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Sacred Trash

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Sacred Trash
The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza
(Jewish Encounters)
By Adina Hoffman & Peter Cole
Nextbook - Shocken (2011)
ISBN: 978-0-8052-4258-4

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - April 21, 2011

In Judaism, religious books are revered and just like humans, when a holy book, scroll, or even a piece of paper upon which the name of G-d has been written, 'dies' (i.e., is no longer in use, is beginning to crumble, or is otherwise falling apart) it must be buried. In most cases, synagogues or individuals will designate a specific location (a room or box) as the Geniza, in which to store the 'dead' books until such time as they can be properly disposed of. More often than not, the books were never buried. After all, you never know when you might need to refer to one of them again. Often these books would accumulate for decades, and at times were totally forgotten when communities were disbanded or other disruptions occurred. In Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole examine one of these 'forgotten' treasure houses.

The Cairo Geniza was rediscovered in 1896 by Solomon Schechter and two Presbyterian women, the adventurers and scholars, Agnes S. Lewis and Margaret D. Gibson. They were not the first to stumble upon the Geniza, but they were the first to understand its significance. This was the Geniza of the Ben Ezra synagogue located in Fustat (Old Cairo), and was found to contain not only religious items, but also a host of items simply written in Hebrew, including letters, notes, legal documents, and other records. In all, more than a quarter of a million books, and fragments of paper, were found to have survived in the dry, atmosphere of the Ben Ezra Geniza. Some of these documents date back almost 1,000 years and ranging up to the 1880's.

This eye-opening book explores not only how the Geniza was rediscovered and what was found inside it, but also how this information has altered our understanding of Egyptian and Mediterranean Jewish history and its significance to Jewish studies as a whole. The authors also look at how scholars have used and interpreted these documents, where the documents are now housed, and the insights into some of the information that has been garnered from these documents.

Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza is a fascinating book to read and both general readers and scholars will find it engaging. For those seeking to delve deeper into this treasure trove of information, the authors have included detailed endnotes that provide much fodder for further research.

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