Saturday, January 19, 2013

Sacred Treasure

There's nothing like the feeling of going into a Shabbat with a good book waiting for you.

About a year ago I read a review of a new book that had come out, Sacred Treasure, about the Cairo Geniza. I remember thinking, even then, "ooh, ooh....."

However, in my little corner of the world, the chances of finding the exact book that you want are iffy -- our local English library, while a total blessing, is based on donations, both of books, money and volunteers' time, and it's not always possible to find exactly what you're looking for.

Last week, while checking out my Vanity Fair magazines (yes, sigh, i know that it's a high-class gossip rag, but it's fun) I saw the Sacred Treasure book on the table, but it had, alas, been reserved for someone else. When I arrived yesterday however, for my traditional Friday morning library visit (in almost 30 years of living in Tzfat, I think that I can count on one hand the number of times that I haven't made it to the library to start out my Friday) another patron heard me kvetching to the librarian about the book and said "oh, I just brought it back." 

So that's what I did for most of Shabbat (when I wasn't eating). The book was definitely worth waiting for. According to Jewish tradition, sacred texts cannot be thrown away. They are, instead, collected in a receptacle and eventually buried in a Jewish cemetery. In most areas, even if the texts don't get buried, climactic conditions will eventually destroy the scrolls and papers, but in Cairo, the large "Geniza" room was so huge that it never needed to be emptied, and the weather, dry, preserved many of the texts.

Rabbi Solomon Schechter succeeded in purchasing the contents of the Geniza in 1897 and he brought them back to England (Cambridge) to study and catalog. I've gotten about half-way through the book which, up until now, has been more of a chronology of how the Geniza was located and accessed, and am now reading about the texts themselves (which even now, a century later, have not been fully reviewed).

When I think about how we learned about Jewish history in Hebrew school, it was just a mix of names, with no real understanding of the chronology of the Jewish people, the development of the different texts, layers of scholarship, etc. Actually, until I did some research about Tiberias for some writing that I was doing last year, I never really understood the whole development of the Talmud, the differences between the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud, the different communities that developed and how they developed, etc. I can only say that, if somehow, Jewish educators could present this type of information in a more engaging manner (across the board -- the boring way that I learned about it in the '60s is pretty much the way that my kids learn in school) young people might have more of an appreciation for their roots and their connections to their own heritage. 

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