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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My Parents Will Believe I’m Going to Hell

And I’m too afraid to talk to them about it.

In 2016, after years of identifying as a lukewarm atheist/agnostic (depending on the day), I began the process of converting to Judaism. I’m going to write more about that at some point, but there’s far too much there to get into it now.

The problem is, my parents are Presbyterian, with strong Puritan influences. They believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation, and that the salvation He promises is a tangible reality. They believe in a literal hell where everyone who is not saved–everyone who does not believe in Jesus’ divinity–spends eternity.

They don’t take joy in that belief. It worries them immensely that so many good people will be condemned to eternal damnation because they never saw the truth of Jesus Christ, but, as my dad once told me “We didn’t make the rules.”

For them, my conversion to Judaism will mean that I am officially and formally forsaking Jesus and salvation. It will mean that I am making a conscious and informed decision to accept eternal damnation.

And I don’t know how to tell them that. I don’t know how I could sit across from them and explain that I am making a choice that–to them–endangers something far more precious than just my life.

The thought of hurting them in that way is almost impossible to bear. But at the same time, I don’t see how I could stand before a beit din and say “Yes, I want to be a part of the Jewish People…but please don’t tell my mom.”

What the Heck is a (the?) Targum

In embarking on this project, I’m stepping into a rich and intimidating pool of history. People have been translating, interpreting, and expounding upon biblical texts since before a written bible existed. Some of the earliest known biblical interpretations are known as targumim.

Targumim: The plural of targum. Targum relates to the Akkadian word for interpreter or translator. Targumim were oral translations of biblical text from Hebrew into another language–usually Aramaic.

A targum would be relayed by a meturgeman, a professional interpreter, who would frequently add in his own or others’ commentary on a given passage or section. This extremely early exegesis is still studied by some religious traditions, although a prohibition against writing them down means that many interpretations were likely lost to history.