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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.

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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