Rival U.K. Universities Join Forces to Save 1,000 Years of Jewish History

Schechter letter
The beginning of the note Schechter sent to Mrs Lewis describing his excitement at their discovery: ‘Dear Mrs Lewis, I think we have reason to congratulate ourselves. For the fragment I took with me represents a piece of the Original Hebrew of Ecclesiasticus. It is the first time that such a thing was discovered. Please do not speak yet about the matter. I will come to you tomorrow about 11 pm and talk over the matter with you how to make the matter known. In haste and great excitement yours sincerely S. Schechter’. (Copyright University of Cambridge)

Cambridge University Library and the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries have announced their first ever joint fundraising campaign to purchase the £1.2 million ‘Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection’, currently owned by the United Reformed Church’s Westminster College.

The campaign was officially launched this week at the British Academy in London.

The collection comprises more than 1,700 fragments of Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts, originating from the Cairo Genizah, dating from the 9th-19th century. They represent an invaluable record of a thousand years of the religious, social, economic and cultural life of the Mediterranean world.

The fragments were brought back from Cairo by the intrepid twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson in 1896 and deposited at Westminster College. Treasures of the collection include the earliest known example of a Jewish engagement deed (dating from 1119), an eyewitness account of Crusader atrocities, and letters by leading Jewish traders of the 11th and 12th centuries.

Both libraries are already holders of substantial Genizah collections in their own right. Cambridge is home to the largest collection in the world with some 200,000 fragments out of the estimated 350,000 to be found in public collections worldwide. Meanwhile, the Bodleian holds 25,000 world-class Genizah folios, the size and quality of which rank it among the most important global collections.

A genizah is a sacred storeroom, a room set aside inside a synagogue for the interment of old religious writings, which, because they contain names of God or use the sacred Hebrew alphabet, cannot be simply discarded. For more than 1,000 years the Jewish community of Fustat (now a suburb of Cairo) deposited all manner of writings (not just sacred texts) into the sacred storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue.

The significance of the manuscripts haphazardly stored in the synagogue was recognised towards the end of the 19th century, and the Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection represents some of the earliest fragments to emerge from it. Given its status as a ‘hand-picked’ collection, the Lewis-Gibson Collection contains perhaps more than its share of rare or unique items compared to its modest size.

Other treasures are a large leaf of Moses Maimonides’ (d. 1204) famous Commentary on the Mishnah in his own hand, an autograph poem by the medieval Spanish Hebrew poet Joseph ibn Abitur, the earliest known example of a Jewish engagement deed (Shtar Shiddukhin, from 1119), showing the complex legal relations that existed around marriage, and a rare, very early (10th-century), copy on vellum of the great Jewish sage Saadya Gaon’s translation of the Bible into Arabic.

The libraries’ fundraising campaign has received an early, significant and much-welcomed boost with the promise of a £500,000 lead gift from the Polonsky Foundation which in 2010 also gifted £1.5m to Cambridge’s Digital Library Project and £2m to the Bodleian Libraries’ initiative with the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana. Both libraries are now appealing for donors to come forward and secure the remaining £700,000 necessary to buy the collection outright.

The Lewis-Gibson Collection holds a special place in the modern history of the Cairo Genizah. When the twin sisters showed a selection of their fragments to their friend, Cambridge scholar Solomon Schechter, he set off to Egypt to find the source. What followed was the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, changing the study of Judaism – and of the study of the wider history of the Middle East – forever.