A Jewish Time Capsule

By Korr, Rocky | Moment, May-June 2011 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

A Jewish Time Capsule

Korr, Rocky, Moment

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 This fragile fragment was a palimpsest, a layered text on which an earlier writing had been replaced by a later one.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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

A Jewish Time Capsule


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?