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October 17, 2018

The Cairo Genizah Collection: a vivid glimpse into 1,000 years Egyptian Jewish life

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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A woman writes a beseeching letter to her husband who is away traveling on business:

I appeal to you from the bottom of my heart not to go further, either by sea or land. I swear to the Lord that if you do this it will cause a quarrel between your son-in-law and your daughter who is pregnant. You will inflect pain upon her and perhaps she will suffer a miscarriage.”

A man whose work has taken him far from home pens these poignant words to his wife back in Cairo:

“When I prepare something and put it on the fire, it does not turn out well because of my fatigue, preoccupations and worries. I think about you and your suffering and your loneliness and the loneliness of each of us. God knows how I eat, drink, and sleep.” He adds; “I know I have talked too long in this letter about things for which shortness would be more fitting, but I speak to you about myself as if you were present, for consolation.”

These letters could have been written yesterday, reaching their beloved recipients almost at the speed of light from the senders’ smartphones, tablets or iPads.

But they are actually about 1,000 years old.

The first was written in Hebrew and the second in Judeo-Arabic. Both of these ancient “hardcopy” pieces of personal correspondence were on display in 1983 as part of the Cairo Genizah Exhibition, coordinated by the late Carmen Weinstein, head of the Egyptian Jewish community in Cairo.

I used to frequent Ms. Weinstein’s downtown printing shop whenever I visited my home country of Egypt. I was among those who received a personal invitation to the exhibition’s opening at the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, where the many thousands of documents had been discovered back in 1896.  Unfortunately, my schedule prevented me from attending, but she thoughtfully saved me a copy of the Arabic-English souvenir booklet.

Apart from the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, which are religious manuscripts containing important Bible fragments, the Cairo Genizah documents include some of the oldest records of Jewish secular life in existence.

The collection has a fascinating history.

In 1896, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, the identical twin daughters of a wealthy Scottish widower, returned to Cambridge from a trip to Cairo with some pages of Hebrew manuscript they’d purchased from a local bookseller. The sisters showed them to fellow Cambridge scholar Solomon Schechter.

Intrigued, Schechter set off to Old Cairo, eventually making his way to the Ben Ezra Synagogue – reputed to have been built on the site where the infant Moses had been found in the reeds by an Egyptian princess.

Deep within the synagogue’s genizah (a hidden repository where unused documents are stored; the word is derived from a Hebrew verb, “to hide”), Schechter discovered more than 1,700 Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts.

In 1898, he and his patron Charles Taylor, who was then Master of St. John’s College Cambridge, acquired and donated some of the Ben Ezra genizah fragments to the university.

So why would such a diverse assortment of manuscripts be kept that way in the first place?

It’s all about using the name of God. According to ancient Jewish law, writings no longer needed must be interred (not burned or recycled) if they bear the name of God.

In the case of Egyptian Jews, as the two letters cited above show, just about everything they wrote – whether personal letters or shopping lists – contained at least one mention of God. A friend or family member might be blessed in God’s name; personal hopes and prayers would refer to God; or an enemy might be cursed by invoking God’s wrath.

Thus, they ended up preserving not only official sacred texts, but just about everything they ever wrote down.

To this day, synagogues still collect expired prayer books and other ritual objects, which are ceremonially buried every few years.

But historians were lucky when it came to the Ben Ezra collection. While the synagogue members faithfully collected and stored old texts in their genizah, for some reason the contents of the repository were never buried. Instead, they remained hidden for 10 centuries, literally in a hole in the wall. As a result, they became a time-capsule comprising some 250,000 fragments – an unparalleled archive of Egyptian Jewish life from the ninth to the 19th centuries.

What do Cairo Genizah manuscripts actually reveal over such a long period of time?

First of all, Egypt during this period was safer for Jews than any other place on earth; they were treated with much more toleration and freedom than many scholars had assumed. And the community was wealthy, flourishing at the center of a thriving mercantile network.

The Fatimid Caliphate that ruled Egypt from 909-1171 CE “embraced the organs of Jewish government even to the point of financially supporting the ancient Academy of Jerusalem, promoting self-governance by the Jewish community and assisting the progress of pilgrims to the holy sites,” writes Ben Outhwaite, head of genizah research at Cambridge. “Jewish merchants partnered with Christians and Muslims; they ran perfume shops and silk weaveries together.”

The genizah documents also contain eyewitness accounts of atrocities committed during the First Crusades at the turn of the 11th century.

A Jewish woman who fled to Cairo from her home in ravaged Jerusalem, writes about the trauma of losing her husband and son: “I was with him on the day I saw them killed in terrible fashion. . . I am an ill woman on the brink of insanity, on top of the hunger of my family and the little girl who are all with me, and the horrid news I heard about my son.

While very few Jews married local Christians and Muslims, there is ample evidence of close and neighborly interfaith relationships. The Genizah includes 11th-century prenuptial agreements and marriage deeds listing the full inventory of a woman’s bridal trousseau. It also contains the oldest known Jewish engagement deed dating from 1119, created to give legal protection to a woman and her dowry due to changes in the time period between betrothal and marriage.

Marriage contracts in the collection show that divorce was quite common. One letter is written by a woman to her husband; he’d moved out because he was fed up with living under his in-laws’ roof and, worse still, paying them rent. Whether the separation led to divorce or not is another matter.

Among the Genizah fragments are profane and even occult texts about superstition and magic, such as spells for inflicting harm on an enemy or for ensuring erotic satisfaction.

Here is one example of a male seduction spell intended to entice a woman into bed: “Take your trousers and put them on over your head, so that you are naked. Say: ‘So-and-so, son of So-and-so, is doing this for So-and-so, daughter of So-and-so, in order that she will dream that I sleep with her and she sleeps with me’.

Significant artifacts of Biblical and Hebrew literature are also preserved, such as a large leaf from Commentary on the Mishnah by the great 12th-century scholar Moses Maimonides, as well as parts of Torahs and Talmuds from all over the world.

But as the opening letters reveal, the Cairo Genizah collection reveals most about the social history and daily life details of Egyptian Jews.

We learn what people felt about one another, their family and business worries, their joy and pain, their wellness and sickness, what they bought and ordered, and even what got lost in shipments between ports in Alexandria and Italy.

It’s not surprising that this treasure-trove of human life from a millennium ago would attract great interest. The mid-century German-Jewish historian and ethnographer S. D. Goitein made the Cairo Genizah his life’s work. He reimagined the Middle Ages of Egypt in his monumental six-volume study, A Mediterranean Society.

In 2011 Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole published Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of Cairo Genizah.

But perhaps the most notable recent scholarly project is the Friedberg Genizah, an international effort to catalogue, transcribe, translate, and digitize the entire contents of the Cairo Genizah.

A great benefit of this collection is that it has not only given scholars a better understanding of Jewish life in Egypt from the ninth through 19th centuries, but has also allowed them to extrapolate much about how they lived in other cities such as Baghdad, Damascus and Aleppo. No other record as long, or as full, exists anywhere else.

Remembering back to the 1983 exhibit that drew this monumental trove of documents to my attention, it is interesting to note that the event had a significant Canadian connection.

Since the majority of the Ben Ezra genizah manuscripts were in Cambridge at the university’s Schechter Research Unit, they had to be acquired on loan and carefully transported back to Cairo. The cost of this endeavor was paid for by Dr. Phyllis Lambert of the Canadian Centre for Architecture and her brother, Edgar Bronfman, then chairman of the World Jewish Congress.

If you are fortunate enough to visit Egypt, make a point of stopping at Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo where this amazing genizah was found. It is a unique religious neighborhood, where Africa’s oldest Church and Mosque stand side-by-side with the world’s oldest Synagogue.

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