New York Scholars to Lead International Collaboration On the Cairo Genizah Materials, One of the Great Unfinished Projects of Jewish Scholarship For nearly a millenium, hundreds of thousands of pages of important Jewish history lay ignored, unknown and neglected in an attic in Cairo, and then later in libraries around the world. As a result of a major new international scholarly projected funded by a Toronto philanthropist, these texts will rejoin the stream of Jewish and world history.

A trio of New York area scholars of Judaism have been selected to lead an intense, multi-million dollar global research collaboration on the materials from the Cairo Genizah, a repository of priceless medieval Hebrew and Judaic manuscripts. The project, which is ultimately expected to involve dozens of researchers in three countries over seven years, is being led by Professor Lawrence Schiffman of New York University, Professor Neil Danzig of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and Professor Yaakov Elman of Yeshiva University.

The project will be administered through the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU.

The materials from the Cairo Genizah are among the most important in Jewish scholarship. The first Dead Sea Scroll and critical works on Jewish law, liturgy, language, as well as historical documents, are among the 250,000 manuscripts and fragments scattered in libraries and private collections throughout the world. The enterprise, to be called the Friedberg Genizah Project, will organize and coordinate transcription and dissemination of the Genizah material, some half of which has never been subjected to formal scholarly review or published. Equally important is the Project’s coordinate goal of creating a comprehensive catalog of the entire collection in order to ease access to these texts for all those interested in them. These manuscripts include many previously unknown legal and philosophical works and have allowed scholars to reconstruct whole chapters of Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultural and intellectual history.

The Friedberg Genizah Project is being funded by a gift from the Buckingham Foundation and Albert D. Friedberg of Toronto, Canada. Mr. Friedberg, a collector of rare Hebraica, is the founder of the Friedberg Mercantile Group in Toronto. He holds degrees from Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University.

The three directors of the program will select scholars to undertake the transcription of these texts, cataloging and other activities.

Prof. Schiffman of NYU said, “Given the importance of the material, its unique character, and its value to scholarship, in some ways it is amazing that a comprehensive project to organize and study it has not been undertaken before. But this project is an enormous task; it will involve creating a uniform catalogue of all the known existing collections of Cairo Genizah material and publishing in both electronic and book formats a significant part of the corpus of material in order to make it available to the broad academic audience in a coordinated, usable manner.”

Prof. Danzig of the Jewish Theological Seminary said, “The Cairo Genizah is one of the most important sources of Jewish history and literature that has ever been discovered. It demonstrates the depth and scope of Jewish cultural and business activities around the Mediterranean basin during the Middle Ages. Today’s scholars owe a great debt to those who pored over this material for a century. For a number of reasons, they did not manage to come within sight of completing the task that history set them. Now, with the help of Mr. Friedberg, we expect to complete their efforts.”

Prof. Elman of Yeshiva University said, “It was perhaps providential that it is only now that we are embarking on a unified cataloguing and transcription of the remaining texts, when for the first time in more than seventy years western scholars now have access to the thousands of Genizah items that held in the former Soviet Union. Mr. Friedberg’s help and encouragement has enabled us to enlist the cooperation of an international group of scholars and students in completing the task of making this huge corpus of heterogeneous material available to the wider community of scholars.”

The Cairo Genizah was a storage chamber at the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Fostat (Old Cairo) in which books and other manuscript materials (including letters and the like) were placed after they were deemed to have outlived their usefulness. Most of the material is from the 11th - 13th centuries. The majority of the fragments are written in Hebrew (though classical rabbinical texts are also written in Aramaic, or a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic) and Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew characters). The Genizah materials also include writings in Ladino, Arabic, Persian and Greek.

The materials first came to light in the mid-1890’s. An expedition led by Dr. Solomon Schechter (who later went on to become president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York) with the support of Dr. Charles Taylor of Cambridge University brought the bulk of the collection to Cambridge in 1896, where it remains today. Other important collections are held by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and by libraries in St. Petersburg, London, Oxford, Manchester, Paris and elsewhere.

The materials’ contributions to modern scholarship are vast. They include:

  • Increasing understanding of the development of Jewish law during the 7th-11th centuries
  • Adding knowledge of famous and important scholars, such as Maimonides
  • Providing rich information on Medieval Jewish life in the Near East
  • Permitting improved editing, scholarship and understanding of important Hebrew texts, such as the Mishnah, the Talmud and midrashim, that had previously been known only through later versions
  • Preserving Jewish poetry, language, grammar and liturgy that would otherwise have been lost

At present, the leadership of the Project envisions creating groups of scholars to work on publishing material in the following areas:

  • Rabbinic Literature
  • Biblical Literature
  • Jewish Thought
  • Liturgical Texts
  • Documentary Material
  • And Other Materials

The Project has already contacted several institutions currently working on Genizah material to form cooperative partnerships. It has or will soon enter into agreements with The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit of the Cambridge University Library, The Ben-Zvi Institute (Jerusalem), The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, The Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

An advisory board for the Project has been established. Its members include Professor S.C. Reif, Taylor Schechter Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University; Professor M. Ben-Sasson, rector of Hebrew University in Jerusalem; Professor H. Ben-Shammai, director of the Ben-Zvi Institute; Professor M.A. Freidman of Tel-Aviv University; and Professor M. Kahana of The Hebrew University.

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