Cairo Geniza

The Cairo Genizah, alternatively spelled Geniza, is a collection of some 300,000[1] Jewish manuscript fragments that were found in the genizah or storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat or Old Cairo, Egypt. These manuscripts outline a 1,000-year continuum (870 CE to 19th century) of Jewish Middle-Eastern and North African history and comprise the largest and most diverse collection of medieval manuscripts in the world. The Genizah texts are written in various languages, especially Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, mainly on vellum and paper, but also on papyrus and cloth. In addition to containing Jewish religious texts such as Biblical, Talmudic and later Rabbinic works (some in the original hands of the authors), the Genizah gives a detailed picture of the economic and cultural life of the North African and Eastern Mediterranean regions, especially during the 10th to 13th centuries. It is now dispersed among a number of libraries, including the libraries of Cambridge University and the University of Manchester. Some additional fragments were found in the Basatin cemetery east of Old Cairo, and the collection includes a number of old documents bought in Cairo in the latter nineteenth century.[2]

Coordinates: 30°00′21″N 31°13′52″E / 30.0057944°N 31.2310222°E

Bab voc fragment 2
A document with Babylonian vocalization

Discovery and present locations

Solomon Schechter
Solomon Schechter at work in Cambridge University Library, 1898

The first European to note the collection was apparently Simon van Gelderen (a great-uncle of Heinrich Heine), who visited the Ben Ezra synagogue and reported about the Cairo Genizah in 1752 or 1753.[3] In 1864 the traveler and scholar Jacob Saphir visited the synagogue and explored the Genizah for two days; while he did not identify any specific item of significance he suggested that possibly valuable items might be in store.[4] In 1896, the Scottish scholars, twin sisters Agnes S. Lewis and Margaret D. Gibson[5] returned from Egypt with fragments from the Genizah they considered to be of interest, and showed them to Solomon Schechter "their irrepressibly curious rabbinical friend" at Cambridge.[6] Schechter, already aware of the Genizah but not of its significance, immediately recognized the importance of the material. With the financial assistance of his Cambridge colleague and friend Charles Taylor, Schechter made an expedition to Egypt, where, with the assistance of the Chief Rabbi, he sorted and removed the greater part of the contents of the Genizah chamber.[7] Agnes and Margaret joined him there en route to Sinai (their fourth visit in five years) and he showed them the chamber which Agnes reported was "simply indescribable".[8]

The Genizah fragments have now been archived in various libraries around the world. The Taylor-Schechter collection at Cambridge is the largest, by far, single collection, with nearly 193,000 fragments (137,000 shelf-marks).[9] There are a further 31,000 fragments at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The John Rylands University Library in Manchester holds a collection of over 11,000 fragments, which are currently being digitised and uploaded to an online archive. The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford has a collection of 25,000 Genizah folios.[1]

Westminster College in Cambridge held 1,700 fragments, which were deposited by Lewis and Gibson in 1896.[10] In 2013 the two Oxbridge libraries, the Bodleian Library at Oxford and Cambridge University Library, joined together to raise funds to buy the Westminster collection after it was put up for sale for £1.2 million. This is the first time the two libraries have collaborated for such a fundraising effort.[1][10]

Contents and significance

The Cairo Genizah documents include both religious and secular writings, composed from about 870 AD to as late as 1880. The normal practice for genizot (pl. of genizah) was to remove the contents periodically and bury them in a cemetery. Many of these documents were written in the Aramaic language using the Hebrew alphabet. As the Jews considered Hebrew to be the language of God, and the Hebrew script to be the literal writing of God, the texts could not be destroyed even long after they had served their purpose. The Jews who wrote the materials in the Genizah were familiar with the culture and language of their contemporary society. The documents are invaluable as evidence for how colloquial Arabic of this period was spoken and understood. They also demonstrate that the Jewish creators of the documents were part of their contemporary society: they practiced the same trades as their Muslim and Christian neighbors, including farming; they bought, sold, and rented properties.

The importance of these materials for reconstructing the social and economic history for the period between 950 and 1250 cannot be overemphasized. Judaic scholar Shelomo Dov Goitein created an index for this time period which covers about 35,000 individuals. This included about 350 "prominent people," among them Maimonides and his son Abraham, 200 "better known families", and mentions of 450 professions and 450 goods. He identified material from Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria (but not Damascus or Aleppo), Tunisia, Sicily, and even covering trade with India. Cities mentioned range from Samarkand in Central Asia to Seville and Sijilmasa, Morocco to the west; from Aden north to Constantinople; Europe not only is represented by the Mediterranean port cities of Narbonne, Marseilles, Genoa and Venice, but even Kiev and Rouen are occasionally mentioned.[11]

In particular the various records of payments to labourers for building maintenance and the like form by far the largest collection of records of day wages in the Islamic world for the early medieval period, despite difficulties in interpreting the currency units cited and other aspects of the data. They have invariably been cited in discussions of the medieval Islamic economy since the 1930s, when this aspect of the collection was researched, mostly by French scholars.

The materials include a vast number of books, most of them fragments, which are estimated to number nearly 280,000 leaves, including parts of Jewish religious writings and fragments from the Quran. Of particular interest to biblical scholars are several incomplete manuscripts of Sirach.

The non-literary materials, which include court documents, legal writings, and the correspondence of the local Jewish community (such as the Letter of the Karaite elders of Ascalon), are somewhat smaller, but still impressive: Goitein estimated their size at "about 10,000 items of some length, of which 7,000 are self-contained units large enough to be regarded as documents of historical value. Only half of these are preserved more or less completely."[12]

The number of documents added to the Genizah changed throughout the years. For example, the number of documents added were fewer between 1266 and circa 1500, when most of the Jewish community had moved north to the city of Cairo proper, and saw a rise around 1500 when the local community was increased by refugees from Spain. It was they who brought to Cairo several documents that shed a new light on the history of Khazaria and Kievan Rus', namely, the Khazar Correspondence, the Schechter Letter, and the Kievian Letter. The Genizah remained in use until it was emptied by Western scholars eager for its material.

A number of other genizot have provided smaller discoveries across the Old World, notably Italian ones such as that of Perugia.[13] An 11th-century Afghan Geniza was found in 2011.[14]

The Cairo Genizah fragments were extensively studied, cataloged and translated by Paul E. Kahle. His book, The Cairo Geniza was published by Blackwell in 1958, with a second edition in 1959.[15]


The Cairo Genizah Collections at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary is the subject of a citizen-science project on the website Zooniverse. Project volunteers are enlisted to sort digitized fragments of the Cairo Genizah, in order to facilitate research on the fragments.[16]

See also


  1. ^ a b c "Historic rivals join forces to save 1,000 years of Jewish history". Bodleian Libraries. 8 February 2013. Archived from the original on 23 April 2013. Retrieved 23 February 2013.
  2. ^ Goitein, Shelomo Dov. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. 6 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967-1993. ISBN 0-5202-2158-3.
  3. ^ Ghosh, Amitav (1992). In an Antique Land. New York: Vintage Books. p. 81. ISBN 0-679-72783-3.
  4. ^ Ghosh (1992), p. 83.
  5. ^ Hoffman, Adina; Cole, Peter (2011). Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. Schocken Books. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-8052-4258-4.
  6. ^ Soskice, Janet (2009). The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. New York: Vintage Books. p. 220. ISBN 978-1-4000-3474-1.
  7. ^ Ghosh (1992), p. 88ff.
  8. ^ Soskice (2009) pp.230, 232
  9. ^ "The Cairo Genizah Collection". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 23 September 2013.
  10. ^ a b "Appeal to buy Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection". BBC News Online. Retrieved February 18, 2013.
  11. ^ Goitein. A Mediterranean Society, vol. 1, p. 23.
  12. ^ Goitein. A Mediterranean Society, vol. 1, p. 13
  13. ^ "The Fragments of Hebrew Manuscripts discovered in the binding of books in the Biblioteca del Dottorato of the University of Perugia". University of Perugia. Retrieved 23 February 2013.
  14. ^ "Ancient manuscripts indicate Jewish communities once thrived in Afghanistan". CBS. 3 January 2013. Retrieved 4 December 2013.
  15. ^ Kahle, Paul E. (1959). The Cairo Geniza (2nd ed.). Blackwell. Retrieved 2014-01-10.
  16. ^ "Zooniverse". Scribes of the Cairo Geniza. Retrieved 15 September 2017.

External links

Babylonian vocalization

The Babylonian vocalization, also known as Babylonian supralinear punctuation, or Babylonian pointing or Babylonian niqqud Hebrew: נִקּוּד בָּבְלִי‬) is a system of diacritics (niqqud) and vowel symbols assigned above the text and devised by the Masoretes of Babylon to add to the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible to indicate the proper pronunciation of words (vowel quality), reflecting the Hebrew of Babylon. The Babylonian system is no longer in use outside Temani Judaism, having been supplanted by the sublinear Tiberian vocalization.

Ben Ezra Synagogue

The Ben Ezra Synagogue (Hebrew: בית כנסת בן עזרא‎, Arabic: معبد بن عزرا‎), sometimes referred to as the El-Geniza Synagogue (Hebrew: בית כנסת אל גניזה‎) or the Synagogue of the Levantines (al-Shamiyin), is situated in Old Cairo, Egypt. According to local folklore, it is located on the site where baby Moses was found.This was the synagogue whose geniza or store room was found in the 19th century to contain a treasure of abandoned Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Arabic secular and sacred manuscripts. The collection, known as the Cairo Geniza, was brought to Cambridge, England at the instigation of Solomon Schechter and is now divided between several academic libraries.

Damascus Document

The Damascus Document, also called the Cairo Damascus document (CD) or Damascus Rule, is an ancient Jewish document. It forms part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, found after 1947 near Qumran, but two fragments had already been found in 1897 in the Cairo Geniza.

The Damascus Document is a composite text edited together from different sections of a larger source, and scholars have attempted to place the different sections in a chronological order to generate a more complete work of the original using evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Eliyahu Ashtor

Eliyahu Ashtor (born Eduard Strauss 1914–1984) was an Austrian-Israeli historian

He was from a Zionist family. Studying at Vienna University, he completed a doctorate in Oriental studies in 1936. He emigrated to Mandate Palestine in 1938, following the Anschluss to Nazi Germany, and worked in the National Libtary of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Completing another doctorate at Jerusalem University in 1944, he at first specialized on the history of the Golden age of Jewish culture in Spain but soon moved to the medieval history of the Near East, and especially social and economic history medieval Egypt, drawing from the manuscripts of the Cairo Geniza. He was professor at the University of Jerusalem from 1969.

Karamanli Turkish

Karamanlı Turkish is both a form of written Turkish, and a dialect of Turkish spoken by the Karamanlides, a community of Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians in Ottoman Turkey. While the official Ottoman Turkish was written in the Arabic script, the Karamanlides used the Greek alphabet for writing its form of Turkish. Such texts are called Karamanlidika (Καραμανλήδικα / Καραμανλήδεια γραφή) or Karamanli Turkish today. Karamanli Turkish had its own literary tradition and produced numerous published works in print in the 19th century, some of them published by Evangelinos Misailidis, by the Anatoli or Misailidis publishing house (Misailidis 1986, p. 134).

Karamanli writers and speakers were expelled from Turkey as part of the Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923. Some speakers preserved their language in the diaspora. The writing form stopped being used immediately after the Turkish state adopted the Latin alphabet.

A fragment of a Manuscript written in Karamanli was also found in the Cairo Geniza.

Khazar Correspondence

The Khazar Correspondence was an exchange of letters in the 950s or 960s between Hasdai ibn Shaprut, foreign secretary to the Caliph of Cordoba, and Joseph Khagan of the Khazars. It is one of the few documents known to have been authored by a Khazar, and one of the very few primary sources on Khazar history. It gives both an account of the Khazar conversion to Judaism and of its progress in subsequent generations, as well as demonstrating that within a generation of the fall of the Khazar empire in 969, the Khazar state was still militarily powerful and received tribute from several polities.

Kievan Letter

The Kievan Letter is an early 10th-century (ca. 930) letter thought to be written by representatives of the Jewish community in Kiev. The letter, a Hebrew-language recommendation written on behalf of one member of their community, was part of an enormous collection brought to Cambridge by Solomon Schechter from the Cairo Geniza. It was discovered in 1962 during a survey of the Geniza documents by Norman Golb of the University of Chicago. The letter is dated by most scholars to around 930 CE. Some think (on the basis of the "pleading" nature of the text, mentioned below) that the letter dates from a time when Khazars were no longer a dominant force in the politics of the city. According to Marcel Erdal, the letter does not come from Kiev but was sent to Kiev.

Letter of the Karaite elders of Ascalon

The Letter of the Karaite elders of Ascalon (c. 1100) was a communication written by six elders of the Karaite Jewish community of Ascalon and sent to their coreligionists in Alexandria nine months after the fall of Jerusalem during the First Crusade. The contents describe how the Ascalon elders pooled money to pay the initial ransom for pockets of Jews and holy relics being held captive in Jerusalem by the Crusaders, the fate of some of these refugees after their release (including their transport to Alexandria, contraction of the plague, or death at sea), and the need for additional funds for the rescuing of further captives. It was written in Judeo-Arabic, Arabic using the Hebrew alphabet.This and other such letters related to the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem were discovered by noted historian S.D. Goitein in 1952 among the papers of the Cairo Geniza. Goitein first published his findings in Zion, a Hebrew journal, and then presented a partial English translation of the letter in the Journal of Jewish Studies that same year. Since then, it has been retranslated in several other books pertaining to the Crusades. Goitein's final and most complete English translation appeared in his final book posthumously published in 1988.

Marina Rustow

Marina Rustow is an American historian and the Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East

at Princeton University. She is a 2015 MacArthur Fellow. Her work focuses on the study of Judeo-Arabic documents found in the Cairo geniza and the history of Jews in the Fatimid Caliphate.

Mark R. Cohen

Mark R. Cohen (born March 11, 1943) is an American scholar of Jewish history in the Muslim world.

Cohen is Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor Emeritus of Jewish Civilization in the Near East and Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He is a leading scholar of the history of Jews in the Middle Ages under Islam. His research relies greatly on documents from the Cairo Geniza. From 1985 until his retirement in 2013 Cohen also led the Geniza Lab at Princeton University, which aims to make the Geniza corpus available and searchable online (as of 2013, the database contained 4,320 documents). The project is headquartered at the S.D. Goitein Geniza Research Lab, where many of Goitein's personal books and notes are stored. In 2014 Cohen was a visiting professor at New York University Abu Dhabi.Cohen won the National Jewish Book Award for his book Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt in 1981 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996.Cohen earned his undergraduate degree at Brandeis University, his master's degree at Columbia University, and his doctorate at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Obadiah the Proselyte

Obadiah the Proselyte (Hebrew: עובדיה הגר) was an early-12th-century Italian convert to Judaism. He is best known for his memoirs and the oldest surviving notation of Jewish music, both unique survivals.

He was born Johannes, son of Dreux, around 1070 in Oppido Lucano, a small town in South Italy. A Catholic priest or a Norman-Italian baronet, he converted to Judaism in 1102. It was common practice for proselytes to choose the name "Obadiah" because of the tradition that Obadiah the prophet was an Edomite converted to Judaism.His reasons are not entirely clear. It is believed he had been inspired by the Jewish people during the First Crusade, as well as the story of Andreas, the archbishop of Bari who had converted to Judaism circa 1066–1078. Obadiah's understanding of the Bible may have also played a role.He is known for recording medieval Jewish chant in Gregorian notation. There is a dispute whether this Gregorian melody used is of Jewish origin or of non-Jewish origin.

Obadiah is known to us exclusively through a variety of documents from the Cairo Geniza, all but one in his own hand. The key piece of evidence for reconstructing his own varied output came from a single colophon leaf, all that remains of a prayer-book, now preserved in the Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati (MS H.U.C. Genizah Collection no. 8). An inscription on the colophon says, in Hebrew, that "Obadiah the Norman proselyte" who converted to Judaism "in the month of Elul" of 1102 has written the prayer-book "with his own hand". So, although in all of his writings he invariably refers to himself in the third person, by directly comparing the handwriting we can be sure that it is indeed he who wrote it.It took scholars over half a century to build a full picture of Obadiah's life and deeds. The name "Obadiah the Proselyte" first came up in 1901 in the second volume of Ginzei Yerushalayim (גנזי ירושלם, Treaures of Jerusalem), a collection of scientific and literary works from rare manuscripts, compiled by Jerusalem rabbi Solomon Aaron Wertheimer, an amateur scholar and small-time Cairo Geniza material trader. From a letter of recommendation written for Obadiah by Baruch ben Isaac, the head of a large yeshivah in the city of Aleppo, Syria, Wertheimer published only the more poetic parts, mostly the lament for the plight of the Palestinian Jews in verse from the introduction; from what remained, hardly anything but the names could be deduced: "This letter was written in his own hand by our mas[ter Baru]kh ... son of ... [Isaac] ... that it might be kept by Obadiah the Proselyte [for use] in all communities of Israel to which he might go." It took another 30 years for the letter first to make its way into the Bodleian Library (where it remains to this day) and then to attract the attention of Hebrew Union College professor Jacob Mann, who finally published it in its entirety in 1930.All of the Cairo Geniza documents relevant to the life of Johannes of Oppido = Obadiah the Proselyte are available at a website dedicated to his life and writings.

Palestinian minhag

The Palestinian minhag or Palestinian liturgy, (Hebrew: נוסח ארץ ישראל‎, translit: Nusach Eretz Yisrael) as opposed to the Babylonian minhag, refers to the rite and ritual of medieval Palestinian Jewry in relation to the traditional order and form of the prayers.

A complete collection has not been preserved from antiquity, but several passages of it are scattered in both the Babylonian Talmud and Jerusalem Talmud, in the Midrashim, in the Pesiktot, in minor tractate Soferim, and in some responsa of the Palestinian Geonim. Some excerpts have been preserved in the Siddur of Saadia Gaon and the Cairo geniza yielded some important texts, such as the Eighteen Benedictions.

One fragment of a Palestinian siddur discovered in the genizah was written in Hebrew with various introductions and explanations in Judaeo-Arabic. The Geniza fragments mostly date from the 12th century, and reflect the usages of the Palestinian-rite synagogue in Cairo, which was founded by refugees from the Crusades.

Though the Jerusalem Talmud never became authoritative against the Babylonian, some elements of the Palestinian liturgy were destined to be accepted in Italy, Greece, Germany and France, even in Egypt, against the Babylonian, owing to the enthusiasm of the scholars of Rome. The Babylonian rite was accepted mainly in Spain, Portugal and the southern countries.Liturgies incorporating some elements of the Palestinian minhag fall into three distinct groupings.

The German ritual, itself divided into two rituals, the western or Minhag Ashkenaz and the eastern, or Minhag Polin. Minhag Ashkenaz was introduced in Palestine itself during the 16th century by German and Polish Kabbalists.

The Italian minhag, perhaps the oldest Palestinian-influenced ritual.

Lastly the Romaniot Minhag, more accurately, the Rumelic or Greek ritual; this ritual of the Balkan countries has retained the most features of the Palestinian minhag.It has been argued that Saadya Gaon’s siddur reflects at least some features of the Palestinian minhag, and that this was one source of the liturgy of German Jewry. Another historic liturgy containing Palestinian elements is the old Aleppo rite (published Venice, 1527 and 1560).This traditional view, that the Sephardi rite was derived from that of Babylon while the Ashkenazi rite reflects that of Palestine, goes back to Leopold Zunz, and was largely based on the fact that the Ashkenazi rite contains many piyyutim of Palestinian origin which are absent from the Babylonian and Sephardi rites. However, the correspondence is not complete. First, a few Sephardi usages in fact reflect Palestinian as against Babylonian influence, for example the use of the words morid ha-tal in the Amidah in summer months; and Moses Gaster maintained that the correspondence is the other way round (i.e. Ashkenazi=Babylonian, Sephardi=Palestinian). Secondly, Palestinian influence on any of the current Jewish rites extends only to isolated features, and none of them substantially follows the historic Palestinian rite.

A comparative list of Babylonian and Palestinian customs, known as Hilluf Minhagim, is preserved from the time of the Geonim: most of the Palestinian customs there listed are not now practised in any community. The most important and long-lasting difference was that Torah reading in Palestinian-rite synagogues followed a triennial cycle, while other communities used an annual cycle.

Similarly, Palestinian prayer texts recovered from the Cairo Geniza are not reflected in any current rite.

Roy Kinneer Patteson Jr.

Dr. Roy Kinneer Patteson Jr. was an American scholar whose knowledge of Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and Hellenistic Greek enabled him to undertake an analysis of the text of the Ben Sira Scroll discovered at Masada in Palestine in 1964. His research resulted in the establishment of a critical Hebrew text for portions of the first-century B.C. book, Sirach.

Schechter Letter

The "Schechter Letter" (also called the "Cambridge Document") was discovered in the Cairo Geniza by Solomon Schechter.

Shelomo Dov Goitein

Shelomo Dov Goitein (April 3, 1900 – February 6, 1985) was a German-Jewish ethnographer, historian and Arabist known for his research on Jewish life in the Islamic Middle Ages, and particularly on the Cairo Geniza.

Siege of Jerusalem (1099)

The Siege of Jerusalem took place from June 7 to July 15, 1099, during the First Crusade. The climax of the First Crusade, the successful siege saw the Crusaders take Jerusalem from the Fatimid Caliphate and laid the foundations for the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Sifri Zutta

Sifre Zutta (Hebrew: ספרי זוטא‬) is a midrash on the Book of Numbers. (Zur Gesch. der Jüdischen Tradition, ii. 238). Medieval authors mention it under the titles "Sifre shel Panim Aḥerim" and "Wi-Yeshalleḥu Ẓuta"; and to distinguish from it the Sifre, Or Zarua (ii. 22) calls the latter "Sifre Rabbati." The Sifre Zuṭa has not been preserved; and, as appears from a remark of Abraham Bakrat, it was no longer extant at the time in which he wrote his commentary on Rashi (comp. Brüll, Der Kleine Sifre, in Grätz Jubelschrift, p. 184). However, fragments of the Sifre Zutta have been discovered in the Cairo Geniza, and excerpts taken from the book are quoted in the Midrash HaGadol and in Yalḳut Shim'oni.

Solomon Schechter

Solomon Schechter (Hebrew: שניאור זלמן הכהן שכטר‬‎; 7 December 1847 – 19 November 1915) was a Moldavian-born American rabbi, academic scholar and educator, most famous for his roles as founder and President of the United Synagogue of America, President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and architect of American Conservative Judaism.

Yevanic language

Yevanic, also known as Judæo-Greek, Romaniyot, Romaniote, and Yevanitika is a Greek dialect formerly used by the Romaniotes and by the Constantinopolitan Karaites (In this case the language is called Karaitika or Karæo-Greek). The Romaniotes are a group of Greek Jews whose presence in the Levant is documented since the Byzantine period. Its linguistic lineage stems from the Jewish Koine spoken primarily by Hellenistic Jews throughout the region, and includes Hebrew and Aramaic elements. It was mutually intelligible with the Greek dialects of the Christian population. The Romaniotes used the Hebrew alphabet to write Greek and Yevanic texts. Judaeo-Greek has had in its history different spoken variants depending on different eras, geographical and sociocultural backgrounds. The oldest Modern Greek text, has been found in the Cairo Geniza and is actually a Jewish translation of the book Ecclesiastes (Kohelet).

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