By Irene Wanner
Seven Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 in a cave above the ancient desert outpost of Qumran, on the Dead Sea’s West Bank. By 1956, more than 900 documents dating from 150 BCE to 70 CE had been found in 11 caves. Soon world famous, these copies of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts became a source of international contention. They were kept inaccessible for many years, then moved to the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem after the 1967 Six-Day War, and are now available for study there and digitally.
By contrast, the world’s largest trove of 10th- to 13th-century documents from the Cairo genizah (storage room) of Ben Ezra Synagogue number in the hundreds of thousands. Until now, they attracted mainly scholarly attention. But as Seattle-area Rabbi Mark Glickman observes in his fascinating new book, “Sacred Treasure — The Cairo Genizah: The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 255 pp., $24.99), the potential knowledge in so many medieval texts is cultural wealth beyond compare. Anyone who loves reading mysteries and travel with a dash of archaeology and ancient history will find Glickman’s tale both entertaining and educational.
Unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, he explains, the books, laws, letters, music and manuscripts in Egypt were never secret. They were all intentionally kept because written or printed words containing Hebrew are considered sacred and Jewish law forbids their destruction. Sometimes damaged or outdated items were buried in a Jewish cemetery. But the other, more convenient option, Glickman explains, was “to designate a room, usually an attic or a cellar in the synagogue, as a genizah.” Cairo locals had always known Ben Ezra Synagogue’s genizah was full of old papers, but they were “largely ignored.”
Ignored, that is, until the 18th and 19th centuries, when Western interest in “things Oriental” came into vogue. Cairo’s genizah prompted first a trickle, then a flood of documents to collectors and libraries worldwide. Cambridge University, for example, now holds 198,000 documents, and New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary 30,398, with a global total of at least 291,000 having been removed.
In engaging short segments, Glickman — who leads congregations in Woodinville and on Bainbridge Island — chronicles the adventures of travelers, dealers and scholars, crafting a tale of archaeological intrigue and academic competition. Most famous is Solomon Schechter, a Cambridge professor and rabbi who examined overwhelming stacks in the insect- infested, dark genizah in 1897. He found business and court records, spiritual texts, fragments of Talmud, poetry, Torah scrolls, magical incantations and more. Buying mostly manuscripts, he generally set aside printed matter, which also revealed much “of great significance” and left plenty for rivals from Oxford University and others later.
Of course, the race to publish started immediately, with countless books and articles printed since. Noteworthy among numerous jewels are the Damascus Document, which sets out beliefs of a Jewish breakaway sect; letters of the physician and rabbi Maimonides; and pages from the Book of Ben Sirah, wisdom literature similar to the biblical book of Proverbs.
Glickman and his son, Jacob, visited the genizah in 2010, finding it empty. But more items continue to come to light and many already known are being cataloged, conserved and digitized. Although the Dead Sea Scrolls are twice as old and far more famed, the “massive, messy heap” of Cairo genizah documents reveals an amazing, emerging history. “Its every document,” Glickman writes, brings “a bit of immortality to the people and thoughts it preserved.”
Former Seattleite Irene Wanner now lives and writes in New Mexico