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Ancient Jewish Burial Practices: Genizah

A genizah, or geniza as it is sometimes known, is a depositary or storage room found in a synagogue. This term, which is Hebrew for storage, also refers to a cemetery in which Hebrew texts and papers that are considered either heretical or damaged are placed until they can be correctly buried. Therefore, the genizah serves a two-fold purpose: that is, to preserve good things from harm and to prevent negative things from harming them.

The genizah (plural genizot) provides a temporary storage for such texts and papers prior to proper cemetery burial. This Jewish custom states that there must be a solemn gathering of the contents of the genizah, which are then to be buried in a cemetery. According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to discard of any items containing the name of God. Secular writings that contain God’s name are also applicable to this law, as are texts of all languages, including Judeo-Arabic languages, Judeo-Persian languages, Ladino and Yiddish.

The Use of Genizot in Ancient Times

Most ancient synagogues contained a genizah. The synagogues in Jerusalem, for example, buried the contents of the genizot every seven years, in addition to a year in which drought occurred. This latter practice was followed due to the belief that it would bring rain. The custom of genizah was linked to a much older one in which a deceased man of high distinction was buried with a sefer (any kind of book) that had become pesul (unusable due to old age or illegibility).

There are several references to genizah in the Talmud, which states the need for genizah for holy writings in languages other than Hebrew. For example, in Shabbat 30b, a reference is made to rabbis who seek to categorize the books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs as heretical. This custom is also referred in Shabbat 13b with regard to the Book of Ezekial and in Pesach 62 with regard to the Book of Genealogies.

Most ancient synagogues contained a genizah. Examples of such synagogues include that at Feodosia in the Crimean, in which the genizah is located in the alcove on the ground floor of the synagogue. The ancient synagogue of Bokhara contains a genizah in the roof while that found in Teheran contains a genizah in the underground cellar.

The Use of Genizot in Medieval Times

In medieval times, Hebrew scraps and paper relegated to genizah were referred to as shemot (names), as there sacredness and therefore their claim to preservation was dependent on whether they contained the name of God. These scraps were used in order to hide the famous Golem of Prague, whose body is believed to hide in the genizah of the Altneushul located in Prague. This well-known genizah is located in the synagogue’s roof, over the historic banner that celebrates the bravery of the Bohemian Jews. It is believed that this genizah is under the special protection of the Golem.

The Genizah of Cairo

The most famous genizah can be found in the city of Cairo. Discovered in 1864, the genizah of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fostat, Egypt (now Old Cairo) drew much attention when some 200 000 Jewish manuscripts were found in the synagogue, including a fragment of the original Hebrew of Ecclesiasticus. These manuscripts provided researchers with the most extensive collection of religious and private documents of the tenth to thirteenth centuries. In addition to important Talmudic documents, these manuscripts contained rabbinical court records, private letters, as well as marriage contracts, thereby providing historians with a comprehensive understanding of Jewish culture during the medieval period.

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