[UL Logo]

The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit

Genizah Fragments

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

No. 42 October 2001

On other pages

From The Editor's Desk

Library facilities state of the art

I am writing this message from a brand-new area of the University Library, opened just a few weeks ago. On the floor above me is the Manuscripts Reading Room, and below me the Rare Books Reading Room. Readers are already enjoying the splendid new facilities of both.

Users of these rooms will remember how busy they had become and how difficult it sometimes was to find the necessary space in which to work. The new facilities are superb and state of the art; they are expected to meet the ever-increasing demands of readers who, today, are as likely to be from outside Britain as from within it.

These developments have also brought important improvements for those involved in Genizah research, as readers or as staff members. Research students and established scholars will now be able to consult the fragments - and the rare books relevant to their analysis - in conditions of greater efficiency and comfort.

For their part, the Unit's staff have now moved from offices that, in many respects, were falling behind the times into new accommodation that enables them to make use of the latest technology and to carry out their duties in a greatly improved environment.

Next on the agenda, in the Library's extensive redevelopment plan for the west side of the building complex, is an increase in the storage space required to house its many, precious, and growing collections, and new areas for the expanded provision of electronic and technical resources. Those using the Genizah material in Cambridge and around the world will benefit greatly from these improvements.

Some 20 million has already been raised for the completed stages of the redevelopment, and the Library is now seeking the funds needed to complete the task. This will ensure that, at the present rate of growth, its requirements are met until about 2025.

There are various philanthropic opportunities for close involvement in these exciting developments. The University Librarian, Peter Fox, or I, will be happy to provide details.

Enthusiasts for Genizah research and its growing importance in broader educational contexts who are within easy reach of Chicago will have an unprecedented opportunity of seeing some of Cambridge University Library's most precious and exciting Genizah documents at an exhibition to be held at the Spertus Museum from October 2001 until August 2002.

The exhibition, entitled "Gateway to the Medieval Mediterranean", will include seventeen items from Cambridge University Library, especially couriered to Chicago for this outstanding event. There will also be lectures, publications and educational projects appealing not only to scholars but also to the wider public.

I am looking forward to giving at least one of these lectures and to meeting more supporters in North America interested in involving themselves more closely with the Library's plans for improving its facilities in connection with the conservation, accessibility and description of the Genizah Collections and its many other treasures.

Through the kindness of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, I am participating in a research project there between now and the end of 2001 and am also planning a joint Genizah research project with the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library directed by Dr Michael Ryan at that University.

Stefan C. Reif

Genizah Research Unit

Return to index

[Ambassador Sherard Louis Cowper-Coles]

Ambassador Sherard Louis Cowper-Coles (centre) views Cambridge University Library's Genizah treasures with T-S researchers Mrs Rebecca Jefferson and Dr Ben Outhwaite

Ambassador's visit

A number of distinguished personalities and supporters of the Unit have recently paid visits to Cambridge University Library to view some of the Genizah treasures.

The newly appointed British Ambassador to Israel, Mr Sherard Louis Cowper-Coles, and his wife, Briget, came with a group of Hebrew teachers led by Mrs Rachel Williams. Mrs Linda Noe Laine, from Louisiana, paid a visit together with Professor Nasar Rabbat, Aga Khan Professor of the History of Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.

The John S. Cohen Foundation was represented by the chairman of its trustees, Dr David Cohen, accompanied by Ms Jillian Barker. Sir Ronald Cohen, whose R. & S. Cohen Foundation contributes to the Unit's funds, came with various members of his family.

Programme presenter Simon Blackburn interviewed Professor Stefan Reif for Cambridge University Radio, while a film unit from Russia visited the Library to prepare part of its television documentary about the Khazars and their adoption of Judaism in the eighth century.

The Unit also welcomed members of the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, the Jewish History Group from North-East London, the Ministry of Defence's Army School of Languages, Northwood United Synagogue, the Raoul Wallenberg and First Unity Lodges of B'nai B'rith in London, and Spiro Ark.

Return to index

[Detail from T-S Ar.20.1]

Detail from T-S Ar.20.1, one of the Arabic block prints from the Cairo Genizah now in the Taylor-Schechter Collection

New light shed on block printing

Recent research by Karl Schaefer on Arabic block prints from the Cairo Genizah has shed new light on the practice of block printing in the Middle Ages.

Cambridge University Library holds eleven prints (twenty per cent of all known examples), six from the Michaelides Collection (E28-E33) and five from the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection (T-S Ar.20.1, T-S Ar.38.135, T-S Ar.41.102, T-S NS 306.27, and T-S AS 181.228).

Block printing was originally used in ancient India and China to decorate cloth and make seals. The first book in block print was the "Diamond Sutra" from China, dated 868 ce, and the earliest European examples are thought to be playing cards from fourteenth-century Italy. Examples of medieval Arabic block prints are relatively rare.

A typical print was made from soft wood blocks. A thin sheet of paper bearing a design was pasted face down on to one side of the block. The paper was then brushed with oil to reveal the image in reverse, and the spaces around it were carved out.

The raised areas formed the printing surface. A viscous ink was applied and paper was laid against the block. A stiff brush rubbed against the back of the paper transferred ink to the page.

All of the Genizah block prints are amulets. Fragment T-S AS 181.228 is, however, a seal bearing the name "al-Imam al-Hakim" (a possible reference to the infamous eleventh-century Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi-Allah).

The seal is hexagon-shaped, like the basic form of the "Seal of Solomon" - a popular symbol in medieval Arabic magic. This seal might have comprised part of an amulet or, alternatively, could indicate another use of the Arabic block printing technology.

The remaining prints are all long, rectangular pieces of paper. This was possibly the favoured form for block printed amulets. Such a shape could be rolled up into a scroll, placed in a pouch, and hung around the neck.

The praxis is verified in the texts themselves, which all contain some form of the Arabic phrase "man `allaqa `alayhi hada al-kitab" ("whoever hangs upon himself this writing"...). The word "man" ("whoever") confirms that the text was intended for general application.

The Arabic block prints all contain wrinkles in the paper which, on close examination, may have been produced by uneven printing surfaces and crude materials. Perhaps these block prints were simple, clumsy experiments or the poor-man's version of personalized, handwritten texts.

Yet each print, though crudely realized, is remarkably sophisticated and inventive in its internal features and overall design. This singular aspect of the Arabic block prints, Schaefer concludes, evinces a skill in development among a number of practitioners.

The very existence of printed amulets in the Cairo Genizah indicates a popular demand for protection against commonly encountered ills.

Schaefer's article appeared in Arabica: Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 48 (April, 2001), pages 210-39.

Such Arabic and Hebrew printing before the fifteenth century is one of the themes to be discussed in papers and sessions at the First World Congress of Middle Eastern Studies, to be held in Mainz in September 2002.

Details are available from Dr Geoffrey Roper (gjr2@cam.ac.uk), who directs the Islamic Bibliography Unit at Cambridge University Library.

Rebecca Jefferson

Research Assistant
Genizah Research Unit

Return to index

How you can help the T-S Genizah 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: Professor 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 by telephone (01223) 333000. The Inter-net access is at http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/Taylor-Schechter. Enquiries by e-mail should be addressed to genizah@lib.cam.ac.uk.

A book about the Genizah (sponsored by the Dwek Family Charitable Trust) has recently been published, entitled A Jewish Archive from Old Cairo, by Stefan C. Reif (Curzon Press, Richmond, Surrey). The ISBN is 0 7007 1276 3 (hardback) and 0 7007 1312 3 (paperback). Copies may be obtained from your usual bookseller, or from the publishers by e-mail at publish@curzonpress.co.uk or on their website www.curzonpress.co.uk

Readers not already supporting the Unit are asked to help ensure the continuity of this newsletter by making a small, regular gift. The sum of 10 (UK) or $18 (abroad) is suggested; payment may be made to Cambridge or to "Cambridge in America".

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, "Cambridge in America" supports the Taylor-Schechter Collection with its unfunded grant number 7/78. If you are interested in supporting this project, please contact the Director of the Annual Appeal at: 708 Third Avenue, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10017 (tel: 212-880-2840). Transfers of such funds are regularly made to Cambridge from the USA.

"Cambridge in America" is recognized by the IRS as a charitable organization, and contributions are legally deductible for USA income tax purposes. Contributions are similarly deductible in Canada even if made directly to Cambridge.

Return to index

[Professor Nasar Rabbat]

Dr Erica Hunter (left) and Dr Friedrich Niessen discuss Genizah fragments with (centre to right) Mrs Linda Laine, Mr John Lawton and Professor Nasar Rabbat

Research staff benefit from awards

Major awards from three charitable foundations will support the re-appointment of two full-time and three part-time research staff in the Genizah Research Unit in the academical year 2001-02.

As a result of funds made available by the Friedberg Genizah Project at New York University, and the R. and S. Cohen Foundation and John S. Cohen Foundation, both in London, various projects devoted to the description of the Cambridge Genizah material will be able to make further progress.

Representatives of these funding bodies paid visits to the Unit and were shown some of the most famous manuscripts and the latest research results by staff in the Unit.

Dr Friedrich Niessen and Dr Avihai Shivtiel will be preparing the next volume of Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic items, while Dr Erica Hunter and Mrs Rebecca Jefferson will be preparing data for inclusion in a supplement to the volume, Published Material from the Cambridge Genizah Collections, published in 1988.

Dr Ben Outhwaite, who was recently awarded a Ph.D. by the University of Cambridge for his dissertation on the language and grammar of the medieval Hebrew used in Genizah letters, will be working on important catalogues of the biblical and liturgical fragments.

The Samuel Sebba Charitable Trust has kindly made an award of 2,500 (through the good offices of Mr Clive Marks) and there were welcome renewals of their contributions by the George Balint Charitable Trust (500); the Sidney and Elizabeth Corob Charitable Trust (500); the H. Joels Charitable Trust (500); and the Cyril and Betty Stein Charitable Trust (500). Dr Kathryn L. Johnson generously sent $1,500 through the office of "Cambridge in America" (see "How You Can Help").

Other important funding was received from the Goldberg Family Charitable Trust (350); the Harbour Charitable Trust (250); the Ruth and Jack Lunzer Charitable Trust (250); the Sternberg Charitable Foundation (250); and the Louis and Miriam Shenkin Charities Fund (200).

Among others who kindly assisted the Unit in recent months were the Elliot Philipp Trust (150); Mr Daniel S. Schechter, grandson of Dr Solomon Schechter ($175); the Jewish Research Group (120); B'nai B'rith Raoul Wallenberg Unity Lodge (100); Northwood United Synagogue (100); and Bella and Alan Sint (100, in memory of Wolf and Mania Dudelsack).

Smaller and anonymous - though equally welcome - gifts added in excess of 1,000 to the Genizah Unit's research funds.

Return to index

Three versions of medieval travels

The expression fragmentarische Gelehrte - "experts in fragments" - was apparently coined a century ago by the father of Jewish bibliography, Moses Steinschneider, to refer to Genizah scholars, and certainly not intended as a compliment.

If he meant that whole codices provide a better understanding than fragments, the case I am here noting perhaps justifies his comment.

While looking, last summer, through the Catalogue of Hebrew Manuscripts (codices) at Cambridge University Library that Professor Stefan Reif had recently published, I came across a unique text of an earlier version of one of the most important maqamat (prose-poems) of the Jewish Middle Ages, Sefer ha-Tahkemoni (Add.1519, Reif no. 648), by R. Judah al-Harizi (1165-1225).

Most of the author's life was spent in and around what was then the edge of the western world, in Spain and later in Provence. But it was in the East that he wrote the three versions of this itinerary, two in Hebrew, included in chapter 46 of his Tahkemoni, and the third, as an independent treatise, in Arabic, towards the end of his life, between the years 1217 and 1225.

The itinerary includes a detailed description of his travels in such eastern cities as Alexandria, Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus, Aleppo, Mosul and Baghdad.

The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection, for its part, provides us with a fragmentary copy of the expanded Judaeo-Arabic version containing many poems written in honour of people whom he met. A portion of this long Arabic maqama (T-S 8Ka5.1) was published by H. Hirschfeld in JQR 15 (1903), pages 683-88, 693-97.

Other fragments, mainly from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and from the second Judaeo-Arabic Firkovitch Collection in the Russian State Library, St Petersburg, are to be fully published by J. Blau and myself in our forthcoming critical edition, Mas`ei Yehudah.

The different versions of the book allow us, inter alia, to follow an interesting development in the text of the itinerary through al-Harizi's dealings with one of the most important scholars of his time, Daniel Ha-Bavli, of Baghdad.

Maimonides's son, Abraham, the Nagid of Egyptian Jewry, relates in his Milhamot Ha-Shem (1235 ce) that Daniel Ha-Bavli, a disciple of the Baghdadi Gaon, Samuel ben `Ali, settled in Damascus and from there sent him critiques of his father's Mishneh Torah and Sefer Ha-Mitsvot. These were boldly refuted by Abraham in 1213.

Some years later (after 1217?), Joseph Ibn Sham'un Ha-Ma`aravi (the "westerner") - a famous student of Maimonides to whom he dedicated his Guide - informed Abraham from Aleppo that Daniel had composed a new treatise in which he attacked Maimonides and the earlier Geonim, probably having in mind those who espoused rationalistic methods.

Joseph indignantly asked the Nagid to excommunicate Daniel, but Abraham, with his customary gentleness, refused to accede to this request since he maintained that Daniel differed from Maimonides only about "demons and other such minor matters".

Joseph and other enthusiastic admirers of Maimonides were not satisfied with this peaceful reply and sent word to the Exilarch, who promptly issued the herem (ban) against Daniel. Daniel had to recant his views before the ban could be lifted.

It seems that the three versions of al-Harizi's itinerary virtually coincided with the three stages in the career of Daniel Ha-Bavli.

In the first version of the Tahkemoni (the Cambridge codex), at the opening of the section dedicated to his visit to Damascus, he pays warm tribute to Daniel Ha-Bavli, in accordance with his high rank: "And there I saw the great sage R. Daniel Ha-Bavli, who is a fountain of knowledge and who shatters the cedars in his wisdom"...

In his extensively elaborated second version, however, mention of the excommunicated savant is entirely missing, al-Harizi having apparently censored his own work under the influence of the ban on Ha-Bavli.

Only in the later, Arabic version of the maqama does the name of Daniel Ha-Bavli reappear, towards the end of the description of his Damascus visit.

Here, Ha-Bavli is even honoured with a eulogy culminating in a witty remark: "Whoever finds himself celebrated in the East [i.e., is originally from Baghdad] is not in need of praise from the West" [i.e., that of al-Harizi himself, or maybe even of Joseph Ha-Ma`aravi].

Joseph Yahalom

Professor of Hebrew Literature
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

(prepared for publication by Rebecca Jefferson and Shulie Reif)

Return to index

Use of Hebrew in Genizah letters

"Many times have we written to our distinguished one, beloved of the academy, and our heart was preoccupied with the lateness of his replies until it became clear to us that the `godless congregation' had been taking them."

So writes the scholar Nathan ben Abraham to a supporter during his protracted struggle to take control of the Yeshivat Ha-Sevi - the Palestinian Academy - from its head, the Gaon Solomon ben Judah, in the second quarter of the eleventh century.

The words show the extremely bitter rivalry and distrust that existed between Nathan and supporters of the incumbent Gaon. They also demonstrate the importance attached to letters as a means of communication and a tool of political machination.

As fascinating as the content of these letters is, the medium itself is of considerable interest. Most letters preserved in the Genizah are in Judaeo-Arabic, the written version of the Jewish vernacular in the Genizah world; but there are a significant number, such as Nathan ben Abraham's, that are composed entirely in Hebrew, a virtually dead vernacular but a language ever-present in the cultural life of the Jewish community.

It was studied by every educated Jew and, in particular, cultivated by the scholar. Its regular oral use is, however, assumed to be confined to the synagogue, and poetry appears to have formed the bulk of literary composition.

The Hebrew letter, though, shows that the holy language could still function beyond a limited literary-liturgical sphere.

Eli, "the Expert", ben Abraham, on the run from prison, uses Hebrew when he writes a short note arranging a meeting; Samuel ben Moses acknowledges receipt of a money-order; Solomon ben Judah discusses midrashim, laments his growing infirmity and expresses heartfelt wishes against his opponent, yemito 'el, "God kill him". The Hebrew letter is employed for all these subjects, and many more.

In one field, though, Hebrew is particularly sparse. The Genizah has turned up many of the business letters of Jewish merchants and these are written in Judaeo-Arabic.

It may be argued that the reason these letters were not composed in Hebrew is that the language was simply not up to the task; that, as a predominantly literary-liturgical idiom, Hebrew lacked the correct terminology for describing the commercial activities of the "modern" world.

Certainly, to describe adequately in a Hebrew letter all the required items would have involved dredging up obscure words, coining new ones or inserting many Arabic terms.

We do, however, find that Hebrew was adequate for similar tasks in non-commercial correspondence, as, for example, in discussing the ever-present and burdensome poll tax or the sometimes complex matters of inheritance, without ever needing to fall back on foreign - that is, Arabic - terms.

A more convincing explanation is therefore that the difference in usage between Judaeo-Arabic and Hebrew was between the communicative need and the aesthetic. The Judaeo-Arabic letter was utilitarian, its language transparent; for the Hebrew letter, to a certain degree, "the medium is the message".

This may be an oversimplification, but in broad terms it goes some way to explaining the situation obtaining in the Genizah letters.

The choice of Hebrew or Judaeo-Arabic was not so much the ability of the language itself but the perception of it. Style was important, no matter what language was employed.

Letter-writers who were rushed, ill or simply modest can be found apologizing for their stylistic shortcomings, whether writing in Hebrew or Judaeo-Arabic. Nevertheless, well-written Arabic letters, though impressive, could never match, in the scholarly eyes of the Jewish community, the language of the Torah, the first language.

Without a doubt, it was easier for a writer to produce a letter in the vernacular than in Hebrew. Where there were familiarity and little need of formality - as between close family members, for instance - Judaeo-Arabic predominates.

Solomon ben Judah always writes to his son in Judaeo-Arabic, and the letters lack the florid openings or succession of praises which generally characterize more formal missives. But, when the Gaon corresponds with senior dignitaries of the Egyptian Jewish communities, it is usually in ornate letters written in Hebrew.

There is not necessarily any difference in the subject matter of the letters, but, as the most senior religious authority in the land, it was important for him to demonstrate his erudition. Moreover, since his position was at times extremely precarious, it was necessary to show what was perceived as proper respect to his powerful supporters and potential allies.

The businessman, on the other hand, had little need of aesthetics. His commercial agent or business partner was impressed by his business acumen rather than his Hebrew prose style, and this was most easily expressed in Judaeo-Arabic.

Thanks to the scholars, the judges and the educated layfolk, Hebrew remained a communicative medium throughout the Genizah period.

Ben Outhwaite

Research Assistant
Genizah Research Unit

Return to index

Intriguing questions

A booklet by Professor Stefan Reif, entitled Why Medieval Hebrew studies?, has just been published by Cambridge University Press. It is a slightly expanded version of his inaugural lecture delivered in November 1999, with the addition of footnotes and plates.

The study begins by sketching some of the connections between Cambridge, Jews, and Hebrew studies in the Middle Ages, and proceeds to define "Medieval Hebrew Studies" from the Near Eastern viewpoint. Examples are offered of remarkable theology, elements of ecumenism, and interesting linguistic theory among the medieval Jewish writers.

Translating some of the material as he moves along, Reif cites, from the Genizah sources, moving liturgy that reflects Jewish religious devotion to Jerusalem and the land of Israel.

From that same source comes more prosaic material that is no less fascinating and that raises intriguing historical questions.

There are fifty-three pages, four plates, and an index. The ISBN is 0 521 01047 0 and the booklet retails at 8.95.

Return to index

Edited by Stefan C. Reif
If you have any questions, please e-mail genizah@lib.cam.ac.uk
Return to the Genizah Fragments index
Return to the Taylor-Schechter Home Page
Return to Cambridge University Library's Home Page

University of Cambridge; revised May 2007