The Cairo Genizah and Its Contribution to the Study of Midrash Aggadah
What is the Genizah?
A longstanding Jewish practice requires burying or storing castoff books and papers that either had God’s name on it or were religious/Jewish in subject matter. The Cairo Genizah contains a collection of hundreds of thousands of such Jewish texts – most of them fragments – that were stored away in the genizah (storeroom) of the ancient Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, medieval Cairo, (south-west of the modern city) which was built in the year 882. The dark, sealed, room in which the texts were kept, coupled with the dry Egyptian climate, helped to preserve the documents, the earliest of which may go back to the eighth and ninth centuries C.E. The local superstition that predicted disaster for anyone who removed its contents further contributed to its preservation.
What Was Found in the Cairo Genizah?
Unusually, the Jews in Cairo kept a rare standard of genizah, storing not only sacred texts, but actually every text written in Hebrew letters: Torah Scrolls and bills; Maimonides’ autographs and children’s notebooks, Yiddish letters sent to Ashkenazi merchants and Judeo-Arabic documents alongside Aramaic, Judeo-Persian, Ladino, and Latin texts; liturgical poetry and folk tales, and so forth.
Therefore, when the Cairo Genizah first came to public notice one hundred and twenty years ago, mainly through the efforts of Solomon Schechter, researchers from a range of disciplines gained access to a considerable collection of documents which shed new light on medieval Mediterranean society as a whole and, more specifically, Jewish history and culture from ancient to early modern times. Scholars were granted new insights into Jewish literature in the areas of Bible, piyyut, Talmud, midrash, halakha; philosophy; Semitic languages (Hebrew, Judaeo-Arabic, Aramaic); as well as the study of medicine, and trade.
Solomon Schechter was not the only Cairo Genizah explorer. Some other scholars and antiquarians gained access to the Cairo Genizah, leading to the establishment of many institutional and private collections all over the world.
What has been especially poignant about the Genizah and has captured the imagination of so many – both academics and laypersons alike – is that it serves as a very tangible conduit to the past. Indeed, the Cairo Genizah houses hundreds of works from a wide range of fields, much of which would have remained unknown were it not for its discovery. Aside from its contribution to our knowledge of Jewish writings, the Cairo Genizah offers a glimpse into the daily life of both the Jewish communities as well as the hosting non-Jewish societies.
Furthermore, this window into the past covers a vast geo-cultural area, thanks to the wide geographical expanse with which the community of Cairo was in contact — from India and Yemen to North West Europe, from Iran to North West Africa.
Contribution to the Study of Bible and Midrash
The findings that have been unearthed at the Genizah have had tremendous significance for the study of scripture. Aside from the rare instances in which the Genizah contains better readings of individual biblical compositions, it also preserves, among other things: dozens of previously lost biblical commentaries, Judeo-Arabic and Aramaic translations, dictionaries, lists of masorah (notes about proper pronunciation and other scribal annotations), as well as testimony to the triennial division of Torah readings that was still in practice during the time periods in question. The Genizah preserves crucial evidence for development of different systems of vocalization and te’amin.
History and Development of Midrash Aggadah
In the area of midrash aggada, the Cairo Genizah contains an abundance of material that sheds light on how the Torah was read and understood in the early middle ages. For more than half a millennium after the days of the last Amoraim, aggadic midrashim went through a proto-canonical period of creative transmission, yielding a variety of recensions and variation, many of which are not included in the standard editions of Midrashim. The Genizah preserves much of this midrashic material that was lost before the advent of printing, and thus was previously unknown.
Types of Midrashic Texts Found in the Cairo Genizah
The aggadic midrashim in the Genizah may be divided into three groups, from the familiar to the more innovative:
- At the core of the corpus are fragments of familiar midrashim such as Genesis Rabbah.
- The second layer is a group of lost midrashic texts, which fall into one of the known genres or rubrics of midrashim (mainly Tanchuma-type or Pesikta-type texts).
- The third category is comprised of previously unknown texts that do not conform to any of the familiar categories.
This last category is especially tantalizing, and raises many questions: Where do these midrashim come from? Do they belong to the same line of rabbinic creativity represented in previously known midrashim, or do they represent some lost strands of rabbinic Judaism? How far back can we trace the traditions found in such pieces? Do they preserve any different ideological, social or religious positions than those known to us from common midrashim? Do they preserve different attempts at biblical interpretation? It is midrashic texts of this last type that will be our focus in this series.
The Genizah Center in Haifa and Our Aggadah Project
The University of Haifa’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research of the Cairo Genizah was founded in 2012. The centre aspires to foster interdisciplinary approaches in the study of the Genizah, and to strengthen the public awareness of the precious treasure of Cairo. (The Genizah Center in Haifa thank the Grandchamp and Landy foundations for supporting the midrash project and the center’s vision of giving public voice to Genizah research.)
The first Genizah scholars faced the seemingly endless and often hopeless task of sorting through the thousands of fragments in the Genizah, usually in great disrepair. Today this task has been greatly eased. Thanks to recent achievements in the digitization, almost all of the documents of the Cairo Genizah have been digitized and are available online through the Friedberg Genizah project. The wide and easy availability of the material is likely to inspire considerable new research, thereby enriching multiple fields in Jewish studies.
One of the fields that gains considerably from genizah studies is the subject of aggadic midrashim, which is currently under investigation in the Haifa Center’s Midrash project. This project aims to publish and discuss the rich and lost world of midrash discovered at the Cairo Genizah and to describe the cultural role of midrash in the communities surrounding it.
Introducing the Essay Series on Aggadah in the Genizah
As part of its outreach activities, and based on a grant from Project TABS, the center has launched a series of articles for TheTorah.com based on original research into aggadic texts in the Genizah conducted as part of the Haifa Project on Aggadic Midrashim in the communities of the Genizah. In this series, we shall present two different kinds of Genizah fragments:
First, we uncover and reintroduce previously unknown midrashic texts, focusing on their assumptions and questions regarding biblical exegesis. In particular, we will highlight old, lost interpretations of biblical texts.
Second, we tell stories hidden in fragments from the Genizah that bridge between the historical record (from “the documentary Genizah”) and the literary record (from the “the literary Genizah”). Such texts allow us to learn about the place of aggadic midrash in history, its status, the way it was used, and sometimes, the way it contributed to the process of literary creativity.
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December 27, 2015
August 27, 2023
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Dr. Moshe Lavee is a lecturer in Talmud and Midrash and chair of the Inter-disciplinary Centre for Genizah Research in The University of Haifa. His research expertise is in Aggadic Midrash, especially in the communities of the Genizah. Moshe runs programs for young leadership and educators (“Mashavah Techila” and “Ruach Carmel”), working to foster relationships between the academic world and the larger community.
Dr. Shana Strauch-Schick is a post-doctoral fellow at The Center for Inter-disciplinary Research of the Cairo Genizah at Haifa University. She received a Ph.D. in Talmudic Literature from Revel at Yeshiva University where she also completed an M.A. in Bible. Her publications include, “The Middle Persian Context of the Bavli’s Beruriah Narratives,” Zion 79.3 [Hebrew].
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