A Jewish Time Capsule

Article excerpt

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

Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole Schocken 2011, $26.95, pp. 304

Five years ago, I got the thrill of a lifetime when, as a collections manager for the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, I placed a 10th-century parchment fragment into a display case for a Bible exhibition. This fragile fragment was a palimpsest, a layered text on which an earlier writing had been replaced by a later one. The first was a sixth-century copy of a Greek translation of a section of the Book of Kings by the famed second-century writer Aquila. The later text was a 10th-century copy of a liturgical poem fragment by the seventh-century Palestinian Jewish poet Yannai, a precursor to the poets of the later Golden Age in Spain. The fragment was found in the famed Cairo Geniza, a repository of sacred texts, and is just one piece in a collection that has become the greatest archival find in Jewish history.


Like that famous palimpsest, Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole's Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza is a multi-layered work that provokes admiration and excites the imagination on many levels. From its descriptions of linguists, Jewish scholars and others who were involved in the discovery and interpretation of the nearly 400,000 known fragments found in the Geniza, to discussions of the documents themselves, the book opens a window on Jewish life, customs, history, religion and, most importantly, the sense of identity among Jews in the Middle East between the ninth and 14th centuries. There are so many documents because this particular Geniza came to include any writing in Hebrew script--in any language--preserving everything from prescriptions to money orders as well as rabbinic responsa.

The book introduces several daring Eastern European Jewish intellectuals who unraveled the many mysteries behind the collection over decades. Foremost among them, Solomon Schechter, a Romanian-born scholar and rabbi, followed the trail of odd, ancient Jewish documents appearing in the antiquities market in the 1890s back to their primary source: the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which has stood for 1,000 years in a section of Old Cairo, formerly called Fustat. Within the Ben Ezra Synagogue, the huge cache of paper and parchment fragments was hidden in a room off its women's gallery.

It was Schechter who first identified the long-lost original Hebrew version of the ancient book of Ben Sira (a collection of proverbs and ethical maxims) composed in the second century B.C.E., around the time the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, which until then had only been known through later written Greek translations. He had a particular interest in Ben Sira; as Hoffman and Cole point out, Schechter recognized that the Hebrew version of the text reflected a dynamic and continuing creative religious development in Second Temple times that would extend into the Middle Ages. Triumphantly, he proclaimed his interpretation in opposition to the anti-Jewish bias reflected in Protestant scholarly circles in which Second Temple rabbinic Judaism was seen as somewhat sterile and in decline.

Hoffman and Cole also describe in detail the evolution of Jewish liturgical poetry from as early as the eighth century through the Golden Age of Spain four centuries later, mentioning luminaries such as Judah Halevi. The new form of poetry drew inspiration and technique from the surrounding Arabic culture and its rich poetic traditions. …