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Judi's Journal 10-14-2011

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The Genizah for storing sacred writings

By Judi Siegal

When I was teaching Jewish religious school, my synagogue had a box next to the copy machine we called “shames,” Yiddish for “shemot” or “names.” In this case, the “names” meant the names we Jews have for God and it was the custom that if we ran off copies of prayers that were extras and they contained the name of God in Hebrew in any form, we were to put these papers in the shames box for proper disposal. I even brought some of my classes in to see this box to show them the respect Jews have for sacred writings.
When the box was filled, it was buried in a special section of the Jewish cemetery along with other worn out prayer books, tefillin, Torah scrolls and mezuzot.
I have even attended a “funeral” for Torah scrolls which were burned in a fire. They were wrapped in a shroud and buried in a wooden casket on the grounds of the synagogue. It was a sad day in the history of the congregation because the fire had been started by an arsonist and losing these valuable scrolls was like losing a member of the family. Though the arsonist was eventually caught, it brought home first hand how Jews handle holy objects no longer suitable for ritual use.
By the Middle Ages, most synagogues had areas where they kept old books or writings with God’s name on it. The concept came from the Talmud (Shabbat 115a) that stipulates that all sacred writings should be preserved and not destroyed. The storeroom or repository was called a genizah from the Hebrew word meaning to store. In these early days, all writings and papers on religious topics were stored even wedding contracts called ketubahs, and other legal contacts because they could contain God’s name in an opening invocation. Worn out prayer shawls, ritual fringes called tzizit, even lulavim (palm, myrtle and willow branches used on the harvest holiday of Sukkot) were stored.
In Prague, in the genizah of the Altneushul, is said to contain the body of the Golem, the legendary clay-man brought to life by the name of God to champion the Jews of Prague.
Synagogues empty their storerooms every few years. Some bury their caches next to Torah scholars. In Jerusalem it was a custom to bury the contents of their genizahs every seventh year or in a year of drought, as it was believed the burial of the objects, that is, the mitzvah or fulfillment of doing a righteous act, would a warrant a rainfall. While there is no special ceremony for burying the objects, the Rabbis’ Kaddish, a special prayer said in Aramaic and expresses God’s blessings on the scholars and religious leaders of Israel, is generally recited. In modern times, this prayer and others composed for the occasion are also said.
The most famous genizah in history is the one discovered in Fostat, near Cairo, Egypt in 1896. The genizah, located in a storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, contained over 200,000 documents and ritual objects dating back as far the 10th century. It also contained letters and commentaries by such Jewish notables such as the philosopher Maimonides and poet Judah Halevi. Careful examination of the contents preserved by the arid climate of Egypt, afforded scholars a window into the life and times of the people the documents span. Though relegated to the class of second rate citizens by the Islamic rulers during the times the documents were stored, it shows that as long as Jews paid their taxes and took care of their own, they were entitled to worship and reside in peace. Also from these documents we learn that women were expected to bear children and to work outside the home. Those possessions that the women brought to the marriage remained hers. The different classes of people were also listed in the documents from the nobles to the peasants with business people and professionals and craftspeople in between. The influence Islam had on Jewish living is also revealed in the documents.
Solomon Schechter work is credited with bringing the Cairo’s genizah’s contents to light. Professor Schechter, at the time a lecturer at Cambridge University, was able to transport most of the contents of the genizah to Cambridge and then later to America to the Jewish Theological Seminary, the college of the Conservative movement which he helped to found.
In years to come, who knows what valuable items may be found in the genizahs all over the world?