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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. 21 April 1991

Bibliography wins praise

The Cambridge University Library's Genizah Series, published by Cambridge University Press, continues to make excellent progress, with six volumes published and another at final proof stage.

Reviews of Published Material from the Cambridge Genizah collections: A Bibliography 1896-1980 have begun to appear and scholars are making favourable judgements of the volume.

Jerusalem Professor Malachi Beit-Arie, in Pe‘amim 41(1989), page 39, describes it as “a welcome work of reference for all aspects of Genizah research, including palaeography,” and expresses the hope that “other Genizah collections will follow this instructive example.”

In the Book List 1990 of the Society for Old Testament Study, pages 22-23, Professor Geza Vermes, of Oxford, refers to it as “a comprehensive catalogue” and “a most valuable bibliographical aid.”

The physical presentation of the work has pleased Peter Salinger, of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and he evaluates the contents as “a monumental achievement” (L’Eyla 29,1990, pages 62-63).

Geoffrey Khan's Karaite Bible Manuscripts made its appearance a few months ago, and although it is too early for scholarly reviews, first impressions from the experts have been most favourable, particularly since the volume breaks what is virtually new ground in a complicated area of research.

Final proofs of Michael Klein's Targumic Manuscripts have been corrected by the compiler, the editor and the compositor and it should not be many months before it, too, is published.


Genizah Unit supporters Mr Samuel Sebba (centre) and Mr Max Sebba in conversation with Dr Stefan Reif (left)

New contributors boost campaign

New and important contributions to the Unit's funds have been made as a result of its recent campaign to attract additional support.

Sir Leslie and Dame Shirley Porter have kindly arranged a gift of 1,500 from the Sir John and Lady Cohen's Charitable Foundation, and Mr Samuel Sebba has generously provided a similar sum from his charitable trust.

Other first-time supporters in recent months have been Mr Henry Kormind (500), Mrs Vivien Duffield (500), Mr Aryeh Rubin, of New York ($500), and Dr H. Goodwin (100).

Major supporters who have recently renewed their contributions include Mr Cyril Stein (1,000, and further advice on fund-raising matters), Mr Michael Phillips (1,000), Mr Stanley Kalms (1,000), and Mr Felix Posen (1,000).

Renewals of earlier support have also been made by Mr A. S. Oppenheimer (600), Sir Trevor Chinn (500, Goldberg Charitable Trust (500), Heron International plc (500), Mr H. W. Karet (500), Dr Ralph Kohn (500), Mr Arnold Lee (500), and Mr T. H. Reitman (500).

Other friends to be thanked for continuing to support the Unit are Mrs Denise Cattan (360), Mr Stanley Burton (350), Mr Fred Worms (350) and Mr Joe Dwek (350); Mr Harry Landy (300), Mr Philip Maurice (300) and Mr Conrad Morris (300); Mrs Helena Sebba (250), Sir Sigmund Sternberg (250), and the Ellison Marsden Charitable Trust (250).

The Unit is also grateful for the assistance given by Mr William Margulies (200), Mr S. W. Laufer (150), Mr C. D. S. Sacerdoti (150), Mr Clifford Barclay (100), Dr Harold W. Preiskel (100), and Mr and Mrs Anthony Rau (100). Ms Kathryn L. Johnson ($350) and Mrs Diane Claerbout ($200) have once again contributed through American Friends of Cambridge University.

The Unit's warm thanks are extended to these supporters and to others who have in addition contributed a total of 3,350 anonymously or in smaller amounts.

Of supporters and scholars

Senior members of the University of Cambridge, Genizah researchers and leading supporters of the Unit came together for an unusual event at the University Library during the evening of 27 October 1990.

The proceedings began in the Munby Room with an introduction to the Library's Genizah Collection by the Director of the Genizah Research Unit, Dr Stefan Reif.

The party then proceeded to the Library's fourth floor, where the Cambridge University Librarian, Dr Frederick Ratcliffe, welcomed the guests with some friendly words and with what has come to be regarded as customary fare at Cambridge academic receptions.

A special exhibition of the original manuscripts had been mounted in the Sir Geoffrey Keynes Room and was the subject of many lengthy discussions between scholars and interested laymen.

The Library's catering staff provided supper for the guests, and Professor Derek Brewer, Chairman of the Library Syndicate, expressed his appreciation both of the research being done in the Genizah Unit and of the support and encouragement being provided for it both within and outside the University.

Dr Reif made an appeal to all the participants to continue their active interest in the Research Unit. The letters of appreciation and promises of additional support that resulted from the evening were a clear indication of its overall success.

CUP to publish Palestinian history

Professor Moshe Gil, on sabbatical from Tel Aviv University, is currently working in the Genizah Research Unit on letters from the Babylonian yeshivot and from eleventh-century Jewish merchants.

He has taken a lively part in the Unit's activities and addressed a recent meeting of the Hebraica Libraries' Group on a Genizah letter written in Jerusalem in 1057 and its historical significance.

Professor Gil's published books on the Genizah have dealt with Jewish pious foundations in mediaeval Egypt and with the history of Palestine and its Jewish community from the seventh to the end of the eleventh century.

With support from the Genizah Research Unit, Cambridge University Press has agreed to publish a one-volume English edition of Professor Gil's Palestinian history and this should be appearing shortly.

‘Genizah Fragments’ realizes its original bold vision

It was exactly ten years ago, in April 1981, when the newspapers were still full of references to Leonid Brezhnev, Indira Gandhi and Menachem Begin, that this newsletter made its first appearance.

The opening editorial argued the case for such a publication and declared its aim of maintaining “a balance between information about the contents, conservation and study of the Collection on the one hand, and the campaign to win public support for the project on the other.” Efforts were to be made to ensure regular features, publication twice a year, attractive presentation, and circulation to all who might be interested.

Looking back at the twenty issues that have appeared, one is pleasantly surprised at the degree to which the original vision has been realized and the detailed plan of action carried out.

Summaries of scholarly research have brought the latest interpretations to readers and have often dealt with Jewish, Christian and Muslim relations and sources, leading figures such as Saadya, movements like Karaism, and the history of Jewish Palestine. Mediaeval examples of poetry, medical treatment and folklore have certainly raised an eyebrow or two.

Newly discovered fragments of the book of Ben Sira, the writings of Maimonides and his family, and ninth-century Bible translations have attracted special attention, and the decipherment of a fourteenth-century travel guide to the Holy Land has led an archaeologist to the site of an ancient Jewish settlement in Galilee.

Temporary researchers have made contributions to the newsletter and have returned to their various countries of residence; and of the regular contributors on the staff, some have stayed and others have gone on to distinguished posts in the academic world.

Happy events being reported have included the completion of the conservation of all 140,000 fragments, the publication of various volumes in the Genizah Series, and the way that Genizah scholars marked the birthdays of such outstanding academics as S. D. Goitein and E. I. J. Rosenthal.

Genizah Fragments has joyfully brought together members of the family of Solomon Schechter living in the USA, Israel and Australia and has sadly reported the deaths of Goitein and Alexander Scheiber.

Royalty, diplomats, politicians, religious leaders and other personalities have been photographed examining the renowned fragments, and details have been given of the many groups that have come to the Library to view items in the Collection and of the scholarly associations that have built their conferences around the Genizah manuscript.

Of the original supporters listed in 1981, some twenty have regularly maintained their contributions to the Genizah Unit. External funding obtained over the decade now totals more than 325,000.

Continuity and regularity have been features of the newsletter, but attempts have also constantly been made, with professional guidance, to improve its general layout and liveliness.

The printing that began cautiously in the University Library is now skilfully done at the University Printing Service of Cambridge University Press and the current print-run of 1,750 is more than three times the original figure.

Readers have written with praise, comment and criticism, and where appropriate, their contributions have been published. They give every impression that they look forward to a continuation of Genizah Fragments into its second decade. The team comprising the Genizah Research Unit will do its best to oblige.

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


T-S 12.829, part of an eleventh-century Judaeo-Arabic letter in the hand of Hai Gaon discussed in Professor Gil's article

Study of Babylonian Jewry

In 1968, I started my research on the history of the Jews in Muslim lands in the early mediaeval period (frequently called the “geonic period”) with my late teacher, Professor S. D. Goitein. Since then, the main source of documentation for my work has been the Cairo Genizah manuscripts.

I have made many visits to Cambridge in order to read the Genizah letters in the original and to utilize the rich book collections of the University Library. I estimate that more than two-thirds of the so-called “documentary” Genizah is to be found in Cambridge.

For more than twenty years I have been working on the identification, deciphering and transcription of letters and various documents in the belief that historical research on any topic necessitates a wholesale approach.

Before analysing the documents, one has to collect all possible sources in an exhaustive manner, so as to obtain as complete and accurate a picture as possible.

Following this method, I based my studies of heqdesh (community property) on some 170 documents and those of Palestinian history (mainly of the eleventh century) on some 650.

My present project deals with the history of Babylonian Jewry in the early Middle Ages - the first centuries of Muslim rule - and with the position of Jews in the economic life of Muslim lands during that period. A by-product will be a summary of the contemporaneous history of the Jews in Sicily. The project is based largely on a comparative study of data found in the Genizah with other sources.

Although some 100 letters of the Babylonian yeshivot have been published in as many books and articles since the end of the last century, the complete and revised edition I am preparing will result, in many respects, in a better understanding of historical phenomena.

Foremost among these are the office of the exilarch, the early origins of Karaism, and the contacts between the yeshivot and various parts of the Diaspora.

It is clear that the three yeshivot of Babylon and Palestine were not merely institutions of learning, but functioned as authoritative bodies controlling much of the communal life of the Diaspora.

The 850 merchants' letters of the eleventh century provide an opportunity to identify and describe the main families and personalities involved in the international trade of the period.

They also contain essential data on social, political and military events and the manner in which the Babylonian yeshivot provided communal leadership for the greater part of the Jewish world.

An interesting example is fragment T-S 12.829, a letter in Judaeo-Arabic from Hai Gaon, written in his own hand. Emanating from Baghdad on 19 Adar 1318 of the Seleucid era (9 February 1007), it is addressed to Abraham and Tanhum, the sons of Jacob in the city of Fez in North Africa.

The fragment mentions queries sent with a caravan of Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca, probably to be left in Egypt for further dispatch.

The Gaon deplores the death of Abu Yusuf Jacob (ben Nissim) ibn Shahun of Qayrawan of which he was informed by Abu'l-Faraj Joseph (ibn `Awkal) writing to him from Fustat. He expresses his deep sorrow and describes the mourning for the deceased in Baghdad.

The sad news reached him, the Gaon notes, a short time after the demise of his father, Sherira Gaon:

…the quire containing your other queries was sent with the pilgrims' caravan… A few days ago, a letter reached us, from our beloved aluf abu’l-Faraj, may God grant him everlasting honour, in which he wrote to us about the demise of Abu Yusuf, our Lord and master Jacob aluf ben Shahun, may the memory of this righteous be blessed… This was one of the most distressing disasters and blows that we have suffered… and I eulogised him in our meetings and gatherings, and the community wept over him… This was a sorrow added to the sorrow over the demise of our diadem, the Gaon our father… [lines 8-12].

Moshe Gil
Professor of Jewish History, Tel Aviv University


Professor Moshe Gil with a group of visitors to the Unit

Goitein on the Indian route

Almost forty years ago, a “startling discovery” was made in Cambridge University Library's Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection of a few manuscripts containing untapped information on trade with India during the eleventh century.

This discovery induced the late Professor S. D. Goitein to redirect his scholarly pursuits and embark on his illustrious career of Genizah research.

To quote his own words (combined from his Studies in Islamic History and Institutions, Leiden, 1966, pp. 330-31, and “Involvement in Geniza Research” in Religion in a Religious Age, Cambridge, Mass., 1974, pp. 141-42):

“The present writer's occupation with this valuable material came about quite fortuitously. Being interested in the interplay of Muslim and Jewish Law, as it was evident in many records of the rabbinical courts found in the Geniza (in connection with my Introduction to Islamic Law, which I read to the Law Faculty of the Hebrew University), I began collecting such records.

“One day, while browsing through an ancient stock of Geniza papers preserved in the University Library, Cambridge, England, I came upon the minutes of a court session dealing with a business trip from Egypt via Aden to India, made by a merchant from Tripoli, Libya, called Joseph Lebdi.

“Examining other Geniza collections preserved in the same library, and while commuting between Oxford and Cambridge, I was able to piece together the whole dossier of this case, comprising the records of eleven sessions held between November 9, 1097, and August 18, 1098.

“[Lebdi was] carrying with him goods entrusted to him by other merchants, but had lost most of them in shipwreck and other misfortunes.

“I was electrified. The India trade was the backbone of medieval international economy. America was discovered because Columbus was seeking a direct route to India.

“This was a startling discovery. For up to that time, [other than a] very few and disconnected Geniza fragments dealing with the India trade, no documents about the subject had been known in any language prior to the Portuguese.

“If such precious material about as fascinating a subject as the India trade during the eleventh century had escaped the attention of the scholars up to that time, one was entitled to assume that the Geniza contained much more information about it not yet registered.

“Subsequent visits to the libraries concerned proved this assumption more than justified. Slowly, the disjointed fragments became meaningful and the personalities of the more important merchants and communal leaders took shape.”

Goitein worked indefatigably on the India papers. By 1954, he had identified and collected some 130 items.

After his lecture on the project at the meeting of the American Academy for Jewish Research in New York that same year, he was asked by Professor Saul Lieberman if he had found a letter from David, Moses Maimonides' beloved brother, who drowned in the Indian Ocean. Goitein replied that he could write a story about David, but would not dare invent a letter.

Back in Cambridge, he began sorting and selecting the documentary items from the Or. 1080-81 series, which contains Genizah manuscripts purchased by the University Library separately from Schechter's historic haul in Egypt.

The very first item which he “fished out from those crumbling papers” was David's letter to his brother Moses from the Sudanese port `Aydhab before setting out on his journey to India (Or. 1080 J1; Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders, Princeton, 1973, pp. 208-9).

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, some three hundred items had been identified. Goitein envisaged that his book in which these fragments were edited (On the India Route: Documents from the Cairo Geniza on the India Trade of the High Middle Ages = India Book) would soon be published. Thus, 308 India Book texts were identified among the “published” Genizah documents in Shaul Shaked's 1962 bibliography. The intention was to give notice that the project was well under way and thereby to avoid any duplication of effort.

But by this time Goitein had come to a momentous conclusion. The documents concerning the India trade could properly be understood only in the larger context of the Mediterranean Jewish communities from which there merchants set out. Thus began his epoch-making project which culminated in the five volumes of A Mediterranean Society.

This magnum opus demanded all his efforts. “With a heavy heart” he resolved to postpone his beloved India Book until the completion of A Mediterranean Society (personal letter of 20 June, 1976).

Goitein worked intermittently on the India Book for about thirty years, by which time the number of items grew to some 429.

Two months before his death, on the day he mailed to the University of California Press the completed manuscript of the last volume of A Mediterranean Society (17 December, 1984), he returned with renewed energy to his India Book, and, one month before his death, he optimistically wrote to me that the project would in fact be completed.

When Goitein introduced me to Genizah research in 1962, one of my first tasks was to check the transcription of the India Book documents. In accordance with his final wishes, I have now undertaken to prepare for publication the voluminous material arranged by him for his opus.

The scholarly world has eagerly awaited Goitein's India Book since he announced the project in 1954. I intend to fulfil his wish and to make this paragon of Genizah research available in the near future.

Mordechai A. Friedman
Professor of Talmud, Tel Aviv University

900 years of Karaite text

I am spending the current academic year as a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. My stay is providing me with a unique opportunity of working with scholars from around the word in a research group concerned with Semitic languages.

My aim is to develop several of my interests in Semitic linguistics, many of which have arisen out of my research on Genizah manuscripts. The main project with which I am currently occupied is a description of how the Karaite Jews have pronounced Hebrew through the ages.

The inspiration for this came from my study of Genizah fragments of Hebrew Bibles that had been transcribed by Karaites into Arabic script. This was published last year in Cambridge University Library's Genizah Series.

I am currently examining scores of Hebrew Bible manuscripts written by Karaite scribes over a period of 900 years, beginning in the tenth century. I am also making a study of the living Hebrew pronunciation traditionally used by Egyptian and Iraqi Karaites now resident in Israel.

The general situation has now returned to normal after the Gulf War and I am hopeful that my year here will be a fruitful one for my current research and for future scholarly projects on my return to Cambridge.

Geoffrey Khan
Research Associate


Mr Ned Temko (left) with Research Associate Dr Haskell Isaacs

‘JC’ editor’s visit

In a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent, Mr Ned Temko, a native of Washington, was particularly active in covering the events and political personalities of the Middle East.

Now, as the fifteenth editor of the Jewish Chronicle, currently celebrating a century and a half of publication, Mr Temko has a major interest in Anglo-Jewry and its cultural treasure and activities.

Soon after his new appointment, he took the opportunity of visiting Cambridge University Library to view the Genizah Collection and was shown round the Unit by Dr Stefan Reif, its Director, and Dr Haskell Isaacs, one of its Research Associates.

One possible result may be the use of Genizah manuscripts for popular articles of Jewish cultural interest in the Jewish Chronicle.



Artist in footsteps of Giblews

Students of the history of the Genizah discoveries will recall that it was two Scots women living in Cambridge whose purchases in Egypt led Dr Solomon Schechter to the Ben-Ezra Synagogue in Cairo and the “hoard of Hebrew manuscripts” that he brought back from there.

Mrs Agnes Lewis and Mrs Margaret Gibson visited Egypt, Syria and the Holy Land in the 1890s and one of their most exciting visits was to the Santa Katerina monastery in Sinai, where they made friends with the monks and copied precious manuscripts.

London artist Naomi Alexander led a party there in the footsteps of the “Giblews” last year and took photographs and made sketches at the site.

The sketches reproduced above represent Mrs Gibson's impression and Naomi Alexander's equivalent almost 100 years later.

Details of the adventures of Mrs Lewis and Mrs Gibson are to be found in A. Whigham Price's book, The Ladies of Castlebrae (Gloucester, 1985).

The original sketch by Mrs Gibson is in Westminster College, Cambridge, the Principal and Senatus of which have kindly given permission for its reproduction here.

Great Arab poet

“Of all the Arab poets of the medieval period, al-Mutanabbi (915-963) was regarded by many as one of the greatest, while some would maintain that he ranks absolutely first” - thus R. A. Nicholson in his Literary History of the Arabs.

Al-Mutanabbi was one of the most controversial figures in the history of Arabic poetry, for his work reveals political aspirations. Such aspirations, coupled with a correspondingly high degree of pride, were nevertheless eroded among his contemporaries by his humble origin.

The well-known literati understandably resented this parvenu's arrogance. His supporters lauded his mastery of Arabic language, and his rivals envied his good fortune and accused him of plagiarism.

This accusation was not without foundation, since here we find clear evidence of his use of Aristotelian traditions that were already well-established in that period.

Cambridge Genizah fragments T-S Ar.44.2, NS 305.47 and AS 184.96 are part of a study in literary criticism and are currently being prepared for scholarly publication by this writer.

The fragments, which are not dated, were written in Judaeo-Arabic and apparently intended for those educated Jews interested in this genre of literature. They are copied from an original work by a famous man of letters and contemporary of al-Mutanabbi, known as al-Hatimi (d. 998).

The fragments contain a quarter of the original 100 verses. The author gives a short note on the life of al-Mutanabbi and proceeds to quote each of the poet's verses alongside the equivalent saying of Aristotle. His purpose is to show that the Aristotelian tradition lent al-Mutanabbi's verse much of their ethical and philosophical content.

Haskell D. Isaacs
Research Associate

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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University of Cambridge; revised July 2007