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The road to riches

The Ben Ezra synagogue hid a
sacred cache of documents
Programme 3

The Genizah documents of Cairo

By Professor Stefan Reif, Cambridge University Library

The collection of Jewish manuscripts retrieved from the Genizah (communal depository) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo) is undoubtedly a unique historical source. Life in the Mediterranean area of the Middle Ages has been greatly illuminated by its thousands of worn, damaged and fragmentary texts.

An unusual set of circumstances conspired to build and preserve the Cairo Genizah collection for over a thousand years. The synagogue in which it was accumulated remained on the same site, the dry climate of Egypt contributed to the materials survival, and traditions about the dangers of meddling with the sacred cache and destroying Hebrew literature afforded it considerable protection.

The Genizah Collection held at Cambridge University Library was obtained and presented by two of the University's distinguished scholars, Charles Taylor and Solomon Schechter, in 1896-98, and consists of more than 140,000 items.

An eyewitness account of an
attempt by pirates to hijack a ship
Physical form and content

The fragments are written on vellum and paper, although there are a few on papyrus and cloth. The main languages used are Hebrew, Arabic (both in Arabic script, and in Hebrew script, known as Judeo-Arabic) and Aramaic. The bulk of the material comes from the classical Genizah period, that is, from the 10th to the 13th centuries.

The subject range is vast. There are biblical and talmudic texts; folios devoted to linguistic themes; tracts on Jewish law, lore and liturgy; compositions from Muslim and Christian sources; history and philosophy on the one hand and magic and mysticism on the other; as well as glimpses into contemporary medicine, art and music. Remarkably, the Genizah also provides insights into the ordinary life of the period. Its numerous mundane items testify to a society that was considerably more literate than its equivalent in Europe.

Such everyday documents include marriage and divorce contracts, business data and bills of lading, and lists of furniture, clothing and jewellery. Prescriptions from doctors, notes exchanged between teachers and parents, and appeals for financial assistance are not uncommon. Even more remarkable are texts about poll taxes, visas, pirates and Crusaders. There are also letters between Cairo and places as far away as Spain and India, often sent by businessmen on arduous journeys.

Business interests

Wide varieties of goods, ranging from bales of cloth, through animal hidesand articles of clothing, to items of food and drink, were imported and exported by the Jewish merchants of Cairo (sometimes women as well as men). Their primary concern was not with particular commodities but with anything that could keep their capital working for them. Price fluctuation and attacks on shipping were constant dangers and prospective buyers had to take their time and choose their commodity carefully.

Honesty and trust between partners were not untypical of business life since joint commercial ventures were sometimes a feature of relations between groups or families for a number of generations. There were even cases where Jews and Muslims who were partners arranged for profits made on the sabbath to be directed only to the latter. On the other hand, many documents relate to court cases in which claims were made for damages or the restoration of money or property.

Payment by cheque rather than by cash was also a procedure adopted in the Genizah period. You deposited your cash with a banker or broker and made your payment by writing on a piece of paper the sum in numerals and words that the banker was to pay the specified bearer, together with the date, and a biblical verse intended to ward off any attempt at fraud. From business accounts found in the Genizah, it is clear that in 12th century Egypt one column was used for debits and another for credits, at least two centuries before this procedure was adopted in Italy and became generally standard.

Images courtesy of Cambridge University Library

Further details of the Cairo Genizah and its contents can be found in Stefan C. Reif, A Jewish Archive from Old Cairo, Curzon Press, Richmond, Surrey, 2000

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Behind the scenes

The Genizah Research Unit

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