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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 058-145-E
Division Number: VII
Professional Group: Library History
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 145
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No  

The Cairo Genizah: a Medieval Mediterranean deposit and a modern Cambridge Archive

Stefan C. Reif
Genizah Research Unit
Cambridge University Library
Cambridge, UK


For almost 2,000 years, it has been customary in Rabbinic Judaism to set aside a depository (genizah) into which could be consigned Hebrew texts that had to be removed from circulation. The famous Cairo Genizah was amassed mainly between the tenth and thirteenth centuries and sheds light on all aspects of medieval oriental life. Most of its fragmentary manuscripts are preserved at Cambridge University Library and they provide unique information about relations between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Crusader period. The history of the Cambridge Genizah collection, since its acquisition over 100 years ago, is almost as remarkable as its contents.


Amassing the Genizah

The earliest occurrences in Hebrew literature of the root gnz, from which the word genizah is derived, are in late sections of the Hebrew Bible, where it refers to the storage of valuable items. The root, of Persian origin, is attested not only in Hebrew and Aramaic but also more widely in Semitics, with the meanings of hide, cover and bury. In the rabbinic literature of the first few Christian centuries, it carries similar senses and is used to describe special treasures stored away by God, such as the Torah and the souls of the righteous. In Jewish religious law, which proscribes the obliteration of the name of God on the basis of its interpretation of Exodus 20:7 and Deuteronomy 12:4, genizah describes the removal from circulation of some item that is or has at some stage been regarded as sacred, whether legitimately or illicitly, and is now ruled inappropriate for ritual use. Such items may include controversial religious texts, materials once used in worship, capricious transcriptions of the four-letter Hebrew name of God (tetragrammaton), or artifacts about whose sacred status there is unresolvable doubt. As Jewish law developed and synagogal ritual became more institutionalized, it became customary for communities to set aside a bet genizah, or simply genizah, into which could be consigned Hebrew Bible texts that were damaged or worn, as well as other Hebraica, including works regarded as heretical, that contained biblical verses or references to God. There they would await the natural process of disintegration.

In Antiquity and in the early medieval period, it is likely that genizot, or what would in todays world constitute precious archival collections, were amassed in many areas of Jewish settlement. It appears that some communities made matters secure by burying the unwanted texts in the ground, while others removed them to caves or tombs, sometimes storing them first in suitable vessels. It is even possible that the Qumran (or, Dead Sea) Scrolls represent just such a genizah. Sadly, however, the survival rate of such genizot has not proved impressive, the ravages of time and climate on the one hand and the vicissitudes of Jewish history on the other either ensuring a return to dust, or denying later generations adequate knowledge of where a search might even commence. Fortunately, however, in the case of medieval Cairo (=Fustat), the first stage of consignment into the synagogue genizah appears not to have been followed by removal to a cave or burial place, with the result that the study of Jewish history and literature has been greatly enriched.

The long survival of the Jewish community on the same site in Fustat; the dry climate of Egypt; the central importance of the city to Muslim and Jewish history for a number of centuries; and the reluctance of the Jewish communal leaders to take any action in the matter of its genizah, other than to expand its contents with all forms of the written word all these factors contributed to the survival there of a collection of some 210,000 fragmentary Jewish texts that is at least as significant as the Qumran Scrolls. Generation after generation appear to have arranged the collection from homes and institutions in and around Cairo of texts that were no longer to be circulated, and thousands of them were consigned to the genizah of the Ben Ezra synagogue.

In a move that was to make its collection unique in terms of world culture and history, the community of Fustat chose to preserve much of the written word that passed through its hands, regardless of its religious status. There thus came to be amassed all manner of ephemera that had more to do with the daily activities of ordinary folk than with the ideology of rabbis and scholars. In an age that certainly predated the concern for the preservation of archives, the explanation for their behaviour may be that they saw Hebrew letters, or even any texts written by or about Jews, as either intrinsically sacred, or bearing a degree of holiness because of the frequent occurrence there of references to God, the Hebrew Bible or other religious subjects. The peak of this archival activity, if it may anachronistically be described as such, was reached between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, precisely when the community reached the zenith of its social, economic and cultural achievements.

Some texts from what became known as the Cairo Genizah were sold by synagogue officials to dealers and visitors in the second half of the nineteenth century. Famous libraries in St Petersburg, Paris, London, Oxford, New York and Philadelphia acquired major collections but it was Solomon Schechter who obtained communal permission to remove 140,000 items to Cambridge University Library in 1897. The Genizah texts are written in various languages especially Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic mainly on vellum and paper, but also on papyrus and cloth. They represent the most important discovery of new material for every aspect of scientific Hebrew and Jewish studies in the Middle Ages. As a result of the conservation, decipherment and description done for over a century, but particularly in recent years and at Cambridge, previous ignorance has been dispelled and theories drastically modified. Among the subjects that have benefited substantially are the emergence of Hebrew grammatical systems; the development of synagogal lectionaries and of translations and interpretations of the Hebrew Bible; and the literary history of such sectarian works as the Damascus Document and Ben Sira. Major impacts have also been made on the textual and exegetical study of Talmudic, Midrashic, liturgical and poetic literature, and on the evolution of Jewish religious law. Knowledge and understanding of Karaism, of Fatimid Egypt and Crusader Palestine, of special Jewish languages such as Judaeo-Arabic, and of daily activities in the Mediterranean area have also expanded greatly.

The early Hebrew codex

It is important to note that it was a change in how Jewish culture was transmitted in the early medieval period that led to these literary achievements. Although the number of complete Hebrew codices that have survived from the ninth and tenth centuries is still only in single figures and their content predominantly biblical, the evidence of the Genizah leaves little room for doubt that many of its fragments originally belonged to codices of various types of literature. The Hebrew codex apparently made its appearance in the eighth century, perhaps under the influence of Islam, which had borrowed the medium from the Christian and Classical worlds. The contents of scrolls were copied on to bound volumes (codices), to which later generations added their own notes. Such codices began as no more than a few folded leaves but eventually evolved into substantial volumes with many folios. By being committed to a written form in these codices, oral traditions acquired a new degree of authority. The centralization of the Jewish community under Islam and the high degree of literacy made possible the wide distribution and acceptance of such texts.

Where there are sets of volumes, there is inevitably a need to store and exchange them. It has indeed recently been demonstrated that in the Jewish communities of North Africa in the ninth and tenth centuries texts were being widely copied and circulated and that extensive libraries, covering various languages, were being amassed and sold. Such libraries included not only the classical Jewish sources but also the newest commentaries on the one hand and more general learning on the other. They were actively built up by individuals, sometimes businessmen rather than specialized scholars, and by communities, through gifts, appeals and purchases, and they were made available for academic use by students and for ritual use by congregants. By creating, copying and disseminating the contents of these libraries, the Maghrebi Jews of means introduced a wide variety of literary works to other communities and thereby exercised a powerful influence on the levels of Jewish cultural achievement.

The impressive contents of the Cairo Genizah are in no small degree due to the arrival there of many Jewish refugees from Tunisia and to the transfer of the bibliographical riches of the North African communities to the Egyptian centre. Book-lists are also a common feature of the Genizah discoveries and demonstrate the existence of reference literature for educational activities by the community. Bibles, prayer books, talmudic texts and commentaries, Jewish legal and theological tracts, as well as scientific, medical and philosophical works, are among the items that are regularly listed, sometimes in the context of a public sale. It is remarkable that a bibliophile, who was having a book-case made, prepared a delightful text in praise of such an item of furniture and its educational importance, with the apparent intention of having it engraved on the front. Equally remarkable is the fact that when the Egyptian Jewish community raised funds in the twelfth century for the ransom of Jews who had been captured by Crusaders in the Holy Land, they also made arrangements to pay the conquerors for the safe return of Jewish books.

Muslims, Christians and Jews

Given the dominant Islamic environment in which they lived, it is not surprising to find that Arabic language played a major role in Jewish life and that Jews built and furnished houses, wore fashionable jewellery, and pursued general commercial and cultural interests much in the same way as their Muslim neighbours. They even visited each others homes on the occasion of religious festivals. The interchange of religious ideas sometimes produced parallel developments, as, for instance, in the matter of the adoption of mystical ideas similar to those of the Sufis, while at others it created an opposite reaction, as, for example, in the defence of Jewish interpretation of Scripture or Jewish religious philosophy against non-Jewish challenges.

As far as their status in Islamic society was concerned, Jews and Christians were dhimmi peoples, that is, tolerated monotheistic minorities living under the protection of Islam, and as long as they agreed not to give offence to Muslims by any pretence at equality, they could, when the Muslim rulers tended towards tolerance, enjoy a reasonably good lifestyle. The Jews simply paid their special poll-tax, wore their distinctive Jewish clothes, built no synagogues higher than mosques, and went about their ordinary business. There were occasionally times when rulers decided to take a maximalist position. A national leader might object to the existence of all non-Muslim houses of worship; local leaders might ban Jewish ritual slaughter, demand more taxes, or refuse access to water wells. In the reign of the Fatimid caliph, al-Hakim (9961021), the Jews of Cairo compiled a chronicle (megillat misrayim) in which they praised him for saving them from the mob and from judicial execution on tax charges but it was that same ruler who ordered the destruction of all the synagogues and churches, and whose troops engaged in an orgy of murder, rape and plunder in Cairo and Damascus. Generally, however, a productive blending of various cultures was the dominant theme, particularly during the Fatimid period, from the tenth to the twelfth centuries.

It is now clear that Muslims, Christians and Jews in the East did not live intellectually ghettoized lives. They were aware of each others texts and traditions, sometimes recording these in their own languages and literatures, and at other times subjecting them to criticism and even derision. In a religious debate with Rabbanites and Karaites conducted at the end of the tenth century, the Fatimid vizier, Ya`qub ibn Killis, a convert from Judaism to Islam, cited the content of the prayer-book of Sa`adya ben Joseph in order to heap ridicule on the Jewish liturgy. Although there was the occasional romantic tryst between a man and woman of different religious allegiance, intermarriage was not a phenomenon of the time. Conversion, however, certainly was. Just as in Christian Europe, there were Jews who were so anxious to climb the social and political ladder that they felt constrained to convert to the dominant faith. Some of them made life difficult for their former co-religionists while others retained a certain sympathy for them, even engaging them in religious dialogues. But the movement was not always in one direction and there are accounts of Muslim and Christian anger at conversions to Judaism. The records of rabbinical courts make reference to approaches made by non-Jews wishing to throw in their religious lot with the Jews. As was the talmudic custom, they were initially rebuffed but there were a number, some of them women, who were determined enough to repeat their applications until they were finally accepted and even married into the Jewish community. One convert missed only one thing from his former life the Jews could not make bread like the non-Jews!

Jews in Palestine

The Genizah discoveries have illuminated what were once the dark expanses of Palestinian Jewish history and revealed how the Jews of the homeland conducted their personal, public and intellectual lives in the centuries immediately before and after the Crusader invasion that began in 1099. It turns out that the Jews were encouraged to resettle Jerusalem after the Arab conquest of the seventh century and that, despite the difficult economic conditions and political upheavals brought about by competing Muslim claims to the territory, communities grew and flourished. Fragments relate to Ramla as the capital city and to the havoc wreaked there by the terrible earthquake of 1033, to Tyre and Acre as busy sea ports, to Tiberias as a centre of Torah and textiles, and to Ashkelon as a particularly strong fortress. It was perhaps as a result of the earthquake that part of the synagogal premises of the Palestinian Jews in Ramla was still in a state of ruin in 1039. To obtain funding for repairs and maintenance, the leaders leased part of the property to a private individual, Sedaqah, son of Yefet, at an annual rental of half a gold piece. There were of course even more miserable times. During the first half of the eleventh century, for instance, letters refer to the battles between Bedouin insurgents and the Fatimid rulers and provide gruesome details of the robbery, rape and crippling overtaxation.

Later, Jews fought alongside Muslims in a desperate effort to defend the Holy Land against the Christian attacks and, when they failed, those unable to flee suffered massacres or capture. As some eye-witness accounts relate, major fund-raising efforts had to be made in other Jewish centres to pay the ransoms demanded by some Christians for the release of Jewish prisoners. Those who did escape made their way northwards to the cities of the Lebanese coast or southwards to Egypt and many documents testify to their resilience in maintaining their traditions and their identity for two or three centuries. Contrary to what was previously thought, there was a significant Jewish presence in Palestine during the Crusader kingdom. Although only a few Jews lived in and around Jerusalem, there were active and sometimes even prosperous communities in the other cities. Following the recapture of the Holy City by Saladin in 1187, Jews rebuilt their community there and, although their situation remained precarious, they were strengthened by the arrival of immigrants from western Europe. The deteriorating situation in England and France in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, coupled with the spiritual attractions of settlement in the land of Israel, encouraged a number of eminent rabbis and their flocks to make this ideological emigration, or `aliyah.

The twentieth century

We may now turn from medieval Egypt to modern Cambridge. Since more than a hundred years have passed since Solomon Schechter brought back his famous hoard of Hebrew manuscripts, we may now take stock of the achievements of each generation of librarians and scholars. The century may be divided into five fairly self-evident periods. The first, that of Schechter and his contemporaries, was undoubtedly enthusiastic and industrious and the foundations were laid for much subsequent research. The University Librarian was highly co-operative and much involved in arranging the conservation and research and a team of scholars and librarians set to work on about 30,000 items (the Old Series) in the Collection. There was then a steady move away from institutional interest to individual research and while Cambridge University Library concentrated on other work and on surviving the First World War and the Depression, the centre of Genizah research moved elsewhere, in one case taking some 251 borrowed fragments temporarily with it! A binders assistant was the only one at the University Library with any significant knowledge of the Genizah material and one of the librarians even suggested that the remaining 110,000 pieces should have been burnt years earlier. In the years just before and just after the Second World War, the oriental staff situation improved and this led to more interest in the Genizah material, with individual scholars and consolidated research projects making the running and attempts even being made by some Library staff to keep an account of the growing number of publications about the Genizah manuscripts. These efforts, to a large extent inspired by the expansion of academic Jewish studies in the newly established State of Israel, culminated in the great expansion of the 1950s inspired by S. D. Goitein, and the sorting of over 40,000 fragments in the New Series. The Faculty of Oriental Studies and the University Library formally recommended in 1960 that funds be sought for the appointment of a mature scholar as an Under-Librarian who would arrange for the sorting, identification and cataloguing of the Collection; and would record all published work relating to it. He would also arrange for visiting scholars to contribute their areas of expertise to the cataloguing programme; and would initiate and manage a plan that would bring credit to the University and to its Library and...would be a signal service to Hebrew scholarship. Insufficient funding was forthcoming for the complete project but it did prove possible in 1965 to appoint the first full-time librarian with responsibility for the Cambridge Genizah material who also dealt with queries and visitors, and began to catalogue the biblical fragments. Additional boxes were appended to the New Series, the microfilming project made good progress, material was added to the Librarys record of its published Genizah items, and the steady stream of researchers working on the Collection continued unabated. Even more importantly, a project was commenced properly to conserve some of the Collection.

The final period, that of the past twenty-seven years, has seen its own special developments. Since 1973, a fully comprehensive programme of work on the Collection has been conducted in the context of a newly created Genizah Research Unit. The remaining thirty-two crates of unclassified material were sorted in 1974 and 1975 into the Additional Series under a variety of subject headings. With the assistance of external funding, the microfilming and conservation of all 140,000 fragments was completed in 1981. A busy team of researchers catalogued about 65,000 fragments, and some 50,000 published references to Cambridge Genizah items were located and published, with the help of a special computer program. Cambridge University Press joined forces with Cambridge University Library to publish twelve volumes in the newly established Genizah Series. Young researchers, visiting scholars, international co-operative projects and major exhibitions became features of the Units work. Over #1.3m was raised from outside sources in support of the Units projects and information about Genizah research was conveyed to the wider public through a regular newsletter Genizah Fragments, the media, and the Internet.


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