T-S Unit looks to past and future

[Professor Robert Gordon]

Professor Robert Gordon lecturing at a conference in Dublin

Every so often, the discovery of previously unknown texts opens up important new directions for Jewish studies.

This happened, for example, in 1928-29, when a Syrian peasant accidentally ploughed up a flagstone covering a subterranean passage-way at the site of Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) in northern Syria. Thus were Ugaritic studies born.

Less than twenty years later, as the most familiar version of the story has it, a Bedouin shepherd threw a stone into a Qumran cave, heard an unexpected sound, and, returning later, discovered the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Both these major finds, more or less equally fortuitous, have affected biblical studies, in particular, in a big way.

In terms of sheer volume and diversity of content, the 140,000 fragments emanating from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, and brought to the Cambridge University Library in 1897, put both Ugarit and Qumran in the shade.

The Genizah discovery also differs in that chance did not play a significant part. Solomon Schechter was acting on a well-founded hunch when he went to Cairo in the winter of 1896-97 in the hope of being able to examine the contents of the Ben Ezra Genizah.

The happy result is that Cambridge University now has this priceless collection within its own main library.

My acquaintance with the Genizah Collection began during my Ph.D. researches on the Targum to the Prophets in the early 1970s.

One of my secondary sources mentioned that fragments of a Palestinian Targum of Joshua 5 were among the Genizah manuscripts housed in Cambridge. At the University Library, I eventually tracked down MS T-S B13.12, which, as I recall, was then kept with other unconserved fragments between papers in a cardboard box.

The business took a little longer than expected, because my source had wrongly recorded the reference as T-S B13.2. It was easier for such mistakes to occur in pre-Reifian times!

More recently, a monograph devoted to this text has been published by Heinz Fahr and Uwe Glessmer (see Genizah Fragments 27 [1994], 3), and deserves to be added to the long list of published works based on Genizah material as displayed on the World-Wide Web.

Over the years, the Genizah Collection has brought many scholars to Cambridge for research and consultation. Hebrew and Jewish studies locally have also continued to benefit greatly from the presence of the Collection in the University Library.

In the Faculty of Oriental Studies, our specialist language students are encouraged to make the acquaintance of the Collection during their undergraduate days, while one of the examination papers for the postgraduate degree of Master of Philosophy (M.Phil.) is based on Genizah texts.

At present we have postgraduates at both the M.Phil. and the Ph.D. level who are engaging closely with Genizah texts under the supervision of Dr Geoffrey Khan, who himself spent ten years as a full-time researcher in the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit before his appointment to a Faculty lectureship.

As we mark the centenary of the arrival of the Genizah fragments in Cambridge, we have an opportunity to salute all those who, from Solomon Schechter on, have worked to make the texts available and to unlock some of their significance in terms of language, history, society and much more besides.

As Dr Reif and his colleagues would remind us, there is very much more to be done, and the best commemoration will be the enabling and the execution of further study of the texts both by scholars within Cambridge and, not least, by members of the wider international scholarly community.


Regius Professor of Hebrew

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ŠUniversity of Cambridge; last updated January 1999