Friday, September 26, 2014

The Cairo Geniza at JTS

THE NEW YORK TIMES: The Cairo Geniza, Under Piecemeal Restoration (Eve M. Kahn).
Experts at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan are puzzling over curly bits of ancient paper recovered from a closet in a Cairo synagogue. Boxfuls of the formerly soggy and bug-infested fragments are undergoing delicate repairs and digitization in the hope that the texts can be reunited, at least virtually, with the rest of their manuscript pages, which are scattered at institutions worldwide.

In the late 1800s, European and American scholars, dealers and curiosity seekers took home parts of the trove, known as the Cairo Geniza, a Hebrew word for treasury. No one knows why Jews then did not follow the custom of burying their ruined paperwork. The material may have been torn apart intentionally, to prevent non-Jews from desecrating it, or accidentally, through mishandling.

The documents date to the ninth century and contain a babel of poetry, prayers, recipes, legal and family correspondence, doodles and accounting tallies, in languages including Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic and Judeo-Arabic. The layers of multicultural handwriting represent centuries of peaceful relations among Muslims and Jews in Arab lands.

The article has some interesting details about the conservation and digitization process. The Times also had a piece on work on the Cairo Geniza at Tel Aviv University last year, noted here. There is more on digitization of the Geniza fragments in the links in that post too. And for more on the Cairo Geniza, see here and oh so many links.

Also, a small correction to the above article. The final quoted paragraph implies that all the documents from the Cairo Geniza date to the ninth century. In fact, only a few are that early. The date range of the fragments is from about the ninth century or a little earlier all the way up to when the Geniza was cleared out in the late nineteenth century. But despite their relatively late date, some of the fragments are of comparatively very early manuscripts of classic Jewish texts such as the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrashim, Piyyutim, etc.

CORRECTION (15 October): The date range of manuscripts from the Cairo Geniza actually extends earlier than I implied above. Several years ago I noted a seventh-century biblical fragment that seems to come from there. And more recently, Larry Hurtado has noted some New Testament and Septuagint (Aquila) Geniza palimpsests that may go back as early as the fifth or sixth century.