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Judeana Jones and the Fifth Question

The Taliban is all too willing to obliterate anything attesting to ancient Jewish life and culture.
Plaut-080213

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 steveneplaut@yahoo.com.


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2 Responses to “Judeana Jones and the Fifth Question”

  1. truly exciting news. I hope that we can rescue these treasures.

  2. The price of our identity comes from much work and at a great price, we Jews are men of wisdom and willing to pay any price for the return of our established identity; a man of wisdom knows to pay all prices and the paper dollars necessary to retrieve our ancient treasures are nothing compared to what we reclaim in return.

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