New Books on the Cairo Geniza By Peter Cole/Adina Hoffman and Mark Glickman:
What I Learned and What I Wish I Learned

By Bension Varon

The ‘Cairo Geniza’ refers to the plethora of manuscript fragments uncovered in the attic of the historic Ben Ezra synagogue in old Cairo at the close of the nineteenth century.  The synagogue has a fascinating history, but I shall focus here only on the contents of its Geniza. Two new books about the Geniza were published almost simultaneously in the United States in 2011.  They are, in order of publication:

The authors of the two books could not be more different.  Mark Glickman, the author of the first, is the rabbi of two congregations in Washington State and a speaker and writer on Judaism.  Hoffman and Cole, a couple, are better known, more diversified professionally, and with an academic foundation and orientation.  Adina Hoffman is an essayist and biographer; Peter Cole is a poet and linguist.  Together, they are co-founders and editors of Ibis Editions—a small press devoted to the dissemination of medieval and modern literature of the Middle East.  Both are well published and have been affiliated with several academic institutions, most recently Yale University.

The two books are broadly similar in coverage although not in audience or focus, as will become apparent.  They are comprehensive one-volume introductions to the Geniza.  The seeming contrast in the two titles—“Sacred Treasure” versus “Sacred Trash”—should not be interpreted as representing different assessments of worth.  The word “trash” in Hoffman/Cole’s title should be read as “discarded” rather than as worthless.

I have been aware since a young age of the Hebrew practice of burying old religious texts and objects in the ground.  In the Istanbul I grew up in my father was what one may call a community elder.  I remember his returning home wet one rainy Sunday morning and telling us that he had been to the cemetery where the elders had buried old Torah scrolls and books.  Reading the two books I mention was my first serious exposure to the subject.  Therefore, while I shall review the books below, I shall share mostly what I learned and what I wish I learned in the process.

Everything about the Cairo Geniza commands awe.  The following bare facts illustrate this.  The Geniza documents that have survived number more than 300,000 pages or fragments. The physical Geniza (the space) dates from about the 11th century AD.  However, some of the documents uncovered there are still older.  The oldest document found (or identified) is believed to be a 9th century ketuba. Not all Geniza documents originated in Cairo.  Many were brought from Palestine, Persia, Tunisia, Algeria, and as far away as Morocco for placement in the Cairo Geniza.  The documents are in nearly twenty different languages other than Hebrew, including: Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Persian, Judeo-Persian, Yiddish, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), a slew of Indian languages, and a still-undetermined language. The contents are not limited to ripped Torah scrolls and rotted Talmud pages, although these were the initial and primary objects of attention.  They include old business receipts, love letters, court documents, poems, letters from Jewish travelers, sermons, and discussions on mathematics, medicine, astrology, and more.

How and why did the Geniza, any geniza, come about?  The initial idea or intent was to preserve and protect (from defamation especially) the written name of God.  With time, this concern extended to anything written in Hebrew, which was considered a holy language, Lashon Hakodesh.  And then it came to cover practically anything written.  The significant expansion of what ended up in the Cairo Geniza over the past thousand years changed its character but not without benefits.  It did not take long for modern scholars to realize that the Geniza was a treasure trove of knowledge on medieval Jewish life and other subjects. 

The word geniza is considered to be (is treated as) a Hebrew word, although its Hebrew root is undetermined.  Glickman believes that the word derives from the Persian ganj, meaning treasury or storehouse.  Hoffman/Cole see a link to the Arabic [and Turkish] word for funeral, janeza [cenaze in Turkish], which derives from the same three-letter root implying “concealment.” Since writing the above and after reading the two books, Santos Mayo has informed me that geniza is indeed a Hebrew word.  According to the Hebrew dictionary by Reuben Alcalay (Jerusalem, 1963), it means keep, conceal, store, file away, and shelve, and it is derived from the verb lingoz (root G-N-Z).  The Cairo Geniza—this vehicle for storage and concealment—became itself concealed for a millennium.  This seems to be the aspect that has fascinated Geniza scholars the most.  Nearly two-thirds of both books reviewed here are devoted to how the Cairo Geniza came to light and to the efforts made since and still being made to bring its contents, too, to light.  This is to a significant extent understandable because the Geniza’s discovery had elements and characters from an Indiana Jones movie. The discovery saga included:

Not surprisingly, the stories of the Geniza’s ‘discovery’ which the two books tell are broadly similar, but the characters they focus on or seem the most sympathetic toward differ.  There is no disagreement, however, that the greatest credit for the Geniza’s coming to light belongs to Solomon Schechter.  Schechter was born in 1850 into a Chasidic family in a shtetl-like environment in Focsani, Romania.  He studied the Torah in Poland and Vienna and was ordained rabbi in 1879.  He was a scholar at heart.  After a circuitous route, by 1890, he was appointed to the faculty of Cambridge University as Reader in Rabbinics, at of all places Christ College.  He met the Giblew sisters in Cambridge and identified the fragment they had purchased in their recent trip to Cairo as belonging to the original, Hebrew Book of Ben Sirah, which became the key that unlocked the Geniza.

The Ben Sirah, which is also known as Ecclesiasticus, is a book of wisdom, sayings and moral/ethical teachings composed by Joshua Ben Sirah in Jerusalem during 180-200 BC.  Since some of its contents were considered controversial and even unethical, it was not included (canonized) in the Bible and was relegated, rather, to the Apocrypha.  Until Schechter’s time, the Ben Sirah’s known version was in Greek, dating from its translation into that language by Ben Sirah’s nephew in 132 BC.  Many scholars were convinced then that a Hebrew version of the Ben Sirah could not be found and may have never existed.  Schechter had long believed otherwise.  So, the Giblews’ Hebrew fragment of the book led him to the Cairo Geniza in 1896, the year that is considered the Geniza treasure’s discovery.

Of course, the existence of the Cairo Geniza was known outside Egypt as far back as the 17th century.  What we owe Schechter is the realization of the Geniza’s wealth and the transfer of its contents in 1897 to Cambridge University—a feat which required diplomacy, persuasion, charm, the effective use of financial reward, and above all patience, attributes which he had in abundance.    Schechter became quickly and deservedly quite well known and respected.  He was appointed president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1901 and moved there.  He continued working on the documents he had uncovered despite the attention that his challenging job at the JTS required.  He passed away in New York in 1915.  Throughout his life Schechter was every bit as colorful as some of the characters I described earlier and left a far bigger mark.  He was, among other things, a founder or advocate of Conservative Judaism.

Exploration of what Schechter uncovered in that silo-like storeroom of Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue intensified over the nearly one hundred years since his death—first by the many people he interested in the subject, and then by successive generations of scholars.  It would be unfair to single out individual scholars for their contributions, for every scholar’s work opened up new alleys and windows for others.  But in terms of the length of his sustained interest, diversity of his background (doctor of Islamic/Arabic Studies), richness of his publications, followers and disciples, and academic affiliation (Hebrew University, University of Pennsylvania, and Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University), one person stands out.  He is Bavarian-born Shlomo Dov Goitein (1900-1985).  His life’s work was A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, published in eight volumes under different names (some posthumously) between 1967 and 1988.  The mammoth work is rich with information about Jews as well as non-Jews.

As mentioned, the extant Cairo Geniza documents amount to nearly 300,000 pages or fragments.  About two-thirds of these are at the Cambridge University Library in a special collection called The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Unit headed by Stefan C. Reif, a Scottish-Jewish scholar.  Another 46,000, the second largest group, are found in three other British libraries.1 And the next largest, some 30,000, is at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary where Schechter spent his last years.  The remainder is spread over nearly fifty collections all over the world, not counting those in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev, which have not been inventoried.  A leaf from the Geniza is believed to be in the hands of the Alliance Israëlite Universelle, although I am not familiar with its provenance. Three things are notable about the current geographic location of the documents: only about 600, or a mere two percent, are in Israel; none remain in Egypt; and 51 can be seen in the Washington, D.C. area, where I write, namely at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery.  The largest collection near Washington is at the library of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where Prof. Goitein taught from 1957 to 1971.2

A prime concern of all the scholars working on the Geniza over the years has been the challenge of cataloging the mountain of documents in order to increase their accessibility and facilitate their use—a challenge which remains unmet to this day.  There is, however, room to be optimistic about it, thanks to Albert Friedberg, a French-born wealthy Canadian businessman and philanthropist.  An orthodox Jew who recognized the Geniza’s importance, he has founded and funded the Friedberg Geniza Project which aims to inventory and digitize all Geniza documents wherever they exist—a monumental task, given the technical, organizational and financial challenges involved. The work is nevertheless ongoing and making steady progress.

There seem to be two reasons why the two recent books on the Geniza devote so much more space to the Geniza’s discovery than to its contents.  One is that, by one estimate, only 15 percent of the 300,000 documents have been properly studied to date.  Second is the sheer volume, even of the documents so studied, which defies covering in a book.  To get a true picture of the magnitude, one should note that a large portion, thousands, of the Geniza documents consist of palimpsests, or recycled bits of manuscripts.  Given the scarcity of parchment and other writing supplies, it was common practice centuries ago to write over existing text.  The old text often reappeared (became readable) with time.  The Geniza treasure is, thus, potentially richer than the number of the manuscripts suggests.  One is, therefore, forced to be selective in discussing the Geniza’s contents.  Glickman was fascinated by the Ben Sirah, mirroring Schechter’s own fascination with it which led him to uncover more of its Hebrew original in the rubble.  Hoffman and Cole focused some of their attention, rather, on the poetry of Yannai—a 6th century AD Hebrew poet and one of the earliest composers of a form of Hebrew verse called piyyut.   Some 300 such piyyutim were discovered in the Geniza, many of them in palimpsests.  Cole, a poet himself, displays a close affinity for and appreciation of Yannai’s work.

In explaining why the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in a cave in Qumran have traditionally drawn more attention than the Geniza treasure, Glickman makes the point that whereas the Dead Sea Scrolls were the product of an ascetic sect, known as the Essenes, and had place and time-specific common themes, the Geniza documents are all over the place, so-to-speak, which complicates the task of writing about them.

The Geniza is, nevertheless, known to allow gem-like findings, depending on one’s background and interests.  As a Sephardi, the most fascinating thing for me has been learning that among the Geniza documents are several manuscripts (decisions, letters, etc.) written or signed by Maimonides.  Also in the Geniza is a letter addressed to him by his brother David from Aydhab, a town near the Egyptian-Sudanese border—a transit point for trade between northern Egypt and India.  David Maimonides was a merchant who often made that desert-sea route and perished at sea shortly after writing that letter.  The Egypt-India trade was so important and so well documented in the Geniza that Prof. Goitein wrote about it at length in a so-called “India Book” which was published posthumously (2007) as Indian Traders of the Middle Ages, and which is of particular interest to me as an economist.  Also of particular interest are: (i) the many versions of the so-called Palestinian Haggadah discovered in the Geniza, which have small but nevertheless intriguing differences from the version we use, such as the substitution of the passage called The Four Questions, by three questions; (ii) evidence of the strong symbiosis, rather than enmity, that existed for centuries between Arabs and Jews; and (iii) confirmation of the strong but non-monolithic role of ‘tradition’ among Jews and of the dynamic evolution of liturgical practices, for example, from the completion of the reading of the Torah over a period of three years centuries ago to the one year cycle we are used to.

As far as I could determine, the Geniza has not revealed any unexpected findings about the evolution of our faith.  But only a fraction of the treasure has been studied to date.

The two books reviewed here cover to a large extent and unavoidably the same ground, which is unfortunate.  Given their nearly simultaneous publication, the interested reader and Geniza scholar would have been better off if one of the books had covered the discovery of the Geniza and the other its contents.  The books are addressed to different audiences.  The Glickman volume is akin to an introductory text, almost for teaching purposes and aimed at the general public.  The Hoffman/Cole treatise is more advanced and aimed at a more knowledgeable, erudite readership.  Yet, and maybe for that reason, Glickman’s book is superior in clarity and absorbability and, on the whole, more satisfying.  Given the high professional credentials of Hoffman and Cole, there may be two reasons for this comparative outcome.  First, Glickman’s book covers less ground and in a more systematic, simpler and chronological way.  Hoffman/Cole’s thematic and sub-thematic approach is confusing partly because of the multiple ideas and themes explored.  This, I venture to suggest, may be due to the book’s joint authorship.  While Hoffman and Cole no doubt complemented each other, enriching the analysis, they may have also over-stimulated each other so-to-speak and over-extended the analysis. Second, the Hoffman/Cole book struck me as seriously reader-unfriendly.  It has roughly forty pages of endnotes. The book, moreover, contains sixty-plus illustrations without any title or explanation next to them, the captions appearing seriatim at the end of the book.  Finally, the book has no index, which would have been particularly called for in a loaded non-fiction book of this nature.  

In the preceding pages I have summarized what I have learned personally about the Cairo Geniza from the two books, as I stated in the title of this review.  What I wish I learned is similarly personal, that is, shaped equally by my interests and background.  To start with, I cannot ignore the parallelism between burying a person—returning him/her to earth—and burying sacred documents.  As a descendant from a line of rabbis, I am curious to learn about the burial act in the latter case.  What prayer is recited--a kaddish or equivalent--when burying sacred texts and objects?  Can or do women participate?  I also wonder whether other religions/sects have similar practices. For example, what do Muslims do with old Qurans?

Geniza-like attics were intended as ‘holding areas’ to keep old sacred documents until they were buried in a cemetery, which was the final destination, especially in cases when the cemetery was too far or the weather too inclement.  How can one explain the failure to abide by this requirement for a thousand years?  How and why did generations of well-meaning Jews keep piling up documents without bothering to bury them?  What were the contemporary rabbis thinking?  As a Sephardi, I would also have loved to learn more about Maimonides’ manuscripts, especially his religious rulings, written in his own hand.  Moreover, Hoffman/Cole state that the Geniza contained some documents in Ladino.  I would have loved to know the period they date from and seen a sample.

Prof. Goitein’s eight-volume work on the Jewish communities of the medieval age, based on the Geniza documents, is as fascinating for a Jew as Ferdinand Braudel’s colossal work on the Mediterranean world at a later age.  Given the forbidding length of Goitein’s opus, I would have loved to learn at least something about his main findings.

 Finally, I cannot help associating the words document, parchment, antiquity, Cairo and Egypt with the New Alexandria Library, inheritor of the library which predated the Geniza.  I was struck when examining, in Glickman’s book, the page-long list of the libraries where Geniza documents are found, not to come across the Alexandria Library.  I know the reason: no Geniza documents are left in Egypt.  I am not suggesting that Egypt or the Alexandria library has a claim on any of the Geniza documents. I am merely advancing that Arab scholars should perhaps take part in studying the Geniza documents, many of which are in Arabic and date from a period when Jewish and Arab scholars collaborated fruitfully, as in old Sefarad.

1 Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, and the British Library in London.

2 I overlapped with Prof. Goitein during 1960-1964, without realizing it, since I was studying economics and had not even heard of the Cairo Geniza.

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