April 16th, 2013

arm light

Tuesday Word: genizah

Entrance to the Cairo Genizah

A modern genizah

"When the spirit is gone, we put the corpse out of sight to protect it from abuse. In like manner, when the writing is worn out, we hide the book to preserve it from profanation. The contents of the book go up to heaven like the soul."
-Solomon Schechter

Genizah (or geniza) is Hebrew in origin and literally means "hiding" or "hiding place." It comes from ganaz, meaning "to hide." It refers to a particularly marvelous sort of hiding place, a room or depository attached to a synagogue where unwanted Hebrew-language written and printed materials as well as ritual objects such as prayer shawls are stored. "Genizah" may also refer to the contents of a genizah. As it is forbidden to simply throw away documents containing the name of God, religious materials are the genizah's mainstay, and modern genizahs tend to focus entirely on saving such documents. For hundreds and hundreds of years, however, genizahs were used to store absolutely anything written using the Hebrew alphabet. Heretical texts are also stored in genizahs in order to prevent their circulation. Thus a genizah both protects its contents from the outside world and the outside world from its contents.

The materials in a genizah are waiting to be disposed of properly, generally via burial in a cemetery, sometimes in a plot that has been purchased by or donated to the synagogue for that very purpose. Sometimes the burial is accompanied by a sort of memorial service. In Jerusalem, synagogues bury the contents of their genizahs every seventh year and during drought years. It seems like a very dull life. You're printed, spend a decade or two being carefully passed around during services, spend several years languishing in a room full of your peers, a sort of nursing home or hospice for the written word, and then you're wrapped in white and buried, eventually meeting the same fate as your creators. Yet some of the revelations that have resulted from explorations of genizahs and their contents' final resting places are nothing short of explosive.

To learn more, I highly recommend reading about the Cairo Genizah, Solomon Schechter and Shelomo Dov Goitein. I also highly recommend reading Matthew Battles' Library: An Unquiet History, where I first read about genizahs. It is National Library Week in the United States, after all!



Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles