Monday, 26 January 2015

A Young Person's Guide to the Cairo Geniza

I’ve always loved the story of the Cairo Geniza (and so wholeheartedly recommend the wonderful book on the subject, Sacred Trash), but never really taught about it.

I was substitute teaching for the 9/10 year olds on Sunday and produced a guide to the Geniza that tore into bits and dipped in coffee to ‘age’ and had the students piece together their own guide to the Geniza (as well as some other ‘aged’ ‘original documents’ like the letter from Maimonides etc.) and some photos (yes, that very famous one)

It was a lot of fun.


So a young person’s guide to the Geniza (which fit on an A4)


A Geniza, from the Hebrew root Gimmel Nun Zion – meaning hidden or put away - is a place where Jews are supposed to put holy writings that can no longer be used; for example worn out Torah scrolls, Mezuzah parchment or prayer books. Jewish law says anything with God’s name written on it can’t be just thrown away, or even recycled, it needs to be ‘put away’ in a Geniza (or buried in a Jewish cemetery).

One of the problems with Genizot (plural of Genizah) is that people tend to put all kinds of things in them. There is a Geniza at New London. It lives by the side of the photocopier and all kinds of things, like colouring pages for the Cheder, end up in there.


One day in 1895 two Scottish adventurers (back in the day when you had to be an adventurer to travel such a long way) Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, were in the market in Cairo when someone offered them some scraps of paper with Hebrew writing on. They bought the scraps and took them back to Britain where they showed them to the Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge University, Solomon Schechter (a man with a tremendous beard). Schechter thought that he might have found the original Hebrew of a very ancient book called Ben Sira, a book that was originally written in Hebrew, but only survived in Greek. He got on the next boat to Cairo and bough the whole Geniza, some 300,000 fragments of texts.


It turned out to be the discovery of the century. There were lots of very old versions of all sorts of works Jewish scholars knew about already, like Pirkei Avot, but often reworded in really interesting ways. Imagine a thousand year old maths problem which everyone knew the answer to, and all you had to do was prove how the problem came to that answer. The problem is that you just can’t solve the problem. Then, out of the Geniza came a different version of the problem; say with a ‘plus’ mark where we originally thought there should be a ‘minus,’ and the problem suddenly becomes obvious.


Another thing that was found was an early version of one of the most famous prayers of Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, called the Unataneh Tokef. People had once thought that this prayer had been written many hundreds of years later in Germany. A much much older version turned up in the Geniza.


And this was a huge stroke of luck. This Synagogue, where so much stuff had been preserved so perfectly, happened to be the Synagogue where possibly most important Rabbi for a thousand years happened to be based. Rabbi Moses, son of Maimon, was also known as Rambam or Maimonides wrote the Mishneh Torah, which changed the way Jews understood and wrote about Jewish law for ever, and Moreh Nevuchim – or the Guide for the Perplexed – which changed the way Jews thought about belief. Early versions of both these texts are found in the Geniza, and letters from Rambam on all sorts of subject as well. Rambam, like everyone else in Cairo, spoke Arabic and when he wrote letters or Moreh Nevuchim, he wrote in Arabic – but using Hebrew letters. So if you want to understand the Genizah, you have to read Hebrew as Arabic.


And then there were the things that really should never have been put in the Geniza in the first place, receipts for the special tax that Jews had to pay the Islamic rulers in Cairo at the time – yup Jews had to pay a special tax just for being Jews. It was expensive and some people couldn’t afford it, and there are also letters in the Geniza talking  about how to raise the money, and how to help people who couldn’t afford it. There are receipts for the candles – so now we know how much candles cost at that time in Egypt. In fact there is more information about normal life in Cairo, over the 1,000 years of the Geniza, than we have from any other source. So if you want to know about Cairo a 1,000 years ago – you go to the Geniza.


Some of the texts in the Geniza are easy to read, but others have been scrunched up, they are torn, sometimes different bits of the same text have ended up in different libraries half way around the world. It’s the biggest, most jumbled, jigsaw puzzle - treasure trove in the world.



Friday, 23 January 2015

Parshat Bo - Reading the Slaughter of the Firstborn

Tanhuma Yashan Shmot 5

Everything the Egyptians thought to do to Israel, the Holy Blessed One brought onto them. They thought to kill them, the Holy Blessed One killed their firstborn.


Exodus 11:5

And all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even unto the first-born of the maid-servant that is behind the mill; and all the first-born of cattle.


Why are the slaves included [actually not in this verse, but another one]? So they wouldn’t say that their god had had claimed points for the humiliation imposed on the Egyptians.

Why are the maid-servants included? Because they treated the Israelites as slaves and rejoiced in their misery.


Tanhuma Yashan

All the first born gathered at their fathers’ homes and said to them, ‘everything which Moses has said has happened to us, don’t you want to let them go? Come, send out these slaves from among us, for if we don’t we will die.’ They replied to them, ‘even if all of Egypt dies, we won’t let them leave this place.’

What did they do? All the first born came together and went to Pharaoh and said to him, ‘We plead with you, get rid of this people, for because of them this evil has befallen us, and you.’

He said to them, ‘Smash the shins of these slaves.’

What did the first born do? Immediately they took swords and each of them killed their own father [The Midrash works a verse Ps 136:10 to suggest that ‘the plague of the first born’ suggests that the first born enacted the plague.


Pesikta D’Rav Kahana 7

If a person sins [fine], but how can cattle sin? Rather the Egyptians would worship spotted sheep and goats, and so they wouldn’t say, ‘that which we revere brought this punishment upon us.’


Exodus 11:6

And there was a great cry in all of the land of Egypt.

Midrash HaGadol

They say that at the time Moses said there would be a great cry in all the land of Egypt a zekinah went out to meet him. She said to him, ‘You are a deceitful prophet. A zekinah who has no father, no mother, no brother, no sister, no son, no daughter – what’s she going to cry for. He said to her, ‘avodah brings your cry to theirs. They said, she had a son once who died. He made a lifelike portrait in the image of her son. And every day after she had eaten and drank, she would go and dance before it. On that night the dogs came and ripped it up. And she wailed and wept and cried – to fulfil that which is written ‘And there was a great cry in all of the land of Egypt.’


Exodus 12:29

And it was at the half-way point of the night that God struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of Pharaoh on the throne to the firstborn of the slave in the dungeon.

Tanhuma Yashan Bo 17

Rabbi Eliezer Ben Padat said, that every time a verse has the phrase ‘and it was’ it means to include God’s court. God would sit with them in justice and the heavenly court decreed that the firstborn of Egypt should be struck, thus the verse states ‘and it was at the half-way point of the night.’



But wasn’t Pharaoh himself a firstborn? But he was left from among the firstborn.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

In Search of Security

Events from Paris continue to haunt my week. I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about the pursuit of safety.


In part these reflections have been entirely practical. I am serving, this year, as head of the Cheder. I’ve had parents contact me, quite understandably, worried about the safety of their children in a ‘Jewish building.’ Acts of terror do that to a person, it is only a fool who is not terrified by that designed to terrify us. Right across the Synagogue we’ve been relooking at our security procedures; what more could we do, what more should we do?


In part these reflections have been more philosophical. The Haaretz cartoonist Eran Wolkowski offered this biting reflection on the choices facing us, in our search for safety, this week - It’s a cartoon of a group of French Jews making their way to Israel. They are greeted by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Chancellor Naftali Bennett; Bennett is armed with a semi-automatic, clearly only to be used in defence of the new arrivals and the country they enter. The politicians beckon the new immigrants into a walled city where guns poke out through reinforced security doors and soldiers patrol the parapets wandering between missile launchers and other weaponry. This is the safety those who are imagined to be fleeing from France are to offered in the only country to provide an unambiguous welcome to any Jew. Oy.


I love Israel and at various times I’ve considered making my own life there, but not as a refuge where I can hide behind a big wall and bigger guns. I’m intensely proud of the strength Israel has shown in the face of existential threat, and grateful for every sacrifice made by every young Israeli conscripted into Israel’s defence force, but I don’t dream of a solution to the Jewish question that has Jews imprisoned behind walls; whether those walls are built by Jews to keep others out, or others wishing to keep us in. And therefore what?


I have no choice other than to believe in the value of a life lived beyond the wall, away from the security that guns and physical security devices promise. Ultimately I don’t believe guns make us safer. Of course we should have rigorous security procedures at the Synagogue, especially when we are entrusted with the safety of children – we mustn’t be anyone’s idea of an easy target, but professional security guards, concrete walls and the rest of it offer, at best, only a superficial promise of security. The great Jewish thinker Emanuel Levinas suggested that the encounter with our fellow human beings, especially with those we acknowledge as different to us, is the moment in which we can become moved; moved to ethical behaviour, moved to an abjuration of violence, moved to an appreciation of the preciousness of all human life. And that means we need to show our faces, beyond the wall. We need to expose our own fragility and we need to look upon the fragility of our fellow human beings. Goodness, that’s a tough call, especially this week. And, again, this philosophical approach does not mean we should drop our guard when it comes to the practical security procedures in place at the Synagogue. It just means that we need to do more than rely on security procedures; no matter the height of the wall or the calibre of the weaponry protecting us, we need to do more.


Shabbat shalom, my most fervent prayer, may this Shabbat come peacefully for all,


Rabbi Jeremy


Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Coming This Sunday at New London - Irving Finkel

I am hugely excited to welcome Irving Finkel to New London this Sunday.

Aside from being assistant keeper of antiquities at the British Museum, and one of the world leading authorities on ancient Sumeria he shot to fame, in the last year, with a terrific book, and television show about a recently discovered  ostracon and its influence on the Biblical tale of Noah. He also has a quite superb beard.


He will be speaking about how, what we consider originally Hebraic, might have been influenced by earlier semitic cultures. It’s just the sort of eyes-wide-open approach to Jewish scholarship that is the very marker of this community. It will also, I am sure, be a barnstorming presentation.


Please do join us.

7:30pm at the Synagogue, all warmly welcome.

For more information please click


Rabbi Jeremy


Monday, 12 January 2015

On the Events in Paris - A Big, a Medium Sized and a Small Point


Dear Friends,


Like so many of us I’ve been both horrified and disturbed by events in Paris in the last week. I share with all decent minded human beings, or every religion and none, in condemning these acts of violence as appalling and utterly unjustifiable.


Those of you who were at services on Shabbat will have heard one of our French members sharing the Prayer for the State of France from the siddur of the French Masorti Movement and I am sure none of us will forget the extraordinarily moving – and even for me – unexpected rendition of Adon Olam to the tune of Les Marseilles. I can’t think of the last time I cried during the Adon Olam, I know I was far from alone in my tears. My prayers and wishes for comfort are shared with all of those who have lost loved ones and we will recite memorial prayers in the coming Shabbat.


In my sermon I engaged in a close reading of the passage read in Synagogue Exodus 1:8-16 and subsequent verses, where Egypt falls from a grateful and civil relationship with the Jews into genocidal oppression. These verses, which so often remind me of the descent into the darkness of the Holocaust, seemed to have a sad but intense relevance to so much of what has happened in France, and not just in the last week. I commend them to all.


I also offered a large, a medium sized and a small reflection.

The large reflection took much inspiration from the article by Jonathan Freedland [CREATE LINK -] and the extraordinary cartoon of Joe Sacco [CREATE LINK -] that had arrived over my doorstep that Saturday morning. This is not a war between East and West, or between Islam and the ‘civilised world.’ That is, as Freedland suggests, precisely what the wicked fanatics would wish us to respond.

There are, indeed, wicked leaders seeking to radicalise impressionable youth and there is a challenge Muslim leaders need to address, ever more seriously, to stop the religion they love being used as a front for murderous terrorism. But there are also problems of disenfranchisement in increasingly stratified societies where – just as in ancient Egypt – we no longer know one another, we no longer have relationships with those with whom we share civic space, and that, as the Torah and the great Jewish philosopher Immanuel Levinas noted is the root of moral and ethical failure.

It’s not enough to condemn wicked action – though I do. It’s not enough to point to other leaders of other sections of our society and to call on them to do more – though I do. We also need to demand more of ourselves, we need to encounter otherness and difference with a more open heart and commit ourselves to creating a more decent and honourable society in which all can find a home.


The medium sized point was this. Several years ago this community were members of London Citizens, an alliance of churches, mosques and synagogues; schools, colleges and universities; unions, think-tanks and housing associations; GP surgeries, charities and migrant groups to work together for the common good. Through the training I did with the organisation and through our participation in a number of their campaigns, particularly around immigration and the Living Wage, I came to feel that this is an extraordinary organisation that can be a huge part of reweaving this society in which we all live. Some have told me that this is an organisation with some overt party-political agenda, that’s simply untrue. If there are members interested in knowing more, meeting with a local organiser to see what it would mean for New London to explore this relationship with London Citizens again, please do let me know. You can reach me at

There is more information on Citizens UK – the mother organisations of London Citizens [here -]


The small sized point was this. My good friend Yeshaya Dalsace is the Rabbi of the local Masorti community to the Kosher supermarket attacked last week. His children attend the local school. I would like us, the members of New London Synagogue, to sponsor the Kiddush this coming Shabbat at his community, Dor VaDor in East Paris. If you would like to join me in making this donation, you can do so at the New London Synagogue donation page, [here -]


With blessings and prayers for all those suffering at this time,




Rabbi Jeremy



Thursday, 8 January 2015

Nous Sommes Charlie Hedbo

This is from Rabbi Yeshaya Dalsace of the Massorti community in Paris


Chers amis de DorVador

Les terribles évènements de cette semaine nous touchent tous. Je crois que nous sommes unanimement solidaires de Charlie Hebdo grâce auquel nous avons tous, je crois, bien rigolé de temps en temps.

Personnellement j'ai grandi avec ce journal et autres publications de la même famille (le Canard, Hara Kiri des premières années, etc…) car par mon père fidèle lecteur et abonné, nous avions toutes ces publications à la maison.

Je crois que nous partageons tous cette culture de l'humour parfois vache. En ce qui me concerne, cet état d'esprit frondeur m'a formé et je ne serais peut-être pas rabbin Massorti, c'est-à-dire libre penseur, critique et tolérant, sans ces lectures. Notre judaïsme est assurément un judaïsme qui peut dire aussi "nous sommes Charlie". Le judaïsme Massorti est d'ailleurs souvent attaqué verbalement par nos intégristes à nous du fait de son ouverture d'esprit et de sa liberté critique.

Je suis en plus personnellement touché, car j'ai eu la chance de travailler un peu avec Wolinski et discuter judaïsme avec lui, c'était un homme doux et paradoxalement un peu triste, hommage à ce maitre de la belle vie. Hommage à ces véritables héros de la libre pensée qu'étaient l'équipe de Charlie Hebdo, Charb en tête qui a magnifiquement tenu tête aux menaces et a continué à publier son journal coûte que coûte et malgré les menaces. Nous les soutenions déjà, en 2006 sur Massorti.Com dans un article intitulé Faut-il avoir peur de mourir de rire ?

Face aux menaces, il ne faut pas céder à la panique, il faut rester digne et debout. Les fous et les imbéciles n'auront jamais le dernier mot. DorVador est un lieu ouvert et accueillant, un lieu authentique et exigent intellectuellement, nous devons continuer sur cette voie. Les imbéciles de tout poil et les dingues ne doivent pas nous impressionner, au contraire. C'est pourquoi je vous invite à venir plus que jamais et rester solidaires, ne pas se renfermer sur soi-même chacun derrière sa porte close. L'imbécilité se combat par l'étude, la réflexion, l'humour. Mercredi soir, nous avons bien rigolé au cours de Talmud dont le texte était plein d'humour et rendu hommage à Wolinski. Ensuite nous sommes allés manifester à la République. Je vous invite d'ailleurs à vous joindre à la manifestation prévue dimanche.

Nous, Juifs, sommes en première ligne, nous le savons ; la crainte est là, mais nous devons rester debout et dignes. Nous ne devons pas non-plus céder aux amalgames et au contraire chercher le dialogue avec les musulmans de bonne volonté et défendre partout la liberté qui est au fondement de l'idée du judaïsme et le fondement de la République.

Yeshaya Dalsace


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