When Alice fell through her Oxford rabbit hole in 1865, she landed in a world in which the hidden elements of her imagination took on an oppressive materiality. The unknown land revealed to Alice might have changed her readers’ perception of childhood, if only they could have decoded what Alice encountered.
Thirty-one years later, in late December 1896, a learned rabbi and scholar from Cambridge fell through a rabbit hole in Egypt and discovered a vast, encrypted world whose laborious decoding would fun-da-men-tally change (among many other things) our understanding of post-biblical Jewish intellectual culture, and our view of the Mediterranean world between the birth of the Babylonian Jewish leader Saadia Gaon in 882 and the death of Moses Maimonides in 1204.
The story of how the middle-aged but nimble-minded Solomon Schechter came to climb up a ladder in the crumbling Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo’s slummy Fustat district to enter an airless, stinking chamber filled to the rafters with 10 centuries’ worth of Hebrew literary junk, and how that junk had come to be accumulated in the first place, and how it came to be resurrected and restored to intellectual glory in the century following Schechter’s discovery—all that is told in this radiant jewel of a book.
The story begins with a chance meeting in a Cambridge street. On a May afternoon in 1896 Agnes Lewis—the arthritic half of a set of superbly self-taught female Scottish twins who were scholars of Arabic and Syriac, liberated into learned adventures by the early deaths of their husbands and a paternal legacy consisting of both money and a thirst for education—spied her friend, the blustery Schechter, the reader in rabbinics and son of Russian Hasidic Jews living in Romania who had arrived at Cambridge in 1890 by way of education in Vienna and Berlin.
She asked him to come look at a bundle of manuscripts she had bought in Cairo. To his utter amazement, Schechter discovered among the smelly scraps a fragment of the Hebrew original of Ecclesiasticus, an apocryphal book of the Bible also known as Ben Sira, or Sirach.
The reason for Schechter’s excitement was not that the Hebrew original had gone missing for a thousand years, but that the Hebrew original was urgently needed in his seemingly quixotic tilting against the windmills of Protestant arrogance, which argued that Jewish history was a steady “falling off from the heights of early revelation and prophetic vision to a preoccupation with ceremony and legal sophistry.”
“Second Temple Judaism was [seen as] a mechanical priestly cult,” write Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, “and post-Temple or rabbinic Judaism . . . was dismissed outright as a spiritually sterile legalism.” Or, as Julius Wellhausen, a German star of higher Bible criticism, said about Jewish law as given in the five books of Moses: “[I]t blocks up access to heaven . . . and spoils morality.” A Hebrew text of Ben Sira, however, “would confirm the existence of a moral and spiritually vital Second Temple Judaism . . . hardly desiccated by excessive legalism or the mechanical maintenance of priestly rites.”
Thus, the stakes were sky-high for Schechter, who held rabbinic Judaism in high esteem. And although hardly a man cut out for grimy adventures en orient, he went, and five days after arriving in Cairo, entered the geniza of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat.
A geniza is a repository that may contain the written name of God (shem). Because God’s name is absolutely sacred, such documents cannot be burnt but must be ritually buried. While awaiting burial, they may be stored. A geniza, then, is a kind of morgue for Hebrew texts. Over time, as learning declined in Fustat, all Hebrew texts came to be regarded as shemot, and, for about 10 centuries, were simply thrown into a small, airless chamber at the end of the women’s gallery.
Schechter was not the first scholar with the right learnedness in ancient Jewish texts to enter the geniza, or to lay eyes on several torn, filthy, malodorous bundles of “sacred trash” taken from the geniza. In fact, his friend Elkan Adler had entered the geniza in January of 1896, bringing multitudinous scraps back to England for Schechter and Adolf Neubauer—Schechter’s greatest rival, a multilingual Hungarian Jew who was Oxford’s reader in rabbinics and cataloguer of the university’s extensive Hebrew holdings—to see. But, confronted with the prospect of traveling to Egypt himself to take a look at the geniza, Neubauer, looking over the “trash” Adler had hauled back, declared it “a lot of worthless rubbish” and stayed in England.