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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Gennesaret, Lake of
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The storeroom or depository in a synagogue; a cemetery in which worn-out and heretical or disgraced Hebrew books or papers are placed. A genizah serves therefore the twofold purpose of preserving good things from harm and bad things from harming. Shab. 115a directs that holy writings in other than the Hebrew and Greek languages require "genizah," that is, preservation. In Pes. 118b "bet genizah" = "treasury." In Pes. 56a Hezekiah hides ("ganaz") a medical work; in Shab. 115a R. Gamaliel orders that the Targum to Job should be hidden ("yigganez") under the "nidbak" (layer of stones). In Shab. 30b the sages sought to hide ("lignoz") as heretical the books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. The same thing occurs in Shab. 13b in regard to the Book of Ezekiel, and in Pes. 62 in regard to the Book of Genealogies.

In medieval times such Hebrew scraps and papers as were relegated to the genizah were known as "shemot" (names), because their sanctity and consequent claim to preservation were held to depend on their containing the "names" of God. In addition to papers, articles connected with the ritual, such as ẓiẓit, lulabim, and sprigs of myrtle, are similarly stored (comp. Shab. 63; Yoma 16, as to the stones of the altar).

The Cairo Genizah.

The discovery by Solomon Schechter, on May 13, 1896, of a fragment of the original Hebrew of Ecclesiasticus drew so much attention to the genizah whence it came that the term "genizah" is now applied almost exclusively to the hoard at the old synagogue of Fostat near Cairo. This was a church dedicated to St. Michael until the conquest of Egypt by Chosroes in 616, when it became a synagogue. To Benjamin of Tudela, in the twelfth century, it appeared "very ancient." Simon van Geldern (c. 1750), Heine's ancestor, tells in his diary how much impressed he was by the wealth of possibility that lay hidden amid the rubbish of the genizot there. In 1864 Jacob Safir visited it, and his "Eben Sappir" describes how he spent two days ferreting among the ancient books and leaves till the dust and ashes sickened him of the task; but "who knows what may yet be beneath?" In 1888 E. N. Adler visited the synagogue, but did not succeed in seeing more than a recess in the upper part of the right wall containing the scroll of Ezra and a few other ancient manuscripts. He was informed that all shemot were buried in the Jewish cemetery at Basatin. Shortly afterward the synagogue was repaired by the Cairene community, and during its renovation the old receptacle seems to have been rediscovered. It is a secret chamber at the back of the east end, and is approached from the farthest extremity of the gallery by climbing a ladder and entering through a hole in the wall.

Taylor-Schechter Collection.

When Sayce visited the synagogue many of the contents of the genizah had been thrown out and buried in the ground, through a part of which a road was subsequently cut. This would account for the evident exposure to dampness which some of the oldest fragments have undergone and for their earthy odor. Sayce acquired many fragments from the caretakers of the synagogue, which are now in the Bodleian Library. Other libraries and collectors, especially Archduke Rainer, made similar acquisitions. E. N. Adler revisited the synagogue on Jan. 3, 1896, under the escort of the chief rabbi, Rafaïl ben Shimon ha-Kohen, and was allowed to take away with him a sack containing all the parchment and paper fragments they had been able to gather in about four hours. Some of these turned out to be of exceptional interest, and were published shortly afterward. It was the identification of a Ben Sira text among the Bodleian fragments in May of that year which induced Schechter to proceed to Cairo in the autumn and bring back with him practically the entire written contents of the genizah. These now constitute the bulk of the Taylor-Schechter collection at the Cambridge University Library. About the same time Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson, two learned sisters, known by their discoveries in the Mount Sinai Monastery, visited Cairo, and returned to Cambridge, England, with a large number of fragments, which they placed at Professor Schechter's disposal for the purpose of examination. Visits to the genizah in October, 1898, April, 1901, and February, 1903, merely brought to light printed matter; but if this be found to include title-pages and colophons, some of it may prove to have bibliographical value. Cyrus Adler of Washington during a visit to Cairo in the year 1891 secured about forty pieces from a dealer; doubtless large quantities of fragments from the same genizah remain in the hands of dealers in Cairo, Jerusalem, and elsewhere; and are occasionally brought to Europe and to America and offered for sale. Among the various buyers from the dealers may be mentioned: Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson of Cambridge, Dr. Neubauer, the late Professor Kaufmann of Budapest, the trustees of the British Museum, Dr. Gaster, Professor Gottheil of Columbia University, Judge Sulzberger of Philadelphia, Mr. Amram, also of Philadelphia, and E. N. Adler.

Other Genizot.

Most ancient synagogues had genizot. That of Feodosia in the Crimea is an alcove on the ground floor at the back of the ark, approachable from the outside of the building by a hole so small as only to admit of the entrance of a very small boy. Search there proved fruitless, as it had been cleared a generation previously by Firkovitch. At Bokhara the genizah is in the roof, but disused copies of scrolls of the Law are walled up by stucco in arched alcoves surrounding the interior of the building. At Teheran it is in an underground cellar, so damp that papers turn to pulp in a few weeks; a ketubah or two were all that resulted from a search in 1896. In a secret chamber in the eaves of the roof of one of the chapels of the ancient synagogue at Aleppo (4th cent.?) is the genizah of that famous city. In 1898 this was as full of dust as the one at Cairo, but it is much less interesting and ancient. Its contents are periodically removed, and are taken solemnly to the Jewish cemetery. Their burial is locally supposed to induce a downfall of rain. At Rustchuk burials of "shemot" take place every ten years, when a sermon is delivered, followed by a banquet, and the right of burying each sack is sold as a "miẓwah"; one month later a stone is laid over the place of burial, and inscribed as the genizah of the year in question.

In Prague the genizah is also in the roof, over the historic banner which records the bravery of the Bohemian Jews. The genizah is protected from the designs of the desecrator or collector by a legend, devoutly believed, that it is under the special protection of a "golem."

Practise in the Orient.

In the Orient generally, shemot are from time to time deposited temporarily in some corner or cupboard of the synagogue, often below the ark or "almemar." When the collection grows too big, or when some special occasion arises, such as a drought, the papers are solemnly gathered up and carried off to the "bet ḥayyim" and buried there with some ceremony. With this custom is associated the far older practise of burying a great or good man with a "sefer" which has become "pasul" (unfit for use through illegibility or old age). In Morocco, in Algiers, in Turkey, and even in Egypt, such paper-interments continually occur, and not the least important part of the Taylor-Schechter collection has come from the graveyard.

It was reported (1898) that the genizah at Rosetta had been transported from the cemetery there and reburied at Alexandria by a pious Jew, the last of the community to leave the Delta city. The spade-work of a night succeeded in bringing to light some interesting material—an early "RIF," a Cretan ketubah, and part of a Naḥmanides printed in Portugal. The contents of all these genizot are of the most varied description, and some, indeed, of entrancing interest. Autographs of Saadia and Maimonides, of resh gola and nagid, of gaon and heretic, the last-mentioned sometimes recalcitrant and sometimes apologetic, are constantly to be met with. A vivid description of such contents is given by Schechter in his "Hoard of Hebrew Manuscripts"—an article contributed by him to the "Times" (London) of Aug. 3, 1897.

  • Kaufmann, Heine's Ahnensaal, Breslau, 1896;
  • idem, in Ha-Shiloaḥ, , 1897;
  • Jacob Saûr, Eben Sappir, Lyck, 1866;
  • E. N. Adler, Ginze Miẓrayim, Oxford, 1897;
  • idem, Ginze Paras u-Madai, Oxford, 1898;
  • Jew. Chron. Feb. 21, 1896;
  • Times, London, Aug. 3, 1897;
  • J. Q. R. 8:528 et passim;
  • E. Marcovitz, in Rev. des Ecoles de l'Alliance Israélite Universelle, No. 2, 1895 (description of the ceremonies on burying documents, etc., in the Rustchuk genizah).
S. S.
E. N. A.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Genizah'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​g/genizah.html. 1901.
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