Storing Holiness

In Jewish tradition,the name of God is sacred and must be treated with reverence in all its forms, which is why strictly observant Jews avoid writing it down lest they then mistreat the item upon which it is written (this is also why you might see even the word god written as “G-d” in some spaces).

When items that contain the name of God have become too worn to be read, are torn, soiled, or otherwise made unusable, they are to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Obviously, it makes much more sense to bury these items together rather than one at a time, so the items are typically stored (according to rabbinic sources “with reverence”) in a special storeroom called a geniza.

The most famous geniza is the massive, two-story silo located in the ancient Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. Founded sometime prior to 882 CE, the good people of congregation Ben Ezra apparently tended to let things go. So much so, that they managed to put off cleaning out the geniza for a jaw-dropping 850 years.

Despite having documents that pre-dated the synagogue itself by at least 150 years, including some of the only extant original writing by medieval Torah scholar Maimonides, the geniza remained more or less ignored until the 1800’s. Then came a series of scholars, all of whom had a hand in uncovering the magnificence of the storeroom’s trove.

First among them was Jacob Saphir, a wandering Romanian Jew based in Jerusalem. He was commissioned to go on a fund-raising mission for his community, which brought him (among a host of other countries) to Egypt, where he was the first researcher to realize the significance of the Cairo geniza.

Next were the remarkable Smith sisters, Agnes and Margaret, who between them knew a dozen languages. They recognized that the geniza probably contained untold wonders, but as their focus was elsewhere, they brought the room to the attention of their rabbinic friend, Solomon Schechter. In 1896, Schechter made two trips to the geniza, bringing back more than 100,000 pages of rare manuscripts, including pages of the Book of Ben Sirach in Hebrew. That text had only been known to exist in Greek or Latin previous to this discovery, and another Hebrew version would not be discovered until the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed almost a century later.

Schechter’s work to sort and publicize the documents within the Cairo Geniza revolutionized Jewish scholarship, particularly medieval scholarship. His work was a literal, real-life treasure hunt of absolutely unimaginable proportions.

One modern, sadder version of a geniza making headlines happened in the United States in 2013, when thousands of trash bags mysteriously appeared on a roadside in New Jersey. Found to contain scrolls, prayer books, and other ritual objects, the bags were traced back to a local Jewish community, which had apparently hired a contractor to bury the sacred items. Legal and environmental restrictions stalled the process, and the bags–dubbed “God’s Garbage” by Tablet Magazine–remained in limbo.

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