Brief Book Review of Sacred Treasure The Cairo Genizah

Sacred Treasure The Cairo Genizah: The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic

Author: Rabbi Mark Glickman

Publisher: Jewish Lights

228 pages, ISBN-10: 1580235123, and ISBN-13: 978-1580235129

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

 

This volume is amazing! Well written, with a penchant for detail without getting bogged down in boredom or feeling overwhelmed—Rabbi Mark Glickman has done an excellent job in sharing with his readers an incredible adventure. He too, and his son Jacob are also integral participants in this adventure; visiting several places and consulting with numerous scholars which resulted in this remarkable volume.

Rabbi Glickman is quite cognizant of a couple rather intriguing ironies at work in the Genizah Collection story. The first, of course is the irony of a medieval cultural and religious Jewish community flourishing in Old Cairo, the land where Israelites were slaves centuries earlier. Why would there even be a Jewish community in the country that oppressed them? Wouldn’t they want to avoid such a land like the plague? Apparently not. It seems that the Muslim majority lived side by side peacefully with their Jewish neighbours in medieval Egypt.

The other irony of the Genizah Collection ‘discovery’ is that two Scottish scholars who were sisters—Dr. Agnes Lewis and Dr. Margaret Gibson, inspired it. They were linguistic scholars of Greek, Syriac, Arabic and Hebrew when most women were unable to pursue such academic studies in a patriarchal society. In 1896, they returned to Britain with a Hebrew manuscript; which they had purchased in the Middle East. The manuscript was the Apocryphal Book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus); which they showed to Dr. Solomon Schechter; a professor of Talmudic and Rabbinic literature at the University of Cambridge. This Hebrew manuscript of Ecclesiasticus led Dr. Solomon on a journey—geographical, academic and spiritual—to search for the source of this manuscript in the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Old Cairo. When Rabbi Dr. Schechter visited this synagogue in 1898, he realized what a goldmine the Cairo Genizah Collection was—consequently, he proceeded to examine it and work with other scholars to preserve it.

There are close to 300,000 individual documents in the Genizah Collection, including: some Dead Sea Scrolls, Hebrew Bible texts, Mishnah and Talmud texts, legal documents, letters, liturgies, etc. The documents are written mostly in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. Some of them are merely fragments; while others are in poor condition.

As time passed, several universities and teams of scholars have worked diligently to categorize, analyze, store, preserve, study, translate and publish the Genizah Collection—many of them are now digitized and accessible online. The largest number of Genizah documents are in the University of Cambridge library; and the second largest number are in the New York Jewish Theological Seminary library. Other libraries also have Genizah documents.

According to Rabbi Glickman; the Jewish community of Old Cairo in the Middle Ages was flourishing. Unlike many Jews of the diaspora who have the deepest longing to live in Israel; the Old Cairo Jews were most likely content to live, love, work, retire and die there.

Highly recommended, five out of five stars. Thanks to Rabbi Glickman, historians, biblical scholars, archaeologists, clergy and Jewish, Christian and Muslim laity of all walks of life should find this volume very beneficial.

 

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