A Most Glorious Attic

by Janet Tassel (March 2012)

Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza
By Adina Hoffman & Peter Cole
Jewish Encounters/Schocken, 284 pp.

In the days of Queen Victoria, there roamed the earth a certain type of Englishwoman: Intrepid, adventurous, utterly undaunted, these ladies bustled fearlessly and eagerly to the most uncomfortable and often dangerous corners of the world, took and developed their own photographs, spoke a multitude of languages, rode camels, climbed mountains, and then came home to write books about their exploits.

Of such a genus were the middle-aged, widowed twin sisters Margaret Lewis and Agnes Gibson, whom we meet as they hurry “like ships in full sail” through the streets of Cambridge, England. These eccentric and gregarious Scottish ladies are introduced to us by Jerusalem-based author-poets Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole in their learned and delightful Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. Without the scholarly “Giblews” as they were known in Cambridge society, the story of the fabled Cairo Geniza and its contents might be a different tale indeed.

But first, what is a “geniza?”  The authors tell us that “‘geniza’ is a barely translatable Hebrew term that holds within it an ultimate statement about the worth of words and their place in Jewish life. It derives from the Persian ganj (or kanj) meaning ‘hoard’ or ‘hidden treasure’….”  Implied in this idea is that written words are, like people, “living things…and therefore when they ‘die,’ or become worn out, they must be honored and protected from profanation.”

“In the Talmud,” they continue, “it [the word ‘geniza’] almost always suggests the notion of ‘concealment’ or 'storing away’ of sacred or profane writings that were deemed saintly or heretical or threatening or erroneous, or just dubious. “In general and over time, it seems the Talmudic notion of geniza as a form of censorship waned, and most genizot came to serve the more neutral function of holding obsolete texts.” Or as some would say, junk. A geniza could be in a basement, a cubbyhole, a grave, or as in this case, an attic off the women’s balcony of the Ben Ezra synagogue of Cairo.

For reasons that remain obscure, in the case of the Palestinian Jews of Fustat, or Old Cairo—who worshipped in what would eventually become known as the Ben Ezra synagogue—the tradition of geniza was, it seems, extended to include the preservation of  anything written in Hebrew letters, not only religious documents, and not just in the Hebrew language. Perhaps, as one scholar has proposed, “the very employment of the Hebrew script …sanctified written material.”

Perhaps, muse the authors, the Jews of Fustat brought piles of papers by the cartfuls to the Geniza without separating the sacred from the secular or the significant from the trivial. Perhaps “the impulse to guard the written word may have gone beyond piety and evolved into a generalized aversion toward casually discarding” virtually anything written in Hebrew. “Whatever the explanation, for most of the last millennium, hundreds of thousands of scraps were tossed into the Ben Ezra Geniza, which came to serve as a kind of holy junk heap.”

To return to the Giblews: The sisters had recently come home from a trip to Palestine and Egypt, their third in less than three years, when, one day in May, 1896, Agnes Lewis, strolling (or sailing) through downtown Cambridge, bumped into her old friend, the Romanian-born Talmud scholar and Reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge, Solomon Schechter. Just the person she wanted to see: She and Margaret had bought a bundle of documents in Cairo, she said, and needed help in identifying some of the items in Hebrew. She had a feeling they were maybe Talmudic passages or “private Jewish documents.” Schechter didn’t wait to hear more. Upon her return home, Agnes found Schechter already there, “intently examining the fragments” that Margaret had spread across a large table.

He quickly identified one vellum leaf as a “rare and valuable page from the Palestinian Talmud.” He anxiously asked if he might take it home to study it. Of course, they said. To Margaret this scrap looked “as if a grocer had used it for something greasy,” but she also noticed that Schechter’s eyes were “glittering.”  

Within the hour, a telegram arrived from Schechter: “Fragment Very Important: Come to Me This Afternoon.” But during lunch, they received another, more urgent letter, “splattered with unblotted ink,” to come immediately. Wrote he, “in haste and great excitement,” the fragment “represents a piece of the original Hebrew of Ecclesiasticus. It is the first time that such a thing was discovered.”

Pause now to have a look at this bear of a man, the eminent Solomon Schechter:

With his bushy, red-tinted beard, unruly hair, and tendency to gesticulate broadly as he spoke, Schechter had been known to set off in the broiling heat of midsummer wrapped up in a winter coat and several yard of scarf. An acquaintance remembered first meeting Schechter, with “his dirty black coat, smudged all over with snuff and ashes from his cigar, hands unwashed, nails as black as ink….One ear was stuffed full of wool, hanging out, and he was always very abrupt in his speech.” His resemblance to a bag lady apart, there was, as another colleague put it, “the magic of prophecy about the man.”  He also had, his wife would write years later, “a genius for friendship; he loved people and they loved him.”

Also, his socks never matched. So here we see Schechter at the Giblews’ table. His palpable “excitement” can be readily understood. The small, greasy fragment he held was a piece, in the original Hebrew, of the Apocryphal (uncanonical) book Ecclesiasticus—also known as Ben Sira—written in about 180 B.C.E, which “had been missing for nearly a millennium and survived, it was generally believed, only in its Greek and Syriac translations.”

For years, Schechter had been studying manuscripts at the British Museum, at Oxford, and at Cambridge, including the few fragments from the Cairo Geniza that had already been acquired (though many of Schechter’s predecessors–dealers, antiquarians, and scholars– had dismissed the Geniza hoard as worthless) and had arrived at a point of frustration, even anger, at the so-called Higher Criticism used by mainly Protestant scholars, which he called the “brutal vivisection” of Jewish history:

This slashing into the living flesh of an entire people’s faith was part and parcel of the distinctly anti-Jewish bias that Schechter felt lay behind the Protestant critics’ line of inquiry, which perceived much of Jewish history as a continual falling off from the heights of early revelation and prophetic vision to a preoccupation with ceremony and legal sophistry.

The higher critics, he believed, were “trying to ‘argue out of existence’ the ‘humble activity of whole assemblies of men…’” For Schechter, however, “the heart of Judaism was its unbroken (if often battered) line of transmission…without any loss of revelation’s power.” More light is wanted, said he, “and this light promises now to come from the discovery of the original Hebrew of the apocryphal work, ‘The Wisdom of Ben Sira.’”

Who was this wise man, Ben Sira? A scholar named either Jesus or Joshua (or Shimon) Ben Sira compiled a collection of hymns and poems and homiletical verse in Hebrew, probably in Jerusalem, in about 180 B.C.E., after which it was translated into Greek by his grandson around 132 B.C.E. in Alexandria. “Because of its core ethical focus and concern with transmission, Ben Sira was beloved among the rabbis of the early Talmudic period,” according to the authors. A kind of rabbinic self-help manual, “an epigrammatic miscellany of manners, morals, and the ways of wisdom and the world,” the Talmudic rabbis placed it “on par in importance with the Book of Proverbs.”

Modern scholars don’t necessarily share the ancients’ enthusiasm for Ben Sira: “Polonius without Shakespeare,” according to one. But most agree that Ben Sira hits his stride with his poetry. Consider:

   Let us now praise famous men
      And our fathers in their generations.
The Lord apportioned to them great glory,
His majesty from the beginning….
There are some that have left a name,
So that men declare their praise.
And there are some who have no name,
Who have perished as though they had not lived.

Ben Sira also included hymns to wine and gustatory pleasures, advice on etiquette at banquets and symposia, encomia to nature and a general appreciation of life well lived. In May of 1896, all Schechter had was one grimy scrap. But his agitation was such that within months, he was to drop everything, and, like Indiana Jones, hasten to Egypt.

That “genius for friendship” his wife mentioned undoubtedly was the reason that Schechter, newly arrived in Cairo, was able to navigate the shoals of a closed society, an unfamiliar dialect, miserable lodgings, and a wall of suspicion (including rumors of a venomous serpent guarding the synagogue). Amazingly,  it was not long before he found himself befriended by wealthy Cairene Jews who served him wonderful kosher dinners in their fine mansions, and by the Grand Rabbi himself, who authorized Schechter “to take from it [the Geniza] what, and as much as I liked.”

What Schechter discovered when he climbed up the ladder and peered into the Geniza, write the authors, was a “glorified walk-in closet,” eight feet long by six and a half feet wide, and some six yards high. “Yet here was an entire civilization”:

…once his widening eyes had adjusted to the dark, he found himself staring into a space crammed to bursting with nearly ten centuries’ worth of one Middle Eastern, mostly middle-class Jewish community’s detritus—its letters and poems, its wills and marriage contracts, its bills of lading and writs of divorce, its prayers, prescriptions, trousseau lists, Bibles, money orders, amulets, court depositions, shop inventories, rabbinic responsa, contracts, leases, magic charms, and receipts.

In the dank and musty chaos, Schechter “had uncovered no less than a cross section of an entire society, and one that lay at the very navel of the medieval world—linking East and West, Arab and Jew, the daily imprint of the sacred and the venerable extension of the profane.” Composed in “Hebrew, Aramaic, and Judeo-Arabic, as well as Greek, Persian, Latin, Ladino, and even Yiddish—all written in Hebrew characters.” Except for those that got tossed in unsorted, in which was found Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, and—Chinese.

“Such was the miraculous nature of what Schechter found,” write the authors, “that some have compared its discovery to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Picture him, though, “quite literally picking through some ten centuries’ worth of dust, mildew, and mouse droppings;” when he would return to his hotel room, “half dead” with fatigue, he would write his wife, he said he must have a bath—immediately. He was covered in what he called Genizahschmutz.

He called it a “beastly unhealthy place,” dark and filled with medieval dust, “which settles in one’s throat and threatens suffocation…full of all possible insects.” In one letter he wrote his wife, he complained that “he was so bitten by mosquitoes, ‘ich full of spots bin.’”

After some four weeks of superhuman immersion, interspersed with socializing with the elite of Cairo, he announced himself “finished with the big Geniza. I have emptied all.”  By the end of the month “about a hundred thousand fragments”—closer, the authors claim, to 190,000 pieces—“had been packed into 8 big wooden cases” ready to be shipped back to Cambridge.

The sorting, translating, and cataloguing of the Geniza hoard would occupy Schechter for the rest of his life, even after he had crossed the sea to become president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York  But the book is unstinting in its detailed portraits of the many disciples—scholars and, fortunately, benefactors—who followed in Schechter’s dusty footprints. For there was so very much still left to discover. “‘In Geniza research, quantity is quality,’ in the words of S. D. Goitein, the century’s greatest explorer of the documentary Ben Ezra material.”  If Schechter was the discoverer, write the authors, Goiten was the “re-discoverer.”

Just to touch on the bounty of the Geniza: Some forty percent of the Geniza hoard consisted of Hebrew liturgy—hymns (piyyutim) and prose prayers; we now have previously unknown poems by the great Judah HaLevi, who actually visited Fustat in 1140, leaving to the Geniza (and us) letters about his stay there; and as to poetry, an incredible find: “poetry from…the Golden Age of Hebrew literature in Spain…arguably the greatest poetry composed in Hebrew since the biblical period.” 

The Geniza has given us different versions of the Passover Haggada:

In some of these Geniza versions of the Haggada, the classic Four Questions (Ma Nishtana)…asked…by the youngest child are reduced to two queries, or three, [or] five. In another instance the father asks them.

There are huge numbers of documents elucidating the nature of various schismatic sects from the Karaites to the Khazars, leading inevitably to the question, “Who is a Jew?” And the Geniza has yielded more than sixty fragments in the handwriting of Moses Maimonides himself, including draft copies of his Mishneh Torah, and some of his handwritten prescriptions, including one for “a kind of medieval Viagra.”

It includes magic and mysticism, and the earliest known piece of Jewish musical notation; there are curses and blessings; and there are Yiddish documents, including this sixteenth-century letter from a Jewish mother to her son:

God will help me, and all [the people of] Israel in the future…..Don’t worry, my son. I always ask God that you not be sick and that I suffer in your stead. And I also ask that He not let me die before I see your face again and you lay your hands over my eyes….Don’t worry, my son….if I died I would not have a sheet to be brought down from my bed in….

On this eerily familiar note we must leave this rich treasure, both the Geniza hoard itself, and this gift of a book, so rich and generous in its sifting through and explicating centuries of sacred trash.

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