- 1 -

A Hoard of Hebrew Manuscripts 1

     The Genizah, to explore which was the object of 
my travels in the East (1896 - 1897), is an old Jewish 
institution.  The word is derived from the Hebrew 
verb ganaz, and signifies treasure-house, or hiding-
place.  When applied to books, it means much the 
same thing as burial means in the case of men.  
When the spirit is gone, we put the corpse out of
sight to protect it from abuse.  In like manner, when 
the writing is worn out, we hide the book to pre-
serve it from profanation.  The contents of the book 
go up to heaven like the soul.  "I see the parchment
burning, and the letters flying up in the air," were the 
last words of the martyr R. Chanina ben Teradyon, 
when he went to the stake wrapped in the scrolls of
the law.  The analogy of books with men was so
strongly felt that sometimes the term "hide" was
used even in epithaphs: "Here was hidden (nignaz or 
nitman) this man."  When R. Eliezer the Great was 
buried, they said, "a scroll of the Law was hidden."  
It was probably this feeling that suggested the in-
junction to hice worn-out copies of the Pentateuch in 
the grave of a scholar.  More often, however, they 
dug a grave for the dead books themselves in the 

- 2 -
cemetary, or hid them in some sort of shed adjoining the synagogue. Happily for us, this process of "hiding" was not confined to dead or worn-out books alone. In the course of time the Genizah extended its protection to what we may call (to carry on the simile) invalid books; that is, to books which by long use or want of care came to be in a defective state, sheets being missing at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end, and which were thus disqualified for the common pur- poses of study. Another class of workes consigned to the Genizah were what we may call disgraced books, books which once pretended to the rank of Scriptures, but were found by the authorities to be wanting in the qualification of being dictated by the Holy Spirit. They were "hidden." Here our term "Apocrypha" for writings excluded from, or never admitted into, the Canon. Of course, such books came into the Genizah in sound condition; but the period at which synods and councils were able to test the somewhat indefinable quality of inspiration is now so remote that these "external works" have met, by reason of long neglect, with the same fate of decom- position that awaited sacred books, by reason of long and constant use. Besides these sacred and semi-sacred books the Genizah proved a refuge for a class of writings that never aspired to the dignity of real books, but are none the less of the greatest importance for Jewish history. As we know, the use of the sacred language
- 3 -
was, among the Jews, not confined to the sacred liter- ature. With them it was a living languge. They wrote in it their letters, kept in it their accounts, and composed in it their love-songs and wine-songs. All legal documents, such as leases, contracts, marriage settlements, and letters of divorce, and the proceed- ings as well as the decisions of the courts of justice, were drawn up in Hebrew, or, at least, written in Hebrew letters. As the Jews attached a cretain sacredness to everything resembling the Scriptures, either in matter or form, they were loth to treat even these secular documents as mere refuse, and when they were overtaken by old age, they disposed of them by ordering them to the Genizah, in which they found a resting-place for centuries. The Geni- zah, of the old Jewish community thus represents a combination of sacred lumber-room and secular record office. It was such a Genizah that I set out to visit in the middle of December, 1896. My destination was Cairo. The conviction of the importance of its Genizah had grown upon me as I examined the various manuscripts which had found their way from it into English pri- vate and public libraries, and which had already led to important discoveries. I therefore determined to make a pilgrimage to the source whence they had come. My plan recommended itself to the authori- ties of the University of Cambridge, and found warm supporters in Professor Sedgwick, Dr. Donald Mac- Alister, and especially Dr. Taylor, the Master of St.
- 4 -
John's College. To the enlightened generosity of this great student and patron of Hebrew literature it is due that my pilgimage became a regular pleasure trip to Egypt, and extended into the Holy Land. Now that the sources of the Nile are being visited by bicycles, there is little fresh to be said about Cairo and Alexandria. The latter, at which I landed, is particularly disappointing to the Jewish student. There is nothing in it to remind one of Philo, whose vague speculations were converted into saving dogmas, of the men of the Septuagint, whose very blunders now threaten to become Scripture. Nor is any trace left of the principal synagogue, in whose magnificent architecture and tasteful arrangements the old Rabbis saw a reflex of "the glory of Israel." Cairo is not more promising at the first glance that one gets on the way from the station to the hotel. Everything in it is calculated to satisfy the needs of the European tourist is sadly modern, and my heart sank within me when I reflected that this was the place whence I was expected to return laden with spoils, the age of which would command respect even in our ancient seats of learning. However, I felt reassured after a brief inter- view with the Reverend Aaron Bensimon, the Grand Rabbi of Cairo, to whom I had an introduction from the Chief Rabbi, the Very Reverend Doctor Herman Adler. From him I soon learnt that Old Cairo would be the proper field for my activity, a place old enough to enjoy the respect even of a resident of Cambridge. I must remark here that the Genizah, like the rest
- 5 -
of the property of the synagogue in Cairo, is vested in the Rabbi and the wardens for the time being. To this reverend gentleman and to Mr. Youssef M. Cat- taui, the President of the Jewish Community, my best thanks are due for the liberality with which they put their treasures at my disposal, and for the interest they showed, and the assistance they gave me in my work. I drove to this ancient Genizah accompanied by the Rabbi. We left our carriage somewhere in the neighbourhood of the "Fortress of Babylon," whence the Rabbi directed his steps to the so-called Synagogue of Ezra the Scribe. This synagogue, which in some writings bears also the names of the prophets Elijah and Jeremiah, is well known to old chroniclers and travellers, such as Makreese, Sambari, and Benjamin of Tudela. I cannot here attempt to reproduce the legends which have grown up around it in the course of time. Suffice it to say that it has an authentic record extending over more than a thousand years, having served originally as a Coptic Church (St. Mi- chael's), and been thereafter converted into a syna- gogue soon after the Mohammedan conquest of Egypt. Ever since that time it has remained in the uninterrupted possession of the Jews. The Genizah, which probably always formed an integral part of the synagogue, is now situated at the end of the gallery, presenting the appearance of a short windowless and doorless room of fair dimensions. The entrance is on the west side, through a big, shapless hole reached
- 6 -
by a ladder. After showing me over the place and the neighbouring buildings, or rather ruins, the Rabbi introduced me to the beadles of the synagogue, who are at the same time the keepers of the Genizah, and authorized me to take from it what, and as much as I liked. Now, as a matter of fact, I liked all. Still, some discretion was necessary. I have already indicated the mixture of the Genizah. But one can hardly realise the confusion in a genuine, old Genizah until one has seen it. It is a battlefield of books, and the literary productions of many centuries had their share in the battle, and their disjecta membra are now strewn over its area. Some of the belligerents have perished outright, and are literally ground to dust in the terrible struggle for space, whilst others, as if overtaken by a general crush, are squeezed into big, unshaply lumps, which even with the aid of chemical appliances can no longer be separated without serious damage to their constituents. In their present condi- tion these lumps sometimes afford curiously sugges- tive combinations; as, for instance, when you find a piece of some rationalistic work, in which the very existence of either angels or devils is denied, clinging for its very life to an amulet in which these same beings (mostly the latter) are bound over to be on their good behaviour and not interfere with Miss Jair's love for somebody. The development of the romance is obscured by the fact that the last lines of the amulet are mounted on some I.O.U., or lease, and this in
- 7 -
turn is squeezed between the sheets of an old moralist, who treats all attention to money affairs with scorn and indignation. Again, all these contradictory mat- ters cleave tightly to some sheets from a very old Bible. This indeed, ought to be the last umpire be- tween them, but it is hardly legible without peeling off from its surface the fragments of some printed work, which clings to old nobility with all the obstancy and obtrusiveness of the parvenu. Such printed matter proved a source of great trouble. It is true that it occasionally supplied us with loose sheets of lost editions, and is thus of consider- able interest to the bibliographer. But consider- ing that the Genizah has survived Gutenberg for nearly five centuries, the great bulk of it is bound to be com- paretively modern, and so is absolutely useless to the student of palaeography. I had, therefore, to confine my likings to the manuscripts. But the amount of printed fragment is very large, constituting as they do nearly all the contributions to the Genizah of the last four hundred years. Most of my time in Cairo was spent in getting rid of these parvenus, while every piece of paper or parchment that had any claim to respectable age was packed into bags and conveyed to the forwarding agent to be shipped to England. The task was by no means easy, the Genizah be- ing very dark, and emitting clouds of dust when its contents were stirred, as if protesting against the dis- turbance of its inmates. The protest is the less to be ignored as the dust settles in one's throat,
- 8 -
and threatens suffocation. I was thus compelled to accept the aid offered me by the keepers of the place, who had some experience in such work from their connexion with former acquisitions (perhaps they were rather depredations) from the Genizah. Of course, they declined to be paid for their services in hard cash of so many piastres per diem. This was a vulgar way of doing business to which no self-re- specting keeper of a real Genizah would degrade him- self. The keepers insisted the more on bakhshish, which, besides being a more dignified kind of remu- neration, has the advantage of being expected also for services not rendered. In fact, the whole population within the precincts of the synagogue were constantly coming forward with claims on my liberality - the men as worthy colleagues employed in the same work (of selection) as myself, or at least, in watching us at our work; the women for greeting me respect- fully when I entered the place, or for showing me their deep sympathy in my fits of coughing caused by the dust. If it was a fête day, such as the New Moon or the eve of the Sabbath, the amount expected from me for all these kind attentions was much larger, it being only proper that the Western millionaire should contribute from his fortune to the glory of the next meal. All this naturally led to a great deal of haggling and barganing, for which I was sadly unprepared by my former course of life, and which involved a great loss both of money and time. But what was worse,
- 9 -
was, as I soon found out, that a certain dealer in an- tiquities, who shall be nameless here, had some mys- terious relations with the Genizah, which enabled him to offer me a fair number of fragments for sale. My complaints to the authorities of the Jewish community brought this plundering to a speedy end, but not be- fore I had parted with certain guineas by way of pay- ment to this worthy for a number of selected frag- ments, which were mine by right and on which he put exorbitant prices. The number of fragments procured by me amounts, I think, to about a hundred thousand. The closer examination of them has begun since my return to England, but it will take a long time before an ade- quate account of them is possible. Here I can offer only a few brief remarks about their general character, which, of course, must be taken with due reserve. The study of the Torah, which means the revela- tion of God to man, and the cultivation of prayer, which means the revelation of man to God, were the grand passion of old Judaism; hence the Bible (Old Testament) and liturgy constitute the larger part of the contents of the Genizah. The manuscripts of the Bible, though offering no textual variations of consequence, are nevertheless not devoid of points of interest; for some fragments go back as far as the tenth century, and are thus of great value, if only as specimens of writing; others are furnished with mar- ginal glosses, or are interspersed with Chaldaic and Arabic versions; whilst some are provided with quite
- 10 -
a new system of punctuation, differing both from the Eastern and Western. Regarding the Apocry- phia, I will here refer only to the fragment of the orig- inal of Ecclesiasticus, which it was my good fortune to discover on May 13, 1896, in the Lewis-Gibson collection of fragments. The communications which were then made by Mrs. Lewis to the press led to the discovery of further fragments at Oxford. All these undoubtely come from a Genizah, and justify the hope that our recent acquisitions will yield more remains of these semi-sacred volumes. As to liturgy, the Genizah offers the remains of the oldest forms of the worship of the synagogue, and these throw much light on the history of the Jewish prayer-book. The number of hymns found in the Genizah is also very great, and they reveal to us a whole series of latter- day psalmists hitherto unknown. Next to these main classes come fragments of the two Talmuds (the Talmud of Babylon and the Talmud of Jerusalem) and Midrashism (old Rabbinic homolies). They are of the utmost importance to the student of Jewish tradition, giving not only quite a new class of manuscripts unknown to the author of the Variae Lectiones, but also restoring to us parts of old Rabbinic works long ago given up as lost for- ever. It is hardly necessary to say that both Bible and Talmud are accompanied by a long train of com- mentaries and super-commentaries in Hebrew as well as in Arabic. It is the penalty of greatness to be in need of interpretation, and jewish authoritative works have not escaped this fate.
- 11 -
The number of autograph documents brought to light from the Genizah is equally large. They ex- tend over nearly seven hundred years (eight century to the fourteenth). What a rich life these long rolls unfold to us! All sorts and conditions of men and situations are represented in them: the happy young married couple by their marriage contract; the mar- riage that failed by its letter of divorce; the slave by his deed of emancipation; the court of justice by its legal decisions; the heads of the schools by their learned epistles; the newly-appointed "Prince of the Exile" by the description of his installation; the rich trader by his correspondence with his agents in Mala- bar; the gentleman-beggar by his letters of recom- mendation to the great ones in Israel; the fanatics by their thundering excommunications; the meek man by his mild apologies; the fool by his amulet; the medical man by his prescriptions; and the patient by his will. To these may be added a vast amount of miscellaneous matter, philosophical and mystical as well as controversial, which is the more difficult to identify as almost every fragment bears witness to the existence of a separate work. All these treasures are now stored up in the Libra- ry of the University of Cambridge, where they are undergoing the slow process of a thorough examina- tion. The results of this examination will certainly prove interesting alike to the theologian and the his- torian.

Return to

Table of Contents


Welcome Page / Exhibit / Site Links