Stefan C. Reif, ed. The Cambridge Genizah Collections: Their Contents and Significance. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xiv + 239 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-81361-7.
Reviewed by John D. Brolley (University of Cincinnati)
Published on H-Judaic (March, 2004)
In a paper celebrating the 1898 presentation of the Cairo Genizah archives to the Cambridge University Library editor Stefan Reif opens this centennial volume by suggesting that Genizah scholarship can be classified: "under the five headings of Bible, Rabbinics, History, Daily Life, and Literacy" (p. 1). Considering the considerable breadth within and between these individual headings, one comes to appreciate both the wonder and the challenge of Genizah studies.
As Reif's comments imply, the primary characteristic connecting many Genizah manuscripts to one another is their date and provenance. In other words, they are defined through their inclusion in the Genizah archive itself, rather than their theme or genre. That does not mean that Reif's proposed categories are arbitrary or artificial, however. They serve as an effective aid for reviewing the volume as a whole. Additionally, Reif's exhaustive footnotes also provide a formidable amount of information on Genizah research to date. None of the nine papers here is dedicated to the Bible per se. However, the second chapter, Menahem Kister's "Genizah Manuscripts of Ben Sira," offers a compelling argument about the role of textual criticism in assessing the apocryphal work, also known as "Sirach and Ecclesiasticus." Kister not only stands up for the Genizah fragments as bearing witness to a genuine text which the Syriac and Greek versions may have paraphrased, he also demonstrates the fruitlessness of carrying forth this avenue of research without the Genizah Ben Sira fragments.
Michael Klein--in whose memory the volume is dedicated--offers a succinct yet comprehensive assessment of the Genizah's impact on targumic studies. Klein persuasively demonstrates the Genizah's importance in expanding our understanding settings in which the targumim operated, their status in pre- and early medieval rabbinic communities, and their unique exegetical take on such biblical narratives as the Cain and Abel story.
Menahem Kahana's paper focuses on the Genizah's contributions to scholarship regarding the halakhic midrashim, noting not only the presence of otherwise unattested "lost" midrashim, but also fragments which provide either superior, or at least significantly variant, readings of passages which remain murky in other textual witnesses.
In the area of liturgy, Neil Danzig discusses a Genizah fragment containing a geonic pirqa that he uses to trace the origins of the yequm purqan prayer, as well as the qaddish, used in medieval Babylonian Judaism to begin the homily that customarily closed the pirqa lecture. Joseph Yahalom's piece, "Judah Halevi: Records of a Visitor from Spain," not only offers a brief genre survey of the Genizah's poetic material, but also uses diverse Genizah documents--ranging from copies of Halevi's own poems to letters concerning certain of his travels--to reconstruct Halevi's journey to Jerusalem, a journey earlier scholars had thought more legendary than actual.
Haggai Ben-Shammai's "Medieval History and Religious Thought" highlights S. D. Goitein's work, and unique impact on Genizah research, through his focus on "individuals whose personalities and activities could not have been known from the formal, literary sources" (p. 139). In discussing Goitein's contributions, Ben-Shammai also discusses the Genizah materials' significance for the study of medieval Jewish life on the individual and communal level, and in the field of medieval Jewish religious thought, in general.
Paul Fenton's piece, "Jewish-Muslim Relations in the Medieval Mediterranean Area," demonstrates how the Genizah has helped illuminate the complex dynamic to which the title alludes. On one hand, he shows that certain Genizah documents bear witness to the oppression of medieval Jews, as dhimmi, at the hands of Muslim authorities. At the same time, however, Fenton thoughtfully discusses the wealth of evidence within the Genizah writings, testifying to a spirit of cooperation and respect between Muslims and Jews during this period, particularly visible through the Jewish interest in Muslim religious texts. As Fenton points out, the Genizah's inclusion of explicitly Islamic "mystical and pietistic texts" (p. 158), provides a striking example of this interest.
Chapter 9, Mordechai A. Friedman's "On Marital Age, Violence and Mutuality in the Genizah Documents," examines three separate, yet inter-related, medieval topics: betrothals involving girls legally considered to be children, "extreme domestic violence," and the reciprocity expressed in marriage contracts (both Rabbanite and Karaite--fragments of which are contained in the Genizah corpus). Mordechai's work with the third subject is perhaps the most intriguing. Based on his work with the Genizah fragments and the fifth-century Antinoopolis ketubbah, he argues that entries documenting a wife's obligations to her husband existed as early as the Byzantine period, rather than the later Bablyonian period. Thus, Mordechai posits that the language of mutuality or reciprocity was: "added to the essentially Babylonian formulation of the Karaite contacts after the Karaite immigration to the Land of Israel" (p. 177).
As its title suggests, Joel L. Kraemer's "Women Speak for Themselves," which is the volume's final (and lengthiest) piece, demonstrates how the women's letters included in the Genizah, "supplement our knowledge about the status of [Jewish and non-Jewish] women in the Mediterranean basin." Kraemer tackles such general topics as literacy and property (and the lack thereof) among medieval Mediterranean Jewish women, and uses excerpts from Genizah letters to paint vivid pictures of these women as individuals: some pledge to fast until their husbands return from various travels and separations; others lament the spotty correspondence from a sibling or adult child; yet others offer poignant petitions to local authorities regarding instances of neglect or abuse.
This volume is an admirable work on several levels. Reif's choice of broad headings provides a coherency to the book as a whole, notwithstanding the wide range of topics presented. The contributors have clearly been chosen for their specific fields of expertise, and each original paper reflects a correspondingly high quality of scholarship. One could possibly wish for the inclusion of one or two more papers, to illustrate Reif's five broad categories: perhaps something from Michael Swartz, on incantations in the Genizah materials? But such a suggestion is merely a bit of wishful thinking, rather than a genuine complaint. The volume concludes with three comprehensive indexes--names/places, subjects/sources, and manuscripts--as well as twenty-two plates, covering the materials discussed in the papers.
This is an excellent resource for any scholar or educated layperson with an interest in the Genizah. Moreover, it encourages inquiry into several larger subjects, which are illuminated in the Genizah materials.
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John D. Brolley. Review of Reif, Stefan C., ed., The Cambridge Genizah Collections: Their Contents and Significance.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.