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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. 51 April 2006

475,000 grant

The work of the T-S Genizah Research Unit has received a remarkable boost in the form of a grant of over 475,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The award is intended to fund the Unit’s ongoing work of decipherment and description, the preparation of new catalogues, and the digitization of some 16,000 Genizah manuscripts.

This largest single sum ever received by the Unit will ensure the continuation of its projects for the next three years, and their successful completion. It represents a massive stride towards the ultimate goal of describing and digitizing the entire corpus of Genizah manuscripts at Cambridge University Library.

The sum was awarded under the AHRC’s Research Grants scheme, which was established to provide major financial support to well-defined and high-quality research projects and for which competition is fierce.

The international reputation of Cambridge University Library, the importance of the Genizah manuscripts, and the T-S Unit’s superb record of successful research projects all combined to give the proposal the scope, quality and credibility required.

When supplemented by existing and promised funding, such as the major awards made by the Canadian-based Friedberg Genizah Project, the grant will meet the cost of three full-time researchers in the Unit, a digitization technician in the Imaging Department, and the necessary digitizing equipment.

It will thus fund the compilation of the new bibliography of Genizah material, the description of the Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic fragments in the Additional Series, the cataloguing of liturgical texts (in a joint project with Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University in Israel), and the listing of Hebrew documents throughout the Taylor-Schechter Collection.

This will be the Unit’s first truly integrated project, with description of the fragments going hand-in-hand with their digitization and online display.

At the end of three years, it should be possible to search the online database of the new material on our web-site, to read the catalogue entry, and to view complete and detailed images of the fragments described in the course of the project.

This is an ambitious aim — requiring the researchers to describe an estimated 16,000 fragments, and the Library’s Imaging Department to produce an estimated 32,000 digital images — but one confidently within the Unit’s reach, given the professionalism and experience of its staff and the introduction of new technology to the Imaging Department.

The T-S Unit is determined to repay the confidence shown in it by the AHRC and the scholarly community. Genizah researchers around the world and the interested public will be among the beneficiaries.

two men, box, shelves

Jacques Mosseri-Marlio (right) presenting the Mosseri Genizah Collection to Professor Stefan Reif of Cambridge University Library

Mosseri scoop

The Jacques Mosseri Genizah Collection, containing more than 5,000 fragments — the only remaining major corpus of Genizah material in private hands — is to be housed at Cambridge University Library for at least the next twenty years.

The Collection has yet to be professionally conserved and made fully available to the world of scholarship.

The sons of Jacques Mosseri — Claude and Gerard — were anxious to find an appropriate way of dealing with the literary treasure bequeathed to them by their father, and over the past several years have been in regular touch with the Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge about how best to proceed.

Their cousin, Jeffrey Mosseri, of New York, and their nephew, Jacques Mosseri-Marlio, of London, actively participated in the discussions, which closely involved the Unit’s Director, Professor Stefan Reif, and his staff.

The family has decided that the Collection should be deposited on loan at Cambridge for at least twenty years. During that time, with the aid of substantial funds provided by family and friends, and raised from elsewhere, the conservation and digitization of all the fragments, recently transported to the Library, will be undertaken.

A database of detailed descriptions will be prepared and related to the Cambridge Genizah material, in the hope of finding matching items in the two collections. As the material is conserved, it will be made available to scholars at Cambridge University Library, which will assume responsibility for its professional storage and appropriate accessibility.

Jacques Mosseri’s wish was that his collection should ultimately find a permanent home at the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem. A panel of curators has therefore been set up by the Mosseri family, with representation from London, Jerusalem, Oxford and Cambridge, to decide on an appropriate time to transfer it to Israel.

Unit progresses to a new era

As from 31 March 2006, I retire from my University chair in medieval Hebrew and my senior Library post, and will be spending more time on my own academic research and writing.

I shall continue to offer advice and assistance to the Library, and to be involved in Genizah research and planning at an international level, but there will shortly be a new head of the Unit and a new editor of this newsletter.

It is an exciting time for the Unit. Major new grants have been awarded, staff numbers are growing, and more Genizah material has been entrusted to us.

The coming three years should bring us to a stage at which it may even be possible to see a time, not far ahead, when all the fragments will have been conserved, digitized and described. Recognition of the Unit’s achievements has reached a record level.

It is a good time to hand over to my successor. Tempting as it might be to stay on for the remaining five years that are available to me in my current post, the desire to leave “on a high,” coupled with a keen interest in completing a number of scholarly books and articles while I still have the energy and capability, have persuaded me to make the necessary changes in my commitments earlier than I might.

It has been a busy and fascinating thirty-three years, and I feel privileged to have been the one to take the Cambridge Genizah Collections in some ways almost directly from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century.

The current team in the Unit is undoubtedly the strongest and most devoted it has ever had. As I hand over to my colleagues, I feel confident that they will continue to ensure that the world’s greatest collection of medieval Jewish documents is serviced in the most modern and efficient manner for the benefit not only of scholars but also of the wider interested public.

I am also hopeful that our supporters, to whom I acknowledge a great debt of gratitude, will maintain their commitment to the funding of our projects.

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


The text of MS T-S NS 96.19 consists of five lines from a hymn, followed by an abbreviation of the word pizmon, choral refrain. The name of the poet, Eleazar Ha-Bavli, is highlighted in line 7

Eleazar poetry fills gap

The scholar Hayyim (Heinrich) Brody was the first to draw attention to the poetry of Eleazar ben Jacob Ha-Bavli, of thirteenth-century Baghdad. Most of Eleazar’s secular poetry is found in two manuscripts, one in New York, the source of Brody’s 1935 edition, and the other in St Petersburg, shortly to be edited by me.

Eleazar’s corpus of poetry is impressive and contains more than 400 compositions, with a preponderance of panegyrics, laments, homonymic poems, and epigrams.

Eleazar was strongly involved in promoting the Baghdadi-Jewish elite, who held high office in the city, either as government officials or as leaders of the Jewish community, such as ga’on, yeshivah head, master of the mint, or physician.

Though Jews, or dhimmis, they differed little from their Muslim neighbours in social and economic life. Eleazar’s Hebrew panegyrics throw light on the nature and significance of his patrons’ activities and on their rites of passage.

A professional poet in such an evidently cross-cultural setting could hardly escape interaction with the Muslim majority on a variety of intellectual levels.

Eleazar was certainly capable of writing literary works in both Hebrew and Arabic, and one may assume that both languages were suitable media for entertaining and instructing the aristocracy at large, a sociolinguistic setting with which the Jewish elite of Andalusia had been long familiar.

Intriguing in this connection is Eleazar’s macaronic style, described by Judah al-Harizi, an older contemporary, as munassaf (“the verse split into halves”). In such verse, there is a switch from Hebrew to Arabic, or from Arabic to Hebrew, in the caesura at the middle of every line.

This switching of language in every hemistich allows the poet to employ different rhyme endings, but there is no metrical difference in the transition from one language to the other.

Eleazar also produced a unique Judaeo-Arabic treatise on Hebrew poetics (the retrieved fragments of which were edited by Joseph Yahalom in 2001) devoted to metre, rhyme, poetic errors and figures of speech. This certainly fills a gap, since few writings on Hebrew literary theory survived the Middle Ages.

His work fits neatly into the lacuna between the theoretical works of Moses Ibn Ezra and Judah Halevi, on the one hand, and of such fourteenth- and fifteenth-century poets as Moses Ibn Habib, Solomon Da Piera and Sa‘adyah ben Danan, on the other.

The Cambridge Genizah has revealed a large number of fragments with religious poems with the acrostic “Eleazar.” In some cases, a title is added in the manuscript, reading “composed by Rabbi Eleazar Ha-Bavli,” a great help in identifying this hitherto unknown poet.

All too often, poems bearing the “Eleazar” acrostic have been wrongly attributed to Eleazar Ha-Bavli when they were, in fact, composed by Eleazar Ha-Kohen, who lived in Egypt or Syria around 1200, or by Eleazar (Ha-) Kalir or Qilir, the greatest liturgical Hebrew poet of all times, from Byzantium in late antiquity.

Some fifty religious hymns can be identified as belonging to the poetry of Eleazar Ha-Bavli and testify to his personal spirituality and mysticism. This confirms an intriguing remark by Judah al-Harizi, who is usually fairly explicit about the quality of the Eastern poets in his Book of Tahkemoni and belittles them in strong terms.

Of Eleazar, he writes: “In the city of Alexandria, I saw Eleazar al-mevin, whose poetry rests on emptiness, and is girded with a belt of vanity, though one can sometimes find there things that are apt and fine.”

The term al-mevin may be understood as “the learned,” but because of the Arabic particle one may read here in Judaeo-Arabic al-mubin, “a man of clarity,” “a man with clear sight,” a possible reference to Eleazar’s familiarity with mystical trends. It is likely that he was also acquainted with Abraham Maimonides’ involvement in pietism and mysticism.

The Cambridge examples of Eleazar’s hymns have many of the conventional characteristics of classical and Spanish piyyut, following the models of Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Moses Ibn Ezra, Judah Halevi, and Abraham Ibn Ezra.

It is also true, however, that Eleazar and some of his fellow poets in the East did not always draw a clear distinction between secular and religious poetry in the Andalusian fashion. One fragmentary poem in the diwan refers to the Gabirolian tradition of establishing a devotional purpose with the aid of Aristotelian physics.

Cambridge Genizah manuscript T-S H15.95 opens with an exceptional strophic poem of a religious-mystical nature that refers to “People who desire to know God; who ascend to God on the ladder of thought; they choose their paths among the host of twinkling stars; they leave the earth and write a letter of divorce to her; they shake off her yoke and the earth is considered impure, she and all her pleasantries; their mind leads them to heaven without a ladder where the glory of the eternal Lord is seen in the palace they build.”

Thanks to a combination of Genizah sources from Cambridge, New York and St. Petersburg, Eleazar has made a come-back through current modern research in medieval Hebrew poetry.

Wout Van Bekkum
University of Groningen

New volume on Arabic fragments

The “sibling” for the Baker-Polliack volume on Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic items — awaited with interest by many scholars — has now been safely delivered.* Some 9,341 classmarks of fragments from the Taylor-Schechter New Series are described in 808 pages and 18 plates.

This is an exceptional contribution that will greatly facilitate research into a notoriously “fiddly” part of the Genizah Collections at Cambridge.

The fragments deal with a wide range of subjects. A random page offers piyyutim, personal and commercial letters in Arabic, liturgy, a discussion on kashrut, a child’s alphabet practice in Hebrew, and accounts. All such data are made accessible to scholars for the first time, and addenda and corrigenda to earlier catalogues in the “Genizah Series” are included.

Painstaking work by the editors is obvious in the detailed descriptions of the fragments. These include physical and codicological information, identifications of texts (where possible), and notes on names and places mentioned, as well as interlinear additions to the manuscripts.

The volume is enhanced by a thorough and comprehensive set of indexes, comprising sources (Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Qur’an, Talmud, Maimonides, midrash and more), names and places (differentiating between Genizah and biblical characters and locations), and subjects.

The subject index is particularly impressive, including words and phrases in Hebrew, Arabic and English, with clear cross-references. Certain large categories are sub-divided; weights and measurements, for example, have their own alphabetical entry in the subject index, which refers not only to the topic in general, but to bales, carats, purses and the like.

This volume is the last in the “Genizah Series” to appear under the imprint of Cambridge University Press. Future volumes will be published for Cambridge University Library by Archaeopress, Oxford, which is currently planning limited-run reprints of the Khan, Klein and Isaacs volumes.

Potential purchasers of these reprints should contact the Genizah Research Unit at genizah@lib.cam.ac.uk.

* Avihai Shivtiel and Friedrich Niessen (eds): Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic Manuscripts in the Cambridge Genizah Collections, Taylor-Schechter New Series. Cambridge University Library Genizah Series, 14. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-521-75087-5. 150.00; $275.00.

Members of the Mosseri family preparing their Genizah Collection for transportation to Cambridge

people, boxes

Big boost for Mosseri project

A substantial grant towards the cost of the project dealing with the Jacques Mosseri Genizah Collection, now at Cambridge University Library, has been made by the Endangered Archives Programme, supported by the Lisbet Rausing Charitable Fund and administered at the British Library in London.

The sum of 62,275 is earmarked for the digitization and updated description of the first 1,000 fragments. This section of the project will involve researchers in the Genizah Unit at the University Library and technicians in its Imaging Department, headed by Gerry Bye. The project management will be undertaken by Ellis Weinberger.

In order to prepare the fragments for these two processes, it will be necessary to conserve them in accordance with the latest methods and using the best contemporary materials.

This work will be done by the Library’s Conservation Department, under the leadership of Alan Farrant, and its funding is being met by members of the Mosseri family and those of their friends with special interests in the history of Cairo Jewry.

The conservation work is now under way and the first box of conserved fragments will be delivered for digitization within a short time. As each box is conserved and digitized, it will be made available online and in the Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room.

Each of the Unit’s experts, including Dr Friedrich Niessen, Dr Ben Outhwaite and Dr Rebecca Jefferson, will ensure that a full description is prepared and any connection with Genizah material already at Cambridge is traced.

Although the physical state of the Mosseri Collection will in some cases present an interesting challenge for the conservators, its contents are similar to those of the Cambridge Genizah Collections.

They will therefore be equally attractive to scholars and their accessibility will undoubtedly lead to fresh discoveries.

Other major assistance received in recent months includes over 32,000 from the Friedberg Genizah Project; 18,000 from the Athelney Trust, in memory of Dr A. A. Perelmann; 15,000 from the John S. Cohen Foundation; and 3,000 from the Lauffer Family Charitable Trust.

Important assistance from across the Atlantic was provided through the good offices of Cambridge in America and included $5,000 from the Georges Lurcy Charitable and Educational Trust, $250 from Ms Sylvia M. Neil, and $200 from Ms J. Cynthia Weber.

Dr Barry Mittelman kindly sent a gift of $100, and Mr George Bulow contributed $100 to the Mosseri project.

Genizah research at Cambridge has also been supported by Mrs Daniella Luxembourg (1,000); the estate of Peter Elias (620); the Sidney and Elizabeth Corob Charitable Trust (500); Mrs Marjorie Glick (500); Ingrid and David Sellman (300); and the Manifold Trust (300).

Other helpful contributions have come from Mrs J. Dent (250); the Ralph and Muriel Emanuel Charitable Trust (250); Dr George Remington (250); Diana and Anthony Rau (225); Della and Fred Worms (200); Mr J. P. Ebstein (150); Ann and Tony Korn (100); Dr A. S. Oppenheimer (100); Mr Michael Rose (100); Mr Norman Shelson (100); and Professor Alan Shenkin (100).

Novel focus on Hebrew hymns

How Hebrew hymns were read, copied and disseminated in the Middle Ages forms the basis of Unit researcher Rebecca Jefferson’s doctoral dissertation. Entitled Popular Renditions of Hebrew Hymns in the Middle Ages: based on a selection of vocalized liturgical poems by Solomon Ibn Gabirol from the Cairo Genizah, it gained her a Cambridge PhD, supervised by Professor Geoffrey Khan.

In a departure from the usual treatment of manuscripts as sources for the original text, this study emphasizes the singularity of each copy and the messages it imparts. Great attention is paid to the activities of the medieval scribes and the ways in which they rendered a hymn.

Each manuscript, no matter how informal, provides visual aids to assist the reader. Thus, the intricate details that are often stripped away to produce a clean, modern printed edition are all included here.

For example, how does the scribe mark verse divisions? In what ways and where does he indicate the chorus? What effect might his random line-distribution have on the reading, and how is the rendition affected by the scribe’s use of vowel signs?

In addition to presenting these manuscripts in meticulous detail, Dr Jefferson has attempted to recover the original lost quires from which the fragments were once derived. These reconstructions are presented in both narrative and diagrammatical form, providing new insights into the production of medieval poetry codices.

The dissertation is divided into eight chapters. Each describes the manuscript versions of a Hebrew hymn by one of the greatest and most prolific poets of his day, Solomon ben Judah Ibn Gabirol (c. 1020—1057).

Manifold copies of his work have survived in the Cairo Genizah; many are derived from a time close to their composition. Also incorporated are previously unpublished Genizah manuscript versions of Ibn Gabirol’s known work.

The non-standard Tiberian vocalized versions are explored in depth. Vowel signs are provided with a future reader in mind, but they also supply evidence of voicing: the copyist’s own pronunciation traits or those of performances he previously heard or remembered.

Vocalization traits in the manuscripts reveal a mixture of influences from the Babylonian, Palestinian and Tiberian traditions of pronouncing Hebrew, as well as links to other non-biblical reading traditions.

These influences testify to a high degree of orality surrounding the reproduction of Hebrew hymns and expose a general latitude in the rendering of a poetic text.

In fact, the number of popular versions produced and the informality surrounding their production suggest that the medieval scribes and their readers considered the dissemination of a text more important than its exact transmission.

In sum, Dr Jefferson’s work provides a fresh contribution to learning through the treatment of the manuscripts as material witnesses. The focus on books of poetical collections, their production and circulation has been missing in much previous scholarship.

Genizah poetry manuscripts, the study concludes, should not be dismissed as the poor relatives of the ideal text, for they provide important testimony to the rituals of orality, reception, recall and transmission in medieval Jewish life.

After a spell of maternity leave (and the birth of a daughter, Lily, to her and Robert), Rebecca has rejoined the Genizah Research Unit and has been promoted to Research Associate to take account of her new qualification.

Genizah annual launched

The first volume of a new series dealing with Genizah texts and studies has been published by the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem under the title Ginzei Qedem: Genizah Research Annual (2005). Its publication was facilitated by a grant from the Friedberg Genizah Project in Canada.

The editor, Robert Brody, assisted by David Sklare in co-operation with an editorial board and international advisory board (including Cambridge representation), intends to provide a scholarly forum for all aspects of Genizah research.

This goal has already been achieved in the first volume — divided into a Hebrew section (271 pages) and an English section (49 pages) — reflecting the wide range of Genizah documents worldwide.

G. Bohak’s study, “Reconstructing Jewish Magical Recipe Books from the Cairo Genizah”, includes six fragments from the Taylor-Schechter Collection at Cambridge, some published for the first time.

Studies in liturgy and prayers are represented by the contributions of Y. Tzvi Langermann (“From Private Devotion to Communal Prayer: New Light on Abraham Maimonides’s Synagogue Reforms”); Y. Granat and A. Shmidman (“‘Who Made One’: The Six Days of Creation and the Six Orders of the Mishnah in a Poetic Grace after Meals by Joseph ibn Abitur”); and S. Elizur (“‘Visit Your Land with Rain’: Poetic Fragments of Early Shiv‘atot for Rain”).

A. Eliyahu’s article focuses on “Fragments of Hermetic Literature in the Genizah,” while J. Yahalom covers the “Transformation of Literary Genres” in his study, “The World of Sorrow and Mourning in the Genizah.”

The Judaeo-Arabic text and a Hebrew translation of a document from the Russian National Library in St Petersburg (Firkovitch Collection) are provided in P. Fenton’s article on “Criticism of Maimonides in a Pietist Text from the Genizah.”

The field of midrash is covered by P. Mandel’s “Kesirah = Ewe: A Study in Midrashim and a Genizah Fragment.”

M. Polliack and K. Shalem contribute an edition and Hebrew translation of a Judaeo-Arabic text on Joel 1 in their article, “An Anonymous Genizah Commentary on Joel 1:1-12 and Biblical Symbols of the Four Kingdoms” (Oxford, Bodl. Heb. d.56). P. Roth’s article deals with “She’iltot Fragments from Ravenna.”

The variety of contributions to this inaugural volume encourages the belief that Ginzei Qedem will become a major factor in research on Genizah documents and their implications for medieval Bible exegesis, religious thought, history, rabbinics, science, medicine, magic, literature, poetry and Semitic linguistics.

Friedrich Niessen
Research Associate,Genizah Research Unit

Plant exhibition

Two of Britain’s foremost institutions joined forces in November to arrange a unique event on the historical use of plants for medicinal purposes.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Cambridge University Library invited a group of some forty guests, from as far away as Glasgow and Liverpool, to view an exhibition mounted for the occasion.

On display were twenty-one precious manuscript leaves from the Cambridge Genizah Collection bearing on the history of pharmacology. They included prescriptions, lists of drugs, materia medica, text-books and letters, selected by Dr Efraim Lev, of Haifa University, with the assistance of staff from the Genizah Unit.

One item (T-S Ar. 30.286) was in the handwriting of the famous Moses Maimonides (d. 1204), and another provided prescriptions for an entire family of eleven people (T-S NS 223.82—83).

Accompanying the Cambridge texts — and relating directly to their contents — was an intriguing selection of plant specimens and drugs from the collections at Kew. This section of the exhibition was arranged by Professor Monique Simmonds, Head of Biological Interactions at Kew’s Jodrell Laboratory, with the help of her colleagues.

The guests were welcomed by Sir Peter Crane, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, and addressed by Professor Stefan Reif, Director of the Genizah Research Unit, Dr Lev, on plants and drugs in the Genizah texts, and Peter Fox, Cambridge University Librarian.

How you can help

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 Internet access is at http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/Taylor-Schechter. Enquiries by e-mail should be addressed to genizah@lib.cam.ac.uk.

All contributions to the Unit, whether for research or 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. Please contact the Director of the Annual Appeal at: 100 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10013-0271 (tel: 212-984-0960).

“Cambridge in America” is recognized by the IRS as a charitable organization, and contributions for the benefit of the Genizah Research Unit are legally deductible for USA income tax purposes. Contributions are similarly deductible in Canada even if made directly to the Development Office at the University of Cambridge.

The Unit is once again indebted to the Lauffer Family Charitable Trust for generously contributing towards the cost of producing this issue of Genizah Fragments. The Trust’s assistance is offered in memory of David Lauffer, who was enthusiastic about historical studies and took a close and active interest in the Unit’s work.

Edited by Stefan C. Reif and printed by Cambridge Printing, the printing business 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 December 2006