With the skill of historians and the style of novelists, Hoffman and Cole tell the remarkable story of the medieval document trove that came to light in the 1890s and has kept scholars busy for over a century.
Geniza are writings with Hebrew letters on them – sometimes not in the Hebrew language – which traditional Jews preserved because of the sacredness of the letters. The actual content could be religious, literary, commercial, legal, or personal. The trove found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat near Cairo contains 331,351 of such pieces of writing dating from as early as 870 A.D. and as late as a millennium later.
The authors approach their topic by alternating between the modern scholars and the Geniza's revelations. Solomon Schechter, Jefim Hayyim Schirmann, Ezra Fleischer, and S.D. Goitein unearthed and studied the materials, while the "sacred trash" brought such topics as the Ben Sira apocrypha, the Karaites, Andalusian poetry, and daily life in medieval Egypt to life. They trace the evolution of focus on the Geniza from Biblical criticism to poetry to history.
Hundreds of specialists, deploying a great array of linguistic and disciplinary skills, now aided by the magnificent Friedberg Genizah Project to inventory and digitize the entire collection, have studied this extraordinary collection of materials, chipping away at the immense volume, contributing brick by brick to the building of a unique scholarly edifice. There is probably no other learned pursuit so detailed, unexpected, ironic, singular, and humane as this one. In the words of Fleischer, "The recovery of the Geniza has meant … the spectacular completion of a breathtaking landscape, the perfect, harmonious, and inevitable unity of which all of a sudden seems revealed."
I could not put down this beautiful book and commend it to everyone.
May 27, 2013 update: An article in the New York Times, "Computer Network Piecing Together a Jigsaw of Jewish Lore," explains how the Friedberg computer project is, at a rate of 4.5 trillion calculations per second, trying to match up more than 320,000 geniza document fragments. "We see a document in Cambridge, England, and another in St. Petersburg, Russia, and we think if the handwriting matches," says Mark R. Cohen of Princeton University, explaining the pre- computer method. The new method is quite different:
First there was a computerized inventory of 301,000 fragments, some as small as an inch. Next came 450,000 high-quality photographs, on blue backgrounds to highlight visual cues, and a Web site where researchers can browse, compare, and consult thousands of bibliographic citations of published material.
The latest experiment involves more than 100 linked computers located in a basement room at Tel Aviv University here, cooled by standup fans. They are analyzing 500 visual cues for each of 157,514 fragments, to check a total of 12,405,251,341 possible pairings. The process began May 16 and should be done around June 25, according to an estimate on the project's Web site.
Not only that, but the computerization allows for many new possibilities:
Another developing technology is a "jigsaw puzzle" feature, with touch-screen technology that lets users enlarge, turn and skew fragments to see if they fit together. Professor Choueka, who was born in Cairo in 1936, imagines that someday soon such screens will be available alongside every genizah collection. And why not a genizah-jigsaw app for smartphones?
"The thing it really makes possible is people from all walks of life, in academia and out, to look at unpublished material," said Ben Outhwaite, head of the Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University, home to 60 percent of the fragments. "No longer are we going to see a few great scholarly names hoarding particular parts of the genizah and have to wait 20 years for their definitive publication. Now everyone can dive in."
Then there is a mention of some geniza contents:
What they will find goes far beyond Judaica. Mr. Outhwaite's team, for example, has uncovered a prenuptial agreement in which Faiza bat Solomon made her fiancé, Tobias nicknamed "Son of a Buffoon" promise to "abandon foolishness and idiocy," and "not associate with corrupt men," or face a hefty penalty of 10 gold dinars. Another document spells out a legal agreement between Sitt I-Nasab and her husband, Solomon, preventing his mother and sisters from entering his wife's quarters or making "any request of her at all, not even a match."
"The computer is set to complete its work on June 25," reports the Times of Israel, "marking perhaps the most dramatic leap forward in geniza scholarship in a century." Already, the computer has a success to its name:
The efficacy of the software was demonstrated earlier this year when one researcher, Stefan Reif of Cambridge, was looking for a match for a vellum fragment of an 11th-century Passover Haggada that had been brought to the British university in 1897. The Israeli geniza project was putting the finishing touches on its computer program. Researchers ran the image through the new software and immediately found a match: A sister fragment from the same Haggada was in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
For more details – and to see the digitalized documents, go to genizah.org.