Sunday 14 July 2019



A very unusual Geniza - a term which generally refers to a repository of old and discarded books[1] – was discovered in Italy around the 1980s. What made this Geniza so different was that instead of old texts being discovered underground or in abandoned storages, this time they were found as part of the book bindings of 16th century books kept in archives and libraries all over Italy!

Professor of Jewish history, Mauro Perani had found thousands of pages of Hebrew texts which had been dismembered from earlier handwritten manuscripts and were ‘upgraded’ to serve as binding material for the newer 16th-century non-Jewish books. Of special interest was the discovery of a very early copy of the Talmud Yerushalmi.


Many are not aware of the relative scarcity of original handwritten rabbinic texts. Gunter Stemberger explains this phenomenon as follows:

“Only a handful of manuscripts of the Mishnah have survived to our day; there is only one complete manuscript of the Tosefta... one nearly complete manuscript of the Palestinian Talmud, one of the Babylonian Talmud.

 Even if we take into account all the manuscripts of partial texts, the extreme scarcity of rabbinic manuscripts remains a fact and is a severe obstacle to serious research on these founding texts of Jewish tradition.

Thus, every discovery of a manuscript as yet unknown must be considered a major event...” [2]


During the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, Jewish writings had been confiscated and the parchment, often of good quality, was repurposed - a century or so later - as bookbinding material for newly printed books. Many refugees from the Spanish Inquisition had settled in Italy and some had even brought their manuscripts with them – and then history repeated itself when these saved manuscripts were again confiscated during the Italian Inquisitions and then used as binding material for Italian books.

In Italy, Pope Julius III issued a decree or bulla[3] in 1553, ordering the confiscation and the burning of the Talmud. And in 1569, Jews were expelled from Bologna and their writings were banned and confiscated.

With the spread of printing in the late 1400s, manuscripts suddenly lost their value and many of these confiscated manuscripts were sold cheaply to the printing houses for binding purposes.

Thus two sets of Inquisitions provided plenty of confiscated binding material for newer publications.

 “Fortunately, it was observed that the parchment of the manuscripts, besides being an excellent surface for writing, even if very expensive, could be reemployed in a secondary way. Due to its exceptional durability, the parchment could be reused as book bindings or as reinforcement for the bindings. So a recycling phenomenon to reemploy this material started, and Hebrew manuscripts were dismembered and sold to the cartularii (bookbinders).”[4]


Relatively recently, some scholars began to notice that the unusually stiff bindings used on certain older books, were made from recycled material comprised of even older unbound sections of parchment from Hebrew works. As one can imagine, no library or archive would be happy to have their valuable books cut open at the bindings. 

However, when it became clear that important Hebrew texts had indeed been used as binding material particularly in the Italian archives, it became possible for controlled searches to take place in order to locate these older texts.

The writings found in the Italian Geniza were generally whole and more complete pages, as opposed to the tiny fragments which are usually related to other sacred storages like the Cairo Geniza.


During the early 1980s, scholars set about searching the Italian State Archives, libraries and private collections for remnants of old Hebrew manuscripts - and they found over 8,000 parchment samples. Another 1,700 were found in other European countries. 

The searching was tedious work because the cumulative lengths of the archive bookshelves of some of these institutions were sometimes 30 km long. The relevant bindings with Hebrew texts were then microfilmed and sent to the National Library of Israel. The pages were then dated and catalogued.

After cataloguing all the bindings in the archives of one town or district, a comprehensive picture emerged as to the larger original manuscripts from which they originated, which at some stage got split up in the process of dismembering.


Also found amongst the binding material is a page of the Tosefta, a rabbinic work originally composed around the third century. This page is the oldest known page of Tosefta and dates back to the 10th century, making it one of the earliest rabbinic texts ever discovered.[5]


Amongst these newly discovered manuscripts are over 350 sheets of Babylonian Talmud, and fascinatingly, unpublished writings of Rashi’s Torah and his Talmudic commentaries as well!


R. Yosef Kara (d. 1135) - not to confused with R. Yosef Karo - was a colleague of Rashi and may also have been his student. R. Kara is known to have pressed for a particularly literal interpretation of the Torah. 

Prior to the discovery of the Italian Geniza, most scholars did not believe that R. Kara had written a complete and formal Torah commentary. However, the Italian Geniza found pages of his commentary which support the notion that he did indeed write a complete Torah commentary.


The Tosafists were the rabbis of Northern France and Germany who lived during the two centuries between Rashi (1038-1105) and R. Meir of Rothenberg (d. 1293). An 82 sheet manuscript from this period - a French Machzor - was discovered, probably written by a student of the son of R. Yechiel of Paris (who defended Judaism in the 1240 Disputation of Paris).

This Machzor was found in the State Archives in Pesaro. Its importance lies in the fact that Jews were expelled from France in 1396, and after that, they adopted the various traditions of their new countries and the original French prayer tradition was lost.

The Machzor contains some hitherto rare and unknown piyutim, liturgical poems in the French tradition. One of them is a rare piyut by the famous Tosafist, Rabbeinu Tam.


Stemberger writes about the relative unpopularity of the Jerusalem (or Palestinian) Talmud compared to the Babylonian Talmud:

“As regards the Palestinian Talmud, its text seems to have been not much studied and was therefore rarely copied in the Middle Ages.”[6]

However, an extremely important discovery was a collection of twenty samples of fourteen pages and eighteen incomplete pages of an old Sefardic manuscript from the 1200s. These texts, which were originally part of an early copy of the Talmud Yerushalmi, were probably brought to Italy by a Spanish refugee.

They were identified as Spanish in origin because the grain patterns on the outer hair side of the yellowish parchment were typical of those used in Spain during that time. Also, this parchment was more refined than the rougher parchments used by Ashkenazim.

In 1555, as a result of the ‘recycling’ process, these rare Yerushalmi manuscripts had found their way into seven unrelated large folio volumes of legal proceedings by Bartolo da Sassoferrato (d.1357). He happened to be one of the most prominent jurists of Medieval Roman Law, and his large tomes were housed in the Library of the Diocesan Seminary in Savona. Bartolo was so highly regarded that later jurists adopted the adage ‘no one is a good jurist unless he is a Bartolist’. 

This newly discovered Yerushalmi text hidden away within the unlikely great works of Italian jurisprudence, differed somewhat from the editio princeps or first printed edition of the Jerusalem Talmud which was based on the Leiden codex, first published by Daniel Bomberg in 1523. The text from the Diocesan Seminary also happened to match some fragments found in the Cairo Geniza, and is therefore by this conformation, considered to be a very accurate version of the original Yerushalmi.

When the book binders bound their books with older parchment, they usually left the writings on the inner side untouched as they could not be seen, and they washed off the writings on the external side. 

The inner flesh side of the parchment was rougher than the outer hair side and therefore the binding cardboard was glued to that side as it better absorbed the glue. With time these letters became visible from the outside but they could only be read by using mirrors to help decipher them.

This is how Perani describes how he was alerted to these Yerushalmi texts:

“By mere chance, only few letters of the perfectly preserved text written on the inner side of the parchment, appeared as mirror image thanks to the transparency of some parts of the vellum. Because of these specular[7] Hebrew letters, Leandra Scappaticci, a co-worker of mine, sent me a photo of the readable letters. I saw it reflected in a mirror, and these few letters were sufficient to identify a text from the Talmud Yerushalmi. Afterwards the sheets of the manuscript were detached and restored, in order to make the text on the inner side visible.”[8]

Interestingly, according to Malachi Beit-Arie[9], there was always a historical distinction between a hired scribe and a copyist:
The hired scribe, as a rule would have produced the most accurate texts as he would have been more loyal to the text he was paid to reproduce. However, he would have been more susceptible to involuntary mistakes occurring as a result of the tedious and mechanical nature of his work. 
The copyist, on the other hand, would have generally been a scholar who copied a work for his own usage.  He would intentionally interfere with the transmission and not be afraid to reconstruct the text.
Perani suggests that the writers of the samples of the Italian Geniza would certainly have been hired scribes and not copyists (as per these definitions), and hence they produced what are regarded as very accurate texts.
Besides old manuscripts, another rare discovery was early printed texts from the Spanish presses which were shut down soon after they opened in 1490 due to the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. So not only were earlier manuscripts used in the bindings but some printed texts also performed that function as well.

Once it became clear how important the Italian Geniza was for the discovery and recovery of all these lost texts - searches have subsequently taken place in other European archives and libraries. These include places like Spain, particularly, where thousands of pages have also been discovered within the bookbindings of tomes and records in the Spanish archives. These pages were recycled into the bindings much earlier than those of their Italian counterparts and offer a glimpse into the flourishing Spanish scholarship of pre-Inquisition Spain.
Surprisingly, hardly any Midrashic literature was discovered. The reason is fascinating and somewhat counterintuitive:

“Wrongly considered a literature of minor importance, Midrashic texts were never, over the centuries, carefully studied or the object of a continuous copying process by scribes like other texts, except in small circles, and when during the 13th-14th centuries abridged editions appeared, such as Yalqut Šim‘oni, simpler to consult and containing brief and different versions of the Midrashic texts, the number of complete extant editions of these texts radically decreased. For these reasons only a few Midrashic fragments have been found in the ‘Italian Genizah’”[10]

Amazingly, according to this, the vast Midrashic literature was never taken seriously enough to warrant copping and distribution on the same level as other rabbinic texts were.

Professor Perani sums up the percentages of the various divisions of text types as follows:

“I wish to refer to the data of the Nonantola collection, one of the biggest collections which has been catalogued and which can constitute a valuable example in general. About 33% of the fragments[11] belong to biblical manuscripts; 28% to Halakic literature represented by the traditional Sifre Mitzwot; 15% containing biblical commentaries; 8% Mishnah, Talmud, and other talmudic compendia; while 7% represent philosophy and Qabbalah; 4% contain dictionaries or lexicographical works; 3% scientific texts about medicine, astronomy and geometry; and, finally 2% liturgical texts.”[12]

With reference to the above divisions into textual categories, if one assumes that they also represent even an indication of the type of study that took place during that period, then some interesting questions emerge:
Biblical (33 percent) and Halachic (28 percent) studies seem to be the most popular, but liturgical texts like prayer books (2 percent) is extremely low.
Mishna and Talmud (8 percent) also appear to be very low for what we might imagine would have been a more scholarly society.
The absence of Midrashic texts is also noteworthy.
And very surprisingly for a time when mysticism apparently flourished after the publication of the Zohar in the mid-1200s, is the low percentage of Kabbalistic texts (7 percent).
Using the analogy of a core sample from a glacier, these percentages - again if they are an accurate indication of what that society studied - are most surprising.
If a similar core sample were to be taken of a cross-section of the Torah literature studied today the indications would be very different.

[1] Geniza is a temporary storage area in a synagogue for old and worn texts. The material remains in the Geniza until a sufficient quantity of stock is amassed, at which point it is retrieved and buried in a Jewish cemetery. This practice was and still is observed in synagogues around the world. 
[2]Talmudic and Midrashic Fragments from the Italian Geniza: Reunification of the Manuscripts and catalogue, by Mauro Perani and Enrica Sagradini.
[3] A Bulla is literally the seal of the pope.
[4]Talmudic and Rabbinic Fragments...Ibid.
[5] Talmudic and Rabbinic Fragments...Ibid.
[6]Talmudic and Rabbinic Fragments...Ibid. 
[7]The term specular relates to mirror-like images.
[8] The Yerushalmi Fragments Discovered in the Diocesan Library of Savona, by Mauro Perani and Gunter Stemberger.
[9] Transmission of Texts by Scribes and Copyists: Unconscious and Critical Interferences, by Malachi Beit-Arie.
[10] Talmudic and Rabbinic Fragments...Ibid.
[11] It is important to point out that when in the Italian Genizah reference is made to ‘fragments’, almost always whole folios or bifolios are meant as only in a small number of cases they are smaller fragments or strips of cut pages.
[12] The Italian Geniza, by Mauro Perani: Translated by Simcha Shtull, Jewish Heritage Online Magazine.


  1. The Italian Genizah is is not necesarily a "core sample" of what was being learned when the books were confiscated in the middle of the 16nth century. This corpus ie exclusively parchment, a media reserved for the classic, canonized texts. Which explains the disproportianate amount ot Talmud, Mishne torah and Smag. The Italian archivists had no use for paper, but parchment was useful for binding. After the confiscation it was also suddenly cheap and available.
    This also explains the lack of ephemeral documents, and the lack of esoteric material, particularly Kabbalah. Both would be written almost exclusively on paper. Also, it should be noted, Kabbalic works were less likely to be confiscated, as even the Zohar itself was usualluy not in the Index of forbidden books.
    The Genizah of Gerona bindings, includes paper, because their archivists worked with cardboard, constructed from paper found in the Jews' Genizah. Subsequently, there is much more material produced by talmudic scholars that never "madeit'into the canon. Although here too, the amount of Kabbalic manuscripts represented is much lower than what would be expected.

  2. Thank you so much Dr Chwat for your considered contribution. Absolutely fascinating.

  3. Why were Kabbalistic book not on the list for confiscation? Was it due to the Christian interest in Jewish Mysticism?