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In the early summer of 2006, some 350 manuscript leaves in Hebrew and Arabic, dating back about a thousand years, were discovered by librarians at the Public and University Library in Geneva. They were identified by Professor David Rosenthal, head of the department of Talmud at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as having originated, like so many other such Jewish medieval fragments, in the Cairo Genizah. How important are the Genizah documents — now with us for over a century, but still being catalogued and analyzed — for scholars in general? Are there items that might be of interest to students of the Hebrew Bible? What is new about the leaves that have just come to light in Switzerland, having been stored in a tin box, out of sight and mind since 1897?

Far from being a dry and dusty set of documents of relevance to only a few dry and dusty dons, the 200,000 items from synagogues in Cairo that have made their way into various libraries and museums around the world since the last quarter of the nineteenth century shed light on almost every aspect of daily life in the eastern Mediterranean from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. They represent every kind of written document and every genre of literature that would have passed through the hands of the Jews and are written in a variety of languages, primarily Hebrew, Arabic (usually in Hebrew characters, known as Judeo-Arabic), and Aramaic. What is more significant is that their content is not only theological, but ranges across a wide variety of social, political, economic, and cultural activity.

It is a well-established Jewish custom to bury or deposit in a genizah (storage place) any religious texts that are too worn or damaged to be of further practical use. What is unique about the Cairo deposits is that they testify to the fact that the relevant synagogue officials there either did not take the trouble to distinguish the religious from the mundane or they had a conviction that all Jewish writing has the kind of holiness that merits storage, and not destruction. Fortunately for today's historians of medieval Near and Middle Eastern culture, the dry climate of Cairo and the conservatism of the synagogue officials ensured the survival of one of the world's greatest collections of literary and documentary detritus. The enthusiasm of a number of nineteenth century travelers, dealers, scholars, and collectors, and the apparent interest of some synagogue officials in adding to their informal income, brought these treasures to a number of European and American academic institutions (the largest number of them to Cambridge University Library in England), possibly thereby rescuing them from potential ravages caused by wars, revolutions, and inter-communal strife.

What is particularly intriguing about all of these scattered Genizah materials is that, like so many archives that were informally amassed without any benign or malice aforethought, they provide insights into the dark and hidden corners of medieval life. Texts that are well known from other sources may well have earlier versions among the Genizah treasures, and that is important in itself. Early Talmudic texts, unknown poems, lost liturgy, early decisions in Jewish religious law — all of these and their ilk are of considerable significance. What is, however, undoubtedly more exciting for the more general historian are the many items that constitute previously unknown data, that relate to Muslims and Christians as well as Jews, and that inform us of how people made a living, where they chose their life partners and how they treated them, and what kind of education and culture they admired and enjoyed. Among other aspects of life that come to light are why they traveled abroad, which clothes and jewelry they wore, the nature of their cuisine, and the manner in which they dispensed charity. Travel to India, manumission of slave girls, the prominence of some women, pre-nuptial agreements, children's literacy levels — all such topics provide somewhat surprising data and attitudes.

Most remarkable for the historian of religion is the degree to which it emerges that Muslims, Christians, and Jews were aware of each others' beliefs and practices. They greeted their neighbors on each other's festive days and often cooperated in commercial as well as social and political ventures. Some underwent faith conversion, but many others made determined efforts to defend their own religious convictions and to polemicize against their theological adversaries. They developed views about the scriptures of the "other" and were inspired by such contact to become better acquainted with their own religious texts and to expound them in ways that prevented criticism by other faiths. Depending on the attitude of the Muslim ruler of the day, Christians and Jews were sometimes prominent in the government and on other occasions subject to severe persecution.

What then do biblical scholars learn from the relevant Genizah texts — about 30,000 in number — that is especially exciting for their research? "A vast amount of fresh information" is the immediate response of any researcher who has closely examined these damaged but precious pieces of manuscript. As is well known, the Masoretes (Jewish biblical grammarians) made major efforts in the last centuries of the first Christian millennium to protect, systematize, and standardize the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible and its vowel system. Unique evidence of their work appears in many Genizah fragments and testifies to the existence of a number of vowel systems, in addition to the standard Tiberian scheme of Ben Asher that ultimately became the norm. There are also many examples of "non-standard" pointing that reflect the way that less-learned Jews pronounced biblical Hebrew verses.

The choice of biblical lectionaries for sabbaths and festivals in the synagogue also turns out to have been a matter of some controversy, with the Jews of the land of Israel reading the whole Pentateuch twice in seven years while their Babylonian co-religionists opted for an annual completion. The number and length of the prophetic readings also therefore differed, and it took some centuries before the Babylonian practice came to dominate most of the Jewish world. To aid comprehension, triliteral versions of the Pentateuch were copied and transmitted, with the Hebrew original followed by the Aramaic Targum and a Judeo-Arabic rendering.

It is not only the Targum of Onqelos that was employed. There is a great variety of other targumic renderings, some preferring to be literal while others expand in a midrashic fashion, with an additional group that link the text with the occasion on which it is read. All these concerns with the transmission, translation, and grammatical explanation of the biblical text brought about a flourishing of literal exegesis, while the existence of many targumic and midrashic expansions also encouraged the growth of what might be called more fanciful (or spiritually inspiring?) exegesis. Again, the Genizah has provided wholly unknown works and genres, thus filling in for historians of Jewish biblical study the gap between the post-Talmudic and early medieval periods. Perhaps most important is the evidence of the major role played by the Karaites (non-Talmudic Jews) in promoting such study and in championing the use and mastery of Hebrew, as against the Rabbanite tendency towards the wide employment of Aramaic. Interestingly enough, it was those same Karaites who at a later date used Arabic script to write Hebrew verses to distinguish themselves from their Rabbanite adversaries.

It is not perhaps surprising to find Jewish versions of the Jesus story among these medieval texts from Jewish Egypt. There are, however, a number of other finds that could hardly have been expected. Palimpsests from as early as the sixth century have remnants of the Greek translation of Aquila, Origen's Hexapla, and some New Testament texts, all later overwritten with rabbinic works. How did it come about that at least some of these texts were owned by Jews? Such Second Temple literature as Ben Sira (or, Ecclesiasticus), the Damascus Document, and the Testament of Levi make an appearance in tenth century Cairo and raise historical eyebrows about the manner in which they survived until that time and in that area. Is the common explanation — they were found in caves around 800 CE and adopted by Jewish communities — a convincing one? Is it not more likely that they survived during the early Christian centuries in what one scholar once described as "circles which had hitherto led a more or less underground existence."[1], before resurfacing in the more heterogeneous interpretations of Judaism that characterized the eighth to the twelfth centuries?

What then has been added to all this wealth of data by the new finds in Geneva, recently described for us by Professor Rosenthal? Apparently, these 350 items constitute a microcosm of Genizah material, since all the topics that are already represented in existing Genizah collections around the world are also to be found among the Geneva texts. Here too the Hebrew Bible has a place of honor, and there is a sixth century palimpsest containing a Greek Bible translation as well as fragments of text, translation, and Masoretic comment. There are also remnants of Sa'adya Gaon's translation of the Pentateuch into Arabic and also of the translation and commentary he prepared for the book of Daniel. As often in Genizah collections, the work of that tenth century head of the Sura academy in Iraq appears and reappears among the Geneva manuscripts, sometimes in the form of previously unknown comments and compositions. These will undoubtedly attract the attention of Bible scholars, Hebraists, and philologists, and one hopes that the texts are being conserved quickly and will soon be digitized so that they can be widely accessible.

Meanwhile, Rosenthal has enlightened us about those items that are of special interest to himself and his colleagues. There are fragments with precise dates, always a welcome discovery for paleographers, since it assists with the process of assigning dates to the vast majority of items that remain undated. The Mishnah is well represented in versions from the Jewish homeland, mostly with Tiberian pointing but in one case with the Babylonian variety, and sometimes reflecting a different order of the tractates. There are folios from the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds and it is especially exciting to hear that some of these belong to a single codex, the original parts of which are today scattered among libraries in Cambridge, Oxford, and New York. The poems include one that eulogizes a bridegroom who died before his wedding day and another by Dunash ibn Labrat that confirms a textual restoration suggested thirty years ago by the late Professor Ezra Fleischer. There is also additional evidence for the recovery of the liturgical rite of the land of Israel in pre-Crusader times, a lengthy astrological treatise, and medical recipes.

Among what may be dubbed the more "historical" items is a bifolium on vellum that recounts in Hebrew the journeys of Alexander of Macedon. This will be of special interest to those who see a growing interest in history and chronology on the part of some Jewish communities of the early medieval period. There are also documents and letters that provide additional information about personalities, particularly from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, who are already known to us from other Genizah collections. Some of these were distinguished rabbis, but there are also more ordinary folk and in one case a somewhat disreputable figure, at least in the eyes of the religious establishment of the day. Wuhsha was a wealthy woman banker who lived with a Muslim and bore him a child. This so distressed the rabbis that she was ejected from the synagogue on Yom Kippur. This did not discourage her from leaving money to Jewish communal institutions in her last will, and this undoubtedly gave her the last word in the controversy.

As with all Genizah collections, the Geneva manuscripts will continue to intrigue scholars for decades and will supply numerous missing pieces in the jigsaw of Jewish life, learning, and culture that is slowly being slotted together on the basis of such discoveries. Part of this process will bring about a greater knowledge of how the Hebrew Bible was read, understood, and transmitted a thousand years ago and what impact this made on subsequent Jewish and Christian interpretation and utilization of Scripture. Given such potential, these medieval Jewish folios deserve the close attention of all those who have an interest in the history of biblical exegesis.

Stefan C. Reif, University of Cambridge

Notes [1] Naphtali Weider, The Judean Scrolls and Karaism (London: East & West Library, 1962), 257.

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Citation: Stefan C. Reif, " A Fresh Set of Genizah Texts," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2006]. Online:


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