1. The Cairo Geniza Is a Trove of Over 400,000 Fragments

As its name suggests (see next fact), the Cairo Geniza is a trove of 400,000 documents, most of them of sacred Jewish nature, which were found in historic Old Cairo (Fustat). Its breathtaking size has provided an unending source of discovery and research for more than 100 years, and the sheer diversity of its contents provides thousands of windows into the lives of Jews in Egypt and beyond.

Read: 14 Facts About the Jews of Egypt

2. Genizah Means “Treasure”

According to Jewish law, Torah texts (and any text containing G‑d’s name) may not be discarded. Known as shaimos, they are instead to be respectfully stored away and/or buried. A genizah, which means “depository” or “hidden treasure” is a place where shaimos are collected. As one can imagine, in addition to worn books, these troves often attract additional sundry documents that did not actually need to be there.

Read: Proper Disposal of Holy Objects

3. Much of It Was Found in the Ben-Ezra Synagogue

Interior of the Ben Ezra Synagogue.  - Wikimedia Commons
Interior of the Ben Ezra Synagogue.  
Wikimedia Commons

The Ben Ezra synagogue, which was destroyed and rebuilt several times over its long history, was originally founded by a group of Jews who followed the (now defunct) traditions of the yeshivahs of the Land of Israel, as codified in the Jerusalem Talmud. They built a large attic, which functioned as a geniza for hundreds of years before being emptied by researchers in the 19th century.

Read: 15 Synagogue Facts

4. It Was First Explored by Yaakov Sapir

Yaakov Sapir
Yaakov Sapir

The first record of an outsider exploring the contents of the Geniza was in 1864 by Rabbi Yaakov Sapir, a resident of Jerusalem, who traveled as far as Australia to collect funds for the Jews of the Holy Land. A scholar and researcher, he also found and published several significant Torah texts during the course of his travels. A notable example is the Midrash Hagadol, which he found in possession of the Jews of Yemen.

5. There Were a Number of Genizas in Cairo

The bulk of what is now known as the Cairo Geniza originated from the attic of the Ben Ezra synagogue. However, there were a number of smaller caches of documents discovered elsewhere. A significant geniza in the Karaite synagogue in Cairo was explored by Russian scholar Abraham Firkovich. Additionally, small collections were found buried in various other locations.

6. The Lion’s Share Was Taken to England

Elkan Nathan Adler
Elkan Nathan Adler

About 25,000 manuscript fragments were taken to England by Elkan Nathan Adler, a researcher and collector whose father was British Chief Rabbi Lanthan Marcus Adler. He was soon followed by Schneur Zalman (Solomon) Schechter, then a professor at Cambridge University, who carted off most of what remained of the treasure to study. Today, a number of institutions have significant collections of Geniza material, including the University of Cambridge (which has the largest collection), the University of Oxford, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the University of Manchester.

7. Its Contents Were Stored in the Synagogue’s Courtyard

In the late 1800s, the Ben Ezra Synagogue was rebuilt by Cairo's Jewish community. While the work was in progress, the contents of the attic were unceremoniously dumped in the Synagogue's courtyard. They lay exposed to the elements for a number of weeks until they were placed back inside the (rebuilt) attic. During this time, many manuscripts were damaged by exposure and/or carted off to be sold to antique dealers.

8. It Contains Maimonides’ Writings

Fragment T-S F17.7. Autograph draft of Moses Maimonides, Hilkot ha-Yerushalmi, on tractate Brachot and Ketubot. - Cambridge University Library
Fragment T-S F17.7. Autograph draft of Moses Maimonides, Hilkot ha-Yerushalmi, on tractate Brachot and Ketubot.
Cambridge University Library

Maimonides lived, studied, and taught in Fustat, and was known to pray in the Ben Ezra synagogue. It’s no surprise then, that the Geniza contains many of his writings, some of which were hitherto unknown. Examples include this fragment of a (start of a) commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud, the Mishneh Torah in his own handwriting, and more.

Read: 20 Maimonides Facts

9. It Contains Yannai’s Poetry

Almost lost to history, Yannai was a tremendously influential composer of poetic prayers (piyyutim) which were treasured for hundreds of years. Some of his innovations include the use of rhyme and signing his name in the acrostic. One reason some of his output had been discarded was because it was composed to correspond to the (discontinued) Jerusalemite custom of completing the Torah reading over the course of three years.

10. Some of It Is From the Talmudic Era

Fragment T-S NS 3.21. Part of an early Torah scroll or scroll of Genesis, containing Genesis 13: 10; 14:9-22; 15:5-21; 16:5-17:2; 17:9-20. - Cambridge University Library
Fragment T-S NS 3.21. Part of an early Torah scroll or scroll of Genesis, containing Genesis 13: 10; 14:9-22; 15:5-21; 16:5-17:2; 17:9-20.
Cambridge University Library

While much of the Geniza’s content was created during the years it functioned, some is significantly older. Some items—such as this fragment of a Torah scroll—date as far back as the days of the Talmud, making them many hundreds of years older than the attic in which they were preserved.

11. It Contains Evidence of Everyday Life

Fragment T-S NS 320.19. A grocery shopping list—including sumac, tahini, oil, salt, and wood for fuel—written on the back of a divorce document. - Cambridge University Library
Fragment T-S NS 320.19. A grocery shopping list—including sumac, tahini, oil, salt, and wood for fuel—written on the back of a divorce document.
Cambridge University Library

Of course, not everything in the Geniza is of sacred nature. It also contains personal letters, receipts, contracts, doodles, scribbles, and just about anything else one can imagine. Viewed today, they provide a fascinating picture of the everyday life of Jews and their neighbors in centuries past.

An example would be this grocery shopping list—including sumac, tahini, oil, salt, and wood for fuel—all on the back of a torn-up divorce document.

Read: The Jewish View of Divorce

12. It Contains Dozens of Languages—Even Yiddish

Fragment T-S Misc.36.152. Letter sent from Jerusalem from Rachel Zusman to her son Moses, a scribe in Cairo. After opening the letter in Hebrew, Rachel switches to Yiddish. - Cambridge University Library
Fragment T-S Misc.36.152. Letter sent from Jerusalem from Rachel Zusman to her son Moses, a scribe in Cairo. After opening the letter in Hebrew, Rachel switches to Yiddish.
Cambridge University Library

One example is a slip of paper on which Maimonides—an accomplished physician—had written down some herbs, not in his native Arabic or Hebrew, but in Latin. Although the majority of its texts are in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Syriac, Ladino, Greek, and other languages common (and uncommon) in the Middle East, the Geniza even has a handful of Yiddish letters written by Rachel Zusman of Jerusalem to her son in Cairo in the mid-16th-century. A quintessential Yiddishe Mamma, she chastises her son for not writing often enough and minces no words in pleading with him to join her in Jerusalem.

Read: Why Do Jews Insist on Speaking Yiddish?

13. The Music of Ovadiah Puzzled Researchers

Fragment T-S K5.41. Musical notation of the piyyuṭim ברוך הגבר and ועדה מה in the hand of Ovadiah the Ger. - Cambridge University Library
Fragment T-S K5.41. Musical notation of the piyyuṭim ברוך הגבר and ועדה מה in the hand of Ovadiah the Ger.
Cambridge University Library

One of the most deliciously mysterious pieces found in the Geniza was a Hebrew song about faith in G‑d, written in the script used by Jews in the Middle East during the 12th century. Puzzlingly, it was accompanied by musical notes used in the Christian churches of Europe. Who could have written it? The reply was found in a fragment of an autobiography of a fascinating convert to Judaism known as Ovadiah the Norman Convert.

Read: The Mystery of Ovadiah

14. The Original Hebrew Ben Sirah Was Discovered There

Ben Sira is part of what is known as the Apocrypha—works of Jewish wisdom that were not included in the 24 Books of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, it was when two sisters, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, found a piece of Hebrew Ben Sirah (which they could not identify) that scholars realized what a treasure the Geniza was. This work—quoted numerous times by the Sages—had only survived in Greek. Thanks to the Geniza (and the Dead Seas Scrolls), at least six sections of Ben Sira in Hebrew have been rediscovered.

Read: What Is the Jewish View of the Apocrypha

15. A Palimpsest Is a Double Treasure

Fragment T-S 20.50. Palimpsest with a Greek translation of II Kings 23: 11-27 (dating to the 6th century), overwritten with piyyutim of the liturgical poet Yannai. - Cambridge University Library
Fragment T-S 20.50. Palimpsest with a Greek translation of II Kings 23: 11-27 (dating to the 6th century), overwritten with piyyutim of the liturgical poet Yannai.
Cambridge University Library

A palimpsest is a manuscript on which the original writing had been erased so that the parchment could be used again. Today, scholars use ultraviolet light to discern the older, erased writing over which the newer text has been written. In this sample, one can see that piyyutim of Yannai had been written over a Greek translation of Kings attributed to Aquilas the Convert. Fun fact: Greek is the only language other than Hebrew in which a kosher Torah may be written.

Read: What Was Wrong With Ptolemy’s Translation Into Greek?

16. Lost Midrashim Were Discovered

The sages of the Mishnah composed various Midrashim, including those that focused on sourcing halachah from the Biblical text. Many of these texts were lost over the years, and we only know of their existence because they have been cited in other texts. Bits of these lost Midrashim (such as Sifra on Numbers and Mechilta on Deuteronomy) were found in the Cairo Geniza.

17. Up to 40% of the Geniza Comprises Liturgical Poems

While the High Holiday prayerbook has been pretty much solidified, in times gone-by, rabbis and poets were constantly composing new poems for holidays and other occasions. Often synagogues would pride themselves on their unique piyyutim (a Hebrew-Greek word related to “poetry”). This is evidenced by the huge trove found in the Geniza.

18. Scholars Have Devoted Decades to the Geniza

With so many books, letters, documents and fragments, the Geniza has provided scholars with many lifetimes worth of work to do. One of the most prominent was Dr. S.D. Goiten (1900-1985), who devoted the final four decades of his life to the Geniza and published many books on its contents.

Want to become a Geniza researcher? Much of it has been put online by Princeton University as part of the Geniza Project