From Cairo to Córdoba: The Story of the Cairo Geniza
April 28 is “Take Our Daughters to Work Day”: not a major holiday, but one that makes me anxious. What bothers me is not the principle or the task—I don’t have a daughter—but the more general question it poses to an earnest medieval historian like myself. What is my work? How can I make that work visible, its interest tangible? Since the early nineteenth century the artist’s studio has been a space of excited visitation—Eugène Delacroix’s Paris digs are an early example. But the solitary sitter in the historian’s study attracts no voyeurs. What thrill is to be found in hours of stillness, the occasional rustle of paper, the all too intermittent clicking of computer keys?
Some forms of spelunking in the past are more easily sold as exciting. Archaeology, for example, cloaked in the romanticism of discovery, can wield the whip of Indiana Jones. But the historian is a figure of boredom and untimeliness: remember, history is the vocation of the only ghost on the faculty of Hogwarts, a prof so absent-minded he fails to notice that he has died, droning spectrally on. If the making and the makers of history are so uninteresting, then what of the made? What claim does history, especially that of the distant past, have on our attention?
Few university professors write on such questions, perhaps because they have the privilege of working in institutions that do not demand the daily justification of their existence. Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole are not university professors; but they are scholars deeply learned in the past; intellectual activists passionately engaged with the present; and at the same time writers who live by their pen. They are, to coin a phrase, “public scholars,” which is also to say that they are among the last specimens of a species virtually extinguished by a modern world. The book they have just given us, Sacred Trash, is equally rare: a precious meditation on the ways in which the discovery of long-hidden hoards of history can transform our worlds, and a literary jewel whose pages turn like those of a well-paced thriller, but with all the chiseled elegance and flashes of linguistic surprise that we associate with poetry.
Buried treasure is what the book is about, albeit treasure of a peculiar kind. Hoffman and Cole tell the story of a closet, one that was 18 feet deep, 8 feet long and 6½ feet wide. The existence of this thousand-year-old closet in the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Cairo was always in some way known by the synagogue’s congregants. But it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that Europeans stumbled upon its contents—hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper, parchment and papyrus written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Greek, Persian, Latin, Ladino, Yiddish, Syriac, Arabic, Coptic and even Chinese. (Still more textual material was found buried in the community’s courtyard and cemetery, with competing European agents acting like rival guilds of grave robbers.) The discovery necessitated a remapping of history that continues to this day.
Of course, burial does not treasure make. But in the case of our Cairo closet even the etymology of its Hebrew name points to something rare and strange. “Geniza” first enters Hebrew under Persian domination, and is perhaps borrowed from the Persian ganj (kanj): hoard, or hidden treasure. In the biblical books of Esther and Ezra, it means both the king’s treasuries and his archives, and both senses pass into the Hebrew of the Talmud, where it designates something stored up, or concealed away. But the Hebrew root is also used for the burial of human bodies, as when nignaz—“here lies hidden this man”—is written on gravestones; its Arabic cognate janazah means “funeral.” Within the semantic field of geniza, texts and bodies lie in such close proximity as to be indistinguishable.
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The relationship between text and body holds in another sense as well. Just as the burial of corpses serves both to demonstrate piety for the deceased and to protect the living from the dead, so the burial of texts served a dual purpose. Some texts entered the Geniza for a well-earned rest, worn out by long service to the pious. Others were imprisoned there because they were feared to be heretical or corrupting. Still others, perhaps the vast majority (at least at the Ben Ezra Synagogue), were tossed in by force of habit, simply because they were penned, if not in the Holy Tongue, then in the Hebrew script with which the Jews of Egypt wrote so much of their Arabic (a mixture known in the trade as Judeo-Arabic). But as in the cemetery, no force of habit can exorcise the ambivalence (or double valence) of the Geniza’s task: “preserving good things from harm,” as one scholar put it, “and bad things from harming.” It is a place of both piety and danger. This ambivalence is nicely reflected in two venerable rumors (documented as early as 1488) about the Ben Ezra Geniza: that it contained a magical Torah scroll copied by none other than Ezra the Scribe, and that it was protected from prying eyes by a plethora of scorpions and a poison snake. Hoards require their dragons, even when the treasure is text.
In the event, the rumors turned out to be exaggerated, the second far more than the first. The Geniza’s first known European visitor, Heinrich Heine’s great-uncle Simon van Geldern, survived his visit in 1752, as his diary entry on that occasion makes clear: “I was in the Elijah synagogue and searched the Geniza.” Van Geldern mentions neither scrolls nor snakes (nor, for that matter, much of anything else besides giving baksheesh). A little more than a century later, in 1859, the Talmudist and traveler Jacob Safir was able to see the scroll of Ezra (which he did not deem genuine), but he “did not find any fiery serpents or scorpions, and no harm came to me, thank God.” As for Solomon Schechter, who “discovered” the Geniza in 1896 and claimed it for Cambridge University and scholarship, we have his own description of what he saw when he climbed up a ladder to peer down into this textual charnel house from its only opening, high up in a wall of the synagogue’s women’s gallery:
It is a battlefield of books, and the literary production of many centuries had their share in the battle, and their disjecta membra are now strewn over its area. Some of the belligerents have perished outright, and are literally ground to dust in the terrible struggle for space, whilst others, as if overtaken by a general crush, are squeezed into big unshapely lumps…. These lumps sometimes afford curiously suggestive combinations; as, for instance, when you find a piece of some rationalistic work, in which the very existence of either angels or devils is denied, clinging for its very life to an amulet in which these same beings (mostly the latter) are bound over to be on their good behaviour and not interfere with Miss Jair’s love for somebody. The development of the romance is obscured by the fact that the last lines of the amulet are mounted on some I.O.U., or lease, and this in turn is squeezed between the sheets of an old moralist, who treats all attention to money affairs with scorn and indignation. Again, all these contradictory matters cleave tightly to some sheets from a very old Bible. This, indeed, ought to be the last umpire between them, but it is hardly legible without peeling off from its surface the fragments of some printed work which clings to old nobility with all the obstinacy and obtrusiveness of the parvenu.
Endless scribbling, but nary a snake in sight.
This does not mean that there were no dragons to be slain. One of the beauties of Sacred Trash is the way it shows us how each generation of Geniza scholars discovered its own monsters to tilt after in this trove. Solomon Schechter’s dragon was biblical criticism, and though he did not find a Torah scroll copied by Ezra the Scribe in his treasure, in the very first Geniza fragment he held in his hands he descried something almost as marvelous: the Hebrew text of a biblical book hitherto known only from its Greek translation, the Wisdom of Ben Sira, a k a Ecclesiasticus.
From Ben Sira, Hoffman and Cole have selected an apt epigraph for their volume—“Hidden wisdom and concealed treasure, what is the use of either?”—but Schechter extracted something even more important from the ancient text: an argument against what he perceived to be the anti-Judaism of biblical scholarship in his day. Schechter was especially worried about a cutting-edge school of German scholarship, known as “source criticism” or “Higher Criticism,” that sought to reconstruct the history of how and when Scripture was produced, redacted and transmitted. It was not the tools of source criticism that worried him—he often used the same tools himself—but some of the uses to which they were put. According to Schechter, the “Higher Criticism” (which he sometimes called the “higher anti-Semitism”) became an attack on Judaism.
Julius Wellhausen, for example, is famous as the father of the “documentary hypothesis” (identifying several strands of authorship—the Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly—and periods of composition for the Pentateuch), which dominated the scientific study of the Hebrew Bible until the late twentieth century. But one of the animating goals of his titanic scholarship was to prove that “there have never been more audacious inventors of history than the rabbins…. This evil propensity goes back to a very early time, its root the dominating influence of the Law, being the root of Judaism itself.” From this evil root (according to Wellhausen) the propensity only became more poisonous, so that after the destruction of the first temple in 587â BC “the warm pulse of life” had gone from Judaism. “The soul was fled; the shell remained.” There was no continuity, he wrote, between the religion of the Old Testament and the dead legalism of the Second Temple and its rabbinic descendants.
In the Wisdom of Ben Sira, Schechter thought he had found an antidote to Wellhausen’s poison: a late Second Temple text beloved by the early Talmud’s rabbis, yet spiritual in its moral engagements—far from the desiccated legalism with which Judaism was taxed by its Higher Critics, and even poetic in its praise of God:
All wisdom comes from the Lord
and is with Him forever.
Who can number the sands of the sea,
and the drops of rain, and the days of eternity?…
Who can find out the height of heaven,
and the breadth of the earth, and the deep, and wisdom?