Tau News
Tel Aviv University News, Spring 1997

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Testament to Links

A Window into Jewish Medieval Life

TAU celebrates 100 years since the discovery of the Cairo Geniza with a special Centennial Conference, held in conjunction with the Hebrew University

by Daniella Ashkenazi

Storage of manuscripts, books and various documents in an attic of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fostat (ancient Cairo).
(Diorama. Beth Hatefutsoth, Permanent Exhibition)
Most people have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ask the average person if he's ever heard of the Cairo Geniza, however, and chances are that the response will be a shrug of the shoulders, or a suggestion that " perhaps you mean Giza - home of the Great Pyramids?"

In fact, the Geniza is a treasure house of information far more important from a Jewish standpoint than the Dead Sea Scrolls, says world-renowned expert in the Geniza records, Prof. Mordechai A. Friedman, incumbent of the Joseph and Ceil Mazer Chair in Jewish Culture in Muslim Lands and Cairo Geniza Studies at TAU's Chaim Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies, the Lester and Sally Entin Faculty of the Humanities.

Discovered 100 years ago, most of the Geniza's 250,000 fragments, including full page documents and a handful of books preserved in their entirety, were penned by members of the Jewish community in Cairo over a period of 250 years, between 1000 and 1250. They shed light on the mainstream of Jewish life and society during a period that had long remained in the dark due to scanty documentation, says Prof. Friedman.

TAU, in conjunction with the Hebrew University's Jewish National and University Library's Institute of Hebrew Manuscript Microfilms, marked the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the Cairo Geniza by hosting an international conference that brought together some 30 Geniza scholars from around the globe.

Papers delivered at the three-day Centennial Conference focused on the contribution of the Geniza to a host of fields - the study of cultural life in post-Talmudic times in the Land of Israel, Islamic history, Jewish thought, Jewish-Muslim relations, Karaite literature, Jewish inheritance laws, and the structure of the medieval Eastern family - among many others.

Secret dumping ground

Child's exercise book from the Geniza, Cairo, 10th century.
(T-S K.5.13, with permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University.)
The Cairo Geniza was not an archive designed to preserve documents. It was a "receptacle," a final resting place or cache of "trashed" documents written in Hebrew or transliterated into Hebrew text, Arabic and other languages during the Middle Ages. Possibly because of attacks on Jewish funeral processions, members of the Ben-Ezra Synagogue in Cairo systematically disposed of deceased persons' documents in a special vaulted room in the attic of the synagogue, accessible through a hole in the wall. Some of the Geniza's contents had already made its way to private collections or libraries - mostly via scholarly visitors or Middle Eastern antiquity markets. Luckily, Cairo's dry climate prevented complete deterioration of the remaining writings even though they were damaged due to the aging process.

In 1896, the importance of the Cairo Geniza came to the attention of Cambridge University scholar Prof. Solomon Schechter who transferred the remains - some 130,000 fragments - to Cambridge.

Personal records

Personal letter by Maimonides, written in Judeo-Arabic, found in the Cairo Geniza. The letter is signed Moses Ben Maimon, at the bottom of the page.
(T-S 12 192, with permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University.)
From a purely historical viewpoint the Geniza is unique: Most primary documents from the Middle Ages that survive the passage of time are records of momentous events of men and nations. The Geniza, by contrast, reveals day-to-day details about ordinary people - individuals with names and personalities, strengths and weaknesses. Documents relate to these people's innermost fears and yearnings, intimate relations, business rifts and rivalries, personal triumphs and tragedies.

The Geniza was a mixed bag. There are notes, private correspondence, old contracts and business-related material alongside religious manuscripts. There are letters hand-written by Maimonides and notes taken by an anonymous rabbinical student in one of the Rambam's lessons. There are liturgical poems by the medieval poet Yanai, an interpretation of the Bible by a Karaite, Yusuf Ibn Nuah, and sixty percent of a long-lost Hebrew original of a pre-Mishnaic tract called Seder Olam - responsa to a host of unusual situations.

The saga of Abraham Ben Yiju

Indicative of the rich fabric of human comings and goings discovered in the Geniza are the contents of some 70 fragmentary documents that span the lifetime of a Tunisian-born Jew named Abraham Ben Yiju. His career is recorded in personal letters and correspondence, responsa - written by Ben Yiju on his own behalf, and legal documents, including his daughter's marriage contract.

Prof. Friedman, one of the organizers of the Geniza Centennial Conference, delivered a paper on the work of the late eminent Geniza scholar Prof. S.D. Goiten, regarding Ben Yiju. Goiten served as Friedman's own academic mentor and Friedman has dedicated some of his own research to supplementing, editing and preparing for publication Goiten's unfinished volume on Jewish traders in India.

In the 1120s, as a young man, Abraham Ben Yiju took off for the Orient to make his fortune in Indian trade. His correspondence tells of his arduous trip, and his marriage to an Indian slave girl, Ashu. The documents reveal the saga of Abraham Ben Yiju's family and fortunes: his business acumen in the import-export business - sending iron and spices to his Jewish partners in Aden, and importing arsenic, paper and other commodities to India; the birth of his three children; and the early death of a son in India.

After almost 18 years in India and at the urging of his Aden-based partner, Ben Yiju left India for good in 1149, joining the Jewish community in Aden. He attempted to locate his brothers and sisters with whom he had lost contact when they fled Tunisia in the wake of the Norman Conquest.

Responsa uncovered in the Geniza, and penned in Ben Yiju's own hand, reveals the cold reception the Jewish merchant received at the hands of some members of the Jewish community who questioned the validity of his marriage. If this were not enough, tragedy struck when his eldest son and heir to his estate died at about the age of twenty.

Other documentation indicates that when Yiju's daughter was betrothed to the son of his business partner, her father broke off the wedding plans by taking his daughter off to Cairo - an abrupt move that led to bad blood and a financial squabble between the two long-time partners.

To keep his wealth within the family Abraham Ben Yiju arranged to marry off his daughter to her long-lost first cousin (whom he pledged to support) - as was customary at the time. But private correspondence with the Nagid of the Cairo Jewish community reveals that Ben Yiju was deeply disappointed with his nephew's stature when the prospective groom finally arrived from Sicily.

He was neither the "ben-Torah" he was purported to be and he lacked the "demeanor" of a successful merchant, so that Ben Yiju procrastinated in joining the couple in wedlock. It was only on August 11th 1156 - several months after Abraham Ben Yiju passed away as a disappointed and broken man - that the couple married. The so-called "nebech groom," incidentally, rose to become a leading member of the Egyptian Jewish community, knew Maimonides and became a dyan or religious magistrate.

Ben Yiju's story is probably just one of thousands; the vast majority of Geniza fragments await publication and have not even been described in the scholarly literature. To date there has not been sufficient funding to catalogue the fragments with a computerized system capable of matching them up.

Today, due to the presence at TAU of Prof. Friedman and Prof. Moshe Gil - an expert on historical material during the "classical" Gaonite period - TAU is considered a leading center for Geniza research, hosting major experts in the field.