The following is one of the most intriguing stories in recent Jewish history and it is based almost entirely on an article titled “Judeana Jones” in the July 19 issue of the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon.
Nothing I am about to relate is my own original work or research. I am simply relating in English the gist of the story and I think readers will agree it just might top the drama of “The Amazing Saga of Two-Gun Cohen” (Jewish Press, front-page essay, Sept. 1, 2012).
The story is about two collectors and researchers of ancient Jewish books who stumbled on the existence of what may be one of the richest and oldest collections of ancient Jewish handwritten manuscripts, preserved in a cave in Afghanistan.
The documents were in a genizah, or storage/disposal area, that once served a Jewish community in Afghanistan. The better-known genizah of Cairo has long served as one of the richest sources of original materials on ancient Judaic practice and writing. Only a small amount of material has been obtained from the Afghan genizah but the little that has been appears to be priceless.
Moshe Rosenfeld is a collector of and dealer in ancient Jewish books living in Jerusalem. He’s the Judeana Jones of our story. He is an expert on, and has published a small encyclopedia about, all the books in print that use the Hebrew alphabet. I emphasize the alphabet because his archive is not limited to books written in the Hebrew language.
Rosenfeld’s partner in his enterprise is an elderly soft-spoken scholar named Isaiah Winograd. In the spring of 1998 Rosenfeld was giving a lecture in Petach Tikva on ancient Jewish manuscripts. A member of the audience approached him and showed him a yellowing photograph of a parchment document. He told Rosenfeld he was a Jewish diamond merchant based in Dallas, Texas. A week earlier someone from Afghanistan had shown him photographs of a number of old documents, some torn or damaged, and asked the diamond merchant if he was interested in buying them. The man now wanted Rosenfeld to indicate whether they looked genuine and had any commercial value. He said he was set to return to Texas after Passover and wanted to know if this was something worth pursuing.
The Texan further explained that the Afghan told him that a large collection of such documents and scraps had been discovered in an old burial cave in the northeastern province of Afghanistan. (Centuries ago Afghanistan was under the rule of Persian emperors and had a significant Jewish population.) It sounded like a genizah similar to the famous one discovered in Cairo.
In 1998 Afghanistan was in large part but not wholly under the rule of the Taliban. But it was before the 9-11 attacks and the Taliban was not yet the target for Western anti-terror fury. The northeastern section of Afghanistan was controlled by a non-Taliban tribe.
Upon viewing the photo of the fragment, Rosenfeld knew at once it was a genuine ancient Jewish manuscript, and the story surrounding it convinced him the collection of documents was of incredible value, not just from a Jewish historical point of view but also from a commercial one. He considered going to Afghanistan himself but was told that would be suicide.
The Texan returned home and the Afghan he had spoken with connected him with the chief of the Khakimi tribe, which controls the section of Afghanistan where the cave and its documents were reported to be. The Israelis began to negotiate a rendezvous some place in Europe for purposes of purchasing the documents. Plans were interrupted when a major earthquake hit Afghanistan a few days later. But as a result the Khakimis were even more desperate for cash and seemed more forthcoming. They offered a suitcase full of the documents in exchange for a plane loaded with grain and other foods.
Rosenfeld recruited a private-sector security agency run by two ex-Israeli intelligence officers. They uncovered more information and found a contact person from the Khakimi tribe who said he could get the documents to the Tajikistan border with an armed escort. But the tribe’s price had changed – it was now a plane full of weapons, and everyone understood that the Americans and much of the rest of the world would never tolerate such an idea.
Nevertheless, Rosenfeld and his team went to Tajikistan and attempted to maintain contacts from there with the tribe. But in 1999 the president of Tajikistan was assassinated and violence spread in the country. The Afghan who had approached the diamond merchant showed up again in Texas, and new plans were made to rendezvous with him, but the FBI suspected he might be a terrorist and warned the Rosenfeld people off.
By early 2001communications and negotiations were being conducted with the Khakimis for a new meeting, which finally took place that summer in a London hotel. The Afghans brought with them some sample documents. When the Israelis saw one in particular they could not contain their excitement. The Afghans sensed it and upped the ante. Besides that document the Afghans also showed them an ancient Jewish prayer book, which the Israelis photographed. It is one of the oldest ever discovered.
The haggling continued and they agreed to meet a few weeks later to complete the transaction. But before they could do so, bin Laden and his terrorists attacked the United States and the Taliban became the enemy of the civilized world. Contacts ended, with only a small number of the documents from the cave having been seen and photographed.
What became of the rest is not known. On the one hand, the Taliban is all too willing to obliterate anything attesting to ancient Jewish life and culture. On the other hand, it wasn’t difficult to figure out that the documents had commercial value. An Iranian Jewish merchant in the UK is said to have recently purchased one of the Afghan manuscripts for $400,000.
The story of the Afghan genizah was revealed to only a small number of people. In December 2011, Ehud Yaari, an Israeli television commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, broadcast a story about the genizah’s existence but got many of the details wrong. Only in the past few weeks have Rosenfeld and his people decided to go public and reveal their attempts to get the documents.
I left readers hanging several paragraphs back. What was that incredible document seen by the Israelis in the London hotel and about which they were unable to contain their excitement?
It was apparently the oldest Passover Haggadah ever discovered. And what gave it away was the Fifth Question.
Passover Seders begin with the asking of the Four Questions. The basis for this tradition goes back to the Mishnah, which was redacted in the early second century. What most people do not know is that in the Mishnah there are actually five questions. The fifth, as related in the Pesachim tractate of the Talmud, is this: “On all other nights we eat meat roasted, stewed or boiled, but on this night, roast only.” This refers to the Passover sacrifice as it was conducted in the Temple services.
At the time of the Talmud and for a while afterward, this fifth question was still included in the Seder. But during the era of the Gaon scholars in Babylonia, which began in 589, it was ruled inappropriate to ask this fifth question since we are prohibited from conducting the Passover sacrifice outside the Temple and of course the Temple had been destroyed. So the question was dropped.
But the Passover Haggadah photographed from the Afghan genizah includes this Fifth Question. Which means this Haggadah is so old that it was written before word of the ruling against inclusion of the question had reached the Jewish community in remote Afghanistan.
One can only hope that it – along with other treasures from the Afghan genizah – will be preserved until the day it finds its way into responsible Jewish hands.
About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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