Sacred Trash
February 26, 2015 9:19 AM   Subscribe

The Holy Junk Heap: In 1896, a cache of manuscripts -- mostly fragments -- was discovered in the storeroom ("genizah") at the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. The collection outlines a 1,000-year continuum (870 CE to the 19th century) of Jewish Middle-Eastern and North African history and comprises the largest and most diverse collection of medieval manuscripts in the world, including Jewish religious texts such as Biblical, Talmudic and later Rabbinic works (some in the original hands of the authors), "letters, wills, bills of lading, prayers, marriage contracts and writs of divorce, Bibles, money orders, court depositions, business inventories, leases, magic charms and receipts" which give a detailed picture of the economic and cultural life of the North African and Eastern Mediterranean regions, especially during the 10th to 13th centuries.

What's a Genizah?
According to Jewish tradition, sacred texts must be buried, not destroyed. A genizah (or geniza; Hebrew: גניזה "storage"; plural: genizot or genizoth or genizahs) is a storage area in a Jewish synagogue or cemetery designated for the temporary storage of worn-out Hebrew-language books and papers on religious topics prior to proper cemetery burial. The Jewish Encyclopedia has more.

The Genizah Documents
* Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit. High-resolution images and detailed descriptions of more than 17,000 Genizah fragments with hundreds of new fragments uploaded each month. They also offer a fragment of the month highlight.
Audio: "Life in Fragments: Stories from the Cairo Genizah", a 5-episode series for BBC Radio 3's 'The Essay'. The show features five researchers from Cambridge offering a personal take on life in Medieval Cairo.

* The Princeton Geniza Project. See document transcriptions and translations, and images

* The Friedberg Geniza Project (requires registration, but manuscript samples can be seen here without registering.) From 2013, a New York Times article: "Computer Network Piecing Together a Jigsaw of Jewish Lore," explains how the Friedberg computer project is, at a rate of 4.5 trillion calculations per second, trying to match up more than 320,000 genizah document fragments.

* Penn/Cambridge Genizah Fragment Project: "A collaborative effort to reunite the contents of the Cairo Genizah in a single online presentation."

* The Rylands Cairo Genizah Collection: The University of Manchester Library's LUNA system currently has more than 26,000 images online from the Rylands Genizah Collection. (Click "browse all." on the right.)

Further Reading
* Tablet Magazine's stories about the Cairo Genizah. They interviewed authors Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole about their book on the Cairo Genizah, excerpted in this post's main link, entitled "Sacred Trash" in 2011. Daniel Pipes' review. New York Times. Jewish Week. Jewish Review of Books (requires registration).

* The Rabat Genizah, about a similar treasure trove discovered in Morocco in 2005.
posted by zarq (16 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
I'd be incredibly interested in looking at all of the medical documents, both the texts and the prescriptions written. What an amazing treasure. Thanks to zarq and weird Jewish customs I actually appreciate FTW!
posted by Sophie1 at 9:27 AM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

The BBC audio files are really nice -- maybe 70 minutes in total, they are very evocative of the treasures (mundane or profound) in the collection. Well worth a listen.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:54 AM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

There is something unutterably romantic about people discovering lost hoards of writings.
posted by Thing at 10:03 AM on February 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Part of Dara Horn's novel A Guide for the Perplexed is based on this discovery.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:39 AM on February 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

As is part of Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land.
posted by homerica at 10:42 AM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Trash Heap has spoken! Nyeeah!
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:54 AM on February 26, 2015

Oh! Suddenly the premise for A Canticle for Leibowitz makes more sense.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:58 AM on February 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

Nicholas Basbanes writes about this in his book "A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World."
posted by crazylegs at 1:58 PM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Gives new (old?) meaning to the term infodump.
posted by Mchelly at 2:42 PM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

A most excellent post, zarq! Thank you. It boggles the mind that nearly a thousand(!) years of accumulated papers were stored in such a small room, for so long.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:50 PM on February 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Here's the weirdest story (IMO) from an archive that has given us so many other weird stories:

Solomon Schechter found bits of two unusual documents, which he dated as being about a thousand years old. Those documents seemed to be talking about priests? Descendents of Zadok? Some guy referred to as "the teacher of righteousness" (or maybe "The Teacher of Righteousness") and all sorts of ritual laws and admonitions for a community that must have been living (or would be expected to live) at a time when the Temple in Jerusalem was standing. Weird.

But, then the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, almost exactly fifty years later. And bits of Schechter's find (later called "the Damascus Document" because of its use of the place-name "Damascus") match fragments found there! They're clearly the same document in different recensions ... but the Geniza copy is more than a thousand years more recent. So where did it come from? It was totally unknown amongst orthodox (not even "Orthodox") Jews. Was it transmitted among a secret Jewish priestly sect for a thousand years? Did someone find copies hidden away and copy them for some reason? Nobody knows!
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:27 PM on February 26, 2015 [10 favorites]

This also happens to be an excellent example of digitization. 99% of the genizah fragments are now online (need to register for access) and even available on your Android or iPhone.

Not only that, but transcriptions, translations, and bibliographic mentions are cross-referenced with every single post.
posted by dzkalman at 7:40 AM on February 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

I also recommend the Ghosh book. The part of the book which captured me:

"In the summer of 1864, when the construction of the Suez Canal was well under way and Egypt was being readied, once again, to become the stepping-stone to India, a scholar and collector of Judaic antiquties by the name of Jacob Saphir paid several visits to the Synagogue of Ben Ezra while passing through Egypt. The synagogue was still greatly venerated by the Jewish inhabitants of Cairo, and travellers were often directed to it as a site worthy of pilgrimage.

"On his visits, Saphir had the Genizah pointed out to him from a distance and was told that it contained many worn and tattered old books. But when he asked to look into the chamber he met with a flat refusal. There was a snake curled up at the entrance, the officials of the synagogue told him, and it would be extremely dangerous to go in. Their refusal made Saphir all the more determined to investigate, and he returned to the Synagogue after obtaining permission to enter the chamber from the head of the Rabbinical court. The officials were not impressed, and they told him, laughing: 'Can a man risk his life for nothing? He won't even live out the year!' They relented only when Saphir assured them that he knew how to charm snakes, and promised them a reward.

"As Saphir found it, the Genizah was full to a height of two and a half storeys; it was open to the sky on top, and strewn with rubble and debris withing. He left after spending two exhausting days inside, without encountering 'any fiery serpents or scorpions,' and taking only a 'few leaves from various old books and manuscripts.' Upon closer examination, none of these fragments proved to be of any value, but describing his visit in his memoirs, Saphir added the rider: 'But who knows what is still beneath?"
posted by Mo Nickels at 3:40 PM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, I was fortunate enough years ago to find an inexpensive set of "A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Genizah" by Shelomo Dov Goitein. Very readable and enthralling.
posted by Mo Nickels at 3:41 PM on February 27, 2015

Also among the documents discovered in the Genizah:

— Goitein (A Mediterranean Society: Vol. I, Economic Foundations, Introduction, p. 7) writes of "a business letter sent from Aden in South Arabia to a port on the west coast of India. It was addressed to a Jewish merchant from Tunisia, who ran a bronze factory and did other busines south in that distant country. The recipient, after having stayed many years in India, returned to Aden in the autumn of 1149, but remained there and in the interior of Yemen for another three years. Then, he had to make the long journey through the Red Sea, the terrible desert between it and the Nile River and, finally, on the Nile from Upper Egypt to Cairo. Despite the humidity of the climate of India and of Aden and the hazards of the three journeys on sea and through the desert—and the more than eight hundred years that have elapsed sine it was written—the letter is in perfect condition, with even the smallest dot and stroke clearly discernible."

Such trading is much in evidence, but that does not mean it was safe or easy profit. A man called Hijazzi lost 10 of his 11 ships crossing the Indian Ocean, but profit on the 11th, which was carrying porcelain from China, covered all his losses.

Another letter is from a merchant apologizing to his wife for denying her her conjugal rights by his long absence.

—About 200 letters to businessman, scholar, and community leader Nahray ibn Nissim, who emigrated to Fustat from Tunisia in 1045 and died there 50 years later.

— What amount to bank checks written by a man called Abu Zikri, an instruction from the holder of an account to his banker saying that he has to pay two dinars, giving the name the name of the recipient and dating it very precisely in Julyor August 1140. At the top there is a verse from Psalms 85 verse 12 saying ,'The truth will always out,' meaning, don't try to cheat." There is other evidence of a female banker.

— A Germanic poem on Horant and Hilde of more than 1000 lines, in a codex of 84 pages, dated November 9 1382, in Hebrew script. It is related to the German epic poem Gudrun (or Kudrun), as well as the later Yiddish Dukus Horant, written about 1200, probably passing from the Arabian Peninsula to Spain during the crusades, but based in part from tales from Normandy and the Baltic region, and appearing in myriad forms throughout Europe.

— Documents relating to the history of the Crusades.

— The first historical mention of Toulouse, France, in which the leader of the Jewish community complains that when he goes to pay a heavy tax owed to non-Jews, they hit and beat him.

— Correspondence between the kingdom of the Hussars and the Spanish Jewish nobility.

— A lesson book from around the 11th Century, in which a boy hurriedly draws the first letters of the Hebrew alphabet, then takes to doodling on another page.

— What is more or less a prenuptial agreement from 1047 CE, which describes the arrangement for marriage between Tobias and Faiza. In it, he agrees "I shall not bring into the house any licentious men, any buffoons, any frivolous people, good-for-nothings, I shall not have anything to do with them" and "'I promise I shall have nothing more to do with them. I shall not follow their disgusting and filthy habits" and "I shall not join them for eating, drinking and the other." In short, he renounces his low friends for her, and gives her control of his extramarital sexual relations: "I shall not buy any slave girl all the time that Faiza is my wife, to have any kind of physical relationship with such a slave girl, unless Faiza specifically permits it."

— Evidence of a system of double-entry bookkeeping that did not become standard in Italy until centuries later, from where it spread to the rest of Europe.

— Rich evidence of the life and writings of poet Yehuda Halevi (c.1080-1145) (Yehudah ha-Levi, Yehudah HaLevi, Yehuda Halevi, Judah Hallevi, Jehuda Halevi, Jehudah Halevi). His most famous work is Kitab al Khazari (The Kuzari), made of five essays written between 1120 and 1140 CE. It tells how the King Bulan of the Khazars decided to adopt Judaism. He was bothered by a recurring dream in which an angel told him, "Thy way of thinking is indeed pleasing to the Creator, but not thy way of acting." So he questioned a Greek scholastic, a Christian, a muslim and a Rabbi, Yitzhak ha-Sangari. He found the rabbi's responses most satisfactory, and agreed that Judaism was the correct religion. The king and many of his people converted.

The Genizah also contained a letter (now at Cabmridge in the Taylor-Schechter Collection, as item AS 146.6) describing the departure by sea (rather than by land) of Halevi from Alexandria, Egypt to Israel on 14 May 1141.

— A poem presented as an exchange between a wife and her traveling husband, by 10th-Century poet Dunash Ben Labratt. In it, she says to him, "Have you completely forgotten me? Have you forgotten that you left me with a baby in my hand and a keepsake?" He replies, "How can you possibly imagine that I would betray a wonderful wife like you? I would rather tear my heart into a thousand pieces!" It continues,

Will her beloved remember the graceful hind?
On the day of separation, her only son on her armÉ
On the day she took his mantle as a keepsake
And as his keepsake he took her veil

But how shall I betray a clever woman like thee
Surely God bound us to the wife of our youth
and if my heart had plotted to abandon thee
I would have cut it into a thousand pieces.

— Fragments of Aquila's Greek translation of the Bible.

The Covenant of Damascus, the law book of a separatist Jewish group during the days of the Second Temple, published by Schechter in 1910. "One of the most interesting documents found was the so-called Zadokite Document, a copy of the Damascus scroll which was found amongst the 1st cent. C.E. Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran, (see Chapter 4)."

— "The document described a thriving Jewish community in medieval Europe, and identified the town it was located in as "Rodom." Golb was able to determine that Rodom was a name used in the medieval period for Rouen, the capital of Normandy in northern France. The document provided the first evidence of the economic importance of the Rouen Jewish community in this period, and of the existence there of a beit midrash, or a school for higher Jewish studies." "Five months after publication of his find in 1976, excavations in the courtyard of the Palace of Justice in Rouen uncovered a medieval structure with Hebrew inscriptions. Golb determined that these were the remains of the beit midrash, the only such structure known to have survived since the Middle Ages."

— 800 poems by Yannai, and that is all we know about him. Except for one of his poems that somehow made its way to Europe and eventually reached print, his works were lost to the world for more than a millennium.

— Abundant material on the history of the Karaite sect

— The oldest known text with musical notation was also found. Victor Bochman writes in the Israel Review of arts and Letters: "A catholic priest, Johannes, from the town of Oppido in southern Italy, a descendant of Normans who had come to that part of Italy in the 11th century, converted to Judaism in 1102 in Aleppo, where he had arrived during a crusade. He took the Hebrew name Obadiah, in honour of his native town, learned Hebrew, became a cantor and travelled to Baghdad, Damascus and Eretz-Israel. The story of his conversion as described by himself was published by a Hungarian scholar, Alexander Scheiber, pieced together from genizah fragments found in different libraries. As a cantor, Obadiah copied a prayer book in Hebrew and provided the text with European musical notation of that time; unfortunately, only the last leaf of this manuscript was found in the genizah. But in any event, this is a unique source of both Jewish history and for the history of music, as it is the oldest known Jewish text with European musical notation."

(All items are from notes I made in 2006.)
posted by Mo Nickels at 3:47 PM on February 27, 2015 [8 favorites]

There is something unutterably romantic about people discovering lost hoards of writings.

And somehow, the mundane records seem to make it that much more real (at least for me). It reminds me of the bit in The Daughter of Time: "The real history is written in forms not meant as history. In Wardrobe accounts, in Privy Purse expenses, in personal letters, in estate books. If someone, say, insists that Lady Whosit never had a child, and you find in the account book the entry: 'For the son born to my lady on Michaelmas eve: five yards of blue ribbon, fourpence halfpenny' it's a reasonably fair deduction that my lady had a son on Michaelmas eve."
posted by Lexica at 10:07 PM on February 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

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