Jewish tradition of revering sacred texts offers view on lost world

The Cairo Genizah contained texts spanning nearly a thousand years

Solomon Schechter c.1898 Cambridge studying boxes of manuscripts from Cairo Geniza.. American -Romanian rabbi, academic scholar, educator, founder and President of the United Synagogue of America, President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America movement. 7 December , 1847 – 19 Novembe 1915. --- Image by © Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

For The Review.  Egypt faith after the Pharaohs. *** Local Caption ***  18.jpg

From prayer notes in the Western Wall to texts in synagogues, the Jewish tradition of safeguarding sacred writing can open a window into life through the ages.

At Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, pieces of paper are lodged between the ancient stones.

But twice a year, Jewish men bearing sticks pushed the prayers out of the crevices.

Below them, the papers filled boxes marked “Genizah”.

The word refers to a place where Jews store worn-out religious writings, before they are gathered up and buried.

Rabbi Michael Marmur, an associate professor at Jerusalem’s Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), said the Genizah tradition dates back some 2,000 years.

“Judaism has always been a strongly textual and text-centred religion, and the text itself, particularly once it bears the name of God, the text becomes something to be upheld and preserved,” he said.

A document from a collection of discarded Jewish writings which date back to the 10th century, discovered in Afghanistan, on display at the National Library of Israel. AFP

Although not all synagogues contain a dedicated Genizah, houses of worship and religious study will have arrangements for when sacred texts fall out of use.

In the wider Jewish community, meanwhile, there are public depositories which the faithful can use, sometimes with a place to leave a donation.

While the space used to hold religious texts may vary, the principle remains the same.

“The same kind of attention is paid to the human body before burial, the idea is that they must be treated with the utmost reverence,” said Rabbi Marmur.

The vast majority of writings placed in a Genizah are committed to the earth every few years, never to be seen again.

But once, a Genizah was left to fill up for almost a thousand years.

The vast room within a Cairo synagogue ultimately filled up with hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, which scholars began studying more than a century ago.

“It was just accessed through a little window,” explained Melonie Schmierer-Lee, a research associate from the Genizah Research Unit, at Cambridge University Library.

“They ended up dropping their Genizah items into this room, and they didn’t really empty it out,” said Ms Schmierer-Lee from Cambridge, where the largest part of the collection is held.

The entrance to the Genizah chamber of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, in the Egyptian capital Cairo. University of Cambridge, used by permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library

While traditionally religious texts should be correctly disposed of, the Cairo collection contains all sorts of writings.

“Its real significance is that it was the writings of the community for a vast amount of time, and you can see people’s daily life,” said Ms Schmierer-Lee.

“You get all this people that don’t usually appear in the historical record,” she added, such as details of the lives of women, poor people and slaves.

The Cairo Genizah contained everything from shopping lists, to Arabic fabes and prenuptial agreements detailing agreed behaviour during marriage.

“There’s one quite funny one,” said Ms Schmierer-Lee. “The groom-to-be promises that in marriage he won’t hang around with his drunken, dissolute friends.”

Overall, the Egyptian texts portray a thriving Jewish community during a period when the Holy Land was marred by the Crusades.

While the Cairo collection is the most celebrated of its kind, others provide invaluable insights into Jewish life around the world.

The Afghan Genizah, held at the National Library of Israel, details the life of Jewish traders between the 11th and 13th century.

While scholars knew Jews were present in the Persian-speaking world, the collection of around 250 documents provides rare proof.

“Before these documents were studied and brought to light, there was almost no evidence of a Jewish community,” said Samuel Thrope, curator of the library’s Islam and Middle East Collection.

Although described as a Genizah, many of the papers are thought to have originated in a local administrator’s archive rather than a place of worship.

Part of a collection of Jewish texts discovered in Afghanistan and aquired by the National Library of Israel. AFP

“The Afghan Genizah lets us see what life was really like” at the time, with letters, Jewish legal texts and poetry included in the collection.

Some Jews may oppose the study of texts which had been intended for burial.

But for Rabbi Marmur, unveiling a Genizah can create an important historic record if the texts are treated with respect.

“[The fact that] they provide us a window into a lost world is a fantastic additional blessing,” he said.

Updated: April 21, 2022, 8:06 AM