals of their annual awards have kindly been made by the Harbour Charitable Trust (250, through Barbara and Stanley Green); the Helene Sebba Charitable Trust (250); and Sir Sigmund Sternberg (250).

The Unit is also grateful to Mr Elliot Philipp (150); Mrs Judith Samuel (100); and Mrs Miriam Shenkin (100).

Visiting parties arranged by the "Behind the Ark'' group at Hendon (United) Synagogue and by the Jewish Museum have also contributed to research funds. These contributions, and other anonymous donations, amounting to 3,700, are all much appreciated.

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[The entrance to the Genizah exhibition]

The entrance to the Genizah exhibition being constructed in the rest-house of Cairo's Ben Ezra Synagogue,

Cairo exhibition

In October 2000, in the rest-house of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, Egypt, an exhibition will open on the Genizah collection discovered there in 1896.

The display has been sponsored by Phyllis Lambert, of the Canadian Center for Architecture, who arranged the restoration of the synagogue in 1993, and her brother, Edgar Bronfman, chairman of the World Jewish Congress.

The idea for the exhibition came from Carmen Weinstein, the leader of the Egyptian Jewish community in Cairo, who looks after the ancient synagogues in the capital city.

She had been asked by many visitors about the Ben Ezra Genizah collection, made famous by the publications of Cambridge University's Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit and by various other research institutes that now look after, and research, the fragile fragments discovered in the millennium-old synagogue.

The exhibition concentrates on what the Genizah collection tells us about the Jewish community in Cairo in the Middle Ages.

Archaeological discoveries show that Jews already lived in Egypt during the 26th Dynasty (sixth century BCE), when they settled in Aswan. This population grew to considerable numbers during the Graeco-Roman period, ultimately making up a quarter of the population of Alexandria.

The foundations of the current synagogue in Old Cairo belong to the eleventh century. Some - with other buildings in the locality - may even date from the start of the presence of a community at the site following the building of the Red Sea canal in the third century bce, and the construction of the walls of the Roman fortified town of Babylon, built mostly in the third century ce.

The Jewish community's presence there is witnessed by the Genizah collection, a number of whose early fragments date back to the ninth century CE, and much of which illustrates everyday life up to the middle of the fifteenth century.

At that time, the synagogue ceased to be in everyday use, as the majority of the Jewish community had moved to the Jewish Quarter in Al-Qahira (Cairo) a few miles further north.

The exhibition draws upon the collection to illustrate this significant period of medieval history. The treasures of the collection and the important people of the community - Moses Maimonides having lived there - are described.

The history of the Egyptian Jewish community, and its relations with other international communities - many members of whom both visited and, on occasion, took refuge in Old Cairo - are illustrated through correspondence and trade documents.

Most importantly, connections between the different religious communities of Old Cairo are featured through trade, shared literature, and human relations.

Edgar Bronfman's and Phyllis Lambert's original motivations for the synagogue's restoration were aimed at showing how, over more than two millennia, the diverse communities of Old Cairo had lived together, and how this could be a source of inspiration for the modern world.

The exhibition will be on permanent display to all visitors, and will include facsimiles of original fragments. Modern treasures from the synagogue will be displayed alongside, and a guidebook in five languages will be available.

M. D. S. Mallinson
Consultant Architect

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[The interior of the refurbished Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo]

The interior of the refurbished Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, as shown on the new BBC2 and Al-Ahram web sites

Boost for browsers

Those who enjoy browsing the Internet have two new web sites at which they can learn more about the Genizah.

One of these (www.geocities.com/RainForest/Vines/5855/ahramwk.htm) contains photographs and an article that originally appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly, published in Cairo. Under the title "A Common History'', Sahar El-Bahr stresses the importance of Genizah documents for viewing Jewish history as part of the Egyptian cultural heritage.

He describes the conservation work being undertaken at Jewish cemeteries and synagogues by the Department of Jewish Antiquities of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and plans for studying and translating the Genizah material, especially at Cairo University's Oriental Studies Department.

The article tells the story of the nineteenth-century discoveries and describes how other documents have more recently come to light.

The scholarly importance of the Genizah is explained, along with details of the Ben Ezra and other Egyptian synagogues.

Another web site has recently been set up by BBC2 in connection with its series, "Road to Riches''. The third programme in the series briefly covered the significance of the Genizah material for economic history (http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/road_to_riches/prog3/prog3.stm) and the site provides a cross-reference to a more detailed account of that documentary source (http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/road_to_riches/prog3/genizah.stm).

Appearing there is an illustrated article summarizing the development and content of the Genizah archive and discussing its specific relevance to current understanding of medieval business interests.

Browsers who absorb the information at these sites and are anxious for yet more data can, of course, turn to the Unit's home page, which is constantly being updated (http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/Taylor-Schechter).

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[T-S NS 188.20, a Samaritan legend in Judaeo-Arabic]

T-S NS 188.20, a Samaritan legend in Judaeo-Arabic discovered by Dr Friedrich Niessen, of the T-S Unit

A Samaritan discovery

A passage in II Samuel 10:15-19 deals with David's campaign against the Aramean king, Hadadezer, and Shovakh, the commander of his army. This is the only context in which the name Shovakh appears in the Bible in such a form.

A different person with the same name occurs in a traditional Jewish legend, which relates that after the conquest of Palestine, Joshua was forced to go to war with Shovakh, the king of Armenia, who united a great number of kings against him. In the name of the allied kings, Shovakh sent a messenger to Joshua with a letter informing him of his plan to wage war against him.

In accepting the challenge, Joshua wrote a strong letter in response emphasizing his confidence in winning the battle. Despite a spell cast by Shovakh's mother, which caused the enclosure of Joshua's army within seven walls, Joshua was relieved by Novakh, the king of the Transjordanian tribes, while Shovakh was killed and his army defeated.

This Shovakh legend follows traditions preserved in the Samaritan chronicles. Although most such chronicles refer to it, some offer a shorter version than others. In particular, the letters exchanged by Shovakh and Joshua demonstrate remarkable differences across the texts.

The language of the Samaritan chronicles may be Arabic or Hebrew, or a mixture of both and Aramaic. There are versions of the Shovakh legend in each of these languages, preserved in a number of manuscripts housed in various libraries.

Until now, no version of a Samaritan chronicle has been discovered in Judaeo-Arabic - and, indeed, one could hardly have expected to make such a discovery among the Genizah fragments.

Surprisingly, however, a binder labelled "Bible: Arabic versions & commentaries'' includes a leaf with the classmark T-S NS 188.20 that contains some lines in Judaeo-Arabic of Joshua's letter to Shovakh. It begins at the point at which Joshua predicts the result of the battle:

"[You will not be able to escape] to another place, but you will die here by the deadly sword, or by slaughter, or by the flame of fire, or by being wiped out. I do not boast to you as you have boasted [to me]. I do not say, as you have said: `Heroes will march with me.'

"The numbers are not imaginary: marching with me will be 600,000 men who destroyed Greater Egypt and ate the sacrifice of the Passover; who saw with their own eyes the ten plagues afflicting their enemies, and crossed the sea on the dry land; and travelled through the wilderness without a guide, the pillar of cloud sheltering them from the heat...''

The fragment ends here, and I have found no matching piece. Although small, it represents an important contribution to the history of the Samaritan chronicles in general, and the Shovakh legend in particular.

The Judaeo-Arabic version appears to be one of the oldest witnesses to the legend and throws light on some of the more obscure formulations in the Arabic or Hebrew versions.

How did a Judaeo-Arabic fragment of a Samaritan chronicle end up in the Cairo Genizah? Was it by accident, or were there closer links between the Samaritan and Jewish communities than one is usually inclined to admit?

In any event, the existence of this fragment, brought to Cambridge a hundred years ago, shows that the Shovakh legend was popular and widespread, apparently finding considerable interest among readers and listeners in both communities.

The full text - edited, translated and annotated - will appear in the Journal of Semitic Studies in the near future.

Friedrich Niessen
Research Assistant, Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit

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Project of vital importance

I trained in conservation at Camberwell College of Arts, London, one of the foremost centres for conservation training, and graduated in 1994.

I have worked in the conservation department at Cambridge University Library since February 1996 and was responsible for the conservation and rebinding of a collection of medieval and post-medieval legal manuscripts.

Last year, I was asked by Professor Stefan Reif to undertake a project of Genizah preservation, one priority being to find a storage solution for the early Genizah scholars' notes, some of them a hundred years old.

These notes contain brief indications as to the contents of a fragment - for example, "piyyutim''. Occasionally, only the classmark is written, while at other times detailed information is provided.

Incidental information is sometimes recorded, such as "Found in a drawer in the tower.'' In one case, an instruction is given to the reader, in Hebrew and English, and is still valid for those using the T-S Collection: "Careful!''

An interesting range of materials is used for the notes. Mostly, the paper is of cartridge type, similar to that used as interleaves in bound volumes of the early twentieth century.

Often, any appropriate material to hand has been used, including envelopes sent to Solomon Schechter's home address, cardboard, the backs of printed proofs of the library catalogue; and very fine English hand-made paper.

The preservation of the notes is important, since they serve to assist in the identification of the manuscripts. They also represent a tangible, historical aspect of the collection itself, reflecting the early thoughts and approaches of renowned Genizah scholars.

Hitherto, the notes were stored inside the manuscript folders but were simply hole-punched and bound with string. Over time, and with a large amount of use, the holes became torn and many of the leaves were loosened, with potential for further damage or loss.

After considering the alternatives, we decided to format the notes in Melinex to match the manuscripts. Also known as Mylar, Melinex is a thin, flexible polyester sheet material made by ICI, with excellent properties for preservation applications.

The substance is chemically inert, so will not release harmful chemicals or deteriorate. It is slightly static, able to provide a flexible support to fragile objects; and it is bondable, enabling objects to be fully encapsulated and thus protected from dust, adverse environmental conditions, and physical damage from frequent handling.

The completed leaves of encapsulated notes have been made to fit neatly into the existing folders.

The frequent use of Genizah material makes this project vital in maintaining the quality of the T-S Collection. My work thus far has enabled the scholars' notes to be securely stored and enables easier access for readers.

Other current work includes the repair of some of the bound volumes of manuscripts, and the replacement of some damaged folders, contributing to the on-going preservation of a unique collection.


Robert Jefferson
Conservationist, Cambridge University Library

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How you can help the Unit

If you would like to receive Genizah Fragments regularly, to enquire about the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection, or to know how you may assist with its preservation and study, please write to: Professor S. C. Reif, Director of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, at Cambridge University Library, West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DR, England.

The library may also be reached by fax (01223) 333160, or by telephone (01223) 333000. The Internet access is at http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/Taylor-Schechter. Enquiries by e-mail should be addressed to genizah@lib.cam.ac.uk.

Readers not already supporting the Unit are asked to help ensure the continuity of this publication by making a small, regular gift. The sum of 10 (UK) or $18 (abroad) is suggested; payment may be made to Cambridge or to the American Friends.

All contributions to the Unit, whether for the research programme or for its other activities, are made to the "University of Cambridge'', which enjoys charitable status for tax and similar purposes.

In the USA, the American Friends of Cambridge University support the Taylor-Schechter Collection with their unfunded grant number 7/78. If you are interested in supporting this AFCU project, please contact the Director of the Annual Appeal at: 708 Third Avenue, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10017 (tel: 212-880-2840). Transfers of such funds are regularly made to Cambridge from the USA.

The AFCU is recognized by the IRS as a charitable organization, and contributions are legally deductible for United States income tax purposes. They are similarly deductible in Canada even if made directly to Cambridge.

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From the Editor's desk


Goitein's legacy

For some thirty years, until his death in 1985, Professor S. D. Goitein devoted himself to the study of Genizah collections around the world. He paid particular attention to documents of social, economic and political importance, and built up a vast archive, on handwritten index cards, of translations, notes and other research data.

This entire research archive, known as the Goitein Research Laboratory, was bequeathed by him to the Jewish National and University Library at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Microfilm copies were made for the Goitein Library for Genizah Research at Princeton University, headed by Professor Mark Cohen, and for the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

During a recent research visit to Cambridge by Professor Cohen, he and I agreed that it would greatly help the Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge, and visiting scholars, if copies of these thirty microfilms could be made available at Cambridge University Library.

Thanks to the efforts of Professor Cohen, the kind permission of Elon Goitein, the executor of his father's estate, and the co-operation of the Jerusalem and New York institutions involved, microfilm copies have now reached Cambridge and are available in the Manuscripts Reading Room (MS Microfilm 11251-11280).

This development, similar examples of international co-operation between scholars and institutions, and the current plans of the Friedberg Genizah Project in New York, all augur well for the future of Genizah research.

With a total of almost a million leaves around the world, there is no shortage of items for every interested party to work on, provided the necessary academic competence has been acquired. At the same time, it undoubtedly speeds up and simplifies the scholarly process if the hand of co-operation can regularly be extended.

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

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Solomon's vision

During our recent visit to Cambridge, we were cordially greeted by Professor Stefan Reif and conducted to that section of the University Library housing the Taylor-Schechter Collection.

Immediately catching the eye was a greatly enlarged photograph of an image we treasure: our forebear, Solomon Schechter, sorting the masses of material he brought to Cambridge from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, following his momentous finds in 1896-97.

We see there a dimly-lit room, with tattered fragments overflowing from shelves and in crates on the floor. Solomon is seated, pondering these discoveries, at a trestle table littered with yet more fragments of all shapes and sizes.

How gently the librarians would have asked him to handle those fragile pieces! We can surely discern this from those untreated remnants, conserved under glass, that were taken from the original crates, one of which is still on view as testimony to the venture.

We heard how the fragments - whether of vellum, papyrus or paper - are prepared for use, and preserved for posterity.

It has required several decades of meticulous sorting and care to deal with those that adhered to each other, and with others that were damaged or torn.

This is to say nothing of deciphering, piecing together, classifying, researching and dating the documents, and preparing descriptions and translations of the Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic texts. Many demonstrate major linguistic and social evolutions.

A large proportion has now been indexed, conserved and mounted, covering a multitude of subjects. Most are neatly shelved in special binders, while a number await further study.

The temperature and humidity of the entire section are carefully regulated to maintain this precious source of Jewish documents in good condition.

Elsie and Ian Alexander
Widow and son of Solomon Schechter's grandson, Sol Alexander

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[a few people in a room]

Participants at the launch of "A Jewish Archive from Old Cairo'' (left to right): Israeli Ambassador Dror Zeigerman; book sponsor Joe Dwek; Professor Stefan Reif; Mrs Elaine Sacks; and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Books on manuscripts

Enquiries have been received over the past few months about how best to acquire copies of books written or jointly edited by the Director of the Unit, Professor Stefan Reif.

The latest of these, A Jewish Archive from Old Cairo, is available directly from the publisher: Curzon Press Limited, 15 The Quadrant, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 1DP; fax 020 8332 6735; email publish@curzonpress.co.uk; web site www.curzonpress.co.uk.

Hebrew Manuscripts at Cambridge University Library (1997), Genizah Research after Ninety Years (1992, edited with Joshua Blau), and Published Material from the Cambridge Genizah Collections (1988) may all be ordered from: Cambridge University Press, Edinburgh Building, Shaftesbury Road, Cambridge, CB2 2RU; fax 01223 326111; email directcustserve@cup.cam.ac.uk; web site www.cup.cam.ac.uk.

Judaism and Hebrew Prayer (1993) is now available only in paperback edition and may also be ordered directly from Cambridge University Press.

Copies of two earlier books, Shabbethai Sofer and his Prayer-Book (1979) and Interpreting the Hebrew Bible (1982, edited with John A. Emerton), are no longer available from the publishers, Cambridge University Press, but may be obtained at specially reduced prices from: Faculty Secretary, Oriental Studies, University of Cambridge, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge, CB3 9DA; fax 01223 335110; email cp229@hermes.cam.ac.uk; web site www.oriental.cam.ac.uk.

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Life at dawn of the second millennium

While Cambridge was burning in the year 1010, as the result of a Viking attack, far away in Old Cairo Jewish children were learning their Hebrew alphabet from colourful illustrated primers.

A lively picture of places and people around the world emerges from John Man's Atlas of the Year 1000 (Penguin Books, 1999). He provides a concise but far-ranging glimpse of life at the beginning of the second millennium, precisely at the time when the Jewish community of Egypt was particularly vibrant.

In the pages of his book, we meet bison-hunters in North America; flourishing communities of Ashkenazi Jews in Europe; Africans miners supplying gold for Fatimid minting; the world's first novelist - a Japanese woman named Murasaki Shikibu; and massive statues erected on Easter Island, the worlds's most remote inhabited spot.

The volume relies on numerous sources for its facts, since few, if any, written records of life a thousand years ago have been found in many regions of the world. It has to call on the work of scientists, on half-remembered folk tales, and on evidence uncovered by archaeologists.

Other societies have bequeathed documents commissioned and collected by formal institutions, such as royalty and the church.

In Islamic lands, Muslims and Jews amassed impressive libraries and a wealth of written items. But even here, much remains lost, since "ordinary'' people did not normally leave written documents.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the Cairo Genizah - the world's most comprehensive written evidence of the daily life of ordinary people in a medieval community - features prominently in this volume.

Part of the section entitled "The World of Islam'' is devoted to an account of the Jews living under Muslim rule. Much of the evidence is gleaned from the Genizah documents, and also highlighted is the history of that great collection and how it came to lodge in Cambridge University Library.

The Genizah is mentioned in a chapter on Ashkenazi Jewry, in connection with the strong cultural and commercial links between Jewish communites across many miles and countless years.

Man suggests that at the end of the first millennium - for the first time in human history - a book, a message, or perhaps just an idea, could in theory have been carried fully round the circumference of the globe.

To be sure, the speed of transmission would have been slow, no more than walking pace for some parts of the journey, and the routes would have been dictated by the requirements of trade and commerce, politics and religion.

Traders in gold and slaves could have been among the medieval postmen, or those travelling along the silk routes in the Far East; or invading armies or forces; or, perhaps, explorers and exploiters of distant lands.

The possibilities were there but, of course, the reality was more limited. Words and ideas did not circle the world; but, as we have learned from the documents of the Genizah, they certainly did travel amazing distances, thanks to Jewish and Muslim traders.

The book takes us on a delightful and stimulating journey. Each topic is covered in two pages of text, peppered with clear maps and interesting illustrations - a perfect vehicle for viewing life a thousand years ago.

Shulie Reif
Publications sub-editor, Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit

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Genizah prominent at BAJS conference

The 2000 British Association for Jewish Studies (BAJS) Conference was held at the University of Leeds from 4 to 6 July. Its main theme was Hebrew, Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic Languages, Literatures and Cultures.

Some eighteen papers were delivered by scholars from Britain, France and Israel. The largest number referred to the Genizah or related issues, thus making the colloquium the first BAJS conference devoted to issues connecting the Hebrew/Jewish with the Arabic/Muslim.

Among the speakers were Professor A. Dotan (Tel Aviv University) and Mr Shlomo Alon (Hebrew University), who spoke, respectively, on medieval Hebrew and Arabic lexicography; Professor S. C. Reif (Cambridge University), whose paper discussed a new grace after meals from the Genizah; Dr S. Shtober (Bar-Ilan University), who dealt with medieval Palestinian toponymy; Dr E. Frojmovic (Leeds University), who gave an illustrated account of fragments of visual culture from the Genizah; and Dr G. Khan (Cambridge University), who headed the section on the Karaites, and himself offered a paper on the Karaite scholars of Jerusalem in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Five papers dealing with various aspects of Karaism and Karaite personalities, mostly as documented in the Genizah, were presented by young researchers.

The presidential address, delivered by the writer of these lines, was devoted to the worrying decline of interest in Semitic studies, particularly in their linguistic aspects, at British universities.

Avihai Shivtiel
Research Associate, Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit

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Edited by Stefan C. Reif
If you have any questions, please e-mail genizah@lib.cam.ac.uk
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University of Cambridge; revised May 2007