Cairo Genizah Fragment
Cairo Genizah Fragment
9th to 10th Century A.D.
Ink on Vellum
H: 27 x W: 30 cm
A fragment of one of the earliest surviving Hebrew Bible manuscripts, dating to the ninth-tenth century. This piece is from the Cairo Genizah, the cache of manuscripts from the Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo, Egypt – the most important cache of early Medieval Jewish manuscripts ever discovered.
The text is written in black ink on vellum, in large, fine Eastern Hebrew square script, and is not vocalised. The vellum is inscribed on both sides with part of 3 columns of 17 lines, blind-ruled, with the story of Cain and Abel, Genesis 4:1-23. The script is extremely close to that of B.L.Or.445, the earliest Pentateuch in the British Library, attributed to the ninth or tenth century. Even small fragments of this date are extremely scarce.
The leaf rivals in date, or even predates, the earliest Hebrew biblical codices of the ninth or tenth century, such as the surviving parts of the Aleppo Codex (c. 920, Jerusalem, Shrine of the Book), the Damascus Pentateuch (c. 1000, Jerusalem, Hebrew University), the St. Petersburg Codex (dated 1008/1009, National Library of Russia, MS.B19a), and the London Codex (c. tenth century, British Library, Or.4445).
D. S. Sassoon, Ohel David, Descriptive Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts in the Sassoon Library (1932), I, pp. 27-28, no. 566 (a).
Seventy-six Important Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts from the library of the late David Solomon Sassoon, Sotheby’s, London, 21 July 1994, Lot 1 (1).
The History of Western Script: Important Antiquities and Manuscripts from the Schøyen Collection, Christie’s, London, 10 July 2019, Lot 409.
Previously in the Private Collection of David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942), London, acquired in December 1922 together with eight other Biblical texts from the Cairo Genizah, and bound as Sassoon MS.566.
Private Collection of Dr Martin Schøyen (b. 31 January 1940), Oslo and London, MS 1858/1.
Sold at: The History of Western Script: Important Antiquities and Manuscripts from the Schøyen Collection, Christie’s, London, 10 July 2019, Lot 409.
London art market, acquired from the above sale.
ALR: S00212480, S00236270, with IADAA Certificate, this item has been checked against the Interpol database.
The Cairo Genizah is the one of the most significant sources for fragments of early Hebrew manuscripts, second only to the caves of Qu’mran, containing around 300,000 manuscript fragments. The word ‘genizah’ comes from the Hebrew ‘ganaz’, meaning to hide or set aside; from biblical times synagogues were fitted with storerooms for the safekeeping of sacred treasure. It became the practice that any worn out or obsolete copies of the Bible or other manuscripts including the divine name should be buried rather than destroyed. Such books were collected up and stored in a genizah until the burial could take place, often in a local cemetery. The community of Palestinian Rabbanite Jews at Fustat, to the south of Cairo, planned a genizah, where ancient Hebrew manuscripts were being deposited by at least the eleventh century. Ultimately, the internment was never carried out, and the Cairo Genizah was continuously added to in the Ben Ezra Synagogue over the course of centuries, becoming a vast repository of sacred documents and fragments of manuscripts from all parts of the Jewish world, including the Middle East and Spain. The Jews of Fustat preserved almost everything they wrote down, as well as sacred texts, as so many of their writings referenced the holy name. Moreover, they spoke in Arabic but wrote in Hebrew, so may have viewed the alphabet itself as sacred.
The Cairo Genizah gradually fell into disuse, so that by the eighteenth century it was no longer physically accessible. By the mid-nineteenth century it was rumoured to be the dwelling of snakes and demons, before local antiquities dealers gained partial access through renovations to the synagogue in 1891. Linguist Archibald Sayce attempted to acquire the entire collection for the Bodleian Library, Oxford, in 1892, but was ultimately unsuccessful. In 1896, Scottish twin sisters Agnes S. Lewis and Margaret D. Gibson brought fragments from the Genizah to Cambridge, where they showed them to their ‘irrepressibly curious rabbinical friend’ – fellow Cambridge scholar Solomon Schecter. Schechter travelled to Egypt with Charles Taylor, Master of St. John’s College, and obtained the remaining 193,000 fragments for Cambridge University Library (now the Taylor-Schecter Cairo Genizah Collection, the world’s largest and most important single collection of medieval Jewish manuscripts). For half a century these were the oldest Hebrew manuscripts known, and the news of its discovery was greatly exciting. An 1897 letter of Solomon Schecter to the Times described the Genizah as, ‘a battlefield of books, [in which] […] the literary production of many centuries had their share in the battle, and their “dijecta membra” are now strewn over its area’.
Scholars have been able to extrapolate a great amount of information from the Cairo Genizah about the Fustat community and about life for Jews during the Islamic Period in cities such as Baghdad, Damascus, and Aleppo. There is no other record as long or as full.
David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942) was born in Bombay to Flora and Solomon Sassoon, and was grandson of nineteenth-century Baghdadi Jewish community leader David Sassoon. He was educated in Jewish subjects, as well as Arabic reading and writing, by imported Baghdadi tutors. By the age of eight, Sassoon knew the prayers for the entire liturgical year and almost the entire Hebrew Bible by heart. He learned the family business from his mother, who headed the firm’s Bombay offices and served as chairwoman of the Sassoon Spinning and Weaving Co. Ltd., Sassoon and Alliance Silk Manufacturing Co. Ld., and the Port Canning and Land Improvement Co.. Following his father’s death in 1894, his family moved to London in 1902. Sassoon married Selina Prins in 1912, and together they had two children: Flora and Solomon. Sassoon had great success as a businessman, public activist, and philanthropist, but he was truly a dedicated scholar. He read widely in both traditional and modern academic literature, learned Persian and Greek, and could even interpret hieroglyphics. He wrote and edited six books and nearly fifty articles, with others unpublished in manuscript. He also corresponded with and hosted key members of contemporary Jewish society, including Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Nahum Sokolow, Samuel Krauss, Abraham Yaari, and Rabbis, Shemtob Gaguin, J.H. Hertz, and Isaaac ha-Levi Herzog.
A passionate bibliophile, Sassoon began collecting at a very early age, and travelled extensively to collect Hebrew books and manuscripts. The first manuscript he collected was an illuminated Scroll of Esther with the genealogical tables of Mordecai and Haman, which had belonged to one of his uncles. He would make enquiries about ancient, historically important, and beautifully illuminated Hebrew print books and manuscripts at every country he travelled to. In 1902, Sassoon had his first opportunity of acquiring some Genizah fragments on his journey from Damascus to India via Egypt, and continued to seek them out from then on – he acquired this fragment, along with eight others, in December 1922. According to a 1975 Sotheby’s auction catalogue, Sassoon was the chief buyers at their sales of the libraries of Solomon Schloss, Lord Amherst of Hackney (1908), Lord Vernon (1908), and many others. He also dealt extensively with prominent antiquarian booksellers like David Frankel, Lipa Schwager, and Jacob Moses Toledano. At the end of the First World War, Sassoon’s collection numbered 500 manuscripts, and great Hebrew bibliophile Elkan Nathan Adler described his collection then as ‘of the highest importance, both from the artistic and literary point of view’. Between 1914 and 1932, Sassoon’s collection grew to 1,220 manuscripts, 1,153 of which are fully described in the two-volume catalogue he published in 1932, Ohel David. Sassoon was thoroughly versed in the contents of his library and used the texts for his own research and writing. He also opened it to other scholars for study. His collection is extremely important, as it has provided scholars the opportunity to study around 24 distinct liturgical rites used by different Jewish communities of the nineteenth century. In 1941, Cecil Roth described it as ‘one of the most magnificent collection of Hebrew manuscripts in private hands in the world to-day’.
Much of Sassoon’s collection was auctioned by Sotheby’s, London, between 1975 and 1994 in order to pay off his estate’s British tax obligations. Most of what remains of the collection is stored at the University of Toronto, Canada, and a small number of manuscripts are at the British Library, London.
Dr. Martin Schøyen (b. 31 January 1940) was heir to a Norwegian shipping and transport business, but he also inherited from his father a deep enthusiasm for antiquity and bibliophily. The Schøyen Collection was started by his father, M. O. Schøyen (1896-1962), who gathered around 1,000 volumes of early and later editions of Norwegian and international literature, history, travel, science, and antiquities. Martin’s first acquisition – a manuscript from circa 1300 – was made in 1955, whilst still a teenager. By the mid-1980s, Schøyen was well known to auction houses, academics, and dealers, as a committed bibliophile, who chose his selections based on scholarship and study of the market. His focus was initially on Biblical and monastic manuscripts, but it soon extended beyond to encompass the entire history of writing and literary culture around the world and over the course of five millennia. His palaeographic collection is one of the most extensive and wide-ranging ever assembled, containing more than 13,000 manuscripts, with the oldest being almost 5,300 years old. The collection features works from 134 different countries and territories, and represents 120 languages and 185 scripts. Committed to spreading knowledge of his collection, Schøyen has made part of it available online on his website (www.schoyencollection.com) and 34 printed catalogues of entire sections have been published in the Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection series.