Hidden Treasures of Cairo Genizah

High-Tech Science Pieces Together Ancient Scraps of Jewish Life

By Hand and Machine: Lucy Cheng works to preserve fragments from the Cairo genizah at Cambridge University in Britain.
Cambridge University Library
By Hand and Machine: Lucy Cheng works to preserve fragments from the Cairo genizah at Cambridge University in Britain.

By Joel N. Shurkin

Published November 10, 2011, issue of November 18, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Computer scientists at Tel Aviv University are using artificial intelligence to gather the fragments of the world’s largest collection of medieval documents, the legendary Cairo Genizah, to tell the story of 1,000 years of Jewish history and culture. They have reconstructed more than 1,000 documents from 350,000 individual items found in the Cairo storage room: more in a few months than in 110 years of conventional scholarship.

They have decades to go before they are finished.

“The Genizah contains information about every single Jewish subject in the world — all learning,” said Rabbi Reuven Rubelow, manager of the Friedberg Genizah Project, which funds the research. “If it is holy, they kept it in this room.”

In some ways, the contents of the Cairo Genizah are more important than the Dead Sea Scrolls, several scholars believe. While the Dead Sea scrolls were the religious literature of a small sect that lived in the desert for a few years, the Cairo Genizah told the story of the day-to-day details of a millennium of Jewish life, from the mundane to the magnificent.

Ultraviolet and Ancient: Scientist Ben Outhwaite uses ultraviolet camera to take images of fragments from genizah.
cambridge university library
Ultraviolet and Ancient: Scientist Ben Outhwaite uses ultraviolet camera to take images of fragments from genizah.

“What we have learned about Jewish culture and history… in the Muslim world in a century of research is unparalleled,” said Mark Cohen, professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. It is especially true of the day-to-day life of the Jews.

“It’s like looking through a trash can outside your home,” said Phillip Lieberman, assistant professor of Jewish studies and law at Vanderbilt University. “I can tell a great deal about your life from what I find.”

What the Tel Aviv researchers are doing will revolutionize that search. While some of the archive includes complete letters, manuscripts and documents, much of it consists of fragments, some containing only a few words, or pages out of context. The fragments are spread out through 70 different libraries and museums around the world. One page of a letter could be in Oslo and another in Philadelphia.

Nachum Dershowitz and Lior Wolf of TAU’s Blavatnik School of Computer Science are taking the digitized documents and feeding them into computers to rejoin the parts.

Until now, researchers had to rely on serendipity to put together fragments; they would look at a document and remember that it looked like something they saw someplace else, Cohen said. But now, computers are able to learn from their own experience which fragments fit with which. The more documents the computer sees, the better the algorithm will get, an attribute that A.I. scientists call computer learning. The project uses A.I. techniques that were developed over the past decade for myriad reasons but only recently brought to bear on the Cairo Genizah.

Pieces of History: Fragments of Jewish documents from the Cairo genizah.
cambridge university library
Pieces of History: Fragments of Jewish documents from the Cairo genizah.

Although a genizah has been described as a “holy trash” dump, it is actually a word from the Persian, meaning “hoard” or “hidden treasure.” The practice of storing documents in a genizah derives from the Jewish idea that letters, like people, are alive and sacred. When they wear out, or “die,” they are to be treated with respect, especially if, like the Torah, they contain the words of God. They are eventually either buried or, as in the case of the Cairo Genizah, allowed to decay on their own.

Eventually, genizot became neutral receptacles for any community documents. The one in Cairo is by far the oldest and largest.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.