The Discovery of the Cairo Genizah
It all began with a fragment of Ben Sira.
Agnes Lewis and her twin sister Margaret Gibson bought some Hebrew manuscripts from a dealer in Cairo in 1896. When they brought them to Solomon Schechter in Cambridge, he identified one as a fragment from the long-lost Hebrew original of the Book of Ben Sira. Librarians at Oxford University then discovered that they had nine more leaves from the same manuscript.
Some of the documents the sisters had brought from Cairo were marked “Fostat,” the name for Old Cairo. This led Schechter to believe that the manuscripts came from the genizah of Cairo. It was known in Schechter’s time that the Ben Ezra synagogue had a genizah but its contents were not known.
Schechter traveled to Cairo where he recovered 140,000 fragments from the genizah. He first had to persuade the rabbi of the synagogue to give them up. The fragments had provided the synagogue with a steady income from their sale to antiquities dealers. Schechter convinced the rabbi that in order to preserve the texts they needed to be housed in a university library.
Schechter then returned to Cambridge to begin the study of the documents from the Cairo Genizah, an enterprise which still continues to this day.
Read more about this amazing discovery and its implications at The Twins and the Scholar, Molly Dewsnap, BAR 22:05, Sep/Oct 1996.
Solomon Schechter examines the fragments from the Cairo Genizah