Sunday 28 August 2016


An original poem penned by R. Yehuda haLevi


Rabbi Yehuda haLevi (1075-1141)[1], the great Spanish physician[2], poet[3], philosopher and author of the Kuzari, is said to have been trampled to death by an Arab horseman immediately upon his arrival in the Holy Land (some say Jerusalem).[4] In this article we will look at various versions of the story in an attempt to see whether it is real or merely a legend. We will also explore whether or not R. Yehuda haLevi actually even reached Israel from Spain in the first place.


Rabbi Avraham Zacuto (1452-1514) wrote one of the first major historical chronicles of the Jewish People, entitled Sefer haYuchsin. In this work he clearly documents that R. Yehuda haLevi did reach Israel. He wrote; “R. Yehuda haLevi was fifty years old when he came to Eretz Yisrael, and he is buried together with his first cousin, Ibn Ezra.”[5] 
However, there is no mention of his dying through being trampled by any Arab horseman.


The earliest source specifically mentioning an Arab horseman is found in Shalshelet haKaballah by R. Gedalia Ibn Yachya (1526-1587).[6] Although writing some four centuries after R. Yehuda haLevi, he records that the source of the story of the Arab horse rider came from ‘an old man’.

With many other works following with common references to the Arab horseman, it soon became part of the accepted historical narrative.[7]


R. Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865), known as Shadal, played a pivotal role in bringing many hitherto unknown writings of R. Yehuda haLevi to the attention of the modern world. 

Except for the Kuzari, most of R. Yehuda haLevi’s writings and poems were lost. Then, 1838 a book dealer accidentally discovered a ‘divan’(medieval collection) of his poems in Tunisia and bought it for Shadal – who, in 1840, went on to publish 66 poems under the title, Betulat bat Yehuda. Much of our knowledge about R. Yehuda haLevi, today, comes through Shadal’s work which incorporated annotations by the original compiler of the divan, Yehoshua bar Eliyahu haLevi (about whom very little is known).

Shadal mentioned in his compilation that the common account of the horseman was questionable because Jerusalem was, at the time the story is said to have taken place, under Christian control and Arabs were not permitted to enter the city. According to him, R.Yehuda haLevi never made it to Israel but died naturally somewhere between Egypt and Eretz Yisrael.

Supporting this thesis, it is noted that when Ibn Ezra referred to R. Yehuda haLevi in his commentary on the Chumash, he simply wrote ‘menuchato sheleima’ (may he rest in peace), a term usually referring to a natural death, instead of a reference to al kiddush haShem (martyrdom).[8]


Interestingly, the well known Jewish historian Simon Dubnow believes the story to be essentially true, except he rather suggests that a Crusader may have killed some Jews soon after the arrival of R. Yehuda haLevi and that somehow the stories got intertwined.


To compound matters, the historian Israel Zinberg (1873-1939) is of the opinion that R. Yehuda haLevi actually returned from Israel and went back to Spain. He based this on a comment by a Spanish student of R. Yehuda haLevi, R. Shlomo Parchon who wrote about a saying of his teacher from the period ‘after R. Yehuda haLevi was in Egypt’. This does seem to strongly suggest that R. Yehuda haLevi did return to Spain. Furthermore, no mention is made by R. Parchon of any unusual form of death.


Amazingly, we now have evidence that R. Yehuda haLevi wrote extensively during the last year of his life.

Piecing together documents discovered in the late 1800’s in the Cairo Geniza - including fifty five original fragments specifically referring to R. Yehuda haLevi - the following series of events appears to have taken place:

(Extracted from a summary by R. Eliezer Brodt of the last decade of R. Yehuda haLevi’s life.[9])

In 1129 at the age of fifty four, R. Yehuda haLevi decided to make the journey from Spain to Eretz Yisrael. He began his trip the next year in 1130. On the way he stopped in North Africa and became a close associate of Ibn Ezra[10]. Then, for reasons unknown, he returned to Spain.

Ten years later, in 1140 he set off again and eventually arrived at Alexandria, Egypt, on September 8.

“Can Egypt hold me when my soul’s thoughts pull me to Zion’s mount,
On the day I take to her comforter’s trail,
My pilgrim’s hair uncombed, my feet unshod,
My heart’s flame will scorch her stones, my eyes will flood her soil.”

Then, just before the Shavuot of 1141 he boarded a boat which set sail for Israel on Shavuot.
Six months later he was no longer alive.

It appears that spent two months in the Holy Land before he died. From the documentation it is unclear exactly how he died other than the fact that no mention is made of any dramatic event causing his passing.

However, the most vital and significant document of all is a (damaged but still legible) letter dated three months after his death. This letter refers to R. Yehuda haLevi as ‘zecher kadosh livracha’, an expression reserved exclusively for a martyred Jew.

This is the strongest piece of evidence lending credence to the possibility that R. Yehuda haLevi may have been killed in some form of intentional attack.

Furthermore, the letter goes on to refer to ‘bishearei Yerushalayim’ informing us that he met his untimely end at the gates of Jerusalem, again in keeping with the tenor of the ‘legend’.

To back this letter up, there also exists another letter which similarly refers to R. Yehuda haLevi as a ‘kadosh’ (martyr).

This is truly a fascinating discovery. As a result of seven hundred year old fragments of letters, recently found in the Geniza, we now have perhaps the most accurate account of the death of R. Yehuda haLevi – and it appears to be in keeping with the popular perception perpetuated over just as many years. 

Although there are no references to an Arab horseman per se, the ‘legend’ of R. Yehuda haLevi being slain or trampled at the gates of Jerusalem may no longer just be a legend.


As much as we now know about R. Yehuda haLevi there is still much shrouded in mystery. From his early love and drinking poems to his probable martyr’s death, it has been said that his personal piety intensified as he grew older.

A man in your fifties and you still would be young?
Soon your life would have flown like bird from a branch!
Yet you shirk the service of G-d and crave the service of men,
And run after the many, and shirk the One...

There are so many mysteries surrounding this man. We do know that he was born in Spain, but we are not sure if it was in Toledo or Tudela.  We do not have absolute clarity as to where he died either. According to the classical accounts, it may have been Jerusalem, Acre, Safed, Tiberius, Cairo, back in Spain, or even somewhere along the way. 

Yet ironically, if one ignores some of the older historical texts and instead interprets the latest (most accurate and in fact oldest) evidence from the Cairo Geniza - it does seem quite likely that R. Yehuda haLevi may indeed have been murdered at the gates of Jerusalem, possibly in keeping with the legend.



[Note: These are translations. Some are better than others. But for their full acoustic value they need to be read in and interpreted from the original Hebrew.]

Another poem by R. Yehuda haLevi
An example of his wit:

“One day I observed a grey hair in my head.

I plucked it right out, when it thus to me said;

You may smile if you wish, at your treatment of me.

But a score of my friends soon will make a mockery of you.”

The Swan Song, (a milder love poem) written in Egypt:

“Wondrous is this land to see...

But more fair than all to me is you, slender, gentle maiden.

Ah, time’s swift flight I fain would stay, forgetting that my locks are grey.”

The Storm:

The mighty ship falls like a speck before G-d.
The mast and its banner cannot withstand,
The boat and its decks are confused,
Lower, middle and upper together...
The masts' strength is of no use,
The aged's counsel does not benefit.
The masts of Cedar are no more than stubble,
The fir-trees are turned to reeds...
The sockets of iron are like chaff.

The pilgrimage:

“Forgotten are my synagogue, the peace that was its study hall,
My Sabbaths and their sweet delights...I’ve left them all,
I’ve swapped by bedroom for dry brush, its safety for dry chaparral (thorny bush),
The scents and subtle fragrances that cloyed (excess of pleasure) my soul,
For thistles’ smells,
And put away the mincing (elegant) gait of landlubbers,
To hoist my sail and cross the sea,
Until I reach the land that is the L-rds footstool.”

Writing about his love of Zion:

“Are we to haunt old wormy graves...

Are synagogues our only inheritance,

And is G-d’s holy mount to have no heirs?

And where in East or West are we more safe

Than in the land whose many gates face the heavens.”

Yehuda HaLevi, by Hillel Halkin, New York, Schocken.
The Legend of R. Yehuda Halevi’s Death: Truth or Fiction, By R. Eliezer Brodt.
Selected Poems of Yehuda Halevi, Translated and annotated by Hillel Halkin.
The Jewish Poets of Spain, Penguin.

[1] A student of the Rif and contemporary of the Ri Megash (who was the teacher of the Rambam’s father).
[2] At one stage in his life he is known to have complained that he was too busy with his practice of  medicine to become a scholar. (See Diwan des Abdul – Hasan Jehuda ha-Levi 1 p 224.)
[3] He wrote secular poems, (some quite descriptive) love poems, even drinking poems, poems expressing yearning for the Land of Israel and liturgical poems. The poems have been characterised as having an ‘acoustic effect and wit’.  They soon spread as far as India. Some of the (by some estimates) 800 odd poems he wrote, even found their way into Karaite liturgy.
In 1967, his poems about the Land of Israel inspired some verses in Yerushalayim shel Zahav; “To all your songs I am a lute”.
[4] Some accounts say the death was accidental, other accounts say it was intentional. Some say it was a Bedouin.
[5] Further in the book, however, it mentions that he was buried not with his cousin Ibn Ezra, but instead with R. Yehuda bar Illay in Safed. Either way it is recorded that R. Yehuda haLevi did make it to Israel.
[6] The book is also known as Sefer Yachya, and was written over a period of forty years. It recorded the events in Jewish History up to his day. Some criticize the work as being inaccurate due to the various travels of the author while writing it and also perhaps due to errors in its copying.
[7] See Kore haDorot, by R. David Conforte (1618-1678). See Seder haDorot, by R. Yechiel Halperin (1660-1749). See also Tevous haAretz, by R. Yehosef Schwartz (1804-1865).
[8] Cited by R. Eliezer Brodt from R. Michael Sachs in Die religiose Poesie der Juden in Spanien.
[9] This is based upon Yehuda Halevi U’ vnei Chugo, by Professors Moshe Gil and Ezra Fleischer (a 640 page study of Geniza material relating to R. Yehuda haLevi).
[10] Some say he was taught by Ibn Ezra while still in Spain, in Granada.

Sunday 21 August 2016



Around 1161, Rabbi Avraham ben David, known as Ibn Daud (1110-1180) wrote a philosophical and historical work entitled Sefer haKaballah, or Book of Tradition (History).[1]

In this book he wrote an account about the Dalet Shevuim or Four Captives:
In 960 C.E. (4720) a ship carrying four great rabbis was apparently sent on a fundraising mission for the Babylonian Yeshiva of Sura[2] to more affluent Western countries around the Mediterranean in order to raise funds.[3]

The rabbis were Rabenu Shemaria, Rabenu Chushiel, Rabeinu Moshe and a fourth ‘whose name,’ says ibn Daud, ’is not known to me.’


After the four greatest rabbis of Babylonia had completed their business in Italy, and after their ship left Bari in southern Italy, it was captured by a Muslim pirate Ibn Rumahis[4] who was on a mission to seize Christian vessels. He soon realized that he could get a huge ransom for these four highly respected rabbis (in addition to the collected money they must already have had on them). 

Subsequently R. Shemaria was ransomed by the Jews of Alexandria and became the Chief Rabbi of Egyptian Jewry. R. Chushiel was ransomed by the community of Kairouan (Tunisia) and headed Tunisian community. (He was the father of Rabbenu Chananel who was the teacher of the Rif.)  And R. Moshe was redeemed in Cordova and led the Spanish Jewish community, creating foundations for the Sefardic communities. Some say that the fourth and nameless rabbi may have been ransomed by the communities of France and Germany, and hence the founding of the communities of Ashkenaz.[5]

This event explains how, around the year 1000, the centers of Torah scholarship dramatically moved from the disintegrating communities of Babylonia, and transferred to North Africa, Europe and particularly Spain. It marked a significant shift of rabbinic authority from old Babylonia to the new West (and hailed the arrival of a new period in Jewish history known as the era of the Rishonim).

The story is embellished with details of how, on the way to Spain, R. Moshe’s wife was threatened by the pirate. She quickly asked her learned husband if she could allow the sea to take her life, rather than submit to the pirate – and would she arise again in the time of messiah? To which he simply replied with the verse; “I will bring back from the depths of the sea.“[6]  His wife understood the message and she immediately jumped overboard and was never seen again.

Letter from R. Chushiel 
Another detail describes how upon landing on Spanish soil, R. Moshe kept his Torah erudition a secret until he was discovered by R. Natan who said; “I can no longer be the dayan of this community.” From R. Moshe’s academy were soon spawned some of the famous rabbis of Spanish origin such as Ibn Ezra, R. Yehuda haLevi and Rambam.


Ibn Daud's story of the Four Captives is taken literally as historic fact by many. But others adopt a different view entirely. We shall attempt to take an impartial look at both interpretations of the story:

Unbelievably, it was only after the discovery of the Cairo Geniza (see previous post) towards the end of the 1800’s, that a letter came to light, written (between 1000 and 1008) by R. Chushiel of Tunisia to R. Shemaria of Egypt. (Imagine finding the handwritten and original letter almost a thousand years later!) 

In this letter - which appears to discredit the story of the Four Captives - R. Chushiel wrote that he was simply travelling from his homeland of Italy visit his colleague R. Shemaria in Egypt, and passed through Kairouan (Tunisia). He never completed his journey to Egypt because the Tunisian community wanted to keep him on as their rabbi. No mention is made whatsoever of any capture by pirates or ransom. The trip was made voluntarily without any coercing at all.[7]


The story of the Four Captives is said to have taken place in 960. (Some say 990.) That would leave a period of about forty years from the piracy event, to the year in which R. Chushiel wrote his letter from Tunisia to R. Shemaria in Egypt.

During this time period, it is feasible that R. Chushiel may have left Tunisia, where he was ransomed, and traveled back to his homeland of Italy and then returned again but uneventfully to Tunisia. Hence his letter, dated somewhere between 1000 and 1008, described his latest uneventful journey and had no need to reference the events surrounding the capture and the trauma of some years before. [8]


1. From other fragments of documents discovered in the Geniza, it is evident that R. Shemaria’s father, R. Elchanan had already been living in, and acting as Chief Rabbi of Fostat (old Cairo) since the mid 900’s! This creates difficulties for the story of R. Shemaria having been ransomed by Egyptian Jewry - as may have already been born and now living in Egypt at the time of the ‘capture’.[9]

2. The Sura Yeshiva in Babylonia closed down in 948, which was twelve years before 960 when the fateful trip was said to have taken place.[10]

3. Many believe that these rabbis were Italian, and not Babylonian. This may be borne out by the fact that soon after their arrival in their respective centers of Tunisia and Egypt, the study of the Talmud Yerushalmi (The Palestinian Talmud) became widespread and popular. 

Till then it was only the Talmud Bavli (The Babylonian Talmud) that was studied in those locations. This may have been because the Talmud Yerushalmi was commonly used in Italy already for centuries – but was, until then, something apparently unknown to most Babylonian scholars.[11]

[In a similar vein, R. Chushiel's son, Rabenu Chananel often cited the (more practical) Talmud Yerushalmi. This is in keeping with classical Sefardic ideology which emphasizes the practical over the theoretical, as opposed to Ashkenazic thought which generally leans more towards the theoretical and analytical aspects of Torah learning. 

Rabenu Chananel's student the Rif is also known for his teachings which are predominantly on the more practical sections of the Talmud, and similarly draws extensively from the Yerushalmi. 

In fact, some early Yeshivot at that time focused almost exclusively on the Rif and used his teachings as the primary text, to the exclusion of the Talmud Bavli. This is evidenced by the fact that the printed format, even in our modern day editions of the Talmud, has the Rif text presented as identical to the text of the Talmud itself!
This may add weight to the view that the Talmud Yerushalmi was brought from Italy to North Africa, by Italian not Babylonian rabbis.]

4. There is also the rather critical view that Ibn Daud wanted to cement the relatively new Spanish Torah community within the overall picture of Torah transmission beginning at from Sinai - to Israel - to Babylonia - and now to the West (and particularly to Spain). On this view, he told his epic story of almost Biblical proportions, of the transference of rabbinic authority from Babylonia to the West. 

Some go so far as to infer that Ibn Daud needed to create an aura of great importance around the new West so that Western rabbinic authority would never again be regarded as secondary to Babylonian rabbinic authority. Thus through this story he was able to show how the mantle of rabbinic leadership was ‘legitimately’ transferred from East to West. And as a result, it would also end the dependence of Spanish Jewry on Babylonian leadership. Now Spain could, and indeed did, stand as an independent bastion of Torah scholarship.[12]

In the actual Ibn Daud text it is stated that the dayan or judge of Cordova at that time, R. Natan, was; "righteous, but the Spanish people were not familiar with the words of the rabbis."

However, once R. Moshe was firmly installed in Spain, Ibn Daud wrote that; “all questions which had previously been directed to the Babylonian academies were now directed to him (R. Moshe).” Now halachik questions could be asked and answered in Spain, without having to wait a year for an answer from Babylonia.

As a further consequence of the ‘sanctioning’ of the Spanish rabbinic community, much needed funds could remain in Spain as the community began to withdraw their financial support of the Babylonian communities – because now; “the Spanish scholars had many disciples and the knowledge of Talmud spread (through them) throughout the world.”[13]

We know that fundraising for Babylonia must have been a major issue at the time because the story frames the reason for the journey as a ‘fundraising mission’. But now the funds could ‘legitimately’ remain is Spain.

To back this view, it is further suggested that Ibn Daud's story, which doesn’t appear in any other writings of that time, borrowed motifs from common themes in previous Jewish history, to make it more palatable for the burgeoning community of Spanish Jews.

One motif was the earlier Talmudic account of Jewish women and girls, who rather than await a ghastly alternative, chose drowning at sea while en route to enslavement in Rome after the conquest of Jerusalem. This was notably also carried out on the basis of the selfsame verse; “I will bring back from the depths of the sea.” (See Gittin 57b)

Another ‘borrowed’ theme was R. Moshe arriving in Spain as an unknown and humble captive rising rapidly to fame - which has much in common with the well known Hillel story of the Talmud.[14] (See  Pesachim 66a, where Hillel haBavli suddenly rose to Nasi and Rosh.)

Interestingly, even the non-Jewish Spanish community felt a similar need to create a sense of worth and dignity for themselves by; “consciously imitating Baghdad” and by; “importing talented architects and scientists from the East” to bolster their standing as a new, emerging and independent culture.[15]

5. It should also be borne in mind that one of the reasons why Ibn Daud wrote his Sefer haKaballah was as a response to attacks by the Karaites who questioned the historic legitimacy of rabbinic Judaism. Thus, in a sense, he was mandated to present an account of the seamless passing of the rabbinic baton from generation to generation, and particularly from East to West.

6. It's interesting to see how differently two contemporary Jewish historians interpret the story of the Four Captives:

a) Rabbi Nissan Mindel of Chabad writes; "By divine providence, these great Jewish centers received great spiritual leaders in a most amazing and unprecedented way..." (Emphasis mine.)

b) On the other hand, Rabbi Berel Wein of The Destiny Foundation, refers to; “The Legend of the Four Captives” - and heads the article with an interesting and unusual title; “Abraham Ibn Daud Recorded the Legend of the Four Captives as a True Event.”[16] (Italics mine.)

7. As an aside, to illustrate the need throughout the ages to show that Jewish migration is always 'sanctified', there is the legend concerning the more recent movement  of Jews westward into Europe. They were unsure where to settle until 'a piece of paper fell from the skies' inscribed with the words poh lin (stay here). And that is how the Jews named Poland and made it their home...

8. The Chazon Ish, although ironically a staunch believer in a very literal interpretation of the tradition or mesorah concept see here  (and may therefore not have paid heed to R. Chushiel's newly discovered old letter - since it was out of the 'line of transmission' for so long), had this to say about recording history in general:

"History informs the path of the wise man. However, it is the nature of people to innovate and embellish (history) when presenting it at the public arena. This compounds distortion instead of accurately recording facts. And for the most part, people relish these distortions and imaginings. Thus a concerted effort must always be made to establish historical facts."

(Loose translation of Emuna uBitachon, Ch. 1, 8)


Had R. Chushiel’s letter in his own handwriting (and the other documents) never been discovered, we may never have had validation to question Ibn Daud's account of the Four Captives.

What is interesting, though, is that it is not just the latter generations who have posed such challenging questions to Ibn Daud's account - but it is the very letter written by R. Chushiel, himself an alleged player in the very drama, who preceded Ibn Daud by almost two hundred years - that may be the biggest obstacle to his version of this chapter of our history.

It is on our interpretation and understanding of R. Chushiel's letter - a 65 x 23cm strip of parchment - that the ‘history’ or ‘legend’ of the Four Captives either stands or falls.


Sefer haKaballah le Rav Avraham ben David.

Jewish History and Thought: An Introduction, by Menahem Mansoor.

Destiny Foundation, Init 2 - The Legend of the Four Captives, by Rabbi Berel Wein.

The Four Captives, by Nissan Mindel, Published by Kehot.

Fustat on the Nile: The Jewish Exile in Medieval Egypt, by Elinoar Bareket.

Solomon Schechter: A Bibliography, 1938, by Adolph S. Oko.

[1] Kaballah in this instance should not be confused with Mysticism, as here it rather connotes tradition or history. Ibn Daud (sometimes known as Rabad) is not to be confused with Raavad (1125-1198) although they both have the same names and lived at the same time. Ibn Daud lived in Spain while Raavad lived in France. Ibn Daud is mentioned in Avodah Zara 38 and appears to have been one of the Baalei haTosefot.
[2]There is also a contrary view that one of the Four Captives R. Shemaria was sent from Fostat (old Cairo), where he was born, to study in the Babylonian academy of Pumpedita, under Rav Sherira Gaon and Rav Hai Gaon, from whom he receives his ordination.  On this view, he would have been sent by the Academy of Pumpedita and not by the Academy of Sura. (See Fustat on the Nile, by Elinoar Bareket.) - This difference may have some bearing later on in the story, as the Sura Academy was closed in 948, whereas the Pumpedita Academy survived almost a hundred years longer until 1040.
[3] Some say this was a mission to raise money for poor brides, others say it was to attend a rabbinical conference known as a kallah (which also means bride).
[4] Some say it was Ibn Rumhas. According to Sefer haKaballah he was the Admiral of all the Spanish fleets.
[5] See The Destiny Foundation – The Legend of the Four Captives by Rabbi Berel Wein.
[6] Ps 68:23 - ‘ashiv mimetzulot yam.’
[7] This letter was published by Solomon Schechter, J.Q. R. Xi. 643.
[8] Some put the date of the piracy event at 990 (which lessens the window period for the ‘second trip’ following the capture till the letter of 1000/8). But it would still be feasible for a second trip to have been made during those ten to eighteen years.  It is interesting, however, to see that apparently R. Chushiel’s colleague R. Shemaria was reluctant to travel again by sea after his traumatic capture episode.
[9] One could, however, still argue that he went from Egypt to Pumpedita to study and from there he was sent on his failed mission. (As per a version mentioned in Fustat on the Nile, by Elinoar Bareket. See note 2.)
[10] See Note 2 above.
[11] Jewish History and Thought: An Introduction, by Menachem Mansoor, p. 212.
[12] See The Story of the Four Captives, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 29 (1960-1961), pp. 55-131, by Gerson D. Cohen.
[13] Rabad, Sefer haKaballah, pp. 66, 71.
[14] This style of writing was not necessarily ‘devious’ as it represented much of the writings of the day. Even R. Chushiel’s letter is described as being; ‘ “poetanic” to a degree, the Hebrew being full of allusions to Biblical and Talmudical passages.” (See Geniza Specimens. A Letter of Chushiel by S. Schechter, JQR 1899)
[15]Jews of Spain, by Jane Gerber. P. 29
[16] The Destiny Foundation, Init 2, The Legend of the Four Captives

Text from Sefer haKaballah:

Sunday 7 August 2016


[I sincerely thank Rabbi Mordechai Becher for so graciously sharing so much of his research with me including his precious photographs. Much of the body of this article, particularly that pertaining to the textual fragments, is taken from him. The photographs are gratefully used with his kind permission.]


For a thousand years, a most illustrious of Jewish community thought they were discarding their old documents in the attic of their synagogue, but were instead leaving behind their greatest gift to future generations.

In 882, the Jews of Fostat (old Cairo) bought a Coptic church and converted it to their house of prayer, which became known as the Ben Ezra Synagogue[1]. This building is situated on the traditional site of where Moses was said to have been found in the reeds. 

Near the ladies gallery is a small room with no windows or door, just a tiny hole which can be accessed only by ladder – and into this dark space were thrown many of their old holy (and even secular) Hebrew writings. This was common practice in all Jewish communities, as Hebrew books are never discarded, but placed in a geniza or storage until such time as they are collected and buried with sanctity.[2] For reasons unknown, the almost 300 000 fragments of some of our most important texts were never buried, but left in that dark space for a thousand years and no one seemed to have noticed. 

The texts found there were deposited from as early as 882 right up to as recently as 1880. 
In fact this room is said to have contained the greatest number of old manuscripts in one place, not just in the Jewish world, but in general. It included the handwritten original texts of some of our greatest rabbis, and continues to shed light on issues we would otherwise never have known.



The first European to have noticed the potential of a textual treasure trove was Simon van Gelderen in 1752. Then in 1864, Jacob Saphir visited the Geniza, which was still part of a functioning synagogue, and spent two days exploring the attic.
Soon thereafter, Abraham Firkowitch visited the Geniza. Firkowitch was a Karaite Jew from the Crimean Peninsula who had a rather checkered career having already falsified dates on some gravestones to show that Karaites had lived in Crimea for longer than was commonly believed.

Notwithstanding that, he is credited with putting together the largest collection of Hebrew manuscripts ever.

These are stored in the Russian Public Library at Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and are known as the Firkowitch Collections. Firkowitch was apparently ‘very expert at ransacking old Synagogues and their Genizas...concealing the way in which he used to collect his material, and the places from which it came. So to-day nobody is able to say exactly (which of the Firkowitch manuscripts) are from the Cairo Geniza. [3]

But, most interestingly, in 1896, two identical Scottish twin sisters (Agnes Lewis and Margret Gibson[4]) who were serious amateur archaeologists, visited the Genizah and brought back to Cambridge two fragments of its ancient writings. The Fostat synagogue was wizening to the idea that they could sell some of their ‘worthless’ decaying old papers, and found eager customers in the two sisters.[5]

Then in a remarkable turn of events, the twin sisters while leisurely strolling around Cambridge, happened to meet a scholarly looking professor, Shneur Zalman (Solomon) Schechter, and they asked him if he could help identify some old Hebrew texts they had brought back with them from Cairo.
Schechter identified the documents as dating right back to when the second Temple was still standing. (Obviously someone in old Fostat had an older copy of a manuscript dating that far back, which they later discarded in the Geniza.)

They had discovered an original Hebrew version of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus)[6]. This was a book of Jewish wisdom which was not included in the canon of the Tanach or Jewish Bible.
The following is from a short note which Schechter sent to Mrs Lewis on May 13th 1896:

I think we have reason to congratulate ourselves. For the fragment...represents a piece of the original Hebrew of Ecclesiasticus. It is the first time such a thing has been discovered. Please do not speak yet about the matter till tomorrow. I will come to you tomorrow at 11pm and talk over the matter with you how to make the matter known...”[7]

This finding was extremely important for the following reason: There had always been rivalry between Cambridge and Oxford universities. Schechter was from Cambridge, and although not a religious Jew, was G-d fearing and proud of his heritage[8]. He had an adversary at Oxford University, by the name of Adolf Neubauer, a Jew who had converted to Christianity. Neubauer claimed that Jewish scholars had stolen Christian copies of Ben Sira which was written in Greek, and that they then translated the book into Hebrew and falsely claimed Ben Sira as an ancient Hebrew text.

Now, with the discovery of the twin’s Geniza fragments it could be shown that the original Hebrew texts predated the Greek versions by centuries, and were therefore not stolen from Christianity. Schechter was swiftly sent ‘quite secretly’ to Cairo to ‘bring back to Cambridge whatever he could find from the Geniza’ – and he brought back some 100 000 fragments from Cairo.[9]

More than a century later, in 2013, in an amazing act of reconciliation, the original Lewis-Gibson Geniza Collection which was housed at Westminster College in Cambridge since 1896, was acquired in a joint venture by former rivals Oxford and Cambridge (the Oxbridge Libraries) in an attempt at ‘making better use of the strengths of both institutions.’

[Tribute must be paid to Professor Paul E. Kahle (1875-1964) a Lutheran pastor who did extensive research into the Geniza and was given special access to the texts at Bonn University. Sadly he was persecuted by the Nazis after his wife helped a Jewish neighbor whose shop had been attacked during Kristellnacht of 1938. He was dismissed from Bonn due to the fact that he had a Polish rabbi, Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg as his assistant. He fled to England where he continued his research at Oxford.][10]



In this section we will take a look at some fascinating examples of textual fragments that will be of interest to anyone interested in Torah literature pre-dating contemporary times.


Amazingly, someone threw away the original manuscript of Rambam’s Commentary to the Mishna, in his own distinctive handwriting. 

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher
On inspection, one can see his thought process in action as he crosses out words and expressions and replaces them with the wordage that remains to this day. 

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher
In some instances there are ‘squiggles’ into which some may read mystical connotations, but are apparently just the tell tale signs of his pen running out of ink!

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher
There is even his original writing which formed the basis of his Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuchim) in which one can see that he used the letters yud yud to connote G-d’s name. This is highly significant because until this discovery, it was believed that yud yud was an innovation of the printers (post 1400), who chose those two letters to represent the shem HaShem. But now we can see that Rambam was using it three centuries earlier. It was a composite of two other Hebrew names of G-d: - the first yud was from (first letter of) yud kei vav kei, while the second yud was from (last letter of) Ad-no-y. Thus the yud yud incorporated both the written and pronounced form of G-d’s name.

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher
There is also the original last letter sent by Rambam’s brother David, just before he was drowned in the Red Sea on route to India where he was trading. David supported his brother whom he loved dearly, so that he could devote all his time to his studies. With David’s tragic passing, Rambam now had to work a physician in order to now maintain his and his brother’s families.

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher
There are some 50 unpublished Responsa of Rambam’s son, Avraham ben HaRambam - and also notes taken by Rambam’s students while their teacher was giving his classes!

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher
In one letter, a visitor to the home of Rambam described how kindly he was received by the great man and how they relaxed and ate lemon cakes.


In the collection is also a mezuzah from the 1100’s which has possibly the oldest depiction of a Star of David ever found, and it’s on the actual parchment (not the housing). Until this discovery the oldest Star of David was thought to be from a tombstone in Hungry which dated much later.[11]

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher

Interestingly on the sides of the parchment from this same mezuzah are written out names of angels. This was done to evoke some ‘spiritual protection’ from the mezuzah. Rambam had opposed such practices as he considered them to be superstitious, implying that mezuzah was simply a Torah commandment which did not necessarily have extraordinary protective powers. Rambam wrote; “They make from a great mitzvah...a talisman for their own benefit. They in their foolish conception, think that this will help them regarding the vanities of this world.”[12]


There are about 400 marriage documents in the collection. Traditionally these documents contain clauses where the husband pledges to protect the wife financially should the marriage be dissolved. In these documents, however, the most common stipulation was against wife beating, which sadly speaks to an unfortunate tendency in Egyptian culture at that time. The second most common stipulation was that the husband may not leave Cairo without first informing his wife of his intentions.

The following is an extract from one Marriage document where the groom promises: “I shall associate with good men and not corrupt ones. I shall not bring home licentious individuals, buffoons, frivolous men, and good-for nothings. I shall not enter the home of anyone attracted revolting activities. I shall not associate with them in eating, drinking or any other activity.[13]

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher

The Karaites and Rabbinites enjoyed good relations with each other and were even permitted to intermarry. One Marriage document spells out in the agreement the mutual respect both partners would show towards each other;
He would not compel his wife to sit with him in the light of the Sabbath lamp (Because Karaites, due to their literal understanding of the Torah verses, did not use lights on Shabbos), nor to profane her religious festivals, as long as she also observed his festivals with him.”[14]


Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher

The Geniza findings give us a fascinating insight into Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi’s work, the Kuzari, which we would otherwise never have known. According to a personal letter in HaLevi’s handwriting, he dismisses his book as ‘foolish’ and irrelevant. It was only when the response came, assuring him that it was indeed worthy and relevant, that he decided to go ahead and publish the now famous Kuzari, “otherwise I would hesitate to show it to you.”[15]


In the kaddish we say today we reference ‘u-ve chayey de-chol beit Yisrael’ (that redemption should take place in the lifetimes of all the House of Israel). However in the older versions of kaddish, as found in the Geniza, they would specifically mention the actual names of their great rabbis and teachers who they hoped would witness the redemption personally.[16]

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher
The following is an extract from the kaddish: “May the...messianic age come about in your lifetime, our master, Eviatar the Priest, director of rabbinic studies...and in the lifetime of our teacher, Solomon the Priest, head of the academy, and in the lifetime of our teacher Zadok the third member of the rabbinic court.[17]
Notably absent from this kaddish is the verse ‘yehei shmei rabbah...’
There is also a version of kaddish written entirely in Hebrew (as opposed to the current format which is in Aramaic).


The oldest text of the Passover Haggadah, dating back to the 10 00’s, was also found in the Geniza. Most surprising was the fact that it contained five and not four questions. The fifth question, not found in our modern Haggadot, pertains to why we can only eat roasted meat on Passover night as opposed to other forms of cooked meat that we eat on all other nights. This was a reference to the paschal lamb which was roasted. 
(This would have been taken from Pesachim116a. where 5 questions are mentioned. I thank Rabbi Chaim Finkelstein for pointing this out to me.)

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher
Furthermore the Haggadah also contained an extra blessing which our Haggadot do not have. This was the blessing of ‘Baruch atah...she’asa nissim la’avoteinu bayamin haeilu...’ - a blessing usually only recited on Purim and Chanukah, and never on Pesach.[18]

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher


Found amongst the fragments was a kashrut certification signed by three rabbis for a cheese shop. What’s fascinating about this document is that it was for a Karaite[19] cheese shop and the signatories were Rabbinites. The Karaites agreed, on ‘a handshake and oath’ to make the cheese in accordance with rabbinic law and they were trusted by the Rabbinite community. 

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher

The following is an extract from the certification certificate: “The cheeses are kosher and it is appropriate for Rabbinite Jews to purchase them. We grant this permission only after...he took an oath on the holy Torah.”[20]


The Geniza provides amazing insight to Rabbi Yosef Karo, before he became the famed author of the Shulchan Aruch. Prior to travelling to Safed in Israel, he spent some time in Cairo, where he worked as a businessman. One of his business documents in his own very beautiful calligraphy attests to the fact that he must have been very successful – because he used paper (which was expensive then) and he left a large blank space on the sheet (which was a rare practice in those times). In the letter he requests the payment of a loan.

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher

A document in Rabbi Yitzchak Luria’s own handwriting reveals that he was also a businessman in Cairo before he went to Safed. He lost his father as a child and was raised by his rich uncle who owned an island on the Nile. It was there that he secluded himself and began to explore meditation and kabbalah.

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher

A most important find was additional writings of Rav Saadia Gaon. Everyone believed that all his works were extant, but now so much more of his writings have come to the fore.


Some of the fragments contained songs with musical notes. Of particular interest is one song written by an Italian monk, Giovanni, who converted to Judaism (a ‘crime’ which in those times carried the death sentence) and took on the name Ovadiah[21]

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher
That fragment contains the oldest Jewish sheet music ever found. Recently these notes were set to music using the original instruments of the time - and is indeed a very moving and sophisticated piece of music even on the modern ear.


Some of the fragments are heart-warmingly human as they are worksheets of children practicing their alef beit. They are typically childlike and even contain doodling on the sides, probably a sign for perpetuity that they too got bored in class and were no different from our children today.

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher

Today many of the Cairo Geniza fragments are housed at 67 centres around the world.

These include:
The Taylor-Schechter Collection at Cambridge which has 193, 000 fragments.
The Jewish Theological Seminary of America which has 31, 000 fragments.
The Bodleian Library at Oxford which has 25, 000 fragments.
And John Rylands University Library in Manhattan which has 11, 000 fragments,

What's sadly, blaringly and blatantly striking from the above is the absence, in any significant manner, of a desire for Jewish ownership of, and particularly Yesshivshe interest in, these discoveries. (For a possible explanation as to why this may be so, see KOTZK BLOG 82).

However, in recent times, thanks to the Friedberg Geniza Project[22], the entire collection from all around the world is now being scanned and digitized in Israel. The computer uses algorithms which were developed for facial recognition. It ignores the content and instead looks at the spacing between and shapes of the letters. The digital images of the manuscripts appear to be clearer (as a result of ultraviolet photography) than the originals.

Kind courtesy of  Rabbi Mordechai Becher
In a miracle of modern technology, the fragments that were until recently only in the exclusive domain of a select few, can now be viewed by anyone with interest and internet access.

From Cairo to Cambridge, The Cairo Genizah – Lecture by Rabbi Mordechai Becher, July 1 2013
Geniza, Cairo, Encyclopaedia Judaica.
Kahle, Cairo Geniza – Rabbi Eric Levy, Lecture 1
Sacred Trash, by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole.
Jewish World, Professor Stefan (Shlomo Kalman) Reif – ‘Indiana Jones’ of the Cairo Geniza, by Tali Farkash
Friedberg Geniza Project

[1] The Synagogue is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
[2] This is learned out from the juxtaposition of the words; “I will write on the Tablets the words that were on the first Tablets that you smashed, and you shall place them in the Ark” [ asher shibarta – ve’samtam be’aron](Devarim 10:2).  See Bava Batra 14b. I thank Rabbi Mordechai Becher for sharing this source with me.
[3] See Lectures of Paul E. Kahale.
[4] Their findings are today known as the Lewis-Gibson Geniza Collection.
[5] The sisters were quite astute collectors of texts and, although unrelated to our discussion, had already discovered the most ancient copy of the New Testament which is housed today at the famous monastery at the foot of Mt Sinai.
In that same year, Elkan Natan Adler, brother of Chief Rabbi Adler also visited the Geniza and brought back numerous fragments.
[6] Not to be confused with Ecclesiastes or Kohelet by King Solomon. The work is said to also contain the origins of the structure of the Amidah prayer. Although not included in the cannon of Tanach, it was included in the Septuagint - the Talmud and other rabbinic literature quote from it - Rav Saadia Gaon had a (Greek) copy of it - and the Jews of Egypt studied from it until the Middle ages.  A prayer recited in Musaf on Yom Kippur, KeOhel HaNitmah, was taken from parts of Ben Sira. Ben Sira was a contemporary of Shimon HaTzadik, on of the last members of the Men of the Great Assembly.
[7] I thank Rabbi Mordechai Becher for sharing the copy of Schechter’s original letter, in his own handwriting,  with me.
[8] Professors Schechter’s commitment to Judaism should not be underestimated. The following is an extract from a letter he sent whilst in Cairo;

Be ezrat Ha Shem...there is no kosher hotel here and I am sick of the local food. I am busy with my mission and please G-d I will be successful. Please tell me, my friend, what is the cost of a Vilna Shas on excellent paper, can you purchase it for me, and what is the cost of sending it to Egypt?...How is our friend Rabbi Guttmann? Please ask him if he received a packet of manuscripts and fragments...Among the Jews here I found some venerable people and also a few bnei Torah, according to the ancient custom. Last Sabbath I went to see the Rambam Synagogue...”

[9] There are accounts suggesting that Neubauer published the findings in his own name. According to this version, Schechter sent Neubauer a postcard informing him of his find. Two weeks later Neubauer replied saying he couldn’t read the writing on the postcard and mentioned that he had just ‘happened’to have discovered nine pages of Ben Sira at Oxford. Obviously Schechter had sparked Neubauer’s interest to delve into his own collection of Geniza fragments.
[10] See his book, The Cairo Geniza, published by Blackwell 1958/9.
[11]The six pointed star was actually used in Christian churches as a decorative motif many centuries before its first known use in a synagogue. (Scholem 1949, p. 244)
[12] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Mezuzah Ch. 5 Hal. 4
[13] Friedberg Genizah Project
[14] The Ketuva is signed by Karaite and Rabbinite rabbis, with the designation bar for a Rabbinite and ben for a Karaite. (The ketuva is 25 zuz not 200!)
[15] From Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi’s personal letter to his friend Chalfon ben Netanel HaLevi.
[16] The Yemenite Jews used to mention Rambam in their recitation Kaddish.
[17] Friedberg Genizah Project
[18] This blessing was recited just before ‘shehecheyanu’.
[19] The Karaites were (and are still) a sect of Jews who disregard rabbinic law and only follow Torah law. 
[20] Friedberg Genizah Project
[21] After the prophet Ovadiah who was also a convert.
[22] Managed by Rabbi Reuven Rubelow.