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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. 33 April 1997

On other pages

T-S projects benefit by £68,500

The major part of the funding required for the Genizah Unit's research projects has been supplied by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) through grants to the University Library made as a result of the Follett Report.

The sum of £68,500 has recently been received and complements other contributions from regular supporters.

The Sobell Fund has made an award of £5,000 in the current year, and the Jewish Memorial Council recently contributed £2,000.

Major assistance has also been received from the Samuel Sebba Charitable Trust (£1,500); the Kessler Foundation (£1,554), whose income is derived largely from the Jewish Chronicle; the Harbour Trust (£1,000, through Barbara and Stanley Green); and the Goldberg Charitable Trust (£1,000).

Generous support has again been received from Mrs Marjorie Glick (£526); the Athelney Charitable Trust (£500); Gertie and Harry Landy (£500); Sir Trevor Chinn, of Lex Services plc (£500); Cyril and Betty Stein (£500); Ralph and Zehava Kohn (£500); and Mr Joe Dwek (£400).

Welcome renewals of their contributions have been made by Fred and Della Worms (£250); Ruth and Michael Phillips (£250); Mr Arnold Oppenheimer (£250); and Mrs Helena Sebba (£250).

The Unit is also grateful to Diana and Anthony Rau (£125); Mr David Pinto (£100); Harvey and Adrienne Beckman (£100); Barry and Rosalind Landy (£100); and Mr S. W. Laufer (£100).

In addition, the sum of over £2,000 has been received anonymously and in smaller amounts. All contributors are warmly thanked for their interest and generosity.

The Genizah Research Unit is grateful to the family of the late David Lauffer, of London, for its generosity in substantially contributing to the expenses involved in producing this issue of Genizah Fragments. The Unit recalls with affection his support and interest over a lengthy period.

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Descriptive volume of Hebrew manuscripts

[At the launch of Hebrew Manuscripts were: Dr Gordon Johnson, Peter Fox, and Amiram Magid]
At the launch of Hebrew Manuscripts are (left to right) Dr Gordon Johnson, Chairman of the Cambridge University Press Syndicate; Peter Fox, Cambridge University Librarian; and Amiram Magid, Minister Plenipotentiary at the Israeli Embassy

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For some 500 years, Hebrew books have been counted among the treasures of the University of Cambridge. The Cambridge University Library's current holdings of Hebrew manuscripts (including some 128 Genizah fragments not in its major Genizah collections) currently exceed 1,000.

A wide range of Hebrew literature is represented, with substantial numbers of manuscripts in Bible, Bible versions and commentaries, Talmud, halakhah, liturgy, science, poetry, philosophy and kabbalah.

The bulk of the material is late mediaeval, but there are also earlier items, among them the famous Nash Papyrus from the second pre-Christian century.

Although this collection is among the world's most important, attempts, beginning in the mid-Victorian period, to describe it in detail, and to publish the results, have never met with success.

Cambridge University Press has now published Hebrew Manuscripts at Cambridge University Library: a description and introduction, by Stefan Reif, assisted by Shulie Reif, as no. 52 in the University of Cambridge's Oriental Publications.

The volume was launched at Cambridge University Library by Mr Amiram Magid, Minister Plenipotentiary at the Embassy of Israel in London. Among those present in the distinguished audience were Professor Raphael Loewe and Dr Michael Loewe, the sons of Herbert Loewe, who prepared a handlist of the manuscripts in the early part of this century.

The volume provides careful descriptions that will guide researchers in codicological matters and will alert them to data of special scholarly significance, without overwhelming them with the kind of prolix treatment that characterized manuscript study in the nineteenth century.

The volume has benefited not only from local Cambridge expertise but also from world-wide scholarly co-operation and includes many references to recent publications, as well as a representative selection of photographed folios.

There are essays on the history of Hebraists and Hebraica at Cambridge that will interest historians, as well as extensive indexes that will provide easy access to the rich and varied contents of the descriptions.

The ISBN is 0 521 58339 X and the volume, which has 626 pages, retails at £75.

[A 17th-century botanical guide [Hebrew manuscript, Ee.5.7]]
A 17th-century botanical guide [Hebrew manuscript, Ee.5.7] illustrated in the newly published volume

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Genizah as a source of assistance

Ramon Philips, of Cambridge, has written to report on the Genizah as an unexpected source of assistance to him in a course on complementary medicine.

His first project was on the history of massage, and he was disappointed to find very little information before the Swedish doctor, H. P. Ling, systematized massage techniques in 1813. Indeed, the ancient and mediaeval sources seemed mute on the subject.

Until, that is, his attention was drawn to the medical items in the Cambridge University Genizah Collections described by the late Haskell Isaacs in his Medical and Para-Medical Manuscripts (Cambridge, 1994).

There he was delighted to encounter five important references to medical conditions for which Jewish doctors in the Mediterranean area of the Middle Ages employed massage techniques as the first professional option.

Such techniques were used for gum disease, relief of pain, management of patients, paralysis, and excesses of dryness or moistness.

Mr Philips kindly wrote to the Director of the T-S Unit to express his gratitude to the Genizah, to Dr Isaacs, and to Genizah Fragments.

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Echoes of a proud past

[The Ben Ezra Synagogue before restoration]
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[The Ben Ezra Synagogue after restoration]
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The Ben Ezra Synagogue before and after restoration (from Fortifications and the Synagogue, edited by Phyllis Lambert, of Montreal, Canada)

Fortifications and the Synagogue, edited by Phyllis Lambert (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London), is an eye-catching book that records all aspects of the restoration project of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo (Fustat).

The project sprang from the Camp David Agreement, signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979, and proceeded during the next decade, under Phyllis Lambert's direction, to reach its successful completion in August, 1991.

The technical and conservationist aspects of the project are covered in parts I and II of the volume, which appear after a short foreword discussing the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities in Egypt, and a detailed introduction which surveys the history of the project.

Part I relates specifically to the archaeological and historical topography of the Roman fortress of Babylon, within which the synagogue and the mediaeval churches and houses stand today. Part II is devoted to the issues and principles of the synagogue's restoration.

The results of this integrative approach to the synagogue's restoration will not fail to strike all who leaf through the beautifully illustrated plans, engravings and photographs.

They are worthy of the pulsating religious and scholarly life which was enacted in its precincts during the height of its activity between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, when Cairo served as an important centre of the Jewish world.

The building, known in mediaeval documents as kanisat al-shamiyyin (the synagogue of the Palestinian Jewish community in Cairo), was named in modern times the Ben Ezra Synagogue for its association with a Torah manuscript stored there and said to be in Ezra's hand.

Its original foundation is dated to c.950ce, though it subsequently went through several stages of demolition and reconstruction.

The history of the synagogue building and the position it held in the life of the Jews of Egypt is described in Part III.

One chapter is dedicated to the material history of the synagogue structure, its contents and physical surroundings, which is based entirely on Genizah documents dating from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries.

It includes the inscriptions found on the synagogue's wooden fragments which are scattered in various institutions, and which were brought together for the first time as a result of this research.

These sources highlight the synagogue's role not only as the focus of communal and spiritual life, and of public and financial functions, but also as a place of higher learning and the seat of the religious court during the Fatimid period.

The travellers' accounts that capture the history and physical state of the synagogue from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries reveal that it gradually ceased to serve as a centre of worship from around 1488.

It was transformed during the Mameluke and Ottoman periods from a centre of ritual and communal activity to a sacred place and eventually to a place of pilgrimage and tourism, a situation that continued until 1947, when the Jewish community of Egypt numbered 60,000. Late-1940s' black and white photographs, including one outstanding wedding portrait taken in front of the synagogue ark, portray, more than a thousand words can, the vibrancy of this modernized community later caught in the fatal crossroads of history and severed from its past.

The several scores of Jews who remain in Egypt today symbolize the dilemma of Jews from Arab countries whose departure from their homelands left their unique material heritage intact, but as an empty shell which, while echoing the grandure of its past, suffers from a lack of real, current connections.

The restoration project of the Ben Ezra Synagogue therefore serves as a model for other endeavours of this kind, and if its measure of success in pouring new content and life into this monument to past glory stands the test of time, it will indeed fulfil the wider expectations of its initiators.

The material history meticulously and vibrantly recorded in this volume has long been needed as a complement to the spiritual and literary history captured by the 200,000 manuscript fragments found in the synagogue's Genizah chamber, a treasure within a treasure, whose ongoing research fills the volumes of mediaeval Jewish study.

A general survey of the events leading to its rediscovery by Solomon Schechter, the centenary of which is currently being marked at a number of special conferences and exhibitions around the world, closes this splendid volume.


Lecturer, Tel Aviv University

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Library's electronic odyssey

In a recent issue of CAM, the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, Jonathan Gregson wrote about the University's "electronic" odyssey and referred to the Genizah Collection:

"One of the most apparent signs of the University Library's electronic odyssey is its presence on the World Wide Web (URL:http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk). This means that anyone anywhere in the world with a computer, modem and Internet address can consult the library's home page and sub-directories.

"Over 10,000 Web consultations are already made each month, as well as 25,000 catalogue consultations over the Internet. Starting from the home page, you can now take a Virtual Reality Tour of the library - a chance to revisit on your computer the site of frantic cramming for finals or, more fun perhaps, see some images from the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection, an extraordinary thousand-year-old archive of Hebrew and Jewish literature rescued from a Cairo synagogue in the nineteenth century.

"When you're looking after irreplaceable documents like the 140,000 items in the Taylor-Schechter collection, electronic access has practical benefits too: every enquiry by computer might mean one less person handling the fragile originals."

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From the Editor's desk

[Professor Jacob Sussmann]
Professor Jacob Sussmann opening a session of the centenary conference at the Hebrew University

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Centenary stamp, studies and screenplay

Genizah centenary celebrations are continuing to be held, and planned, at various institutions around the world.

I was pleased that my presence in Israel, attached to the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, enabled me to participate in a major conference sponsored jointly by the Jewish National and University Library, the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University.

The conference, which occupied three full days in late December, attracted an international group of Genizah scholars. They were welcomed to the sessions in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by an impressive array of rectors, deans and faculty chairmen.

More than thirty lectures were delivered, and the texts of most of these, edited by Mordechai Friedman, are expected to appear in Te'uda 15, a series devoted to Hebrew and Jewish studies and published by Tel Aviv University.

I was particularly gratified that Mrs Reuma Weizman, the wife of the President of Israel, Mr Ezer Weizman, attended the session in which I, and two former Cambridge colleagues, Dr Meira Polliack and Dr B. M. Lerner, delivered our lectures.

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, with the close co-operation of Cambridge University Library, is currently planning a major exhibition of Genizah fragments at the Museum from June until November, 1997.

The Museum's senior Judaica staff, Dr Iris Fishoff and Mrs Daisy Raccah-Djivre, with the assistance of Mrs Shulie Reif, and the involvement of a team of Genizah specialists, are arranging an exciting presentation based on some fifty items, mainly from Cambridge, with accompanying artefacts and audio-visual attractions.

In New York, the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Jewish Museum are planning to mount an exhibition and to host a series of lectures in the latter part of 1997.

The World Congress of Jewish Studies, with the co-operation of the Ben-Zvi Institute and the Society for Judaeo-Arabic Studies, is devoting part of its Jerusalem 1997 conference to the Genizah theme.

Cambridge University Library intends to mount an exhibition of its own later this year and early in 1998; and it also has plans for exciting developments on the Internet through a joint project with Princeton University.

Credit is due to the Jewish Book Annual for its initiative in dealing with the centenary in its volume 53 (1995-96), pp. 1-28; to the Biblical Archaeology Review for devoting an item to the Ben-Sira discoveries in its issue 22/5 (September-October, 1996), pp. 54-62 and 70; and to Le'ela for including an essay (no. 42; September, 1996) on the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo.

Israeli Educational Television ran a series on the Genizah through 1996, and reports of the December 1996 centenary conference appeared in Haaretz, and the Jerusalem Post, and on Israel Television, channel 1.

Given all these exciting developments, and the news that the Philatelic Service of the Israel Postal Authority is planning a stamp to mark the centenary of the first Genizah discoveries and the fiftieth anniversary of the Dead Sea Scrolls, one may confidently assert that Hebrew manuscript research is currently receiving the wide attention that it undoubtedly deserves.


Director, Taylor-Schechter

Genizah Research Unit

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140,000 facets of an archival gem

When I returned to Cambridge in 1994 as University Librarian, it struck me forcibly how little the Library's collections as a whole were known, even to regular users.

Everyone, of course, was familiar with the materials which supported his or her own area of research, whether they were the modern books acquired by legal deposit or purchase, a rare books collection such as the Acton Library or the incunables, or a manuscript collection like the Darwin Papers or Vickers archive.

But few people have any idea of the richness of the Library's holdings, and there was little, apart from the scholarly histories, to help them appreciate what is stored in this academic treasure-house.

I therefore suggested to Cambridge University Press that it might publish a book which would not be an academic history of the Library but a series of essays, lavishly illustrated, on some aspects of our collections. It reacted enthusiastically, and our book was under way.

Then came the hard part. In a volume of around 80,000 words, regarded by the Press as a reasonable size, what should we include?

It rapidly became clear, in discussions with colleagues both inside and outside the Library, that we could easily produce several volumes of this size, each dealing with a completely different selection from the Library's collections and each equally valid, exciting and representative.

I have no doubt that, when the book appears in 1998, the reaction of many readers will be: "Why didn't they include XYZ?"

About the inclusion of some collections, however, there was no doubt. And the archive of Genizah fragments was one of them. This collection, representing the record of some thirteen centuries of Jewish history, is one of the jewels in the Library's crown.

Readers of Genizah Fragments will not need to be told of the extraordinary range of material included in the collection, from sacred texts to children's primers; a letter from a rabbi seeking to escape the advancing crusaders; writings of ordinary people and of the great and powerful, such as Maimonides, Judah Halevi and Joseph Karo; in all, a collection of over 140,000 items.

In the University Library, we receive many visitors, ranging from parties of senior citizens to heads of state. The fascination of the Genizah fragments is quite astonishing to all of them.

When they see Dr Reif's show-and-tell box of the last remaining fragments in the condition in which they arrived from the Cairo Genizah, exactly 100 years ago, they marvel at the way these crumpled pieces of paper and vellum have been flattened, sorted and placed in protective Melinex envelopes, where they can be handled without risk of damage.

The GOLD Project is a new source of interest to the lay person and a major new scholarly resource. The project, to make some of the fragments available on the World Wide Web, was described in an earlier issue of Genizah Fragments (No.30).

I am delighted that we have been able to obtain funding to augment the support from the Genizah Research Unit for a new five-year post in the Library, which has allowed us to appoint a specialist in manuscript digitization, part of whose work will be to continue the GOLD Project.

By the time you read this, we shall have welcomed the President of the State of Israel to the Library on his State Visit to Britain. And, next year, the publication of the book on the Library's treasures will bring the collection, among many others, to the attention of a still wider public.


Cambridge University Librarian

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Sleepy fragments awakened

On his return from his visit to Cairo, in the winter of 1896/97, Solomon Schechter wrote a report of his discovery of the Genizah in the Ben Ezra Synagogue. It was published in The Times on 3 August, 1897, and subsequently reproduced in the second volume of his collected essays, Studies in Judaism (Philadelphia, 1908), pp.1-30. To mark the centenary of his return to Cambridge with 140,000 Genizah fragments, part of his original article is printed here.

The Genizah of the old Jewish community... represents a combination of sacred lumber-room and secular record office. It was such a Genizah that I set out to visit in the middle of December, 1896. My destination was Cairo.

The conviction of the importance of its Genizah had grown upon me as I examined the various manuscripts which had found their way from it into English private and public libraries, and which had already led to important discoveries. I therefore determined to make a pilgrimage to the source whence they had come.

My plan recommended itself to the authorities of the University of Cambridge, and found warm supporters in Professor Sidgwick, Dr. Donald MacAlister, and especially Dr. Taylor, the Master of St. John's College.

To the enlightened generosity of this great student and patron of Hebrew literature it is due that my pilgrimage became a regular pleasure trip to Egypt, and extended into the Holy Land.

Now that the sources of the Nile are being visited by bicycles, there is little fresh to be said about Cairo and Alexandria... Cairo is not... promising at the first glance that one gets on the way from the station to the hotel.

Everything in it calculated to satisfy the needs of the European tourist is sadly modern, and my heart sank within me when I reflected that this was the place whence I was expected to return laden with spoils, the age of which would command respect even in our ancient seats of learning.

However, I felt reassured after a brief interview with the Reverend Aaron Bensimon, the Grand Rabbi of Cairo, to whom I had an introduction from the Chief Rabbi, the Very Reverend Dr. Hermann Adler. From him I soon learnt that Old Cairo would be the proper field for my activity, a place old enough to enjoy the respect even of a resident of Cambridge.

I must remark here that the Genizah, like the rest of the property of the synagogue in Cairo, is vested in the Rabbi and the wardens for the time being. To this reverend gentleman and to Mr. Youssef M. Cattaui, the President of the Jewish Community, my best thanks are due for the liberality with which they put their treasures at my disposal, and for the interest they showed, and the assistance they gave me in my work.

I drove to this ancient Genizah accompanied by the Rabbi. We left our carriage somewhere in the neighbourhood of the "Fortress of Babylon," whence the Rabbi directed his steps to the so-called Synagogue of Ezra the Scribe.

This synagogue, which in some writings bears also the names of the prophets Elijah and Jeremiah, is well known to old chroniclers and travellers, such as Makreese, Sambari, and Benjamin of Tudela.

I cannot here attempt to reproduce the legends which have grown up around it in the course of time. Suffice it to say that it has an authentic record extending over more than a thousand years...

The Genizah, which probably always formed an integral part of the synagogue, is now situated at the end of the gallery, presenting the appearance of a sort of windowless and doorless room of fair dimensions. The entrance is on the west side, through a big, shapeless hole reached by a ladder.

After showing me over the place and the neighbouring buildings, or rather ruins, the Rabbi introduced me to the beadles of the synagogue, who are at the same time the keepers of the Genizah, and authorised me to take from it what, and as much as, I liked...

The task was by no means easy, the Genizah being very dark, and emitting clouds of dust when its contents were stirred, as if protesting against the disturbance of its inmates. The protest is the less to be ignored as the dust settles in one's throat, and threatens suffocation.

I was thus compelled to accept the aid offered me by the keepers of the place, who had some experience in such work from their connexion with former acquisitions (perhaps they were rather depredations) from the Genizah.

Of course, they declined to be paid for their services in hard cash of so many piastres per diem. This was a vulgar way of doing business to which no self-respecting keeper of a real Genizah would degrade himself.

The keepers insisted the more on bakhshish, which, besides being a more dignified kind of remuneration, has the advantage of being expected also for services not rendered...

All these treasures are now stored up in the Library of the University of Cambridge, where they are undergoing the slow process of a thorough examination. The results of this examination will certainly prove interesting alike to the theologian and the historian.

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Fishing Net

Many enquiries relating to various aspects of mediaeval Hebrew and Jewish studies are addressed on the Internet to genizah@lib.cam.ac.uk.

Researchers in the Unit provide replies when this can be done within a short time, or refer the enquirer to the sources of further information.

Occasionally, however, the question being asked is rather more than may reasonably be expected, such as the following message of a few months ago:

"I am a student of Hebrew literature at the ... University. I would like to have more information about the connection between the Hebrew Middle-Ages poetry in Spain and in Italy. My examination is tomorrow morning! Thank you so very much!"

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How you can help the T-S Unit

If you would like to receive Genizah Fragments regularly, to enquire about the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection, or to know how you may assist with its preservation and study, please write to: Dr S. C. Reif, Director of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, at Cambridge University Library, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DR, England.

The Library may also be reached by fax (01223) 333160, or telephone (01223) 333000. The Internet access is at http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/Taylor-Schechter.

Readers not already supporting the Unit are asked to help ensure the continuity of this publication by making a small, regular gift. The sum of £5 (UK) or $10 (abroad) is suggested; payment may be made to Cambridge or to the American Friends.

All contributions to the Unit, whether for the research programme or for its other activities, are made to the "University of Cambridge", which enjoys charitable status for tax and similar purposes.

In the USA, all contributions may be directed to the President of the American Friends of Cambridge University, Mr Stephen C. Price, P.O. Box 9123, JAF BLG, New York, N.Y. 10087-9123, USA. Transfers of such funds are regularly made from the USA.

Contributions in Canada should be made payable to the University of Cambridge and may be sent to the Director of Cambridge University Development Office, Mr David Rampersad, at 188 Eglington Avenue E (Suite 703), Toronto, Canada M4P 2X7.

The AFCU is recognized by the IRS as a charitable organization and contributions are legally deductible for United States income tax purposes. They are similarly deductible in Canada even if made directly to Cambridge.

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Edited by Stefan C. Reif

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©University of Cambridge; last updated February 1998