The title Cairo Genizah is used to describe both the source and the contents of a collection of about 220,000 fragments of medieval Hebrew and Jewish writings. These were amassed in the genizah (“depository”) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo (Fustat) over a period of about nine hundred years and have in the past century found their way into various academic libraries in the Western world. In view of their large number and extensive range, as well as their dating from the tenth through thirteenth centuries, they constitute a unique source for the history, religion, and everyday life of the Mediterranean Jewish communities of the early Middle Ages. The manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah provide the only Hebrew paleographical links between texts from the time of Jesus and Hillel and the manuscript codices and early editions of the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries. The only other early manuscript source for some of the works found among the scrolls from the Judean Desert is the Cairo Genizah.

Discovery and Dispersal.

During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Cairo Genizah fragments first began to appear in the collections of booksellers, bibliophiles, and scholars. The minor officials of the Ben Ezra Synagogue had become aware that there was a market for such literary antiquities and were willing to supply it in return for some financial inducements. The material often passed through more than one pair of hands, and by the time it reached its final destination, its source was often obscure. Four personalities played major roles in the Cairo Genizah transfer from the East to West during the 1880s and early 1890s. A Jewish bookseller and editor from Jerusalem, Rabbi Solomon Aaron Wertheimer, was enthusiastic enough about some of his acquisitions to prepare them for publication but insufficiently prosperous to allow himself the luxury of retaining them. Reverend Greville Chester, an Anglican cleric and Egyptologist, on the other hand, presented a number of items to the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford and to the University Library, Cambridge. The Imperial Public Library in Saint Petersburg, for its part, was enriched by the receipt of a substantial collection of Cairo Genizah documents from an archimandrite of the Russian Orthodox church in Jerusalem, Antonin, who lived in Jerusalem from 1865 until his death in 1894. Unlike others, the lawyer and bibliophile Elkan Nathan Adler, son of the British chief rabbi, Nathan Marcus Adler, did not operate through intermediaries but visited the Cairo Genizah himself in 1896 (for a second time) and came away with a sackful of archival spoils.

Adler's friend and scholarly rival, Solomon Schechter, then Reader in Talmudic Literature at the University of Cambridge, though probably already aware of the Chester and Adler finds, was more fully alerted to the possibilities of a major discovery by the exciting purchases of his Scottish Presbyterian associates in Cambridge, the widowed twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson. Encouraged, financed, and recommended by Charles Taylor, master of Saint John's College, Schechter spent a few weeks in Cairo in the winter of 1896–1897 and ensured that Cambridge University Library obtained a large number of fragments, now comprising almost 70 percent of all Cairo Genizah material. Even after Schechter's efforts, there were still some spoils to be taken from the Ben Ezra Synagogue and the Bassatin Cemetery. The Jewish Mosseri family of Cairo, together with some scholarly acquaintances, also assembled a significant collection. Among other private collectors was the Haham of the Sephardi community in England, Moses Gaster, who purchased many Cairo Genizah fragments.

The activities of such individuals and the subsequent relocation of the precious texts that they had obtained resulted in the enrichment of a number of libraries around the world. More than 140,000 Cairo Genizah fragments are now housed at the Cambridge University Library and consist of items obtained from Chester and Wertheimer, Lewis and Gibson, and Taylor and Schechter, as well as from the bookseller Samuel Raffalovich, and from a few others between 1897 and 1982. The second most extensive collection is probably the one in the institution that has recently been renamed the Russian National Library in Saint Petersburg, which holds the Antonin Collection of some twelve hundred pieces and many thousands of manuscript remnants (yet to be precisely sorted and numbered) purchased from the nineteenth-century Karaite scholar Abraham Firkowitsch. The uncertainty arises out of doubts as to whether his material came from the Ben Ezra Synagogue or from another synagogue, possibly Karaite. A hoard of twenty-four thousand fragments, definitely from the Cairo Genizah, is in the possession of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City, having been purchased from Adler when financial pressures forced him to dispose of his library in 1923 and from his estate after his death in 1946. The Seminary also inherited fragments from what Schechter regarded as his private collection. Gaster's fragments were divided between the British Museum (now the British Library) in London and the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, the former buying some five thousand of the better-preserved pieces in 1924 and the latter about ten thousand of lesser quality in 1954. The Bodleian Library boasts a substantial Cairo Genizah collection (five thousand pieces), established at about the same time as that of Cambridge, as a result of purchases from Wertheimer and presentations by Chester and the Oxford Assyriologist and traveler, A. H. Sayce. Westminster College, the United Reformed Seminary in Cambridge, was presented with two thousand fragments by Lewis and Gibson. The Mosseri collection (four thousand pieces) remains in family hands in Paris. The city also is host to thirty-five hundred items at the Alliance Israelite Universelle, acquired early in the century by the Consistoire Israelite. Smaller collections are to be found in Strasbourg, Budapest, Philadelphia, Jerusalem, Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., Vienna, Birmingham (United Kingdom) and Kiev.

Origin and Literary-Historical Importance.

Remarkable though it is as a historical archive, the Cairo Genizah was built neither with an eye to preservation nor the expectation of historical research. From as early as the eleventh century, when the Ben Ezra Synagogue was built on its current site, the communal authorities followed the practice of Jews worldwide in not destroying any text that might contain the name of God or a quotation from sacred literature. For almost nine centuries the religious functionaries in Cairo, however, appear to have interpreted the tradition more strictly, consigning to their genizah not only worn and damaged religious tracts but also a host of written items of purely mundane content. As the combined result of reverence for Jewish texts, the climate, and an undisturbed site, the Cairo Genizah has bequeathed to posterity a unique testimony to the medieval Jewish Mediterranean.

The earliest such testimony goes back four centuries before the founding of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, some texts having apparently been retained by previous generations and inherited by the founders; the latest dates from the end of the nineteenth century. The period best represented is that of the tenth through thirteenth centuries, when the community was still of central significance to the Jewries of both Egypt and the wider Jewish Orient. As the Jewish settlement in Fustat gave way to its successor in Cairo to the northeast, the importance of the Ben Ezra Synagogue declined. Nevertheless, the arrival of Jews expelled from Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is variously documented, as is Judeo-Spanish literature. Such Jewish languages are another central feature of the Cairo Genizah materials, including as they do Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Persian, and Judeo-German (Yiddish), as well as (less surprisingly) Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic.

Intriguingly, Cairo Genizah texts represent the first evidence of Jewish compositions committed to writing after a gap of a number of centuries. This may be no more than an accident of archaeological history but can also be interpreted more innovatively. The rabbinic tradition was perhaps so overwhelmingly oral that only Torah scrolls and a few other items such as incantations, notes on matters of religious law, and synagogal poetry existed in written form. This is not to say that the rabbinic traditions were not being systematically compiled and edited; indeed there is the real and important possibility that such a process was essentially oral. If this suggestion is correct, the Cairo Genizah testifies to an explosion of written material among rabbinic Jews during the ninth and tenth centuries (given that there are some 220,000 items [some consisting of a number of folios] still in existence from the Cairo Genizah, many times this number of texts must simply have not survived). This trend may have been inspired by the need to respond to Islamic, Christian, and Karaite developments and was probably aided by the widespread adoption of the codex, in preference to the scroll and the individual folio. Once this new medium became widely employed, it influenced the format and transmission of texts, the nature of literacy, and the history of the book in many Jewish communities.

Content and Study.

It is immediately apparent to the historian assessing almost a century of Cairo Genizah scholarship that the results represent a virtual rewriting of Jewish history for the early medieval period. Through letters and documents, detailed accounts have now been compiled of the social, economic, and religious activities of the vibrant Oriental Jewish communities during the tenth through thirteenth centuries. Studies of halakhic rulings, commentaries, and correspondence have demonstrated the development of Jewish law in the gaonic period (seventh through eleventh centuries) and the manner in which the Babylonian academies succeeded in establishing a centralized system of education, authority, and administration throughout the Islamic empire. The description of the biblical texts, Aramaic and Judeo-Arabic translations, and exegetical works have clarified how rabbinic interpretations met Karaite challenges and responded to Muslim and Christian theological notions. Previous knowledge about such leading personalities as Sa῾adya ben Yosef Ga᾽on, Shemu᾽el ben Hofni, Moses Maimonides, Yehudah ha-Levi, and Yosef Karo has been significantly deepened. Texts have been found of both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, and of many Midrashic works that predate by centuries the few manuscripts on which standard editions are based, permitting the restoration of more accurate versions. Historians of the Masoretic Text and Hebrew philology have been able to provide new insights into how the biblical text was carefully transmitted and how a number of systems of grammar were developed. The variety of Jewish liturgical rites, especially those of Babylonia and Palestine, contrast significantly with later standards, and thousands of unknown poems, sacred and secular, many by newly discovered poets, have been restored to Jewish lyrical history. A new era of Semitic linguistic study has been ushered in through the close examination of the Judeo-Arabic dialect. Also uncovered have been rare examples of Jewish artistic, musical, scientific, and medical self-expression.

These scholarly achievements have by no means been evenly spread over each of the last ten decades. The intensive preservation, sorting, and description of the collections in the early decades was followed by an era of relative neglect in the period of the two world wars. Since the 1950s, institutions have again given attention to the fragments and made them more widely available. As a result, there has been another flowering of Cairo Genizah scholarship, particularly in the past thirty years, in which Cambridge University Library, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and the efforts of Shelomo Dov Goitein and his students have played major roles.

It was Goitein who brilliantly deciphered many of the mundane Cairo Genizah documents and was thus able to reconstruct the daily life of the Jew in the medieval Mediterranean area. Inspired by their teacher, his students have added many chapters to Oriental Jewish history in the Middle Ages.

Links with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

There are a number of aspects of the Cairo Genizah story that are of particular relevance to the interpretation of the discoveries in the Judean Desert. It is clear that the consonantal texts of the earliest biblical material from the Cairo Genizah betray little variation from the famous medieval exemplars and confirm the accurate transmission of texts between the periods of Rabbi ῾Aqiva and Maimonides. While that transmission no doubt included traditions of vocalization and cantillation, such traditions were systematized only in the early period of the Cairo Genizah, and a variety of methods were championed in different Jewish centers. Some Hebrew and Aramaic linguistic phenomena and apocalyptic and mystical texts may be traced back to the Second Temple period, but it is also clear that there are early medieval linguistic features.

As far as liturgy is concerned, the precise links between the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmudic traditions and the developments of the late geonic period are not yet clear. At Qumran, prayers, hymns, and benedictions on the one hand, and supplicatory formulas and incantations on the other, were already structured, communal, and an integral part of religious duties. The linguistic and contextual parallels with rabbinic prayer are striking, but the precise formulation is unique to each group, and it is an open question whether the rabbis were inspired by the Qumran practice to commit their prayers to writing and to standardization. It is clear that there was no Talmudic prayer-book as such, and that the way that rabbinic prayers were formulated, recited and transmitted in the first few centuries still left room for development. In that case, some communities may have followed more closely than others the texts and customs recorded at Qumran. What the Cairo Genizah fragments have demonstrated is that there was still considerable variety in the geonic period, either freshly encouraged by the liturgical poets in the post-Talmudic period, or a continuation of the earlier situation.

Special mention must be made of the fact that apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts are represented among the Cairo Genizah material and have parallels in the texts from Qumran and Masada. The most important of these is the Damascus Document, the first and most extensive text of which was discovered by Schechter and published by him in his Documents of Jewish Sectaries (1910). It was puzzled over until a link could be made in 1947 with the literature from Qumran, including copies of this composition from Cave 4. Fragments of Ben Sira were also located and published by Taylor and Schechter, and later by others; one of the manuscripts is particularly close to the version discovered by Yadin at Masada. There are also texts of Tobit in Hebrew and the Testament of Levi in Aramaic, as well as sixth-century palimpsests of Greek Bible translations.

How is one to account for the survival of all this material from the second to the tenth century? It is possible that the rabbinic tradition was central during this period and was only lukewarm about such items, which found greater acceptance among Karaites, fringe groups, and non-Jewish communities and made only occasional, haphazard appearances in the more normative synagogues such as the Ben Ezra. In that case, either such items were consigned to the genizah of that synagogue precisely because they were regarded as heretical, or their origins are more accurately to be sought in a Karaite synagogue nearby. Alternatively, it may be that the rabbinic tradition was less central than it later imagined itself to have been, and historians should be working to uncover major Jewish religious trends during the first Christian millennium that manifest themselves in a variety of ideologies that were, for their part, unenthusiastic about rabbinic developments. It would have been natural for Talmudic Judaism to have played down the importance of alternative traditions and condemned alternative literature, perhaps not always with success. During periods of literary expansion, such as the one represented by the classic Cairo Genizah texts, the drive toward the adoption of written, and therefore authoritative and perhaps syncretistic, versions may have been one of the factors leading to the temporary acceptance within the Talmudic communities of a greater variety of compositions than that sanctioned in some earlier or later contexts.

[See also Ben Sira, Book of; Damascus Document; Levi, Aramaic; and Tobit, Book of.]

Bibliography

  • Beit-Arié, Malachi. Hebrew Codicology: Tentative Typology of Technical Practices Employed in Hebrew Dated Medieval Manuscripts. Rev. ed. Jerusalem, 1981.
    One of a number of important books by Beit-Arié on various aspects of the study of Hebrew manuscripts
    .
  • Blau, Joshua, and Stefan C. Reif, eds. Genizah Research after Ninety Years: The Case of Judaeo-Arabic. University of Cambridge Oriental Publications, 47. Cambridge, 1992.
    A collection of essays that exemplifies the range of subjects written in one of the Jewish languages represented in the genizah
    .
  • Goitein, S. D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Genizah. 6 vols. including the index volume by Paula Sanders. Berkeley and London, 1967–1993.
    An outstanding study of Oriental Jewish life in the Middle Ages based on genizah sources
    .
  • Kahle, Paul. The Cairo Genizah. 2d. ed. Oxford, 1959.
    Outdated in some respects and out of print, but not difficult to obtain and certainly important for the history of genizah research
    .
  • Khan, Geoffrey. “Twenty Years of Genizah Research.” In Encyclopedia Judaica Year Book 1983/1985, edited by Geoffrey Wigoder, pp. 163–170. Jerusalem, 1985.
    A detailed assessment of recent genizah research and publication
    .
  • Lambert, Phyllis, ed. Fortifications and the Synagogue: The Fortress of Babylon and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo. London, 1994.
    An attractive collection of essays and plates on all aspects of the history of Ben Ezra as a building and a community in medieval and modern times
    .
  • Reif, Stefan C. A Guide to the Taylor-Schechter Genizah, 2d. ed. Cambridge, 1979.
    A useful booklet briefly introducing the history and contents of the collection, with some plates. Out of print, but still available online
    .
  • Reif, Stefan C. Published Material from the Cambridge Genizah Collections: A Bibliography, 1896–1980. Geniza Series, 6. Cambridge, 1988.
    Details of the books and articles published on the Cambridge Genizah, indexed according to classmark, author, and title
    .
  • Reif, Stefan C. “Aspects of Mediaeval Jewish Literacy.” In The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe, edited by Rosamond McKitterick, pp. 134–155. Cambridge, 1990.
    A survey of the written material used by the Oriental Jewish Communities in the early Middle Ages and how it came to be extensive
    .
  • Reif, Stefan C. “Jenkinson and Schechter at Cambridge: An Expanded and Updated Assessment.” Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England 32 (1992), 279–316.
    A critical account of the efforts of two major figures in the first decade of the genizah story
    .
  • Reif, Stefan C. “The Cairo Genizah and Its Treasures, with Special Reference to Biblical Studies.” In The Aramaic Bible: Targums in the Historical Context, edited by Derek R. G. Beattie and Martin J. McNamara, pp. 30–50. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series, 166. Sheffield, 1994.
    A summary of the genizah's importance for many aspects of biblical study
    .
  • Reif, Stefan C. “One Hundred Years of Genizah Research at Cambridge.” Jewish Book Annual 53 (1995–1996), 7–28.
    A survey of the changing fortunes of the Cambridge Genizah material since its acquisition in the 1890s
    .
  • Richler, Benjamin. Hebrew Manuscripts: A Treasured Legacy. Cleveland and Jerusalem, 1990.
    A popular but informed introduction to the subject, with plates and samples of handwriting, and a chapter on the Cairo Genizah by Robert Brody
    .
  • Richler, Benjamin. Guide to Hebrew Manuscript Collections. Publications of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Section of Humanities. Jerusalem, 1994.
    A most useful reference tool, providing details of all the major collections and personalities, as well as their history, with specific treatment of the genizah finds
    .

Stefan C. Reif