A Jewish Archive from Old CairoThe first Dead Sea Scroll was not found, as the famous story has it, in the caves of Qumran in 1947 by a Bedouin boy who threw a stone and heard the clink of breaking pottery. Rather it was discovered in the genizah (the storeroom for old Hebrew manuscripts) of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, Old Cairo, by the Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter, who published it in 1910. Though he did not know it at the time, Schechter had come across a medieval copy of a work that would later be discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls and would come to be called the Damascus Document. The Cairo Genizah revolutionized Biblical studies and our knowledge of Second Temple, Rabbinic and medieval Judaism. Now, finally, a comprehensive study, focused primarily on the largest of the Cairo Genizah collections, that of Cambridge University, is available.

As the director of the Genizah Research Unit and Head of the Oriental Division at the University Library, University of Cambridge, Stefan Reif is most qualified to present this intriguing study of these Genizah materials, which have resided for about a century at Cambridge. Reif describes both the value of these medieval manuscripts in many areas of research as well as the story of their acquisition, preservation and cataloging at the university. Although he concentrates on the fate of the collection at Cambridge and the colorful figures who worked with it over the years, he also alludes to the collections in Oxford, Paris, New York, London and St. Petersburg and the rivalry among the great libraries that all sought to acquire these fragments at the end of the 19th century. There are about a quarter of a million such fragments in a dozen libraries and collections worldwide.
The documents in the Cairo Genizah were collected over a period of nearly 1,000 years. Its earliest manuscripts, dating to the 11th to 13th centuries C.E., lay untouched for hundreds of years. When the Islamic Empire conquered the Byzantine Christians in Egypt in the seventh century, the Arabs built a capital city in Fustat, at the head of the Nile Delta. For three centuries it was the economic and political center of Egypt, but Fustat began to decline in about 969 C.E., when the Fatimid dynasty relocated their capital to Cairo several miles away. Nevertheless, during the Fatimid period, which lasted until 1171, Fustat remained a commercial center and was home to a thriving Jewish community that included many immigrants from the Holy Land and North Africa. There were synagogues of Iraqi, Palestinian and Karaite Jews, and they kept in touch with other Jews in Babylon, North Africa and the Holy Land.

The Ben Ezra Synagogue was built in the tenth century with its now-famous genizah, a storage room for old, worn-out sacred texts and valuable documents. The Cairo Genizah preserved not only sacred texts, like the Bible, Talmud and prayer books, but also everyday documents relating to the Jews, such as poetry, letters, contracts, grammar books and literature in Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin and Greek, even some documents in Yiddish. Of particular note for Bible studies are the Genizah’s numerous early Biblical manuscripts, Aramaic translations and Biblical commentaries, as well as palimpsests (previously used writing materials that had been erased to be reused) that provide evidence of ancient Greek translations of the Bible.

By the end of the 19th century, Genizah manuscripts made their way to the West. Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, two Scottish sisters with a background in Old Testament Hebrew and Syriac studies, had hunted for manuscripts in Egypt and found the first known copy of the original Hebrew text of Ben Sira, an apocryphal work also called Ecclesiasticus. Before the sisters’ discovery, Ben Sira had been known only in translation. Solomon Schechter, Reader in Talmud at Cambridge (and later president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York), identified the Ben Sira text based on the existing Greek translation and argued that these manuscripts represented parts of the lost Hebrew original. For years a battle raged over whether the Genizah fragments of Ben Sira represented the ancient Hebrew text or not. Ben Sira, in Hebrew, was later discovered by Yigael Yadin in the ruins of Masada in the 1960s, proving Schechter was right.

Schechter undertook his own journey to Cairo in search of further treasures. His successful visit eventually resulted in the transferal of the bulk of the Cairo Genizah collection to Cambridge University Library into what is now called the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit.
A good part of Reif’s book, A Jewish Archive from Old Cairo, explains the contents of the Genizah documents and how they provide a mine of information on the medieval Jewish communities of the Mediterranean. Readers of BAR will be most interested in the Genizah’s Biblical texts and in texts later found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Some 50 years before scrolls were discovered in caves on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, Schechter was already examining the laws and the theology of the sect that composed the Dead Sea Scrolls. With the publication of the Qumran manuscripts of the Damascus Document by Joseph Baumgarten in 1996, the accuracy of the medieval copies found in the Cairo Genizah, known as CD or the Cairo Damascus Document, was confirmed, but the Dead Sea Scroll text was shown to contain more halakhic (Jewish legal) material than CD. We now know that the Damascus Document represents the Sadducean trend in Jewish law, as do a “halakhic letter” (4QMMT) and the Temple Scroll from the Dead Sea caves.

A thousand years more recent than the Biblical manuscripts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Genizah materials allow us to view the state of the Biblical text and its manner of transmission during the medieval period. From the Genizah we learn, for example, that there were three major vowel systems for Hebrew. Although Hebrew Bible texts differed little in the medieval period, final standardization was achieved only in the 16th century with the advent of printing.

From midrashim (Rabbinic expansion on the Bible) and lectionary lists in the Genizah we learn that Palestinian synagogues maintained a three-year cycle of public readings of the Five Books of Moses rather than the annual cycle that originated in Babylonia. Syriac and Greek Old and New Testaments on vellum or parchment were acquired as secondhand writing material and written over by Jewish scribes; one can read both the Jewish document and the underlying Christian Bible. In addition, the Genizah contains many fragments of Targum (translations of the Bible into Aramaic), and from them we have recovered parts of a Palestinian Targum.

Throughout the volume, Reif brings out fascinating details from the Genizah discoveries, and their surprises. He gives examples as diverse as a Haggadah, which informs us of the medieval customs of Passover observance and helps us reconstruct the history of this popular family celebration, a prayer for the caliph and the poignant personal stories of split families as recorded in their letters. He explains how the Genizah permitted the recovery of personalities and places that had long faded into obscurity. Reif presents his material with a sense of humor and in a lively style. The “guides to reading” at the end of each chapter and the beautiful color illustrations open to readers the vast world of the Genizah and its modern research. This volume concentrates on the role of Cambridge University in Genizah studies and contains much history on the Cambridge Library. While a case could be made for a wider study of the Genizah collections worldwide, Reif writes about the collection he knows best. Through the eye of one repository, he has given us a view of this magnificent medieval archive.