Book Discussion: Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of The Cairo Geniza

by Peter Shapiro
Read the review of this book in Reform Judaism magazine
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Prior to reading Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of The Cairo Genizaby Adina Hoffman and Peter Coles if asked to define a geniza myresponse would have been: “a place to bury sacred text that containedthe name of God”. My narrow definition of a geniza may be applicabletoday but it was far from the mark when applied to ancient times intothe early twentieth century. The Talmud defines it as a place or meansof concealment, but is vague as to what and where the objects are to behidden. The use and location of a geniza varied from community tocommunity. The objects involved may have included sacred texts,religious manuscripts and religious objects that had contact with themsuch as mezzuzot, phylacteries, straps, Torah mantles and yodim.Other such items could have been community records, privatecorrespondence and records.  The objects could possibly have been buriedor stored in a secure portion of a building or a cave.

The Ben Ezra Synagogue, where Palestinian Jews of Fustat (Old Cairo)worshipped was home to the “Cairo Geniza”. In addition to having been ahouse of prayer and center of study, it served as  the congregation’swelfare office, soup kitchen, hostel, clerical and bookkeepingheadquarters and court of law. The geniza was located in a room on thesecond floor barely more than six feet long, eight feet wide and sixyards high. Access was obtained by acquiring a ladder and crawlingthrough an attic like opening. It was crammed to bursting with “tencenturies’ worth of one Middle Eastern, mostly middle-class Jewishcommunity’s detritus — its letters and poems, its wills and marriagecontracts, its bills of lading and writs of divorce, its prayers andprescriptions, trousseau lists, Bibles, money orders, amulets, courtdepositions, shop inventories, rabbinic response, contracts, leases,magic charms and receipts”.

Our narrative begins in 1896 when twin widowed sisters returned toCambridge, England from an extended trip to the Middle East with manyartifacts that they acquired in Cairo, Egypt. They were not neophytesin the world of antiquities and realized that several Hebraic documentswritten on vellum could be important. They immediately showed them totheir friend, noted Talmudic scholar and the Reader in Rabbinics atCambridge, Solomon Schechter.  He immediately realized that they mightbe a part of the original Hebrew of “Ecclesiaticus”, by Ben Sira, alsoreferenced as the “Sirach”, and/or “Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom”.

It should be noted that the Cairo Geniza was no deep dark secret;its existence was known for centuries. Whether anyone knew the extentor value of its contents is not known. In any case it was not untilSolomon Schechter’s involvement that the contents of the Cairo Genizawere to play a significant role in the study of Jewish history. Whatstirred Schechter’s passions to pursue an in depth study of itscontents is the subject of speculation. Fame, fortune and academicinquisitiveness may have been part of the equation.

In my judgment Schechter was incensed that many prominent Christiantheologians and some Jewish theologians of the “School of HigherCriticism”  engineered the dates of Song of Songs, the Books of Job andRuth, Psalms and Wisdom Literature to the end of the Second TemplePeriod. By doing so they portrayed Judaism as a soulless religionpreoccupied with law and ritual and devoid of any prophetic vision.Ostensibly their goal was to reduce Second Temple Judaism to amechanical priestly cult. For Schechter the heart of Judaism was itsunbroken line of transmission that came down from Sinai throughtradition without any loss of revelation’s power or loss of propheticvision. He stood for the proposition that “the teaching of Judaismembodied the effluence of God’s mercy and love.”

The prime motivation for Schechter was to place with certainty theoriginal writing in Hebrew of “Eccclesiaticus” between 200 to 180 BCE,thus putting to rest the “brutal vivisection of Jewish history” and itsanti-Semitic overtones by the proponents of Higher Criticism.

On the next leg of the narrative we join Schechter on hisclandestine trip to Egypt and discover how he developed severalimportant relationships that provided entry to the Geniza, acquisitionof the bulk of its material, and exportation of those antiquities toEngland. On his return to Cambridge he was met with a smattering ofacademic jealousy. A few academics claimed credit for unearthing thematerial while others denigrated their value. These minor matters soonabated. In 1902 Schechter moved to New York and assumed the presidencyof The Jewish Theological Seminary. The United States in a short timeevolved into the primary home for scholarship in all matters relatingto Judaism, past and present, and Israel became a close second in thefield.

It was now time for the extremely difficult tasks of sorting andcataloging the thousands of scraps and documents. The most criticaltask was to ascertain their relevance to a specific aspect of Judaismand their importance in relation thereto.  A considerable number ofitems were the subject of palimpsest, a process where a piece ofwriting material on which the original writing has been effaced to makeroom for the later writing but on which traces of the original remain.Thus much additional time and effort was necessary to exam thoseitems.

Those tasks were more difficult than having to solve 1000 complexpicture puzzles after all the pieces were thrown into one large bin andthe box covers depicting the completed puzzles were destroyed.

Schechter, his colleagues, students, and future generations ofacademics uncovered materials that not only validated the dating of BenSira’s “Ecclesiaticus” but also led them to significant findingsrelating back to the Second Temple and into  the twelfth century AD andbeyond. Several of those areas were the liturgical poetry of Yannai,the dispute between Saadia Gaon, and the heretical thinker, Hiwial-Balkhi and in broader terms the larger schismatic movement Karaism,as well as poems by Dunash ben Labrat, the tenth century founder ofAndalusian Hebrew poetry.

Their works were supplemented by other material previously orsubsequently acquired from the Geniza or that had been buried in itscemetery/court yard. Every new foray into the Geniza’s materialproduced new insights as to religious practices, the relationshipsamong the different streams of Judaism, and those between the Jewish,Muslim and Arab communities.

A researcher, as recently as the first few weeks of 2010,discovered a fragment of a letter written in the sixteenth century byRachel Zussman, a distraught mother living in Jerusalem to her sonliving in Cairo. It shed light on their prior correspondence. The SageBen Bag’s description of the Torah “Turn it over and turn it over, foreverything is in it …” could also apply to the Cairo Geniza.

The authors broadened my understanding of the importance of criticalscholarship and its impact today on how we interpret sacred text andpractice Judaism.  They provided a fascinating insight into thepassions and practices of the academic community.

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