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Cambridge University Library

Schechter Day 2021: More than just Ben Sira

L-G Talmud 2.4
L-G Talmud 2.4
Author: 
Melonie Schmierer-Lee
Thu 13 May 2021

125 years ago today, Solomon Schechter sat down to write to Agnes Lewis. His quick note dashed off ‘in haste and great excitement’ told her that he’d managed to identify one of her recently purchased manuscripts as the original Hebrew text of the book of Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sira or Sirach). It had been preserved in Greek, Syriac and other translations, but the Hebrew original was lost and its very existence was doubted by many scholars who thought the book had originally been composed in Greek. Schechter asked Lewis to keep the discovery secret until he could ‘talk over the matter with you how to make the matter known’, but he himself couldn’t hold back from talking about the discovery. The news got out amongst the academic community, and before Schechter could publish his discovery, Adolf Neubauer and Arthur Cowley announced their discovery of leaves of Ben Sira in the Bodleian’s Genizah collection, and published them. Hence, Schechter’s discovery, which now bears the Cambridge shelfmark Or.1102, will be forever known in Ben Sira scholarly circles as ‘Manuscript B’, and not 'Manuscript A'. But Ben Sira was not the only interesting manuscript Schechter saw on the 13th May 1896. Margaret described the events of that day in the British Weekly, May 21st, 1896 (p.73):

‘On Wednesday morning, when, having finished with our Egyptian bundle, I was undoing the Palestine one, we had a visit from Mr. S. Schechter, University Reader in Talmudic, who came at my sister’s request to inspect these documents. It took very little trouble on his part to decide what each leaf was; one of the Egyptian bundle he pronounced to be part of the Jerusalem Talmud, of which very little is known to exist.’ 

The Jerusalem Talmud fragment that first piqued Schechter’s interest is now part of the Lewis-Gibson Collection (owned jointly by the Bodleian and Cambridge University Libraries since 2013), with the shelfmark L-G Talmud 2.4. It contains the text of Gittin 2-3, written on a large but flawed sheet of parchment, and can be dated to the 9th or 10th century CE. Syro-Palestinian traditions of Jewish worship and study were almost entirely forgotten until the discovery of the Genizah.

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