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.

1 comment:

  1. Firkowitch is alleged to have been unsuccessful in acquiring more than a few documentation from the Ezra Shul"Cairo Geniza". However he obtained a substantial amount of documents from the lesser known Karaite shul geniza which is not very far away from the Ezra shul