Sacred Trash:The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza
by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole
Schocken/Nextbook, 304 pp., $26.95
In 1896, two Scottish sisters came to Solomon Schechter, then a Reader in Talmudic and Rabbinic Literature at Cambridge University, and showed him some moldy scraps of manuscript they had purchased in Egypt. Schechter immediately recognized them as fragments of the long-lost Hebrew original of the Apocryphal book of Ben Sira (known in the Christian tradition as Ecclesiasticus). Soon thereafter he rushed off to Cairo, where he found the enormous cache of discarded manuscripts that had been deposited in the geniza (a traditional storage place for worn or discarded Hebrew texts containing the Divine Name) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Fustat (Old Cairo).
The approximately 200,000 pieces he brought back to Cambridge constituted the largest collection of medieval Jewish documents ever assembled. What made the Cairo Geniza different from every other geniza was that it contained not only Hebrew and Aramaic religious writings, such as Torah scrolls, prayerbooks, and tefillin and mezuza parchments, but also secular materials in a several languages and scripts (mainly in Judeo-Arabic). Works of Jewish scholarship and literature that had been lost were rediscovered, and a formative period in Jewish history was illuminated. This was the age of the Exilarchs (Babylon-based "heads of the diaspora" who traced their lineage back to the royal House of David); of Jewish philosophers and theologians such as Saadya Gaon and Maimonides; of sublime poets from the Golden Age of Sephardic Hebrew letters such as Shmuel Hanagid and Yehuda Halevi, and of Jewish merchants who sailed back and forth across the Mediterranean and from Egypt to places as far as India and Ceylon.
The broad outlines of this tale of discovery and rescue are quite familiar, having been repeated in academic and semi-academic books and articles many times over. Scholars like Stefan Reif, the author of A Jewish Archive from Old Cairo, have done an excellent job of describing the collection in Cambridge and its significance for Jewish scholarship.But the real behind-the-scenes story of the Geniza and the Western scholars who retrieved and studied it is—not surprisingly—far more complicated and far more fascinating. It is also a very human story, as the husband-and-wife team of Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman show in their charming and unobtrusively erudite new book Sacred Trash.