Sermon: Devarim – A Genizah from the past reveals plenty about the present

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 31 July 2017

A Genizah from the past reveals plenty about the present


Alyth Synagogue has been using Facebook and other social media for over ten years now.  Indeed it was when Danielle Black was Head of Youth here at Alyth that she first showed me this new marvel and established the first Alyth Youth Facebook page.  It soon caught on among the young people she worked with and among our first chains on the page the page was one where I asked the question should Rabbis use Facebook or would it ruin the conversation.   Luckily for me our teenagers said yes.

Now in 2017 Alyth has two very popular public Facebook pages, one for the Synagogue as a whole, where posts of things that are significant in the community often have several hundred people recorded as viewing them.  One for Alyth Galim – our Youth and Education page.   There is also a popular Instagram page where photos of what is happening in the Synagogue are posted each week including photos of those who are bar or batmizvah each week, a few days before their Shabbat, so that the whole Synagogue can celebrate their rite of passage.   And our social media suite includes the @AlythSyn Twitter feed to help draw people to the other communication that we do.

Yesterday the Alyth Galim Facebook page and Instagram showed something very special – and it is still there if you want to look at it after Shabbat.  It is a child’s writing out of the first ten letters of the Hebrew AlephBet – with the vowels – just like they might do here on a Sunday morning at Galim, Alyth’s Jewish religion school.  The letters are a bit uncertain, some neat and precise, some shaky, some larger some smaller.  They could have been written last week.  But they weren’t.  These letters were written out by a child sometime in the Eleventh Century, probably in the Cheder of the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Fustat, in Cairo Egypt.

In this week of the Torah portion Devarim, which means words, all our children who use the Alyth Galim Facebook page and Instagram can see that children like them have been struggling to learn how to write those Hebrew words for hundreds and hundreds of years and that they share their journey towards Bar and Bat Mitzvah through time as well as across the world today.

The picture of the eleventh century AlephBet primer was taken and posted by Mike Mendoza, Youth and Education Hub Educator. Mike came this week on a trip that thirty-five members of the Synagogue took to the Cambridge University Library to enjoy the exhibition “Discarded History” and to learn from two of the specialists in the universities’ Taylor-Shechter Genizah Research Unit.   Many here today will know about this incredible resource but for those who don’t here is a quick summary.


In 1896 two intrepid Cambridge ladies, twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson brought back to Solomon Shechter, the Universities’ Reader in Rabbinics, a Hebrew page from the Apocryphal Book of Ben Sira, bought from a Cairo antiquities dealer, a book of the extended bible which had not been seen in Hebrew for more than a thousand years.

This page turned out to have come from the Genizah of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat.  The Genizah was a six-metre-deep void in the building of the Synagogue accessed through a slot at the top of the ladies gallery of the Synagogue into which people had been literally chucking any finished with document written in Hebrew characters ever since the 10th Century.  They did this so that they would not inadvertently destroy the name of God.

As soon as he could gather funds from Charles Taylor, Master of St John’s College Cambridge, which is why it is called the Taylor-Shechter Genizah, Solomon Shechter set sail for Cairo to investigate the Genizah and bring its contents back to Cambridge for study.   This was the time of bringing all kinds of things from the ancient world to Britain, filling the British Museum and the V & A.   It was in that context that the emptying of the Genizah of the Ben Ezra Synagogue was authorised by the leadership of the Cairo Jewish community.   Schechter brought 109,000 documents from that six-metre-deep room.  The earliest of the documents were from the sixth Century and the latest from just a few years before his emptying mission.

What was in the Genizah were letters, poems, wills, marriage contracts, bills of lading, writs of divorce, prayers, prescriptions, trousseau, bibles, money orders, amulets, court documents, inventory, responsa, piyyutim leases, receipts, and a few children’s AlephBets.  Just normal life, the Genizah scholar S D Goitein called it the “living sea scrolls.”

The documents were all written in Hebrew characters, from people who used those characters to write Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo Arabic, Greek, Persian, Latin, Ladino, Yiddish, though quite often they were on reused paper or parchment with, on the back,  Syriac, Arabic, Coptic even one document with Chinese.

The University thought these documents would take ten years or so to sort, catalogue and analyse.  It is now one hundred and twenty years after Solomon Schechter returned with the hoard – and the Genizah research unit is still doing the work.

The exhibition is open to the public until October and I urge you to take a trip to see it.  You will find yourself immersed in Jewish life of a thousand years ago, and you will see for yourself the diversity that always accompanied the Jewish people wherever we live.

Our portion Devarim starts with the phrase “These are the words that Moses spoke.”  It begins the final book of the Torah which is called Devarim after these opening words.  The Greek name for the book is of course Deuteronomy – meaning second law – because in it Moses seemingly repeats the history of the past four books of the Torah and Israelite’s journey across the wilderness and the law that was given on the journey.  Except he doesn’t quite.


Rabbi Audrey Korotkin notes [The Twice Told Tale – URJ 25-7-2015]:  Take the appointment of tribal magistrates to assist Moses in his judicial burden. In the original rendering of the story (Exodus 18:13-27), the whole idea is given to Moses by his non-Israelite father-in-law Jethro, immediately before the Revelation at Sinai. In Moses’ retelling, however (Deuteronomy 1:9-18), Moses takes credit for the idea himself and places it after the Revelation—that is, after Jethro’s departure from the camp.


Or take the mission of the twelve scouts, the advance guard that would bring the people back a picture of the Land and its bounty. In the original story (Numbers 13), God directs Moses to send the scouting party with a somewhat noncommittal sh’lach l’cha, send for yourself,” perhaps a rebuke to Moses for needing the reassurance of the scouts.


As it happens, that plan goes horribly wrong when ten of the twelve scouts return with frightening stories of fortified cities and dangerous giants. Here (Deuteronomy 1:22-33), however, Moses lays the blame at the feet of the people: first for demanding the advance patrol because of their lack of faith in God’s promise; and then for refusing to move forward even with the scouts’ description of “a good land that the Eternal our God is giving to us” (Deuteronomy 1:25)—omitting all mention of the negative account that sent the people cowering.


Even in Moses re-statement of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5 the reason given for the commandment to observe Shabbat is different.  In Devarim it is because we were once slaves and must have and give to others a weekly day of freedom, whilst in Exodus it was because God rested on that day of creation.


When we tell a story again like Moses we emphasize what matters to us or to the audience in front of us.  For we members of Alyth, as we were given the privilege of handing tenth to thirteenth century documents in the library at Cambridge, we too read them with today’s eyes.  We saw ourselves in them – a Jewish community of Fustat divided in three with a Palestinian Synagogue, a Babylonian Synagogue and a Karaite Synagogue – but yet one where the communities clearly mixed and intermarried and interacted with each other.  For example, in their ketubah from 1117, the marriage of Palestinian Rabbanite doctor Yahya ben Avraham and Karaite Rayyisa Bat Saadia is recorded. The ketubah specified that he will respect her religious customs. It is as if a Ketubah between an Orthodox and a Reform Jew took place today in an Orthodox Synagogue with the Ketubah specifying that both traditions be fully respected.


This was a community which clearly traded with, was friendly with, and knew the Muslim and Christian communities around them as proved by document after document.   A community which had international links and knew what was going on in the world – hence the Chinese documents and much showing trade with India, and even Northern France.  A community which cared – there are lists of the people who were looked after by the community and provisions made for them – the traveler from Hijaz, Yaqub the blind man, the widow of Eliakim, the children of the deaf man, the Berber woman, are just a few of those mentioned in the Fustat equivalent of the Alyth Rabbis Charitable Fund from 1107 dated for exactly this day of the Jewish year 910 years ago.


Eleh HaDevarim – these are the words that open this week’s Torah portion.  In the vision of the Prophet Isaiah’s vision on this Shabbat Chazon  “‘Learn to do good, seek justice; relieve the oppressed. Uphold the orphan’s rights; take up the widow’s cause. Come now,’ says the Eternal One, ‘let us reason together'” (Isaiah 1:17–18) It is beautiful to see that Jews have been responding to that call for so many hundreds of years – starting with teaching our children the Aleph Bet.   May we continue these words in our generation – and the generation to come from  Jaqueline and Rich, Danielle and Ethan and Vered and Lewis.