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Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection at the Cambridge University Library

Research Unit


Solomon Schechter at his desk

"A Hoard of Ancient Manuscripts" by Solomon Schechter (1908 PDF)
 

The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection is a priceless accumulation of centuries-old Hebrew manuscript material and Judaica, recovered from the Cairo Genizah in 1896-97. It has occupied a place of honour among the literary treasures of the University of Cambridge for more than a century and is housed at Cambridge University Library.

The Collection was the gift in 1898 of the noted scholar Dr Solomon Schechter - who later became President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America - and his friend and patron, Dr Charles Taylor, Master of St. John's College, Cambridge.

In 1896 Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson showed some leaves of a Hebrew manuscript which they had purchased in the Middle East to Schechter, then Reader in Talmudic and Rabbinic literature at Cambridge. He then conceived the idea of bringing to the University the precious manuscript material he suspected could be found in the Genizah (depository for worn-out copies of sacred Jewish writings) of the thousand-year-old Ben Ezra Synagogue of Fostat (Old Cairo). Taylor, an enthusiastic student of Hebrew, joined him in his effort to add to the knowledge of Jews and Judaism, and made it financially possible out of his own means.

In a now famous expedition, Schechter journeyed to Cairo and secured the approval of the Synagogue authorities to 'empty' the Genizah. He chose what seemed to be its most promising material and sent it on to England for scholarly study. Although some fragments had already found their way elsewhere his haul was destined to become by far the most important.


A new era of Jewish learning
The 140,000 fragments of documents and texts now at Cambridge are mainly in manuscript, many of them on vellum. They include a wide variety of secular as well as religious material and are written in several languages. Although they were gathered in less than two months it has taken over a century to preserve, classify and house the greater part of them in a way that makes them easily available for study - and much still remains to be done.

Yet in these hundred years the Taylor-Schechter Collection has already served to usher in a whole new era of Jewish learning. There is hardly an area of Hebrew and Jewish studies that has not been revolutionized by findings that originated in the Genizah Collection.

The sacred, the heretical and the mundane
Taken together, the Collection's fragments make up a literature of the sacred, the heretical and the mundane which reaches back to Biblical times and extends forward to the 19th century.


The sacred is represented in splendid quantity and variety by thousands of fragments of Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Law and Liturgy, reflecting many periods of Jewish thought and custom.

Among the many lost Hebrew books recovered from among the fragments is the original version of the Wisdom of Ben Sira, a work dating from the second century BCE. Jewish doubt about just how sacred this book was had led to its exclusion from the Hebrew Bible and eventually to the loss of its Hebrew text. But the Genizah ensured that it was not lost for ever by preserving a 10th century copy.

The first Dead Sea Scroll
The heretical is present in the writings of various dissident Jewish sects, compositions probably banished to the Genizah whenever they appeared in Old Cairo. Nearly forty years before the momentous discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, Schechter called attention to just such a group, the unknown religious brotherhood we now know produced the Scrolls, when he published their story in his 'Fragments of a Zadokite Work', the first volume of his Documents of Jewish Sectaries. His research was based on the analysis of certain unique pieces he had found in the Collection, and created a sensation in its own time. The 'Zadokite' fragments have since been referred to as 'The First Dead Sea Scroll'.

The ordinary literature of life
But the Collection's considerable quantity of the ordinary literature of life - mundane legal papers, business correspondence, medical prescriptions, musical notations, illuminated pages, marriage contracts, children's school books and everyday letters - has also proved to be of remarkable value for research purposes. Individual pieces of a secular nature have given us eye-witness accounts of the Crusader conquest of the Holy Land, have confirmed the 8th century conversion of the Khazars to Judaism and have presented us with some of the oldest known texts of Yiddish (Judaeo-German).

Overall contribution to scholarship
Overall, the results of work on the Genizah Collection can be summed up as follows:

It has provided us with detailed accounts of the social, economic and religious activity of the vibrant Near Eastern Jewish communities of the 11th-13th centuries.
It has shown us how Jewish law developed during the Geonic period (7th-11th centuries) when the heads of the Babylonian academies were called upon to make rulings for Jews throughout the Islamic Empire.
It has deepened our knowledge of famous scholars, including Saadia (882-942), Maimonides (1135-1204) and Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141), sometimes bringing to light texts in the handwriting of such great men.
It has made possible the restoration and collation of important early texts of the Midrash and the Talmud, especially the Jerusalem Talmud, otherwise known only in later corrupt versions.
It has given us new insights into the way that Hebrew was pronounced and its grammar understood by the leading Jewish linguists of Eretz Yisrael and Babylonia more than a thousand years ago.
It has led to the recovery of Greek and Syriac texts - one of them a 6th century version of the translation of the Bible into Greek by Aquila, contemporary of Rabbi Akiva. This has been achieved through a close examination of 'palimpsests' - manuscripts on vellum in which the original writing was scraped away and inscribed with a fresh text, often Hebrew.
It has made possible the reconstruction of synagogue customs and rites in ancient Palestine and Babylonia.
It has led to the rediscovery of a large proportion of the important Hebrew poetry of medieval Spain and Provence.
It has ushered in a new era of language studies through the publication of its important Judaeo-Arabic material (Arabic written in Hebrew characters and once the lingua franca of Jews under Islamic rule).
It has produced rare examples of Jewish artistic, musical and scientific efforts in the 11th and 12th centuries.
 


 

An important collection of ancient Jewish and Arabic documents, equal in significance to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and discovered as fragments in an old storeroom, has received a major grant for its upkeep.

The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection, housed at Cambridge University Library, has been awarded a 475,000 grant from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. This will pay for the description, cataloguing and digitization of a substantial part of the total 140,000 fragments, vital in making this unique collection accessible to scholars and lay people worldwide.

The Genizah collection was entrusted to Cambridge University over 100 years ago by the Chief Rabbi of the 1,000-year-old Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. The widespread Jewish custom of not destroying texts on which the name of God or sections of the scripture were recorded led to such materials being consigned to a ‘genizah’ (‘storage place’ in Hebrew), where they would disintegrate through natural processes. What makes the contents of the Old Cairo ‘genizah’ so precious is that not only were they conserved rather than destroyed by the Egyptian climate but, most unusually, everyday texts and writings were also deposited there.

One hundred years ago, in May 1896, Scottish twin sisters and intrepid Middle East travellers, Mrs Agnes Lewis and Mrs Margaret Gibson, handed Solomon Schechter, a leading Hebrew scholar at Cambridge University, some fragments they had brought back from their latest travels in the Middle East. Schechter wrote to them the next day “in haste and great excitement” about the fragments’ huge significance and soon after, with the financial support of Dr Charles Taylor, Master of St John’s College, Cambridge, set off for Fustat (Old Cairo) to secure the approval of the synagogue to bring the unwanted contents of the ‘genizah’ for safekeeping to Cambridge University.

The 140,000 fragments are made up of more than 1/4 million individual leaves of Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic papers. What caused Schechter to respond to the sisters’ lead ‘in haste and great excitement’ was a piece of the original Hebrew text of Ecclesiasticus from the second pre-Christian century. There are ‘heretical’ documents such as the ‘Zakodite’ document, or first Dead Sea Scroll, as well as many important religious tracts and literary works, some of them previously unknown. But what makes the collection unique is the fact that it includes records of everyday life – business and personal correspondence, medical prescriptions, legal papers, musical notations, marriage contracts, school books - which are much rarer to come by than official documents. No other collection in the world has had such an impact on our understanding of the religious, economic and social history of the medieval Middle East and Mediterranean

The bulk of the Genizah collection dates from the 10th – 13th centuries. However, some works represented in the fragments date back to Biblical times, while others are as recent as the 19th Century. What we get is a unique picture of the everyday lives of these peoples: relations between Jews, Muslims and crusaders, the trade in goods and ideas with other countries, such as India, education, science and medicine, social customs and business practices – including the earliest examples of double-entry book-keeping and the use of cheques, with the familiar wording ‘I promise to pay the bearer…’.

Professor Stefan Reif, Founder Director of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection, said: “The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection at Cambridge University Library offers a window on the world of the 10th–13th centuries. The largest and most important collection of medieval Jewish, Hebrew and Arabic documents in the world, it is at least equal in importance to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Whilst the Dead Sea Scrolls chronicled the life of a dissident sect that cut itself off from the world, the Genizah fragments tell the story of ordinary people dealing with everyday life, love and lore.”

The AHRC grant will be used to help complete existing projects over the next three years, but there is still much left to be done. Future Genizah projects will include finding funding for visiting scholars, especially from Israel and America; initiating research in fields such as philosophy, mysticism and pharmacology; and further cataloguing and fragment analysis.

 

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