What Is the Cairo Genizah? Originally Published January 25-26, 2019.

As we read of the Jews fleeing Egypt, this past Wednesday in Hazzan Menes’ Coffee with the Cantor class we were reminded of our complex history with Egypt, so it seems a good time to mention the Cairo Genizah.

A genizah – a “hiding place” – generally refers to a depository for items which can no longer be used but which contain God’s name.  It is meant to be a temporary holding area, the items later to be taken to a burial site.  Non-religious items may also be put there.  In Cairo they stashed a lot of everything in many languages.

In the Jewish community of Fustat (Old Cairo), the Ben Ezra Synagogue had a genizah.  For roughly 1,000 years (from c. 882 CE, when they bought and renovated a destroyed Coptic church of St. Michael, into the 19th century), folks would climb a ladder and deposit their documents into the genizah.  No one ever emptied it out.  In 1753 book dealer Simon von Geldern visited and mentioned it in his 1773 book The Israelites on Mount Horeb.  But he did not examine any of the contents, as there were superstitions of doom associated with it.  In 1864 Jacob Saphir, the scribe of the Ashkenazi community of Jerusalem, also visited but looked at nothing.  Occasionally pages would be brought out and sold.  In 1886, two Christians showed pages to Solomon Schechter, Talmudic and Rabbinic Literature professor at Cambridge.  He recognized the Hebrew original Book of Wisdom, attributed to Ben Sira, which is the precursor to the Christian Ecclesiasticus. 

There were shopping lists, there were innumerable letters, some written on other letters (upside-down and backwards, so as not to waste the parchment), marriage and divorce contracts, pages from Jewish, Arabic, medical, story and other books, and various other scraps of valuable sociological history.  There were over 30 works by Maimonides (1135-1204), originals!  (The Cambridge collection is searchable on line at https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/genizah/1, thanks to funding by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.)  The Jewish Theological Seminary of America also holds a large number of items, as do the University of Pennsylvania and a couple other British universities.  There is a zooniverse.org project as well, in which citizens may help with the research; they have just finished sorting the first 30,000 fragments.

Sources:  Jewish Virtual Library,  U. of Cambridge Digital Library, Wikipedia, lecture by Prof. Laurie Z. Eisenberg.