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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. 54 October 2007

Conference tribute to Stefan Reif


Tel Aviv University’s Professor Mordechai Friedman (right) with Professor Stefan Reif at the Cambridge Genizah Conference

Scholars from the world of Genizah research assembled at Cambridge in late August for a conference on Genizah Studies held in honour of Professor Stefan Reif, former Director of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, who retired last year.

Intended to mark Professor Reif’s achievements by celebrating the vitality of Genizah studies today – a vitality that owes much to his unstinting efforts over thirty-three years – the event was held jointly at Westminster College and the University Library, and consisted of papers by twenty-one academics from across the United States, Israel and Europe.

Professor Haggai Ben-Shammai, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, spoke for many when he expressed thanks to the organisers for inviting a large number of Israeli scholars, at a time when voices are frequently heard in Britain promoting a boycott of academic links with Israel.

Westminster College was chosen to host the conference in view of its historic connections to the Genizah story. The intrepid Scottish widows, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, whose exploits at the end of the nineteenth century drew Solomon Schechter’s attention to the treasures to be found in Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue, were major benefactors to Westminster, granting the College the land on which it now stands. Their imposing portraits hold pride of place in the College dining-hall.

Speakers at the conference included a number of distinguished professors – Shaul Shaked and Joseph Yahalom (in addition to Haggai Ben-Shammai), of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Mordechai Friedman, of Tel Aviv University; Mark Cohen, of Princeton; Judith Olszowy-Schlanger, of the Sorbonne; and Cambridge’s Professor of Semitic Philology, Geoffrey Khan, as well as several up-and-coming scholars in the field of Genizah studies. As broad a range of specialists as possible was invited to deliver papers.

The conference opened with Professor Ben-Shammai’s absorbing discussion of the differences between the manuscripts collected from the Ben Ezra and the Karaite Dar Simha synagogues, and closed with Professor Olszowy-Schlanger’s presentation of a rarely discovered treasure, a palimpsest whereon both overscript and underscript are in Hebrew.

In between, there was an impressive array of papers covering the many different kinds of text to be found in the Genizah. The diversity of topics reflected both the importance of the archive and the vibrancy of its study, and the ensuing discussions were enthusiastic.

Members of the Taylor-Schechter Research Unit also gave papers: Rebecca Jefferson on an early and unsung collector of the Bodleian’s Genizah material; Friedrich Niessen on Karaite grammatical theory; and Miriam Wagner on the sociolinguistics of medieval Judaeo-Arabic.

Attention was focused not only on the T-S Collection, but on other Genizah collections too: Renate Smithuis, of the University of Manchester, gave a multi-media presentation of the Genizah fragments available on the John Rylands Collection’s website, while Ben Outhwaite, Head of the Genizah Research Unit, unveiled newly conserved fragments of the Jacques Mosseri Genizah Collection, now on loan at Cambridge University Library, and demonstrated the online searching of Mosseri images.

The Friedberg Genizah Project, a major driving force behind much Genizah research today, both in Cambridge and throughout the world, was represented by Professor Yaacov Choueka, responsible for Friedberg’s web and digitisation projects.

In contrast to the attention paid to the digital Genizah, an exhibition of conserved and unconserved manuscripts from the Mosseri and Westminster College collections was also assembled for the scholars to peruse.

A highlight of the proceedings was the after-dinner talk by Professor Reif, a typically humorous and pointed reminiscence of his three decades at the Unit. The anecdotes were all the more memorable for the manner in which they were presented, and, as Stefan’s thoughts moved from the past to the future, all listened attentively to his expression of confidence that the Unit was in safe and certain hands – as the smooth-running of the conference itself amply demonstrated.

A second after-dinner address, to have been delivered by Professor Moshe Gil, of Tel Aviv University, had to be cancelled due to illness. A “get-well” card was duly signed by all the participants and delivered to the master historian of Genizah research.

In the evenings, the assembled scholars continued their fellowship in Westminster College’s dining-room beneath the gaze of Lewis and Gibson, a fitting celebration of Professor Reif’s work and a testament to the spirit of co-operation that sustains Genizah research today.

£26,000 from Friedberg

The T-S Unit welcomes the continued generous support of the Friedberg Genizah Project, which amounted to £26,000 for the second half of this academic year. Major funding was also provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The Lisbet Rausing Charitable Fund, through the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, assisted with the work on the Mosseri Collection.

We are grateful for a number of large donations towards the Unit’s ongoing activities, including £10,000 from the John S. Cohen Foundation, and £3,000 from the Lauffer Family Charitable Trust.

Other donations were received from the Sidney and Elizabeth Corob Charitable Trust (£250); the New London Synagogue Ladies’ Association (£150); Rabbi Rashi Simon, of Kesher (£150); Professor Benjamin Friedman ($250); Daniel Schechter ($250); the Ramatayim Men’s Choir (£100), and Norman Shelson (£100).


T-S NS 312.95 – on Rav’s arrival in Babylonia

The lives behind the texts

The two main historiographical and chronological sources of the Babylonian amoraimSeder Tannaim veAmoraim and the Epistle of R. Sherira Gaon – date from the ninth and tenth centuries.

These important texts supply information concerning the lives of the Babylonian amoraim and reveal much about the hierarchical relationship between master and disciple, the order of the academy heads, the time frame in which certain amoraim lived, and the way in which the Talmud was edited.

Seder Tannaim veAmoraim and the Epistle of R. Sherira Gaon have both been the focus of academic research. Scholars such as Jacob N. Epstein, Moshe Beer, Jacob Efrati, David M. Goodblatt, Isaiah Gafni and, more recently, Robert Brody have discussed the sources and possible relationship between the texts, in order to classify the reliability of the information in them.

I recently visited the Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge to see what further light the manuscripts could shed on specific chronological and historiographical aspects of the Babylonian amoraim. My aim was to examine Genizah manuscripts as text witnesses to talmudic passages, as well as geonic responsa material.

Among the different manuscripts I consulted, one Genizah fragment (T-S NS 312.95), dealing with Rav’s arrival in Babylonia as part of a discussion over the observance of the second day of the New Year, particularly caught my attention.

The timing of Rav’s arrival in Babylonia has attracted considerable attention, since it has implications regarding the dating of the foundation of the academies in Babylonia.

Manuscript T-S NS 312.95 states that Rav – the first-generation amora – emigrated (yarad) to Babylonia during the lifetime of “our holy master” (Rabbi Judah the Prince: see Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 118b; Sanhedrin 98b).

This detail also occurs in Seder Tannaim veAmoraim and the Epistle of R. Sherira Gaon – probably taken from a similar source but with different wording from T-S NS 312.95. Rav Sherira, for instance, has “in the lifetime of Rabbi, Rav emigrated (nahat) to Babylonia.”

The word “Rabbi” – which is attested to in all manuscripts of the Epistle – was identified by some scholars, for various reasons, as Rabbi Judah Nesiah (“the patriarch”), the grandson of Rabbi Judah the Prince. Thus the version in T-S NS 312.95 seems to reinforce the common view that this event did indeed occur during the lifetime of Rabbi Judah the Prince, and that this is what Rav Sherira meant when he used the term “Rabbi.”

This fascinating Genizah fragment, along with other geonic material (such as T-S NS 177.15; T-S NS 325.214; T-S NS 313.42), has proved useful to me in my ongoing research into talmudic historiography.

Barak S. Cohen
Department of Talmud, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel


MS T-S 12.373: an eleventh-century Judaeo-Arabic letter from Marduk b. Musa, Alexandria, to the prominent trader Nehoray b. Nissim in Fustat, telling him to keep an eye out for pearls of a quality suitable for the discerning Spanish market

To the cradle of culture

The thirteenth conference of the Society for Judaeo-Arabic Studies, held in June and attended by some seventy scholars, was on the theme of “Judaeo-Arabic culture in al-Andalus.” What town could have been better placed to host the proceedings than Cordova, the centre of Andalusia and of Muslim Spain in the Middle Ages, and the birthplace of Moses Maimonides.

Held under the auspices of the Philosophy and Belles Lettres Faculty of the University of Cordova, and organised by the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, Madrid, the University of Cordova and the Society for Judaeo-Arabic Studies in collaboration with the Ben-Zvi Institute and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the conference reflected all aspects of Judaeo-Arabic and the history of Spanish Jewry.

Among the distinguished speakers from Israel, the United States and Europe were Professor Joshua Blau (Hebrew University), Professor Federico Corriente (University of Zaragoza), and Professor Norman Golb (University of Chicago).

Cambridge University Library’s Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection was represented by an exhibition of facsimile documents from the Cairo Genizah referring to al-Andalus, which I had the pleasure of introducing to the conference participants.

Other activities included a reception, dinner and concert in the Alcázar de los Reyes, hosted by Cordova’s city council, and a tour of the Mezquita of Cordova.

The Society’s next conference will take place in Tel Aviv in July 2009.

Friedrich Niessen
Research Associate, Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit


Peter Cole: the Unit’s first “poet in residence”

From dream to reality

During the month of March 2007, I was installed on the fourth floor of the University Library as the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit’s first-ever “poet in residence,” an unofficial position I took up with great pleasure, but also with some trepidation.

I came with a vague notion of composing a poem about the Genizah, based in large part on things I had seen there on a previous visit.

As one of several accounts of the miraculous redemption of medieval Hebrew poetry collections, the Genizah’s story had long fascinated me, and key Genizah finds made their way into my recent anthology, The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry in Muslim and Christian Spain, 905–1492 (Princeton University Press).

The task I set myself for the month was to read through as many as possible of the nine thousand largely unidentified poetic fragments of the Additional Series, which had once been earmarked for the trash-bin. During this period, I managed to identify a number of previously unclassified poems, or fragments of poems, including works by Shmuel Hanagid, Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, Yehuda Halevi and Avraham Ibn Ezra.

And, miraculously, the long poem I had had in mind began to form itself; if all goes well, it will occupy a central place in my forthcoming collection. I came away from my time at Cambridge with profound admiration for the work of the Unit’s dedicated staff, and tremendous gratitude for the warm welcome they extended me.

Peter Cole
Poet and Translator

We are happy to record that Peter Cole has recently won a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship for his acclaimed work as a poet, translator and editor.


Conference participants and Genizah Unit volunteers, Alexandra Abrams (left) and Melonie Schmierer

Solid partners

Relief has swept through the Unit now that the Genizah Studies conference is over. It was a lively and interesting event, and my thanks are extended to all the participants for making it such a success. That it ran so smoothly is due in great part to the dedication of members of the T-S team, who gave up much of their spare time to organise it.

Considerable planning was involved, since Cambridge, with its small Jewish community, is not the easiest place to source kosher food and drink for the many delegates who required it.

One of my major tasks was obtaining supervised wine for the formal dinner. This I managed to achieve, but only after my over-zealous credit-card company had twice cancelled the transactions. Apparently, purchasing cases of kosher wine from North London over the phone did not fit my usual spending patterns and was deemed suspicious!

Special thanks for the success of the conference are due to Dr Siam Bhayro, whose idea it was. We are saying farewell to Siam, however, for he has deservedly been appointed to a lectureship in Second Temple Studies at Exeter University, and our best wishes accompany him.

Another departure is that of Dr Dan Davies, who had been working part-time at the Unit. Elected to a visiting fellowship at Clare Hall College, Cambridge, he will be completing the writing of his first book.

In addition to its regular staff, the Unit benefits greatly from the help of volunteers. Mila Ginsbursky has been working in that capacity for several years, providing vital assistance towards the compilation of the bibliography.

More recently, we have taken on two postgraduate students from the Oriental Studies Faculty of Cambridge University – Nadezda Vidro, who is writing her doctorate on a medieval Karaite grammatical work, and Melonie Schmierer, who has just earned an MPhil in Aramaic phonology.

Another welcome addition was Alexandra Abrams, who spent several weeks on work-experience placement with the Unit. During her short time here, her eyes were opened to the varied tasks performed by Unit researchers and she participated in many activities, from measuring Mosseri fragments to the identification of prayers in ancient siddurim.

For a cash-strapped research unit, such arrangements are undoubtedly advantageous, and we are deeply grateful to those who choose to give of their time to the cause of manuscript cataloguing and identification. The arrangement is mutually beneficial, however, since it grants them a wonderful opportunity to enter the fascinating world of Genizah research.

Ben Outhwaite
Head of Genizah Research Unit


The first of the bound volumes containing Mosseri Genizah fragments is now ready for use in the Manuscripts Reading Room of Cambridge University Library

Mosseri reaches first milestone

A major milestone has been reached with the conservation of the first 1,000 fragments of the Jacques Mosseri Genizah Collection, on loan to Cambridge University Library.

The conservation – generously funded by the Mosseri family – has posed major challenges, due to the fragility of the manuscripts and, in some cases, to their advanced state of deterioration. But through the highly professional work of the lead conservator, Ngaio Vince-Dewerse, and the assistance of one of the Library’s senior conservators, Jan Coleby, the first batch of fragments is now safely enclosed in Melinex.

With the support of the Lisbet Rausing Charitable Fund, administered under the auspices of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, work on digitising and describing this group of fragments is almost complete.

A searchable catalogue of the descriptions, along with some 2,000 digital images, will be mounted on the Unit’s website over the next few months, with the first fifty shortly to appear. Inaccessible to scholars and the public alike for many years, the Collection will be available online for the first time.

After the fragments are encased in Melinex, they are bound into volumes or binders before being placed in the manuscript stacks. The first batch of classmarks – Mosseri I.1–52, consisting mostly of halakhic works – is in two volumes and is now available to users of the Manuscripts Reading Room. More will follow soon.

Scholars accustomed to struggling with the ungainly New Series folders, or the temperamental ring-binders of the Additional Series, will welcome the decision to bind the Mosseri fragments in small, sturdy volumes, of a size roughly comparable to the volumes of the T-S 13J series. No longer will users have to commandeer entire tables in the Manuscripts Reading Room to consult Genizah manuscripts. Only the (very few) larger fragments will be taken out of sequence and housed separately.

With the completion of the first fragments, 6,000 remain to be conserved, digitised and described. This important work will continue uninterrupted and as rapidly as funding allows.

The loan of the Mosseri Collection, the most significant of private Genizah holdings, is a major responsibility for Cambridge University Library, which is committed to conserving the manuscripts to the highest standards and making them available both to Library users and on the web.


Dr Ben Outhwaite welcomes the conference participants

Stefan Reif tribute conference

Scholars share discoveries

The Genizah Studies conference in honour of Professor Stefan Reif began in the main hall of Westminster College with refreshments and was followed by the opening address, from Ben Outhwaite, in the College’s Healey-Elias room, filled to its sixty-person capacity.

Delivering the first of the papers, Haggai Ben-Shammai contrasted Genizah fragments from the Ben Ezra Synagogue with manuscripts in the Second Firkovich Collection, taken from the Dar Simha Synagogue of Cairo’s Karaite community.

The Firkovich Collection contains a greater proportion of literary material and, overall, is better preserved than the Taylor-Schechter fragments, suggesting that the purpose of the two depositories was originally different. The Ben Ezra amassed worn-out, unusable material, whereas the Firkovich manuscripts derive from a working library attached to the synagogue.

Mordechai A. Friedman presented a close examination of several disputed readings in a letter by Judah ha-Levi concerning his Kuzari, elucidating a more nuanced understanding of the writer’s attitude towards those classed as heretics.

The inaugural session of the conference closed with an appraisal by Abraham David, of the Jewish National and University Library, of Egyptian Jewry’s role in early-modern Mediterranean trade, dealing not only in staple commodities, but also in such exotic items as Venetian swords.

Princeton’s Mark Cohen began the afternoon session with a discussion of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, stressing the Rambam’s innovation regarding legal instruments; his willingness to accommodate contemporary reality into the work; and the strong influence of Islamic legal practice.

Closing the session, Shaul Shaked’s “Early Judaeo-Persian and bilingualism in the Genizah” surveyed the five distinct dialects of early Judaeo-Persian, before examining examples of the intrusion of Judaeo-Persian words and phrases into medieval Judaeo-Arabic letters.

In a session devoted to philology, Willem Smelik, of University College London, opened the second day with an examination of the Aramaic dialects found in Genizah fragments of the anti-Christian work, Toldot Yeshu. Friedrich Niessen, of the Genizah Unit, used an anonymous and unpublished Karaite commentary on the Minor Prophets to highlight examples of Karaite grammatical theory in practice.

Vocalised Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts were the subject of Geoffrey Khan’s paper, which treated the texts as witnesses for the medieval Jewish pronunciation of both Arabic and Hebrew.

Piyyut and liturgy was the theme of the conference’s fourth session, commencing with Michael Rand’s detailed examination of the complex compositional techniques developed by the seventh-century poet, Qillir.

Uri Ehrlich, of Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, demonstrated how early Genizah fragments show the marked influence of the Palestinian prayer rite on the siddur of the twelfth-century Rav Shelomo ben Nathan, suggesting that his origins may lie further to the east than traditionally believed.

Revealing the discovery of two further early mahzorim from Eretz Israel, dated around 900 CE and pieced together from dozens of separate Genizah fragments, Joseph Yahalom identified the poets featured in the texts and speculated on the keen competition that must have existed among them to have their compositions chosen for the holiest days of the Jewish year.

The afternoon session consisted of two papers and an exhibition of the newly arrived Jacques Mosseri Genizah Collection in the University Library’s Morison Rooms.

The Unit’s Rebecca Jefferson used Oxford archives to throw light on the little-known Count d’Hulst, an aristocratic antiquarian whose successful acquisition of Genizah manuscripts on behalf of the Bodleian Library in Oxford was brought to a swift halt by the arrival in Egypt of Solomon Schechter.

Gideon Bohak, of Tel Aviv University, gave a wide-ranging survey of the magical texts to be found in the Collection. He has just begun a year of research as a visiting scholar in the Genizah Unit to compile a comprehensive catalogue of this fascinating and, at times, enigmatic material.

A former member of the Unit, Avi Shivtiel, delivered the first paper of the final day, dealing with numerous examples in the Genizah of promissory notes – remarkably similar in form to modern-day cheques – written by Jewish merchants and money-lenders.

Unit researcher Miriam Wagner looked at Judaeo-Arabic letters from the eleventh and thirteenth centuries and demonstrated how social change among the writers is reflected in the changing language and style of their letters.

Emory University’s Marina Rustow discussed how the traditional interpretation of Jewish communal power, centred on rabbinic authority, has had to be rewritten based on the discoveries of the documentary Genizah, focusing particularly on the roles of three influential groups – courtiers, long-distance traders, and Karaites.

Miriam Frenkel, of the Hebrew University, began the final session of the conference with an examination of the medieval passion for books, comparing theory and practice in the writing and authorship of works in the classical Genizah period.

Princeton’s Phillip Lieberman also contrasted theory and practice in an examination of one particular business transaction – the sale of a slave girl named “Brightness” – for which he had discovered two separate contracts, suggesting that legal documents were not written from single archetypes, but customised according to need.

The session and conference concluded with a presentation by Judith Olszowy-Schlanger, of the Sorbonne, on the difficulties involved in the study of palimpsests. She revealed an interesting and rare palimpsest from the Bodleian Genizah Collection – a scroll from southern Spain – in which both upper and overwritten lower scripts are in Hebrew.

All those at the conference concurred that the depth and range of the subjects covered were fascinating, and the entire proceedings a great success. The Genizah Research Unit now looks forward to publishing the papers next year in a volume to be produced by Brill.

How you can help

If you would like to receive Genizah Fragments regularly, to inquire about the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection, or to learn how you may assist with its preservation and study, please write to Dr Ben Outhwaite, Head 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. Inquiries 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 generosity of the Lauffer Family Charitable Trust has again facilitated the production of this newsletter. The Trust was founded in memory of David Lauffer, a keen student of Jewish history who recognised the importance of Genizah studies. The Unit deeply appreciates the continued kindness and support of his family.

Edited by Rebecca Jefferson and printed by Cambridge University Press

If you have any questions, please e-mail genizah@lib.cam.ac.uk
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