While attending an American Jewish studies conference two years ago, Toronto businessman Albert Dov Friedberg was struck by a once-in-a-century idea.
The 53-year-old Canadian commodities trader was listening to a lecture about the Cairo genizah: a priceless collection of medieval Mediterranean Jewish prayers, poetry, legal texts and Talmudic commentaries. It is considered among the most important sources of Jewish history and literature ever found, with the possible exception of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Nearly a quarter of a million pages or fragments were discovered more than 100 years ago in the attic of an 11th century Egyptian synagogue, including the oldest texts of Talmud ever found.
But Friedberg heard that many of these treasures are still, for all practical purposes, hidden away, unavailable to scholars and the public.
"It amazed me that so much material had not been published," Friedberg, a collector of rare Judaica and founder of the Friedberg Mercantile Group in Toronto, told The Jewish Week Monday.
"I conceived the idea that since it’s such an enormous intellectual legacy, we shouldn’t ignore it. I thought maybe we should find a way to get it published."
Now, for the first time, a multimillion-dollar international project has been launched to finally help unearth the priceless nuggets buried among the millennium-old documents.
"The Cairo genizah project will be the last great global Jewish history project of the 20th century," said New York University Judaic Studies Professor Lawrence Schiffman.
Schiffman is one of three New York-area scholars approached by Friedberg to figure out how to complete the project. Friedberg also contacted Professors Yaakov Elman of Yeshiva University and Neil Danzig of the Jewish Theological Seminary, which holds 30,000 fragments, the second largest genizah collection in the world.
"I said to them, ‘Guys, let’s form a committee here and see if we can do something,’ " Friedberg recalled.
From that suggestion was born The Friedberg Genizah Project, a worldwide enterprise that will assemble, catalog and publish tens of thousands of genizah fragments, and make them available on computer and in books. The seven-year project , with an estimated $5 million grant from Friedberg’s Buckingham Foundation, is expected to involve dozens of researchers in three countries.
"What we are going to do is round out and complete our picture of the nature of virtually every single aspect of Jewish history, literature, religion, philosophy and daily life during the period that would generally be called the early Middle Ages," said Schiffman, who is co-director, along with Rabbis Danzig and Elman. The project, which is being administered through New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, quietly began operating in June.
The documents from the genizah, "storing place" in Hebrew, uncovers the history of Jews in Egypt and Israel from the time of the birth of Islam through the Crusades.
They were discovered in the inaccessible attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in the Egyptian city of Fostat, now known as Old Cairo. Some genizah parchments are 1,300 years old and contain the oldest texts of Talmud ever found.Other manuscripts shed light on the competing religious approaches of the Palestinian Jews, the Babylonian Jews and the sectarian Karaites. The collection also contains untold pieces of important secular and legal documents from the Middle Ages in a variety of languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Persian, Judeo-Arabic and even the earliest known samples of Yiddish.
Many important finds have been made public, such as a signed letter from the legendary 12th century sage Maimonides. The published material already has provided invaluable information on Jewish life in the Mediterranean from the enigmatic ninth through 14th centuries, of which little history was previously known. But nearly half of the texts have never been studied, catalogued or published.
One of the main reasons for the failure is that the Cairo genizah has been picked apart. Tens of thousands of fragments are scattered throughout a dozen libraries worldwide, including Russia, England, Israel and the United States. Scholars have refused to cooperate during most of this century and funding has been scarce.
The "lost" material is expected to include fragments of arcane Jewish magical love potions, unknown Jewish poetry, never-seen biblical commentaries and the earliest versions of the Talmud and Passover Haggadah.
The directors immediately began facing the project’s biggest obstacle: the lack of coordination of genizah research worldwide. For years, genizah researchers have been working largely in isolation. And without a standardized catalog, scholars are forced to constantly look at the same material. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces have been scattered across the city. While each piece may be scrutinized individually, no one can study the complete picture.
To address the problem, project directors have begun forming cooperative partnerships with universities already engaged in independent genizah research, such as Cambridge University in England, which owns the world’s largest collection of manuscripts and fragments.
This approach will create a global network of data and give the project access to the most experienced academics and resources. It also helps build on existing research.
"What we are going to do is produce a computer-driven catalog, and even look into the possibility of digitized photos," said Rabbi Danzig, a Talmud professor. "The idea is we could join several fragments" that had never been matched.
"We’re trying to find out what is really being done scholarship-wise around the world and make it known to everyone," said Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Elman, also a Talmud professor. He will lead a group of YU students in analyzing fragments of commentaries on the Babylonian Talmud from a time when it had not yet eclipsed its Jerusalem counterpart.
"One of the goals of the project is to bring the rabbinic material like Talmud commentaries and responsa and midrashim [rabbinic commentary] to a broader learned audience," said Rabbi Elman. He believes the great significance of the genizah is how it demonstrates the relatively accurate transmission of Jewish sacred texts over the course of the last millennium.
Other research groups will review and publish genizah materials dealing with Bible, Jewish thought, liturgy and secular materials, such as personal letters and court records.
The first research projects began last month. Hebrew University is studying midrashic literature. Cambridge will complete its cataloging of biblical fragments. Princeton University will study legal texts, and Israel’s Makhon Ben Zvi will transcribe rare Judeo-Arabic halachic (Jewish legal) works.
The project hopes to fund a major research unit at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem to assemble a database of published and unpublished fragments, as well as lists of collections that have not been cataloged and identified. Also to be catalogued for the first time are genizah materials that had been locked away in the Soviet Union before the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Project directors hope to find more fascinating materials from the genizah, which has so far yielded such treasures as:
# A signed personal letter from 12th century sage Maimonides.
# Text from the earliest Talmud on record, found on a scroll believed to date from before the eighth century.
# One of the earliest Passover Hagaddahs, which asks only Two Questions, not four.
# Numerous previously unknown rabbinic responsa from the Gaeonic Period ( eighth to 11th centuries.)
# The earliest example of Jewish musical notations on the Torah.
# A letter from a harried 11th century Jewish trader telling his wife to stop complaining because he is on the road too much.
"We hope to find a lot of new rabbinic texts, and new commentaries on the Bible," said Schiffman.
He also hopes that a full version of Maimonides’ own manuscript of his classic commentary "Mishna Torah" can be assembled from newly identified fragments.
Schiffman says one of the most exciting new finds is a "new" midrash, or commentary, on the Torah’s Book of Deuteronomy. Other texts reveal the development of the vowel system for reading the Torah. Evidence includes several competing formulas not known before.
Also expected are more fragments of magical texts and amulets, aphrodisiac poems and other incantations that were "part of popular Jewish life despite the rabbinical authorities being against it."
The project also hopes to convince owners of private genizah collections to come forward and join the effort.
"That’s an area we have to start working on," Schiffman said. "We have to begin to try and get a sense of where the material may be. There’s no list of what’s missing, but you have to figure some private collectors own things."
Friedberg called the launch of his idea "very exciting."
"This and the Dead Sea Scrolls are the two major ancient records that we have," he said. "All you need is one dreamer and many people who have the capability and ability to organize it."