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December 12, 2013 2:59 pm

Oxford and Cambridge Buy Ancient Jewish Texts

avatar by Joshua Fleet

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Solomon Schechter studying documents from the Cairo Genizah. Photo: WikiMedia Commons.

Historic rivals proved recently that collaboration trumps competition.

Less than a year after the UK’s two oldest universities came together to save a collection of 1,700 ancient documents, Oxford and Cambridge announced the joint purchase of the Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection from the United Reform Church’s Westminster College, the BBC reported.

The schools raised a total of £1.2 million, or about $1.6 million, to acquire the collection of Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts from the famed Cairo Genizah, which represent 1,000 years of medieval history from the Mediterranean.

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After the documents are digitized and placed online, where they may be accessed for free, the collection will be divided between the University Library at Cambridge and the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford. Cambridge is already home to the largest single compilation of relics from the genizah, their library said in a statement.

These aging manuscripts were first discovered by twins Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson in Cairo, who brought fragments to England in 1896 to show to their friend Solomon Schechter. Then a scholar of Talmudic and Rabbinic literature at Cambridge, Schechter went back to Egypt and found their source: a storeroom, or genizah, at the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo.

Jewish custom prohibits throwing away any object that contains a name of God, so Jews have throughout the ages set aside communal spaces to store these sacred items, which can then be ritually buried. The Cairo Genizah is unique for its sheer size (300,000 documents), long life (it was used from the ninth century to the 19th) and breadth of contents (all manner of Jewish works as well as cultural and economic ephemera).

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  • David Blacher

    What a cynical bunch of comments. The existence and location of these documents is and has been well known to the Jewish community and its cohort of scholars, collectors and philanthropists for a century or more.

    History has shown that our survival for the last two millenia has been assured because of our dispersion – the Diaspora. What better assurance that our documents, also, will survive than to have them likewise dispersed. How can we fulfill the mitzvah of being “a light among the nations” if we cloister our foundational documents at a distance from all the nation’s scholars?

  • HaroldT

    How sad that no Jew stepped in to buy this collection for Israel.

    • Reuven

      I agree 100% with Harold T.

    • Sharon E Kerr

      Just curious Harold, but did you used to place comments on Israelinsider about 2002-2004. If so, I wonder if you remember me, Sharon Kerr.

  • Bernard Ross

    guess these euuros aren’t boycotting these items

    • Reuven

      Anti-Semitism, often in the form of Israel-bashing, is in vogue again throughout Europe and in much of the rest of the world. I’m surprised that Oxford and Cambridge were even interested in this collection.