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.



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