Biblical Archaeology Review 43:5, September/October 2017

Strata: Exhibit Watch: Discarded History

For more than a thousand years, the Jews of Cairo would preserve every piece of writing that contained Bible verses or references to God. The rationale was that Yahweh’s name is too sacred to be tossed out. These worn-out writings had been faithfully deposited in a genizah, or a synagogue storage chamber. Alongside the expected copies of the Bible, prayer books and works of Jewish law, the casual collection grew with the most mundane documents, such as personal letters, legal and business papers and shopping lists, which offer an intimate portrait of a vibrant Jewish community in the center of an Islamic empire.

When the Cairo Genizah, located in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo (medieval al-Fusṭāṭ), was thoroughly explored by Solomon Schechter of the University of Cambridge in 1896/7, it revealed itself to be the world’s largest and most important collection of medieval Jewish manuscripts, including the handwritings of Maimonides and other famous rabbis. Schechter then acquired more than 140,000 of these unwanted writings (mere snippets, at times) and shipped them back to Cambridge.

Spanning a millennium between the ninth and 19th centuries, some of these treasured scraps are on display in the exhibit Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo at the Cambridge University Library that runs until October 28, 2017. Included is a copy of the original Hebrew version of the Book of Ben Sira (also called the Book of Sirach and the Book of Ecclesiasticus), which was thought lost until this 10th-century fragment surfaced in Cairo.

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