From the store room to the web: Bodleian launches website featuring its 25,000 Cairo Genizah fragments

6 March 2012 

Genizah framentThe Bodleian Libraries have digitized and made available for the first time their exceptional collection of the Cairo Genizah fragments (http://genizah.bodleian.ox.ac.uk). The website launch is marked by a bequest of five Genizah fragments from the library of the late Eli Weinberg.

The Cairo Genizah is an accumulation of almost 280,000 medieval Jewish manuscript fragments, mostly written in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic. They were discovered in the late nineteenth century in an annex of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, presently Old Cairo, Egypt. Documents accumulated there from the ninth to the fourteenth centuries, and remained there until their value for scholarship was discovered in the 19th century.

The name of the collection, ‘Genizah’, comes from the Hebrew for ‘store room’. The members of the medieval Jewish communities considered the Hebrew alphabet so sacred that anything written in it was placed in a Genizah, literally ‘store’, rather than discarded.

The Bodleian’s Genizah holdings are exceptional since the Bodleian was the first major library outside of the Middle East to acquire fragments from the Cairo Genizah at the end of the 19th century. Its acquisitions policy resulted in a meticulously planned purchase over the following years until the beginning of the 20th century. As a result the collection contains a remarkable representation of texts focused on specific subjects and includes fragments bigger than any collection in the world. The fragments in the Bodleian Library, totaling some 25,000 folios, stand out also for their size, comprising on average five folios, and forming in many cases complete quires, making them a treasure trove of great value compared to other collections.

Of particular significance are the rare Talmud fragments of which so few survive because of the mass burnings of Talmud manuscripts in 16th-century Europe. The liturgical material, too, is important for shedding light on the little-known beginnings of Jewish prayer. The Bodleian is rich in both of these.

The Cairo Genizah documents, ranging from complete volumes to small fragments, are an essential source for reconstructing in detail the religious, economic and cultural life of Jews in the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean region in the Middle Ages, an era of Jewish history about which little evidence previously existed. The material comprises Jewish religious writings such as biblical and Talmudic/rabbinic and liturgical fragments in addition to other disciplines such as philosophy, astronomy and astrology. No aspect of existence is left untouched in documents. Information on the vital role the Jews played in the economic and cultural life of the medieval Middle East and the relationship between Jews and Arabs is provided in community minutes, rabbinical court records, leases, title-deeds, endowment contracts, debt acknowledgments, marriage contracts and private letters.

The Genizah fragments have been scattered over many different locations. Parts of the documents were acquired by a variety of institutions, libraries and individuals, dividing documents in a haphazard way. Single manuscripts or even leaves were separated, making it almost impossible to gain any understanding of their significance.

For the first time, the Bodleian manuscript can now be consulted, browsed and read online. Using revolutionary technology, all 25,000 fragments which form the Bodleian Libraries’ Genizah Collection are captured in high-resolution digital images allowing readers to zoom in and examine the manuscript in detail. The electronic resource offers free worldwide access.

Dr. Sarah Thomas, Bodley’s Librarian said, ‘The Bodleian Libraries are fortunate to hold the most significant collection of Genizah fragments in the world. We are grateful to Mr. George Blumenthal, the Polonsky Foundation and Sir Ronald Cohen who supported the digitization of our collection and the online catalogue. We are also thankful to Dr. Piet van Boxel for whom this major project was a swan song before his retirement last October.

Due to the advancement in modern technology, we are now able to release these unique documents online to be studied by scholars from around the world and general public with an interest in the Jewish tradition.’

Dr. Piet van Boxel, Project Director and former Curator of the Hebrew holdings at the Bodleian Libraries said, ‘Making the Bodleian Libraries’ Genizah holdings available online will enable scholars to compare the fragments held in Oxford with those held in places like Cambridge, New York, Philadelphia or Manchester. This new online resource will inaugurate a new era in Genizah studies and will facilitate international research enabling experts to make progress with a long-term goal of Genizah research - identifying matching fragments in different collections.

The Bodleian’s involvement in this exciting endeavour has been made possible by the generous donation of Mr.George Blumenthal, a New York philanthropist, businessman and pioneer in digital communications. His contribution enabled the Bodleian Libraries to digitize the 25,000 Genizah fragments from their collections. Financial support from the Polonsky Foundation, Sir Ronald Cohen and other donors went towards the online catalogue.

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