Book Review | Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza

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As I mentioned previously (see: When Did the Western Wall Become a Place of Prayer?) I found an interest in the Cairo Geniza. I went on Amazon and looked for the best looking book I could find on the Cairo Geniza and I bought Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. It was amazing.

First, some background. As we recently studied in the Rambam Class, there is a prohibition against the detsruction of God’s printed name. So what do you do when the names are printed in books or on papers if they are no longer able to be used? Geniza. They are buried and given the same respect given to humans after humans die.

Generally, a geniza will be buried and the paper will decompose and be lost forever. The Cairo Geniza is a collection of items that fell into disuse. But the Cairo Geniza has two incredible anomolies that make it so special. First of all, the residents of Cairo and the contributors to this geniza buried all items with hebrew letters. They buried contracts and poems as well as prayers and biblical texts. This makes the content of the geniza much broader. More importantly, because of the climate and the fact that the geniza was in a closet sized room and not buried underground, many of the items placed in the geniza remained intact.

The Cairo Geniza was a repository of nearly 300,000 Jewish documents and holy texts spanning 1000 years. The earliest documents were from the 9th century and the latest documents were from the 19th century. That is a mind-blowing discovery. Further, as opposed to the Dead Sea Scrolls, the people of Cairo were not a minor sect. They practiced rabbinic Judaism similar to orthodox Judaism of today. The traditions and teachings of orthodox Judaism that are practiced and taught today can be traced through the Geniza and were practiced and taught in a way that is familiar to orthodox Jews today.

Sacred Trash is best known for its wonderful way of weaving together the men and women who discovered the geniza, their motivations and personalities with their discoveries. It reads more like a novel than a book of Academia and I am sure that history buffs and budding scholars will find the book a bit watered down. No matter. It was perfect for me.

Reading Sacred Trash I learned a lot about Solomon Schechter. Today, his name is associated with Conservative Judaism. But when he was chasing the Cairo Geniza, he sounded very different from what I expected. His writings and his passions for strict observance of Judaism is more familiar in Orthodox Judaism than Conservative Judaism today. It seemed to me from the excerpts in the book that were taken from his writings that he would be more comfortable in a Yeshiva today than at the JTS. It could be the book has mislead me, but that is what I gleaned from the book about Solomon Schechter.

I also learned that rough drafts of the Mishnah Torah were found in the geniza. Oh how I would love to see those…

My main interest in the book was to get a sense of daily religious life for observant Jews 1000 years ago. It wasn’t easy to pull these details out of Sacred Trash as that was not its purpose. But the few things that I learned in this regard were very profound and have affected or affirmed the way I see Judaism.

In the earliest recorded days of the Jewish community in Cairo, there were three synagogues. One was for Jews who followed the tradition of the Babylonian Talmud. That would be most similar to today’s orthodox Jews. The second was for those followed the Palestinian Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi). The third was for Karaites. They did not follow the Talmud at all. Although their disagreements on theology were intense. There is evidence that they married out of their respective sects and “intermarried”. They made stipulations about observance in the marriage contracts resolving to place their affection for one another above disagreements on observance. They disagreed on theology but all realized that they were striving for the same truth. This created an environment of inclusion rather than exclusion.

To me, this is an important lesson. I am not certain if the lesson is applicable today or not. But I am sure that I wish it was. Healthy competition among Jewish sects is a good thing. But hatred, negative propaganda and absolute dismissal of entire swaths of Judaism cannot be the ideal. But more importantly, it wasn’t always this way. It doesn’t always have to be this way either.

The other thing that caught my eye in Sacred Trash was the focus on liturgy and in particular piyitum of the Jews in the early years of the Cairo Geniza. Piyutim (liturgical poems) were the focus of Jewish life in those days. People who could not read hebrew or pray came to the synagogue to hear the newest piyutim. Each week a new piyut was written in masterful style and substance. It is something that is lost upon us moderns but to them it was the ultimate expression of devotion and connection to God. It’s interesting for a number of reasons. The first thing I thought about was the comparison to the secular world. Entertainment in those days were ballads. People paid money to hear a good ballad. Jews came to the synagogue to hear beautiful ballads about God, the Jews and Torah.

In my view, this illustrates the amorphous nature of social Jewish observance. During the era of the Temple, the focus of Jewish social observance was the holy Temple service. Following the destruction of the Temple the focus became redacting, editing and perfecting Jewish texts like the Torah and the Talmud. It seems that in the 9th through 12th centuries piyutim were the focus. During medieval times, the focus for many was simply survival for others it was the three methods of commentary on the Talmud, pirush, psak and pircha. After the Renaissance the focus shifted to scholarly Talmudic discourses called pilpul. Some felt this was too intellectual and robbed many of a connection with God and Chassidus was born. In the last century, the focus has shifted to a life of kollel, where men study Torah full time after marriage and are supported by their communities (or wives). Also we have seen the rise of the Daf Yomi (daily study of one folio of Talmud) and perhaps most of all we have seen the proliferation of chumros (stringencies) and segulos (charms). I wonder, how will we be defined in a few hundred years?

Of course, these are generalizations. And also, we are presuming adherence to mitzvos and participation in the synagogue as a given throughout these eras of observant Jews. But the point remains. The focus of social Jewish observance changes, has changed many times and continues to change. It is important for our generation to know that we are unique, things are different today than they have ever been and the social acceptability of kollel life is not a given. Many would say, perhaps it should be reexamined.

Sacred Trash taught me a lot. I am sure it will speak to you in other ways as well and it will be a great addition to your bookshelf.

Pick it up from by clicking any of the links like this one: Sacred Trash


  • Sa2ra Moskowitz

    i’m setting up my amazon account to direct bill YOU for any book purchases….!!!!

  • Anonymous

     In the last century, the focus has shifted to a life of kollel, where men study Torah full time after marriage and are supported by their communities (or wives).

    Are you kidding? Only a tiny percentage of Jews have shifted their focus to what you describe here. Even if you include only Orthodox Jews, and I don’t know why you would do that, it is a small percentage.

    I think instead, that the focus of Judaism today has been on the visible aspects of Jewish practice. If I may coin a phrase, “pious gashmiyut“. It appears that this new focus transcends sect and even economic level to some extent. Just take a walk through the average Jewish home, Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. You will see Jewish artwork, elaborate mezuzot, silver items of all sorts, triple sinks in the kitchen (dairy, meat, and pareve), double ovens, washing sinks, large bookshelves filled with Jewish literature, etc. You will see elaborate sets of Shabbat (Sabbath) clothes, and hats, even to the extent that it will often include some very expensive pieces such as special kinds of hats (shtreimel or spodek). And sheitels (wigs) made of the best quality human hair. Before holidays, you will see an orgy of spending, perhaps in an effort to observe the holiday in a better way, but also perhaps in a way to outdo your neighbor (Who has the best lulav/etrog? Who goes to the nicest hotel for Pesach?). You will see elaborate synagogues, congregations, and temples. Some will have beautiful displays of artwork, of sculpture, or of rescued sifrei Torah in the lobby or in an alcove off the lobby. You will sometimes also see elaborate memorials of the Shoah (Holocaust). Look at our educational institutions and you will see campuses that had no equal in earlier generations, not even close. And those campuses don’t include only areas dedicated to learning, but other things like gymnasiums, sports fields, etc. Look at our Jewish Community Centers whose facilities rival much of what the secular world can offer.

    And this doesn’t only apply to things that are “voluntary”. In the Orthodox Jewish world, many things have become religiously mandatory via the social constructs that we live with. Think of things like the Chosson Shas (a set of Talmud that is purchased for the groom that has become almost de rigueur among Orthodox Jews), the yichud room gift, the lechter (shabbat candlesticks) for the kallah (bride), the Borsalino at age 13, etc.

    • Mark: I am referring to the people who are keeping Torah and Mitzvos in the (mostly) same way they were kept in Cairo circa 870.

      For those people (ie orthodox Jews) this has become the focus.

      • Anonymous

         When I read about the “three synagogues” of Cairo, I immediately thought of the 3 major sects today. After all, in a few hundred or a thousand years from now, there will be remnants of each of the three sects to be discovered by future researchers.

    • But I agree with your analysis as well.

  • This goes on my wishlist now (hint to family members, you see).
    How about adding snippets of your review on Amazon?

    • Hadn’t thought of that… Which snippet do you think I should post?

  • Shragi

    Thanks for linking to this from Facebook. Added to my wishlist!