Treasures in the Trash
Documents from the Cairo Genizah provided a wealth of information about 1200 years of Jewish life in that region and have kept scholars busy for over a century. Piled together were bills of sale, wedding documents, sacred texts and scandalous stories.
We will look at some of these unique pieces of our past and learn what items require being “hidden” and then eventually buried.
Burial of Sacred Texts and Religious Articles
Synagogues periodically clear out their genizot by burying their contents in a Jewish cemetery as a sign of reverence and respect for the material. Temple Israel will be burying a large quantity of such genizah material in our cemetery in September. Should you have sacred texts or religious articles for inclusion please bring them to the Temple Israel office by Monday, September 16. If you are uncertain if an item requires burial, please contact Rabbi Eligberg, (518) 438-7858, ext 115 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about genizah see the following: Hidden Names, Hidden Treasures.
Every synagogue has one. A genizah, a corner, a closet, a room, used for the temporary storage of worn-out Hebrew-language books and papers on religious topics prior to proper cemetery burial. The word genizah comes from the Hebrew root g-n-z, "to hide" or "to put away” and as noun is best translated as an "archive" or a "repository".
This practice emerged from the Talmudic stipulation1 that all sacred writings (scrolls of Torah, Prophets, and Writings) should be preserved in a place where they cannot be destroyed. Maimonides, in his legal code, ruled that holy books, such as volumes of Talmud and Midrash, should be retired to the genizah as well, even those which do not contain God’s name.2
The contents of genizot have not been limited to exclusively religious materials as it was commonplace for legal contracts and personal letters to open with an invocation of God utilizing one of the "names"3 of God. Worn-out siddurim, tallitot, tefillin, ritual objects such as Torah mantles and ark curtains, as well as writings in other Jewish languages that use the Hebrew alphabet, routinely find their way into genizot around the world along with material that is purely secular in nature but Jewish in content.
The most famous genizah was found in a room attached to the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. The genizah contained over 280,000 documents, fragments of documents and ritual objects dating from 870CE until the 19th century. Documents found included commentaries and letters written by Maimonides and previously unknown poetry by Rabbi Yehudah Halevi.
Solomon Schechter, a lecturer at Cambridge University, was amongst the first to study these materials which were remarkably important for reconstructing the religious, social and economic history of Jews, especially in the Middle Ages. In the 1890s, Schechter convinced synagogue officials to allow him to transfer most of the contents of the Cairo Genizah to Cambridge.
Today, most of the works from the genizah can be found at the Cambridge University Library, and at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where they continue to be restored, translated, and studied. The Friedberg Genizah Project is digitizing the entire corpus of manuscripts so that it can be made available for study and research by scholars throughout the world.
2Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 6:8
3During the Middle Ages, documents, papers, even scraps with Hebrew writing, were relegated to a genizah and were called shemot "names," because their presumed sanctity and claim for preservation depended on their containing, or presumed containing of the divine name.