Entering into the World of the Cairo Genizah

Published June 25, 2021 by Alexander Woolf

With some of the oldest Genizah fragments dating all the way back to the 5th century, 'The Cairo Genizah' is the world's largest collection of over 350,000 medieval Jewish manuscripts. They were examined by Cambridge Scholar Dr Solomon Schechter in 1896 and are currently situated in Cambridge. A genizah is a Jewish place of storing and originates from the Hebrew phrase 'bet genizah' which is used to signify a house of storing, deriving from the verbal-noun 'genizah', originally meaning the act of storing something away. A genizah usually contains documents which are considered sacred and therefore taboo for them to be discarded as they contain God's name. Judaism prohibits the erasing or defacing of the name of God as names are, in Jewish tradition, considered to convey the essence and nature of the thing named. Although the collection in whole contains a multitude of different manuscripts, including legal documents and liturgical texts, the imagery of the Cairo Genizah exhibition at the Woolf Institute, presents the pieces which are the most artistically informative or those documents which hold meaningful ornamentation.

The Commemorate Cemetery for example (pictured above) is a miniature illustrated manuscript dated from the 18th century and is one of my preferred pieces. Although torn, it is one of the more complete documents in the collection and still maintains much of the bold and vibrant colours which display the tombstones in semi-circular or triangular form. Each tombstone has the name of a memorable Jewish scholar, rabbi or philosopher inscribed on the front in black ink and is a piece which recognises and commemorates the intellectual brilliance of those who participated in the Kabbalistic tradition. The painting conveys the appreciation and respect the Jewish community had for the dead as it is a piece which has clear, symmetrical and artistical properties which implies substantial care the artist took in creating the piece.

For me, some of the most extraordinary pieces in the collection are the Ketubot. A ketubah is a Jewish marital contract that has been a part of Jewish weddings for thousands of years. The contract traditionally contains a mohar (a financial statement) from the groom's family to the bride's family in compensation for the loss of their daughter and is payable to the wife in the event of a divorce. In addition to this, it also remains as a legal document to certify the marriage. The word originates from the Hebrew root 'katav' which means to write and in its plural is phrased as 'ketubot' with the oldest found ketubah originating from around 440 B.C.E. The discovery of the Ketubot unveiled much information about the marital tradition of the ancient Jewish culture. For example, we have now learnt that polygamy was possible for thousands of years, however it was later banned by the German scholar Rabbi Gershom in the 11th century. The most fascinating thing about the Ketubot in the collection is the magnificent artistic designs which surround the contract. For example, a ketubah dated 1816 and named the 'Ketubah with birds' has the contract encased in an arch-like structure, emblazoned with tulips, with two smaller exotic birds resting on the top. Another of the Ketubah is surrounded by the coloured zodiac signs, which are considered one of the more popular motifs.

Alex is a student at Tonbridge School in Kent, he is currently taking part in a week-long internship at the Woolf institute. He is studying Religious studies, Latin and English for A level and is hoping to go on to study Law at university.

Images reproduced with kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library

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