Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. By Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole. New York: Schocken Books, 2011. 283 pp. $26.95. [1]


In the newest addition to the Nextbook series, Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole have written a remarkably literary history of the vast, but scattered, manuscript fragments that make up the Cairo Geniza.  They begin their story with the discovery of a page of the lost Hebrew text of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) at the end of the 19th century in Cambridge, England, and close with the discovery of yet another page of that special text at the beginning of the 21st century in Geneva, Switzerland. In between, the book moves at a breathless pace as the authors recount the race to acquire the Geniza fragments, then to decipher and publish them, and finally to reconstruct medieval Mediterranean Jewish economic and social history from them.

The key to the success of this book is the lively yet meticulous portrayal of the key characters. The portrait of Solomon Schechter, the volatile, driven scholar of Judaica who worked tirelessly to acquire the largest part of the Geniza for the Cambridge University Library, is riveting. Schechter’s battle with the antisemitic undertones of higher biblical criticism turns out to have been as important as his restless curiosity about the contents of these fragments. The portrait of Neubauer, the representative of the Oxford University Library, who turns out to be the loser in the race for the Geniza is so clear that one can feel his misanthropy. The portrait of S. D. Goitein, the person who shifted the emphasis of Geniza scholarship from the famous texts in the large fragments to the life of the common person depicted in the smallest fragments is so well done that I, who had the privilege of knowing him, could recognize his turns of speech. The portrait of the German Jewish merchant, Schocken, shows his vision and drive, not only in his business but in his effort to preserve the Geniza fragments and gather scholars to study them. Lesser known scholars, too, are given their fair treatment in the cameos that make up the core of Sacred Trash. Even the smell and the dust are palpable.

Then there is the romance of it all: Ecclesiasticus had been known only in its Greek translation but the syntax of the Greek suggested a Hebrew original. And there it was! Page after scattered page, the whole suggesting a vibrant Hebrew culture in the post-biblical period. Yannai, an early medieval poet, had been hardly known at all. And there it was! A complete oeuvre that fills an entire book, once it was identified and assembled, suggesting a vibrant Hebrew culture in the post-talmudic period. Dunash ibn Labrat had been a little-known poet of the early Spanish period. Suddenly, there was a whole body of poetry that included a poem by his wife, who seems to have been better at it than he, and wholly secular poems about wine and love that had nothing to do with the well-known genre of liturgical poetry, and that suggested a precedent for the emerging secular Hebrew poetry of the 20th century. There were also new poems of Yehuda ha-Levi and Ibn Gabirol, previously well-known Hebrew poets.

Then there is the detective story: Fragments from heretics who seem to be linked to the Sadducees and the (later discovered) Dead Sea Scrolls. A heretic who asked really tough questions about the origin and truth of the biblical narrative, suggesting some of the skepticism about the truth of the Bible in the 20th century. And the Karaites, a Jewish group that accepted the Bible but not the rabbinic oral tradition of interpretation. Karaites, for instance, had a different ritual calendar, different rules for observing the Shabbat, and different prescriptions concerning the mixing of meat and milk. And yet, Karaites and Rabbanites (as rabbinic Jews were known) lived together, with their synagogues in close proximity and their business and social relations intertwined. Karaites and Rabbanites even “intermarried.” So, how did one manage a household in which there were two sets of rules for keeping kosher, and two sets of rules for keeping the Sabbath and holidays? All this is in the Geniza.

How much did a specific quantity of cotton cost? Which spices were available? What was a living wage in 13th century Fustat (old Cairo)? How were international money transfers made? What was the structure of the community? The place of teachers? The place of women? Who married whom? What medicines did a doctor have in his kit? Putting together the pieces of the puzzle by finding which fragments belong to which was the first step. Reconstructing the history of everyday life was the next step.

The data is endless, and Hoffmann and Cole devote a good part of their last chapter to the topics they did not cover. What was regarded as trash by the Cairo community, and even by some modern authorities, became the object of sustained research by scholars. Over 100 years after the discovery of the Cairo Geniza, scholars are still pursuing this search of the trash of the ages to learn about the depth and breadth of the life of people who lived seven centuries ago.

David R. Blumenthal, Emory University

[1] Shofar 30:4 (Summer 2012) 200-01.