Monday, July 07, 2014

Reif and the Cairo Geniza

PROFESSOR STEFAN REIF: 'Indiana Jones' of the Cairo Genizah. As many as 200,000 Jewish manuscripts, some more than 1,000 years old, comprise the most important Jewish treasure of the century. Prof. Stefan Reif of the University of Cambridge, who exposed Cairo Genizah and its discoveries to the world, tells Ynet about the revolution it created in the perception of Judaism. (Ynet News, Tali Farkash). This is a long article that covers a lot of ground. Here are a couple of excerpts, but read it all.
Until his retirement, Prof. Reif was responsible for the huge archive, which is considered one of the most important archives in the world and includes as many as 200,000 rare Jewish manuscripts, some of them more than 1,000 years old.

Reif, who is considered one of the leading researchers in his field, has authored countless studies and many books. One of them, "Judaism and Hebrew Prayer," was also translated into Hebrew.

"It wasn't negligence," he says diplomatically about the seven decades in which the Cairo Genizah was abandoned. "They started to document and preserve, but a small part of it.

"When I was appointed to head the department, I didn't have any staff, budget, research or categorization means. I remember telling the university management, 'We need an organized research plan,' and they said, 'That's exactly what we brought you here for."

Prof. Reif dedicated 40 years of his life to the collection which is seen, and rightfully so, as his life's work. So far, researchers have managed to document and preserve 70% to 80% of the writings, but even today it's still possible that there are additional discoveries waiting to be made – ancient writings which the team of researchers has yet to study and categorize.

Talking to Ynet, Prof. Reif reveals the decision to start a new research department at the University of Haifa under his leadership, which will allow Israeli students to study more about the far-reaching implications of the Cairo Genizah findings, and explains why that collection of writings is responsible for the revolution in the way we perceive Judaism today.


"There is not a single field in which the genizah has not created a revolution. The Bible and the Hebrew, for example, today we are familiar with a certain kind of punctuation in Hebrew. In the past there were other types of punctuations which disappeared, and through the letters they are suddenly revealed again. Today we have the possibility of restoring them through the letters kept in the genizah.

"Another example, which is as important, is the Jerusalem Talmud. Usually when people talk about the Talmud, they mean the Babylonian Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud is perceived as difficult and incomprehensible, and people didn't know how to interpret it. Today we have complete writings about the Jerusalem Talmud which were written in the same periods, and we can understand a lot from them about what used to be inaccessible.

"These are just two direct implications on the two most important books in the Jewish world, but of course it doesn't end there. ..."
Congratulations to Professor Reif on the honorary degree and the new post at Haifa University. An SBL Forum article by him on the Geniza is noted here.

My own work on the Hekhalot literature and the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Aramaic Levi) has been much enriched by Cairo Geniza manuscripts. And over the years I have put up many, many PaleoJudaica posts on the Cairo Geniza. I don't have time to sort through them all, but you can find lots of them here, here, here, here, and here, and follow the links.

As I said in that last post, the Cairo Geniza is the philologist's gift that keeps on giving.