Tuesday, December 10, 2019

An Egyptian Treasure Trove

The 12th of Kislev marks the 104th anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Solomon Schechter, who died on November 19, 1915 in New York City. Born in 1847 in Moldavia to a family of Chabad followers, Rabbi Schechter was even named for Chabad’s first leader, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. He studied under the renowned Rabbi Shaul Yosef Nathanson of Lemberg, and later, enrolled in the Rabbinical College in Vienna. In 1882 he began his studies at the University of Berlin, Germany, and in 1890, he was invited to join the Talmudic and Rabbinics faculty of Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. Eventually, Rabbi Schechter was recruited by the nascent American Conservative movement, and in 1902, he was appointed the second president of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City, and founded the United Synagogue of America, which is now known as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Among Rabbi Schechter’s professional accomplishments, the pinnacle was likely his work at the Cairo Genizah. A genizah, which means hidden storage in Hebrew, was the place, usually in a local synagogue, where ritual items that could not be disposed in the trash, would be stored. The Ezra Synagogue in Fostat (old Cairo), which was built in 882 CE, possessed a genizah that contained centuries worth of old and worn religious documents and manuscripts. Local superstition cautioned all not to enter the genizah, lest tragedy befall them if they were to touch the holy pages (similar to the Talmudic stories of individuals who try to identify the Holy Ark under the Temple Mount – see T.B. Yoma 53b). In 1896, two Christians brought Rabbi Schechter two leaves from the Cairo Genizah of the book “Ben Sira,” which is a component of the Apocrypha literature. No known Hebrew version of the book, which was included in the Christian cannon, was known to exist, as it was translated into Greek. Rabbi Schechter led an expedition to the Genizah, where he spent several months as a forensic detective in addition to his moniker as a scholar. The sealed, dry room proved effective to preserve the centuries-old documents.

Rabbi Schechter brought thousands of pages from the Genizah back to Cambridge University. Rabbi Shechter identified over 200 poems by Yehuda Halevi that were previously unknown and original manuscripts written by Maimonides (who lived in Fostat). Additionally, during Maimonides’ time, there was a proliferation of Karaites in the Cairo Jewish community. Rabbi Schechter’s research at the Genizah yielded abundant material and history about the Karaitic movement. The largest collection of materials from the Cairo Genizah can be found at Cambridge, but there are also exhibits from the Genizah in London, Oxford, Paris, Frankurt, Vienna, Budapest, Leningrad and Philadelphia.

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