This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The European Geniza*

The world of classical Jewish studies, because of its reliance on the information preserved in rare manuscripts, often veers between extremes of optimism and disappointment: On the one hand, scholars are appreciative of the valuable records that have survived the ravages of history; but at the same time, they are profoundly distressed to consider the vast numbers of manuscripts have fallen victim to centuries of forced exiles, book-burnings and neglect, leaving us only a miniscule remnant of the total numbers of literary works that existed in previous ages.

And yet, there always glimmers a flickering hope that, just around the next corner, another vast reservoir of Hebrew manuscripts is about to be discovered.

The world of academic Judaic scholarship is currently in the midst of a most exciting new discovery, which has been designated the "European Geniza," and whose breathtaking dimensions are only beginning to be appreciated.

The roots of this discovery go back about twenty years, when some scholars became sensitive to the fact that the stiff bindings used to house older books and documents were often made of recycled materials, especially discarded parchments. In many cases, if one cut open the book covers, one would find that the cardboard-like material really consisted of unbound pages from older Hebrew tomes.

People in the know began making the rounds of antiquarian book dealers in order to purchase volumes upon which they could conduct their searches, but only on rare occasions did they come up with impressive discoveries. Understandably, the major European institutional libraries, which were the most promising source of suitable bindings, were not particularly willing to allow scholars to slash through their most valuable tomes.

The breakthrough came when it was found that a large proportion of Hebrew pages had been utilized for wrapping notarial files in Italian archives of all kinds: governmental, private and ecclesiastical. Once the researchers knew where to focus their efforts, they could undertake systematic searches.

Readers familiar with the standard meaning of the Jewish genizah, a receptacle (usually housed in a synagogue) for discarded holy books, will recognize that the archives we are describing do not strictly fit that definition. Nevertheless, the epithet has caught on owing to the similarities with the renowned Cairo Geniza, whose literary and documentary treasures have so revolutionized the study of Judaism and Mediterranean culture.

The results of the searches through the Italian Geniza, though still in their initial stages, have exceeded the most optimistic projections.

Thousands of pages have been discovered so far in archives throughout Italy. Unlike the better-known finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Cairo Geniza, which consist largely of minute fragments that have to be reassembled like puzzles, most of the Italian documents are complete pages that have been extracted from their original bound volumes. They cover a representative sampling of Jewish literary genres, including the Bible and its commentaries, Talmudic and halakhic works, liturgy, science, philosophy and other subjects.

Among the more interesting finds is a tenth-century page of the Tosefta, which is the oldest known text of this third-century rabbinic work. There are also pages from the complete Torah commentary of Rabbi Joseph Kara, a student and colleague of Rashi who espoused the literal interpretation of the Bible. Prior to its discovery, the scholarly consensus was that Kara had not composed a complete, sequential commentary to the Torah.

The Italian Geniza also contains samples of the first Hebrew printed works. Of particular value are the rare pages of titles that issued from the short-lived Spanish presses in 1490 and 1491, on the eve of the Expulsion.

Because Italy was always at the crossroads of Jewish migration and trade routes, the manuscripts are of diverse provenance: Though most are Ashkenazic (possibly, because the Ashkenazic scribes traditionally wrote their manuscripts on more rugged parchments), Sepharadic, Byzantine and Oriental texts are also to be found.

How did so many Hebrew manuscripts make their way to the binderies? It is of course tempting to blame it on the confiscations by the Church and the Inquisition. Though these may have contributed to the stock of cheap Hebrew parchments, they do not seem to have been the only factor at work here. In the days before the invention of pulp paper, writing materials could be prohibitively expensive, and used paper and parchment in all languages was likely to be recycled.

A more consequential factor was the spread of printing. As the modern, mechanically printed works became more fashionable, the perceived value of the old hand-copied books diminished significantly, and many people could not be bothered to hold on to them.

Now that the Italian discoveries have demonstrated the importance of searching through archival bindings, similar quests are under way in other European countries. The most recent bonanzas have been in Spain, especially in Gerona, which was home to illustrious Jewish scholars like Nahmanides. Already, thousands of paper pages have come to light in the book-bindings of the city’s Historical Archive. These pages appear to have entered their recycling process centuries earlier than the Italian ones, close to the most glorious days of Spanish Jewry. In Spain, the Hebrew pages were not used as wrappers, but rather they were glued together to make stiff book bindings, a use for which paper, rather than parchment, was fully adequate. For this reason, the documents that were preserved are much more variegated than in Italy. Not only formal literary works were preserved there, but also personal letters, commercial ledgers and other ephemera that give us intimate glimpses of day-to-day life in medieval society.

At the forefront of this research is the Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, one of the chief research arms of the Jewish National and University Library (JNUL) in Jerusalem. The Institute coordinates the efforts of local European researchers, who send photographs of their texts to Jerusalem for identification.

Unfortunately, the costs involved in pursuing this project threaten to impose limits on its continuation. For all their willingness to cooperate, the various European towns and institutions that house the manuscript are not eager to foot the bill for hiring trained researchers to mutilate their archives; and the Israeli scholarly community does not possess the resources required to get the job done. The successful outcome of the project will depend on the generosity of supporters from abroad.

If the riches of the European Geniza can be successfully brought to light, they will undoubtedly make an immeasurable contribution to our knowledge of the Jewish past.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Ask Now of the Days that Are PastAsk Now of the Days that Are Past


University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, March 2 2000, pp. 8-9.

  • Bibliography:
    • Perani, Mauro, ed. Fragments from the "Italian Geniza": an Exhibition. Bologna: Italian Ministry of Cultural Resources and the Jewish National and University Library, 1999.
    • Perani, Mauro. Frammenti di Manoscritti e libri ebraici a Nonantola, Archivo Storico Nonantolano. Nonantola: Comune di Nonantola, 1992.
    • Cremona, Archivo di Stato di. Manuscritti e Frammenti Ebraici nell'Archivo di Stato di Cremona, Centro Richerche e Studi delle Testimonianze Medievali e Moderne del Guidaismo Italiani. Rome: La Fenice Edizioni, 1995.
    • David, Abraham, and Joseph Tabory, eds. The Italian Geniza: Proceedings of the Conference Held under the Auspices of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the Jewish National and University Library. Jerusalem: Orhot Press, 1998.