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The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit

Genizah Fragments

The Newsletter of Cambridge University's
Taylor–Schechter Genizah Research Unit
at Cambridge University Library

No. 20 October 1990

Ideal combination

Part of the challenge continually facing the Genizah Research Unit has been the creation of a successful combination of library administration, academic research, university teaching and public relations. Over the years, we have aimed to avoid over–concentration on any one of these areas at the expense of progress in the others.

The manner in which the Collection has been conserved, organized and made available, and scholars assisted – both in person and by correspondence – indicates the Unit's commitment to the concept of service.

The volumes produced in its publications programme have attempted to marry high standards of scholarship with all the basic requirements of cataloguing.

A paper on the Cairo Genizah has come to feature in the University's M.Phil. course in Oriental Studies, and graduate students have been attracted to the subject in each of the past three years.

At the same time, every effort has been made to demonstrate to a wider world than the academic what the Genizah documents have to tell us about daily life, culture and thought a thousand years ago and why it is important for us to listen.

Despite any achievements the Unit may have recorded, the ideal of the successful combination does not always win universal acceptance.

There are library administrators who see only a technical and no scholarly future for librarianship. Some academics mistrust the scholarship of any project that can at the same time be scientific, efficient and interesting.

Students sometimes prefer an option that does not involve the mastery of complicated texts. Not all philanthropists feel that there is relevance in research dealing with the past rather than the present.

To those in the Genizah Research Unit, however, the ideal has more than justified itself by the results achieved and by the demands to take on additional projects.

Researchers here are driven by the conviction that future academic developments will tally with such an ideal and that those with a tendency to disparage it will, if history is not simply to pass them by, come to associate themselves with at least some aspects of its implementation.

Stefan C. Reif
Director, Taylor–Schechter Genizah Research Unit

two people, display case, manuscripts

Dr Geoffrey Khan (left) and Dr Nicholas de Lange, University Lecturer in Rabbinics, arranging an exhibition of Genizah material mounted at Cambridge University Library to mark a conference devoted to “Byzantine Diplomacy”

Year in Jerusalem

By arrangement with the Cambridge University authorities, Dr Geoffrey Khan, research associate in the Genizah Unit, will spend the coming academical year in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University's Institute of Advanced Studies.

A group of distinguished scholars has been brought together to conduct research and seminars on “Living Semitic Languages and Comparative Semitics” and Dr Khan has been invited to participate as a visiting fellow.

In addition to taking a full part in the group's activities, he will continue with his own research in a number of areas connected with his work at Cambridge.

Dr Khan lectured at the recent conference of the International Organization for Masoretic Studies in Jerusalem and, together with Dr E. J. Wiesenberg, at the Society for Judaeo–Arabic Studies in Tel Aviv.

Dr Stefan Reif, Director of the Unit, gave scholarly lectures at the Hochschule für jüdische Studien in Heidelberg; at the Congress of the European Association for Jewish Studies in Troyes; at the Colloquium on Hebraica in Europe sponsored by the British Library and held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London; and at the conference on “Preserving the Jewish Heritage” at Southampton University.

He also gave a number of public lectures in London, Oxford and Cambridge.

British Academy's £4,000 to T–S Unit

Fund–raising efforts in recent weeks have received a boost with important grants from the British Academy (£4,000) and Georges Lurcy Charitable Trust ($3,000, via the American Friends of Cambridge University).

Other major contributors include Mr Stanley Kalms (£1,260), the Sobell Foundation (£1,250), Mr Cyril Stein (£1,000) and the Harbour Charitable Trust (£1,000).

Generous renewals of annual contributions have been made by Mr and Mrs Michael Phillips (£750), Dr and Mrs Davide Sala (£500), Mr and Mrs David Lauffer (£500), and Heron International plc (£500 towards the cost of this issue of Genizah Fragments).

Welcome assistance has again been provided by Mrs Denise Cattan (£360), Sir Sigmund Sternberg (£250), Mr and Mrs Conrad Abrahams–Curiel (£250), Mr Jack Lunzer (£250), Mr Henry Knobil, Mr Geoffrey Ognall, Mr R. S. Rubin, Mr and Mrs Jeffrey Greenwood, Mr S. W. Laufer, the New London Synagogue Ladies' Committee (£100 each), and Mrs Judith Samuel (a covenanted donation of £100).

Gifts made through the American Friends of Cambridge University have included $250 from Mrs Clara B. Laks, $150 from Mr and Mrs Daniel Schechter, $150 from Mr and Mrs Raphael Levy, and $100 from Mrs Ira Hertzberg (in memory of her parents, Jeanne and Morris Schechter).

The Genizah Unit is particularly pleased to welcome among its new contributors in Europe Mr and Mrs Philip Maurice (£250), Mr and Mrs David Pinto (£150), Mr Herbert Cohen (£100) and Dr and Mrs Harold Preiskel (£100); and in the United States, Mr Thomas L. Drucker ($100) and Mr Ben Barak ($100).

The Unit is most grateful for all these contributions and for smaller and anonymous gifts recently received which amount to over £700.

Medical examination at the dinner table

The fragments of Arabic manuscript which found their way into the Cairo Genizah add to the evidence that the educated and Arabic–speaking Jews of mediaeval Egypt were familiar not only with the Arabic philosophical and scientific literature of their time, but also with Arabic poetry and belles–lettres.

Among the fragments of Arabic belles–lettres in the Taylor–Schechter Genizah Collection at Cambridge, I recently came upon a manuscript fragment (T–S Ar.19.8) from the text of The Physicians' Dinner Party (Risalat da'wal 'al-'atibba), by Ibn Butlan, a Christian physician from Baghdad who died in 1066.

The Physician's Dinner Party was a popular work in its day and is mentioned by mediaeval Arabic biographical sources, where they note Ibn Butlan's other medical writings.

Its popularity among general readers can no doubt be attributed to the fact that it is one of the more entertaining pieces from the corpus of mediaeval Arabic medical literature and to the literary style in which it is composed – the maqamah.

Written in rhymed prose in an elegant and flowery Arabic, the narrative is frequently interspersed with lines of poetry and often with quotations from famous poets.

Its form is based on a structure common to literary works of this type, such as the Hebrew maqamah of Judah al–Harizi (1165-1225), entitled Tahkemoni.

A poet or scholar – the hero of the maqamah – leaves his native city and, travelling from town to town, earns his keep by entertaining audiences with his display of poetry and intellect. The episodes are presented by a narrator who meets the hero during his travels and relates incidents concerning him and his poems.

While maintaining the basic structure of this form, The Physicians' Dinner Party is interestingly individualistic in two ways. First, the action is limited to one location and, secondly, the hero is neither a poet nor a scholar, but a young physician.

These variations may be explained by the fact that this work that this work represents one of the earliest examples of anecdotal literature in the maqamah style, and was composed before the form had fully matured.

In the Cambridge Genizah fragments, the hero, having arrived at the town of Mayyafar–iqin from his native city of Baghdad in order to set up a medical practice, is at a dinner party given by the head of the local physicians.

There, the young physician is questioned by his host and other local physicians not only to test his medical knowledge, but in order to catch him out. The questions range from ophthalmia, phlebotomy, surgery and anatomy to drugs and medicines.

This type of examination is a fairly common theme in mediaeval Arabic and Hebrew literature, as illustrated in the Book of Delights (Sefer Sha'ashu'im) of Joseph ben Zabara (c.1140 — c. 1200), particularly the chapter in which Enan questions Zabara on aspects of medicine and natural science.

The Dinner Party is of special interest from the literary point of view. While its primary aim is to entertain, it is also used as a vehicle for the transmission of medical information in the rare form of rhymed prose.

The Cambridge fragment comprises one leaf of thirty–one lines from the text of chapter nine of The Dinner Party. It is written in a clear hand with occasional vocalization. Some diacritical points are missing.

The text to be found here complements other manuscript versions and the critical edition published by F. Klein–Franke (Wiesbaden, 1985). It also helps to throw light on the secular cultural interests of mediaeval Jews educated and living in Arab lands.

I hope to publish the fragment in the near future.

Colin Baker
Research Assistant, T–S Genizah Research Unit

two people and photographs

Mr Charles Le Quesne (right) and Dr Stefan Reif examining old photographs of the Ben–Ezra site made available by the Genizah Unit for the Restoration Project

Ben–Ezra excavation

Exciting discoveries about the earliest history of the Ben–Ezra Synagogue in Cairo are expected to be made when the area around the building is excavated in an important new project.

A team of archaeologists is hoping to uncover remains dating back to fourth–century Roman Egypt and testifying to a Muslim, Christian and Jewish presence in the area centuries before the first Hebrew fragments were stored in the synagogue's famous Genizah.

One of the team, Charles Le Quesne, recently visited the Research Unit in Cambridge to obtain background knowledge of the Cairo Genizah and to exchange information with Dr Stefan Reif, the Unit's Director. The two are continuing to correspond on the subject as Mr Le Quesne begins his work in Cairo.

The archaeological work there is part of the Ben–Ezra Restoration Project, directed by Ms Phyllis Lambert for the Canadian Center for Architecture and conducted by Peter Grossman, of the German Institute for Archaeology in Cairo. The historical study of the site is under the guidance of Dr Joseph Hacker, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Photographs provided by the Genizah Research Unit and dating from the late nineteenth century are playing an important part in the planning and interpretation of the excavations.

Poetic celebration of New Moon

During the first half of the Common Era, an extensive Aramaic literature relating to divination existed in the Jewish communities of Palestine and Babylonia. This did not form part of the Jewish texts regarded as standard by the rabbis and ultimately disappeared when divination went out of fashion at a later period.

In the past few years, a number of Aramaic texts belonging to the tradition of Palestinian Jewish divination have come to light in the Cairo Genizah. One of the latest discoveries in Cambridge is an astrological text containing lunar omens (T–S H11.51).

This has been the subject of a recent article by J.C. Greenfield and M. Sokoloff, who investigate its background in the divination literature of the Near East (Journal of Near Eastern Studies 48, 1989, pp. 201-214), and it was included by M. Klein in his Genizah Manuscripts of Palestinian Targum to the Pentateuch (Cincinnati, 1986).

The text is composed in the form of a liturgical poem to be recited in the month of Nisan on the occasion of the sanctification of the new moon. Such poetic celebration of the new moon in the first month of the ancient calendar was an old Palestinian custom which continued into the Byzantine period.

The poem contains seventeen omens, all lunar, five of which may occur on any day of the year and the remaining twelve of which are noted as being specific to a particular month, beginning with Nisan and ending with Adar. Three types of lunar phenomena are mentioned: the position of the moon's cusps at first sighting, its colour, and its eclipses.

Fragments yield surprises

In 1989 I spent four months as a part–time Visiting Research Associate at the Genizah Research Unit in Cambridge.

My task was to start preparing a running handlist of Arabic material in the T–S Collection (Ar.12 and 43-45), described many years ago as containing fragments of "philosophy, kabbala and medicine" and amounting to about 800 fragments.

I shall try here to convey some of the problems involved in such cataloguing and to summarize the results of my work.

Experienced Genizah researchers know that the old classification according to subjects indicates no more than that a considerable proportion of the contents of a certain binder fits such a description. Experts cataloguing Genizah items in their own areas of research will soon find out that much of the material is distinctly outside their sphere of interest.

In the course of my work, I prepared short descriptions of 290 fragments (the majority of Ar.43). The following brief statistics clearly illustrate the wide range of subjects covered by these fragments:

Philosophy, theology and logic (including the introductions of Maimonides to the Mishnah), 95 fragments;

Ethics, ascetics and mysticism (including, for example, Bahya's Duties of the Hearts and one in letter form), 39;

Bible commentaries (including philosophical and homiletical) and translations, 17;

Halakhah, 9;

Medicine, 63;

Astrology, 6;

Magic (amulets, formulae and texts, one in Hebrew), 28;

Interpretation of dreams, 5;

Lottery books, 7;

Alchemy, 5;

Language, 2;

Popular literature (1,001 Nights?), 2;

Hebrew (liturgical and other), 6;

Documents (letters, court deeds, etc.), 7.

It is obvious from this list how difficult it is for one person to produce a comprehensive and accurate catalogue.

Another problem is identification; few fragments bear the name of the author or the work's title. Although many other fragments are easily identifiable as belonging to known works, it may still involve some considerable effort to locate the exact source within the published text.

Sometimes, frustratingly, the contents of the fragment, though apparently belonging there, cannot be located at all in that text. Similarities in the argumentation, style and terminology of mediaeval authors can occasionally be rather misleading.

Even more problematic are fragments in which author and title have to be conjectured on the basis of some internal evidence related to external data.

This internal evidence may involve not only the contents of the text, but also its language (including style and terminology) and historical data. One has often to be content with briefly recording the contents, sources quoted, titles of chapters and the like.

Identification of such fragments is, however, now largely facilitated by two recent aids: the Published Material from the Cambridge Genizah Collections: a Bibliography 1896 to 1980, edited by S.C. Reif and published by Cambridge University Press (Genizah Series, No. 6); and notes written by previous researchers and now preserved with the folders. The latter have, however, always to be carefully checked.

The results of my work seem to justify both the effort and the approach. The great variety of material listed above deserves a proper catalogue with indexes that will provide a more detailed picture of mediaeval Judaeo–Arabic culture. In the meantime, a few brief conclusions can be offered.

Certain philosophical works were especially popular. These include Saadya's Beliefs and Opinions, Bahya's Duties of the Hearts, and Maimonides' Guide and Introduction to the Chapter Heleq (= Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10).

It is also interesting to find fragments of works by Muslim philosophers, and the popularity of assorted medical literature and magical texts is particularly noteworthy. Handlists of Genizah items relating to both medicine and magic are currently being compiled.

In the course of cataloguing, one always expects a few surprises and I offer here some examples:

a) A famous and popular collection of ethical aphorisms in Hebrew, entitled Mivhar Ha–Peninim (Chosen Pearls), had for centuries been ascribed to the poet–philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol. It had, however, also long been felt by scholars that the Hebrew tract was a paraphrastic translation of an Arabic original.

Eventually, a few leaves in Arabic were found in the Oxford collection and published by N. Braun in Tarbiz 19 and 23, but the ascription to Ibn Gabirol was still recently rejected by Y. Ratzaby in Sinai, 102-103.

The Genizah has now provided further evidence of an Arabic original, T–S Ar.43 (.36, .73, .124, .128, .197 and .256), containing altogether thirty–seven complete or fragmentary leaves.

Superficial examination reveals substantial differences from the Hebrew text and additional systematic handlists are, of course, crucial to further research.

b) T–S Ar.43 (.69, .148 and .152) contains at least three fragments, comprising six leaves, of the theological compendium of the Gaon Samuel b. Hofni, entitled Kitab al–Hidaya (The Book of Guidance). Fragments of this work are also extant elsewhere.

c) The popular ethical work of Rav Nissim Gaon is known in its Arabic original, al–Faraj ba`d al–shidda, in the editions of J. Obermann and S. Abramson, and its mediaeval Hebrew translation, Hibbur yafe min ha–yeshu`a. All the Arabic manuscripts to date have, however, lacked one section – the opening paragraph that mentions the title, the author's name, the recipient of the dedication, and the motive for the composition.

It has had to be reconstructed on the basis of the Hebrew, causing differences of opinion between such scholars as Abramson and H.Z. Hirschberg.

I am happy to report that T–S Ar.43.273 (2 leaves) contains this long–lost paragraph, which, though somewhat faded, provides the following details:

The title of the work is al–Faraj ba`da 'l–shidda wa-'l–sa`a ba`da `l–dayqa. The author's name is given as Ya`aqov b. Nissim. The name of the relative (Arabic sihr) to whom the work was dedicated reads as Dunash b. Yehudah.

The accuracy of the title contained in a booklist from the Genizah (T–S 13K1), which S. Schechter published in 1903 (Saadyana, p. 79), is thus confirmed.

I hope soon to have the opportunity of completing this project of cataloguing the Arabic “philosophical binders”.

Haggai Ben–Shammai
Professor of Arabic, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

two people and architectural model

Cambridge University Librarian Dr Frederick Ratcliffe (right) explaining to Dr Binyamin Begin the Library's plans for expansion once funding becomes available

Begin visit

Dr Binyamin Begin, Likud Member of the Knesset and chairman of its committee for defence procurement and national security (son of the former Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Menachem Begin), visited Britain for a week as a guest of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

As part of his busy schedule, he and his wife came to Cambridge University Library to view the Genizah manuscripts and were welcomed by Dr Frederick Ratcliffe and Dr Stefan Reif.

Other guests of the Unit in recent months included Mr Peter Watson, of The Observer, who was preparing a feature on academic research and university morale; and Ms Carol Berger, of The Independent and Newsweek, in connection with an article on the history of Cairo's Jewish community.

There was also an approach from a BBC television team planning a programme on Jews in the Middle Ages. When, however, the researcher ascertained that the Genizah material originated in Cairo and that none of it was written in English, her enthusiasm for a visit to the Unit was considerably dampened!

Among groups viewing the Collection by special arrangement were Woodside Park Synagogue, Radley College, Cockfosters Synagogue, Argov B'nai B'rith Lodge, Kingston WIZO, Edgware Reform Synagogue, King David School in Liverpool, North Western Reform Synagogue and the Ladies' Guild of Hendon Synagogue.

New dictionary

The current concern of non–Jewish scholars to pay due attention to the Jewish ideas and traditions is amply exemplified in the newly published Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, edited by Richard Coggins and Leslie Houlden and published by SCM Press in London.

Among about 300 topics succinctly covered in this attractively produced and carefully planned volume are such subjects as Rabbinism, Jewish exegesis, Shekhinah, Talmud and Targum.

Nor has the contribution of the Genizah to biblical scholarship been forgotten. Stefan Reif's article on this subject explains the Jewish custom that led to such a collection being amassed in Cairo and the whereabouts of its contents today.

The transmission of codices of the Hebrew Bible and the addition of pointing and cantillation signs are touched upon, and the evidence from the Genizah is also used to trace the history of Greek, Arabic, Aramaic and Syriac readings and interpretations of the Bible, as well as Hebrew ones.

It is pointed out that, thanks to this rich source of mediaeval texts, scholars are now acquainted with midrashic compositions of the rabbis that they did not know existed and with pages of Karaite Bibles that have Hebrew Bible verses written in Arabic script but with Hebrew pointing.

The reader is also reminded that the Cambridge Genizah treasures shed light on children's Hebrew education by way of biblical texts, the illumination of scriptural verses in the Middle Ages, and Jewish folklore about Jesus.

It is pointed out that they also contain literature from the Dead Sea sect.

person in synagogue

Mr Nathan Abraham Moshe, custodian of the Ben–Ezra Synagogue, points to where the Genizah was once located

Cairo connection

For those interested in the story of the Genizah's move from Cairo to Cambridge in 1897, there is an easily read article of six pages, with seven plates and a brief bibliography, in no. 12 of the Bulletin of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo (July, 1989; pp. 29-34).

The article, entitled “Cairo Genizah Material at Cambridge University Library” and written by the Director of the Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge, Dr Stefan Reif, explains the Cambridge and Cairo connections with Jews and Hebrew studies and how the visit by Solomon Schechter resulted in the gift of the Collection by the leaders of the Ben–Ezra Synagogue to the University of Cambridge.

Nineteenth- and twentieth- century responses to the daunting challenges of conserving, describing and researching a massive collection of 140,000 mediaeval manuscript fragments are described, and the progress made in recent years is detailed.

Among the examples chosen to illustrate “the rich and variegated nature of this unique source” are Qumranic (Dead Sea Scrolls) and Karaite documents, Talmudic texts and commentaries, Hebrew Bible and poetry, Judaeo–Arabic documents, and even Muslim and Christian items.

The Bulletin is jointly published by the Israel Academy and the Israel Oriental Society.

On literacy

In an article just published, the Genizah documents are cited as examples of the kind of literacy - including the ability to read and write more than one language – that flourished among the Jews of the oriental countries over a thousand years ago.

The aims of the article, entitled “Aspects of Mediaeval Jewish Literacy”, are to compare and contrast the situation among oriental Jews with that pertaining to European Christian countries and to argue that the adoption by the Jews of the codex led to an explosion of literary activity from about the eighth century.

The essay, written by Dr Stefan Reif, is included in a collection of papers edited by Dr Rosamund McKitterick. The volume is entitled The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe and is published by Cambridge University Press.

Edited by Stefan C. Reif and printed by the University Printing Services of Cambridge University Press

If you have any questions, please e-mail genizah@lib.cam.ac.uk
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