Cambridge University Library

The Lewis-Gibson Collection (the Westminster Genizah Collection)

The Collection of Genizah fragments held at Westminster College, Cambridge, holds a special place in the modern history of the Cairo Genizah. They were brought back from the Middle East in 1896 by the twin sisters Mrs Agnes Smith Lewis and Mrs Margaret Dunlop Gibson, and were deposited in Westminster College, a theological college of the United Reformed Church, to whom the sisters were the major benefactors. When the sisters showed this initial selection of manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah to their friend, the Cambridge scholar Solomon Schechter, he was amazed to discover among them a fragment of the lost Hebrew original of the book of Ben Sira (known as ‘Ecclesiasticus’ in the Christian Bible), and determined to find the source of these treasures. What followed was the discovery of the famous Cairo Genizah, and the academic study of Judaism and of the wider economic and social history of the Middle East and Mediterranean world was changed forever.

A genizah is a sacred storeroom, a room set aside in a synagogue for the interment of religious writings that, because they contain the sacred name of God, must be preserved, even if the text itself is no longer usable. The Cairo Genizah – the sacred storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo), Egypt – is unique in that the Jewish community of Fustat deposite all manner of writings, not just sacred texts, into the genizah over a period of 1000 years.

To download a leaflet about the Collection and the appeal, please click here.

For further information or images please contact the Genizah Unit here.

Selected items from the Collection (click thumbnails for hi-res images):

1. The fragments are currently bound into fifteen large guard books, with a smaller number under glass. They are all in need of professional conservation, having been bound about 100 years ago. (Copyright University of Cambridge) Volumes

2. Mrs Gibson on a camel in the Sinai, 1893. (Courtesy of the Governors of Westminster College, Cambridge)Gibson on a camel

3. Cambridge University Library, Or.1102. This is the fragment of the Hebrew of the book of Ben Sira (known in the Christian tradition as Ecclesiasticus) that the two sisters purchased and showed to Solomon Schechter at Cambridge. They donated it to Cambridge University Library. (Copyright University of Cambridge)Or.1102

4. Both sides of the note Schechter sent to Mrs Lewis describing his excitement at their discovery: ‘Dear Mrs Lewis, I think we have reason to congratulate ourselves. For the fragment I took with me represents a piece of the Original Hebrew of Ecclesiasticus. It is the first time that such a thing was discovered. Please do not speak yet about the matter. I will come to you tomorrow about 11 pm and talk over the matter with you how to make the matter known. In haste and great excitement yours sincerely S. Schechter’. (Copyright University of Cambridge)

5. Westminster College, Lewis-Gibson Miscellaneous 117: a leaf from a collection of magical spells and recipes (probably 16th c. or later). This particular leaf contains a spell for making a woman sleep with you: ‘Take your trousers and put them on over your head, so that you are naked. Say: “So-and-so son of So-and-so is doing this for So-and-so daughter of So-and-so, in order that she will dream that I sleep [with] her and she sleeps with me”.’ The Genizah contains a large amount of superstititous and magical material, surprisingly, for a religious archive, and we find both erotic and aggressive spell recipes. (Courtesy of the Governors of Westminster College, Cambridge)

6. Westminster College, Lewis-Gibson Glass 1a. A copy of the Jerusalem Talmud (also known as the Palestinian Talmud), tractate Horayot, written over the top of a much earlier Christian work. The lower script of this palimpsest, in Christian Palestinian Aramaic, probably dates from around 600 CE, making it one of the oldest items to be found in the Genizah. A number of very early Greek and Christian Aramaic works have survived in the Genizah as the lower script of palimpsests, all dating from around 500–600 CE. (Courtesy of the Governors of Westminster College, Cambridge)

7. Westminster College, Lewis-Gibson Miscellaneous 35. A letter in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic in Hebrew characters, the written vernacular of the Jews of the Middle East) from a Jewish woman who has suffered at the hands of the invading Crusaders (1099/1100 CE). She had to flee from Jerusalem to Tripoli in the Lebanon, where she reports on the carnage she witnessed: ‘I was with him on the day I saw them killed in terrible fashion... I am an ill woman on the brink of insanity, on top of the hunger of my family and the little girl who are all with me, and the horrid news I heard about my son.’ She suggests it would be better to be captured since those in captivity ‘find someone who gives them food and drink’, whereas uncaptured, she and her children are starving. Eyewitness accounts from those on the sharp end of the First Crusade are very rare. (Courtesy of the Governors of Westmisnter College, Cambridge)Woman's letter

8. Westminster College, Lewis-Gibson Misc. 42, an engagement deed dating from 1119 CE. Jewish marriage is a three-stage process: engagement, betrothal and marriage. Betrothal, at which the couple are declared married but do not move in together, and marriage, when the woman leaves her father's house and lives with her husband, are both formal events requiring a written document. Engagement, generally, was an oral agreement of a more informal nature. In 12th-century Fustat, Egypt, however, the Jewish community began to formalise engagements through a written deed, and this is the earliest known example. The deeds mostly consist of prenuptial conditions to be imposed on the husband: where the couple would live (and who has the right to choose), the right of the woman to ask for a divorce, various restrictions on the husband’s movements, etc, and testify to the relative power that Jewish women had in the marriage agreement. (Courtesy of the Governors of Westminster College, Cambridge)Engagement deed

9. Westminster College, Lewis-Gibson Biblia 4.55. A vellum leaf from a fine copy of the Hebrew Bible, probably 11-12th century Spain. Contains 1 Kings 13 on, the story of King Jeroboam. The Genizah contains items from all across the Jewish world, not just Egypt. (Courtesy of the Governors of Westminster College, Cambridge)

10. Maimonides autograph, Lewis-Gibson Talmud 2.57. A large leaf containing Moses Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah, tractate Shabbat. It is actually a draft of the work, a commentary on one of the central texts of Judaism, in Moses’ own very distinctive (ie messy) handwriting. Maimonides, the leading Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, lived in Egypt at the time that the Genizah was in constant use as a repository, and so it is no surprise that we find his own papers deposited there, albeit haphazardly. (Courtesy of the Governors of Westminster College, Cambridge)Maimonides autograph