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The Largest and Most Diverse Collection of Medieval Manuscripts in the World (1896 – 1902)


In 1896 Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, identical-twin sisters and Semitic scholars, who between them learned twelve languages, returned to Cambridge from a trip to the Middle East bearing leaves from several ancient Hebrew manuscripts that they had purchased from a Cairo bookseller. They showed the parchment leaves to Solomon Schechter, reader in Talmudic Studies at Cambridge, who was surprised to discover among them in May 1896 an 11th or 12 century copy of the Hebrew proverbs of Ben Sira, a second-century BCE Hebrew book of wisdom. Through translations, where it is known as Sirach in Greek, or Ecclesiasticus in Latin (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes) the work became part of the Christian Bible,  This he published with English translation, introduction, and notes in the Expositor for July 1896, (p. i seqq.)

Wanting to share news of his discovery Schechter wrote to his friend Adolf Neubauer, sublibrarian at the Bodleian Library and reader in Rabbinic Hebrew at Oxford, that he had discovered a fragment of Sirach (xxxix. 15 to xl. 7) in Hebrew. In response to Schechter's postcard, Neubauer replied  two weeks later that he and his assistant, Arthur Cowley, had “coincidentally" discovered nine pages of Ben Sira at Oxford. Of course, this was no coincidence. Schechter's discovery had prompted Neubauer to restudy much more carefully a collection of Hebrew manuscripts that he had previously dismissed and had intended to sell—a box of about 10,000 pages of manuscripts that had been obtained from the genizah in 1895 by Oxford Assyriologist and linguist Archibald Sayce. Using Schechter's discovery and finds from Sayce's donation, in 1897 Neubauer and A. E. Cowley published The Original Hebrew of a Portion of Ecclesiasticus (xxxix.14 to ILIX.11) Together with the Early Versions and an English Translation Followed by the Quotations from Ben Sira in Rabbinical Literature. This was probably the first scholarly book in English on manuscripts from the Cairo genizah. 

Not wanting to miss out on any more discoveries, Schechter set out for Egypt where, with the financial assistance of Hebraist Charles Taylor, then Master of St. John's College, Cambridge, he purchased what he considered the most significant portion of the contents of the genizah (Geniza), a sacred storeroom in the loft of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, presently Old Cairo.

"According to rabbinic law (see, for instance, Mishna Shabbat 16:1), once a holy book can no longer be used (because it is too old, or because its text is no longer relevant) it cannot be destroyed or casually discarded: texts containing the name of God should be buried or, if burial is not possible, placed in a genizah.  

"At least from the early 11th century, the Jews of Fustat, one of the most important and richest Jewish communities of the Mediterranean world, reverently placed their old texts in the Genizah. Remarkably, however, they placed not only the expected religious works, such as Bibles, prayer books and compendia of Jewish law, but also what we would regard as secular works and everyday documents: shopping lists, marriage contracts, divorce deeds, pages from Arabic fables, works of Sufi and Shi'ite philosophy, medical books, magical amulets, business letters and accounts, and hundreds of letters: examples of practically every kind of written text produced by the Jewish communities of the Near East can now be found in the Genizah Collection, and it presents an unparalleled insight into the medieval Jewish world" (http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/genizah, accessed 12-14-2012).

Schechter sent back to Cambridge about 193,000 manuscripts from the genizah. These became the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection at Cambridge University Library. In 2012 this entire collection was in the process of being digitized and placed online as part of the Cambridge Digital Library.

        When Schechter assumed the presidency of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York in 1902 he brought an additional collection of manuscripts from the genizah to that library. Currently the Jewish Theological Seminary holds about 40,000 manuscripts or fragments from the Cairo genizah. An additional 11,000 fragments are at the John Rylands University Library at the University of Manchester, purchased from the estate of Dr. Moses Gaster in 1954. Smaller portions are preserved in other universities around the world.

"The Cairo Genizah, mostly discovered late in the nineteenth century but still resurfacing in our own day, is a collection of over 200,000 fragmentary Jewish texts (which may well equal three times that number of folios). Many of these were stored in the loft of the ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat medieval Cairo, to the south-west of the modern city) between the 11th and 19th centuries. A genizah is a storage room where copies of respected texts with scribal errors or physical damaged, or unusable documents, are kept until they can be ritually buried. The dark, sealed, room in the arid Egyptian climate contributed to the preservation of the documents, the earliest of which may go back to the eighth and ninth centuries.

"These manuscripts outline a 1,000-year continuum of Middle-Eastern history and comprise the largest and most diverse collection of medieval manuscripts in the world. The Genizah can be described as one of the greatest Jewish treasures ever found.

"Early visitors to the Genizah were wary of examining its contents because of the local superstition that foretold disaster for anyone who might remove any of its contents. This, too, contributed to the preservation of the documents.

"In the second half of the 19th century some texts were sold by synagogue officials to dealers, scholars and visitors. Famous libraries in St. Petersburg, Paris, London, Oxford, Cambridge and Philadelphia acquired major collections.

"In the early 1890's Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer, a Torah scholar, collector and researcher, living in Jerusalem, began publishing manuscripts that he had purchased from the Cairo Genizah with his identifications and explanations – among them rare and important texts. He also sold some of these manuscripts to collectors in order to finance the purchase of additional ones. To some extent, he was one of the first to recognize the treasure trove that was the Cairo Genizah."

These quotations were from the website of the Friedberg Genizah Project, an effort underway in Jerusalem to digitize and preserve all surviving portions of the Cairo Genizah from around the world.

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In December 2013 BBC News announced that historic rivals Oxford and Cambridge Universities had jointly raised £1.2m to purchase the Lewis-Gibson Genizah collection, containing about 1,700 documents and fragments, that twin-sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson had acquired in Cairo and donated to Westminster College, Cambridge.