Digitizing the Cairo Geniza

For those of you interested in Second Temple texts, the genizah in Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue preserved a copy of one of the first Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the Hebrew version to Ben Sira. Beyond that, that genizah was a treasury of ancient texts from several different periods. The story of their attempted digitization can be read here:

Reuniting the dispersed fragments
An ambitious new project seeks to digitize the entire Cairo Geniza, and piecing together half a million document fragments scattered around the world.

By Ofer Aderet

One spring day in 1896, a pair of scholarly Scottish twin sisters approached Dr. Solomon Schechter, an expert on rabbinical literature at Cambridge University. They had several tattered pages they had purchased in a Cairo antiquities shop.

The lecturer rubbed his eyes incredulously. He took the pages with him for examination, and then wrote a hurried, excited note to the two women, asking them not to share news of the discovery until a formal announcement could be made.

The women’s souvenir turned out to be part of a rare book that had been lost since the Middle Ages. It was the original Hebrew text of the apocryphal “Book of Ben Sira,” written early in the second century BCE, 250 years before the destruction of the Second Temple.

A few months later, Schechter headed to Cairo to look for the rest of the book. His efforts led him to the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, where he discovered the Cairo Geniza: a tremendous pile of torn and tattered pages. Some had been lying there for 1,000 years, since the 9th century, when the synagogue was established. They included sacred writings and documents from the community’s daily life – and constituted a Jewish time capsule, preserved thanks to the Jewish custom of saving texts that included God’s name, instead of throwing them away.

Prof. Schechter crawled through a hole in the wall in the women’s section of the synagogue to the dusty and suffocating geniza (a Hebrew word meaning “storeroom” ), and began removing the manuscripts. After receiving the proper permits, he packed them into cartons and placed them on a ship to Cambridge. That is how most of the Cairo Geniza was taken to safety. The rest of the material, about 40 percent, was scattered among antiquities dealers, collectors and world travelers. Some of it wound up in other libraries.

Last week, two professors from the Blavatnik School of Computer Science at Tel Aviv University sat down to burrow through the tattered pages. But they weren’t searching through them physically: The pages appeared on the huge screen of a state-of-the-art Macintosh computer with a wireless keyboard and mouse. The two, Nachum Dershowitz, a logic expert, and Lior Wolf, a expert on “computerized vision” (which is used for face recognition, among other things ), are the Tel Aviv branch of a revolutionary international project called Genazim, based in one of the high-rises in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighborhood. Its ambitious objective is to reconstruct the Cairo Geniza and to make available a complete digital version online. (A preliminary, partial version of “The Friedberg Genizah Project” can be viewed at http://genizah.org.)

“It’s a tremendous thing. When we present the project to people, they have tears of excitement in their eyes,” says Dershowitz as he looks at selections from the Geniza in Maimonides’ handwriting. “We’re doing something very exciting here – processing historical documents in a manner and to an extent that is unprecedented in the humanities,” adds Wolf…[see rest here]

For a wonderful slideshow of some of the manuscripts see the Hebrew article להרכיב את הפאזל היהודי. Even if you don’t know Hebrew, scroll down to see the slideshow.

HT: J. Lauer

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