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Dear Maimonides

The statue of Maimonides in Cordova, Spain.   Photo: Nicolas Vollmer Courtesy of

Imagine looking at the very page from The Guide for the Perplexed written by Maimonides almost 2000 years ago. Imagine reading a family letter written to Maimonides by his brother David, just before the latter drowned on a trading voyage about the year 1168.

These are just two of the amazing documents I had the privilege of viewing on a visit to the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit at the Cambridge University Library. Although the vellum on which Maimonides wrote is now brown with age, the writing, in phonetic Arabic in the Hebrew alphabet, is still perfectly clear. And the story it tells is thrilling.

Dr Gabriele Ferrario, Research Associate, who is working on Hebrew and Judaeo-Arabic material in the Geniza fragments, explained that Maimonides's brother was a trader who supported the whole family and enabled Maimonides to carry on with his studies. David wrote the letter to say that he had safely completed a dangerous caravan trip and was now about to embark on a trip to India with his goods. And that was the last his family heard from him.

As Dr Ferrario placed David's last letter on the table in front of me, I found it hard to believe what I was seeing. Truly living history!

This is what Maimonides subsequently wrote in a document (which I didn't see) also found in the Geniza: "The greatest misfortune that has befallen me during my entire life—worse than anything else—was the demise of the saint, may his memory be blessed, who drowned in the Indian sea, carrying much money belonging to me, him, and to others, and left with me a little daughter and a widow. On the day I received that terrible news I fell ill and remained in bed for about a year, suffering from a sore boil, fever, and depression, and was almost given up. About eight years have passed, but I am still mourning and unable to accept consolation. And how should I console myself? He grew up on my knees, he was my brother, [and] he was my student."

The story of the rediscovery of the Cairo Geniza is thrilling in its own right.

A Geniza is a repository for discarded texts that can't be destroyed, because they bear holy words. The word means "hoard" or "hidden treasure." There are many Geniza hoards all over the world, but none like the one in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fostat, Old Cairo, where not only holy works, but hundreds of thousands of scraps of all kind were tossed into a room over the centuries, undisturbed. Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, who wrote the fascinating book Sacred Trash: the Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza call it "a kind of holy junk heap."

The stash contained not only prayer books and bibles, but also contracts and bills, poetry, amulets, shop inventories, legal responsa, magic incantations, love potions – what have you. Some 193,000 manuscript fragments were tossed into a windowless closet-sized space on the second floor of the synagogue, behind a wall in the women's section. There they remained, a window to every aspect of medieval life in the then most prosperous Jewish community in the world, largely preserved by the dry Egyptian air, until their rediscovery in 1896.

The wonder is not just that the material was preserved and discovered after 900 years, but that it was discovered by people who recognized its importance.

The story of the rediscovery of the majority of the documents of the Cairo Geniza begins with two eccentric English sisters, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson. They weren't actually the very first to find the Geniza; other people through the years had also found bits and pieces, and some scraps were sold by dealers, but their discovery was the key to subsequent scholarship. The sisters both had a passion for travel, photography and ancient documents. On a trip to Cairo in 1896, they bought a bundle of old documents from a dealer. Some they recognized as being from the Old Testament, but they had no idea what others were. When they returned home to Cambridge, they asked their good friend Dr. Solomon Schechter, who was Reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge, if he could identify the mysterious fragments.

As Margaret remarked, "I noticed that his eyes were glittering." No wonder. One fragment, Schechter suspected, was the original Hebrew of the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (also known as Ben Sira) which had been missing for a thousand years. 

Dr. Solomon Schechter: Asked if he could identify the mysterious fragments.   Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Schechter then conceived a secret plan to retrieve more of the precious material in the Geniza. He scrounged the money to travel to Cairo from his friend and patron, Dr Charles Taylor, Master of St. John's College, Cambridge and embarked on his adventure. Once in Cairo, after charming the rabbi of the Ben Ezra synagogue and paying hefty "bakshish" to all and sundry, he was allowed carte blanche to take from the Geniza as much as he liked.

"Now as a matter of fact," Schechter wrote, "I liked it all." Over the next month, working in the dust and insect-infected air of the Geniza, he packed most of it up and sent it back to Cambridge.

Today, about 70% of the world's Cairo Geniza material is in Cambridge. Among the things scholars have discovered from the material are knowledge of social, economic and religious life in the Near Eastern Jewish communities of the 11th to 13th centuries – a golden age for Jewry; knowledge of how Jewish law developed; texts by famous scholars and poets such as Yehuda HaLevi; early texts of Midrash and Talmud; Jewish literary, musical and scientific documents and much more.

There are previously undiscovered piyyutim (religious poetry), unfamiliar versions of the Hagaddah (in one of which there are two questions instead of four in the Ma Nishtana; in others, five) and a wealth of information about the Karaite sect.

Some fragments are amusing to us today, such as one in which the writer moans about the local rabbi: a scribe writes from Ramla to a colleague in Egypt with complaints that the rabbi's overbearing manner is alienating his congregants who are switching to another congregation. Sound familiar?

Also familiar is a letter in Yiddish (yes, there are Yiddish documents in the Geniza, probably written by Ashkenazi visitors to Egypt) from a 16th century mother in Jerusalem to her son in Cairo, in which she urges him to write home more and writes, "Don't worry my son. I always ask God that you not be sick and that I suffer in your stead…" Ah, those universal Jewish mothers!

By the mid 20th century it had become clear that the various bits and pieces had to be placed in relation to one another. Scholarship has also focused on inventory, preservation, conservation and creation of a comprehensive database. Scraps can now be identified by computer face recognition, so that pieces written in the same hand can be fitted together like jigsaw puzzles. The Friedberg Genizah Project, which aims to inventory and digitize every scrap, was started in 1999. Many catalogues and bibliographies have been created.

More than a century on, it's clear that much work still remains to be done, and no doubt, doctoral students will be busy with this treasure trove for at least the next 100 years. 



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