Sacred Treasure - The Cairo Genizah
The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic
By Mark Glickman
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010, 255 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - November 8, 2010
Three discoveries of documents during the past 120 years, two in the 1940s, revolutionized the understanding of Jewish and Christian history. Scholars may differ on which of the three is most important and which comes in second, but there is no dispute that the discoveries are significant.
One is the Dead Sea discoveries. These are hundreds of documents hidden in caves in Qumran, near the Dead Sea in Israel, by Essenes, a sect of very ascetic Jews who no longer exist. Qumran was destroyed in 67 CE just before the Romans demolished the Jewish Temple in 70 CE and exiled many but not all Jews from their homeland. They were a people who considered themselves pious; they separated from women and insisted on frequent washings. They wanted to preserve their library, so they hid their books in jars and buried them in caves. These books, found in the 1940s, describe their ideology, strivings, fears, hopes, and their antagonism to the rest of Jewry and the Temple. They speak about the messiah they expected to arrive shortly to save them. The library also contains copies of other books, including parts of all of the Hebrew Bible, except for the book of Esther. These books reveal new information of ancient Jewry and the time of Jesus. In fact, many scholars feel certain that John the Baptist was a member of this group or, at a minimum, was influenced by them, and he, in turn, they say, influenced Jesus.
The second is the Nag Hammadi library found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. These are Gnostic Christian documents. They contain Gospels, accounts of the early life of Jesus that are radically different than the currently accepted canon. They include a gospel that describes Mary Magdalene as the favorite disciple of Jesus and another that describes Judas Iscariot as Jesus' true disciple, who carried out Jesus' orders to hand him over to the Romans to be killed. Still another describes Jesus floating above the crucifixion, looking down at the crucified man, and laughing. Scholars are convinced that there were many different Christian groups during the early centuries of the Common Era, including Gnostics who stressed the importance of understanding, rather than faith. When in the fourth century one perspective, close to the modern position, prevailed, the Gnostics hid their Bibles by burying them. They did not toss them into rubbish heaps or rip them up because they felt these books were holy. This find opens a new vision of early Christianity.
The third are the hundreds of thousands of documents found in a synagogue in the Cairo, Egypt Genizah. A Genizah is a depository for discarded documents. The Cairo Genizah is two stories high. Jews felt that it is wrong to treat documents that contain God's name improperly. They buried them or deposit them in a Genizah. Soon, the Egyptian Jews began to place all the papers and scrolls that they no longer wanted in the Genizah. Thus the Genizah held hundreds of thousands of documents that reveal the lives and thinking – businesses, family life, and religious - of Jews and Arabs of the middle ages until the present time.
Rabbi Mark Glickman's well-written book that reads like a novel tells the history of the discovery of the contents of the Cairo Genizah and what many of the documents reveal. He reveals how in December 1896, Rabbi Solomon Schechter of Cambridge University entered the attic-like chamber of the Ben Ezra Synagogue to look at the texts and documents of every kind that the Cairo Jews had tossed into the chamber for more than eight hundred years, since the first papers fluttered to its floor in 1025. He tells us the history of Jews in Cairo and the history of the synagogue, how the scholarly world knew about the treasures that the synagogue contained but ignored them, how the scholars suddenly awaked to the realization that the room contained a treasure of information, how this awakening caused the scholars in an Indiana Jones and Da Vinci Code fashion to rush to grab the treasure, how local Egyptians stole items to sell them to the scholars, how some scholars sought prestige and lied about their finds, how Schechter saved over a hundred thousand of the documents, but ignored some of them, and how today there are 291,793 of them in some three dozen different collections scattered throughout the world, including England, United States, Hungary, Switzerland, Israel, Germany, France, Austria, and Canada. He also relates how other scholars uncovered significant items that Schechter overlooked and how the documents are handled today.
The finds are remarkable. One, for example, is the last letter that Moses Maimonides' bother David wrote to Maimonides (1138-1204) just before he died in a ship wreck. The letter discloses why he, a merchant, undertook his fatal trip to India; he was unable to find sufficient merchandise in Lower Egypt, and rather than return home empty-handed decided to sail to India to purchase goods. Maimonides loved his brother intensely. He became severely depressed for a full year when he heard of his brother's death. We can easily imagine that he must have handled this very letter many times. Other Maimonides finds include many original documents in his own handwriting; some have cross outs, changes he made in his monumental Code of Jewish Law. Some were answers that he wrote to question that were sent to him. Talmud scholars today ponder the cross outs and ask why Maimonides felt he had to change what he wrote.
We knew, to site another example, that there was a sixth century Palestinian poet Yannai who wrote liturgical compositions, one of the earliest poets to do so, but had only a few of his poems. Schechter found over eight hundred of Yannai's poems in the Genizah.
There were also documents of an eleventh century Italian Roman Catholic priest Giovan who was horrified and revolted by the massacres of innocent Jews committed by members of the supposedly holy first crusade of 1096 that he converted to Judaism and took the name Ovadiah. We read how he was persecuted by Christians for his conversion and how he was treated by Jews. He composed a piece of Jewish music. His history along with the sheet of music was found in the Genizah, and his music can now be heard on the internet.
Another find was a parchment scroll of the rabbinic book Avot d'Rabbi Natan written sometime in or around the fifth century CE. "For centuries," Glickman writes, "Rabbinic teachings have been printed in books; only the Written Torah appears in scroll form." We had supposed that this was always the practice. "We know now that past Rabbinic books also were put into scrolls." These are just some of the many Genizah finds.
In summary, many ancient tales tell of romantic dreams of people finding buried treasures that altered their lives; treasures that were usually comprised of gold and precious jewels. During the past 120 years this fantasy has become true. No treasure is greater than knowledge, especially knowledge that affects our lives and how we think of ourselves. The Qumran documents, the Nag Hammadi Library, and the hundreds of thousands of Cairo Genizah finds are these treasures.