Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza

by Adina Hoffman & Peter Cole (Nextbook: New York, 2011)

by Dr. Ilana Sasson

On my way to the international conference of the Society for Judeo-Arabic Studies in Cambridge, England, last August, I packed Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s recent book, Sacred Trash, thinking it might be a good way to pass the time on the plane.

Even before reading the book jacket I had some preconceptions. After all, I had taken my first Judeo-Arabic course at Princeton with Professor Mark Cohen 11 years earlier, and that led to my hands-on experience processing geniza fragments for digitalization for the Friedberg Geniza Project. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on a medieval Karaite commentary on the Bible. This commentary exists only in manuscripts in various library rare book rooms across the world. One manuscript I worked with is part of the Elkan Nathan Adler collection at the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary. It had been gleaned from the Cairo geniza. I felt I knew something about the geniza and its history, and I doubted that this book would contribute much to my understanding. To my surprise, it was a page turner. I read it all in one breath. Hoffman and Cole present a thorough and even-handed history of the geniza and of the major and minor characters involved in this chapter of modern Jewish history.

So what is the geniza? A geniza (the word is of Persian origin and it means to store away or hide) is a space in every synagogue, both modern and ancient, for the storage of any written material no longer in use that includes the name of God. According to Jewish tradition, throwing away anything that includes God’s name is prohibited. Instead, that document should receive a full Jewish burial. As a consequence, fragments of old torn Bibles, volumes of the Talmud, and other books accumulate in synagogue storage areas. The Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat – old Cairo – was no different.

The Fustat synagogue served the Palestinian community of medieval Cairo; other synagogues were for the Babylonian and Karaite communities. The Fustat was active from the 8th through 11th centuries, when Cairo, under the rule of the Fatimid caliphate, was a cultural and commercial center of both the Islamic and the Jewish worlds. This was the golden age of Karaite Judaism, a movement whose members recognize only the Bible as their legal and theological authority. Cairo was home to the greatest Jewish philosopher and community leader of all time, Maimonides, who served as a court physician, presided over the local beit din (court of Jewish law), and wrote. The city was the hub through which Jews travelled on business and other trips.

For some reason the Ben Ezra community did not bury its geniza material but rather let it accumulate. Gradually, as Jewish life in Fustat wound down, the Ben Ezra synagogue as well as Jewish life in Egypt fell into oblivion and out of collective memory. But fortunately the city’s dry weather preserved the forgotten collection in the Ben Ezra geniza for five centuries.

By the 19th century, fragments from the geniza had started to surface in Europe, as collectors and travelers acquired them on trips to the Middle East. In a pivotal historical moment, a pair of scholarly Scottish twins, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, showed Solomon Schechter a Hebrew geniza fragment that they had identified as being from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, an ancient Jewish text that was not put into the biblical canon. While scholars knew that the Wisdom of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) was written in Hebrew, there were no known traces of the original text. Schechter, a reader in the library of the University of Cambridge who eventually became the president of the Jewish Theological Seminary and founder of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, immediately recognized the importance of the fragment and saw the potential of the entire collection. He eventually travelled to Cairo, and during the course of a months-long expedition he sealed a deal with the local leaders of the Jewish community and bought the entire contents of their geniza. He housed it in the library at Cambridge and worked intently on the fragments, looking for, among other things, more of Ben Sira’s original Hebrew Ecclesiasticus. In time the collection aroused the curiosity of other scholars, each looking at different aspects of the material.

The Ben Ezra geniza collection was not limited to Bibles and other holy texts. It encompassed every aspect of life and included court reports, marriage contracts, divorce bills, business transactions, poetry, commentaries, letters written by traveling husbands to their wives back home, and even shopping lists.

Why did all this material end up in the geniza if only the written name of God was supposed to be spared destruction? I like Professor Cohen’s theory: he suggests that reverence for God’s holy name slowly extended to everything written in Hebrew. Also the Jews who lived in the Islamic world communicated in Judeo-Arabic, which like Yiddish and Ladino is written in Hebrew characters. Presumably, to be on the safe side, anything written in Hebrew characters was deemed geniza material. In addition, it is possible that when heirs would go through their deceased parents’ shelves, they did not check every scrap of paper. Instead, they took the contents of entire shelves and deposited them in their synagogue’s geniza, just in case. Needless to say, such a cache is a dream come true for historians and scholars who study culture, literature, philosophy, laws, customs, politics, trade, and personal relations.

In Sacred Trash, Hoffman and Cole describe the events that led to the geniza's discovery and acquisition. While Schechter is the dominant figure in the book, the authors chronicle the events that followed his discovery. For example, Shlomo Dov Goitein was a German-born Jewish ethnographer and scholar at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study. His encounter with the material, as described in the book, culminated in his six-volume magnum opus, A Mediterranean Society, in which he describes almost every aspect of medieval Jewish life under Islam.

Sacred Trash is a tale of passion and intrigue, self-entitlement, competition, and jealousy. The authors quote from the diaries and personal letters of the main characters and their spouses. The discovery of the Cairo geniza is often compared to the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. In Sacred Trash, Hoffman and Coles highlight the human elements of this discovery. Among other fascinating stories is the scholarly detective work that culminated with the discovery of the only geniza poem so far attributed to a woman. It is a heart-wrenching farewell written by the nameless wife of the acclaimed poet Donash ben Labrat (best known for the Sabbath poem D’ror Yikra). She wrote it to her husband, who had to flee his patron’s court, abandoning her and their baby.

Sacred Trash is written with much love and sensitivity, coupled with a sense of humor and wit. I read it in Cambridge, which made it even more powerful for me. As the daughter of Jewish-Iraqi parents, I am grateful personally for this book, which brings close to home an important chapter in the history of medieval Jewry under Islam. I went to high school in Jerusalem in the 1970s, and as I read the book I remembered a Moroccan- born classmate, who asked our history teacher why our textbooks taught only the heritage of Ashkenazi Jews. The Jews of the East were not mentioned at all. The teacher answered: “Because you Mizrahi Jews don’t have a history.” Sacred Trash so eloquently proves the teacher wrong.

Dr. Ilana Sasson received her PhD from the department of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is currently working on her book The Arabic Translation and Commentary of Yefet ben Eli on the Book of Proverbs. She also teaches Bible and religion at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.

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