Photo Credit: Courtesy Haifa University
A page from the 11th century Haggadah

An ancient Haggadah from the Cairo Genizah, probably from the 10th-11th centuries CE, opens a window to the Jewish customs of the Middle Ages: the Passover Seder guidelines are written in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic in Hebrew letters, similar to Yiddish); the blessing for washing hands, “al netilat yadaim,” is expressed as “al rechitzat yadaim”; and this Haggadah follows the Eretz Israel tradition, which disappeared around the 12th century.

There’s a greeting at the bottom of one of the pages, from the Haggadah’s owner or, perhaps, scribe: “This is the siddur (meaning agenda, same root as seder), Yosef ben Amrom, may he live long, by His Name, Amen v’Amen.”

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“Hundreds of thousands of Cairo Genizah documents continue to provide us with direct information about Jewish life in the Middle Ages,” Said Dr. Moshe Lavie, head of the Cairo Genizah Center at Haifa University, which partners in the international project Scribes of the Cairo Genizah.

“It is fascinating to see again and again how much our traditions have changed over the years, and to what extent they have remained almost the same,” Dr. Lavie said.

Solomon Schechter at the Cairo Genizah / Photo credit: unknown

The Cairo Genizah is a collection of some 350,000 Jewish manuscript fragments that were found in the storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat—Old Cairo, Egypt. These manuscripts outline a 1,000-year continuum of Jewish Middle Eastern and North African history and comprise the largest and most diverse collection of medieval manuscripts in the world.

The first European to note the collection was Simon van Gelderen (a great-uncle of Heinrich Heine), who visited the Ben Ezra synagogue and reported about the Cairo Genizah in 1752 or 1753.

The results from Scribes of the Cairo Genizah have the potential to rewrite the history of the pre-modern Middle East, Mediterranean and Indian Ocean trade, and the Jewish diaspora, according to the project’s website.

Until now, most of the information has remained locked away in undeciphered manuscript fragments; less than one-third of the 350,000 items have been catalogued in the 120 years that the cache has been known to exist. Virtually all scholars who have studied these texts have come away with a transformed sense of the history of the region and the long ties of intimacy among its people.

Students and the general public will have the opportunity to benefit from encountering these fragments online and from learning how to sort and eventually transcribe them as members of this citizen scientist community. We see this project as a way for people with shared interests and different skill levels from around the world to meet in a common endeavor and unlock this storage chamber of ancient fragments.

A page from the 11th century Haggadah / Photo credit: Courtesy Haifa University

In honor of Passover, the project’s researchers have presented two pages from one of the ancient Haggadahs found in the Genizah, which is located in the JTS library in New York.

According to Vered Raziel-Kretzmer of the Eliyahu laboratory at the University of Haifa, the fact that the Haggadah is written on a square parchment indicates its antiquity. “Beginning in the 10th century, Jews in the East begin to write on paper,” she said. “By the 12th century the use of the parchment was almost completely abandoned. The fact that this is a Haggadah written on parchment, together with the almost square shape of the page and the shape of the letters, all indicate that it is probably from the 10th or 11th century.”

“We’ve received a few Haggadahs from the first millennium CE, making this one of the oldest surviving Haggadahs – in the Genizah and in general,” Raziel-Kretzmer said.

On the second page of this Genizah segment, another Eretz Israel tradition is revealed: the top of the page features the title “Psalm for the end of the Passover,” followed by Psalm 126, also known as “The Great Hallel.” According to this custom, a special psalm was said at the beginning of the evening service of each holiday – and on the seventh day of Passover, Psalm 126 was recited. This indicates that this Haggadah was part of a prayer agenda for the entire Passover holiday, beyond the Seder.

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