Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

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

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

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

Article excerpt

Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. By Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole. New York: Schocken, 2011. 386 pages. $26.95.

With the skill of historians and the style of novelists, Hoffman and Cole tell the remarkable story of the medieval document trove that came to light in the 1890s and has kept scholars busy for over a century.

A geniza is a repository for writings with Hebrew letters on them - sometimes even in other languages - which Jews traditionally preserve because God's name often appears on them and because of a general reverence towards the Hebrew language. The actual content of the texts could be religious, literary, commercial, legal, or personal. The trove found in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat near Cairo contains 331,351 of such pieces of writing dating from as early as 870 CE. and up to a millennium later.

The authors approach their topic by alternating between the stories of the modern scholars who worked with the materials and the geniza's revelations themselves. Solomon Schechter, Jefim Hayyim Schirmann, Ezra Fleischer, and S.D. Goitein unearthed and studied the materials while the "sacred trash" included the first Hebrew versions of the apocryphal book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), works by the schismatic Karaite sect, Andalusian poetry, and letters of the revered medieval sage, Maiminides. …

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