English, Events, Talk of the Town, Talmud in the News

The Afghani ‘Geniza’

A few months ago, news broke in the Israeli media of an important manuscript trove that was discovered in Afghanistan. A spate of articles appeared in the press, each one covering just a bit more than the one prior it. Even Israeli television did not lost interest. With all the breathless reporting, the purple prose, and the melodramatic music playing in the background, it has been difficult to get a clear picture of what the value of the collection really is.

Last evening, Shaul Shaked delivered the annual Sara Soroudi lecture on Mount Scopus in a small, stuffy, and packed seminar room. In his unassuming and dignified manner, Shaked gave an initial report on the find, and presented some documents which he read and commented upon.  First things first: The collection apparently stems from around Dareh-Usuf in the vicinity of Balkhs in Northern Afghanistan. Of course neither Shaked nor the other Israeli researches interested in the documents have themselves seen the cave in which the collection was supposedly found. However, Shaked said that his sources in the region, which he claims are trustworthy, did testify to having seen the specific cave that stored the documents.

We know that Jews lived in Afghanistan in the Middle Ages from inscribed gravestones in Kur, but until now we have had virtually no further evidence about the community. Documents have been trickling out for some time now, and particularly in the last two years. There seem to be some two-hundred fragments, though more turn up all the time. And the majority of the collection is held with dealers in London, though in some other locations as well – including Jerusalem. As of yet, all of the research has been done via photographs. The dealers have yet to make a deal.

The find is known as a geniza by name alone. Like the Cairo Geniza, its contents are haphazard and do not represent a planned archival storage. Other than that, there is no evidence that the cave in which the contents were allegedly stored was associated with a specific Jewish communal institution. Further, its contents do not seem to have accrued gradually, rather apparently as a result of one (emergency?) deposit. The texts are mainly in Judeo-Persian, but also in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, and Arabic proper (that is in Arabic script, and sometimes even written by Muslims).

Shaked provided a nice sample of documents, many of which were actually quite colorful and of interest beyond specialists. He discussed two piyutim that have yet to be identified. One poetically referred to a mosaic of nations of the world. Tafsirs were a favored genre in the Judeo-Persian world, and Shaked discussed two of them – one on Genesis and the other on Jeremiah. Both hewed very closely to the original Hebrew, and the tafsir on Jeremiah contained “Babylonian” vocalization on both the biblical text and the Persian translation. “Babylonian” vocalization is actually quite common in the documents, and seems to point to a ninth century CE dating.

In general, medieval Persian-speaking Jews were not particularly interested in rabbinic texts. Shaked did show, however, a few texts of interest to Talmudists. One was a fragment from the second chapter of Mishna Avodah Zara. It seems that the text is close to the known geniza fragments, which would then again imply that written Mishna fragments outside of the Babylonian Talmud stem from a Palestinian and not Babylonian tradition – even when they may well have been written down in Iraq. Mention was also made of fragments associated with Saadya’s commentary on Jeremiah and his responses to Hiwi, while a fragment was shown that refers to the ba’alei miqrayim – perhaps a reference to Karaites. In addition, a charming philosophical text spoke of the endless production of books and book learning. The apparent connection to the Muslim world could be seen in a hadith-like Arabic fragment from the collection; while a business ledger dated to the eleventh century provided a window into everyday life. Finally, a long and detailed letter recounted the story of a poor chap who fled Bamiyan due to accusations of improper business practices and Sabbath desecration. He had to leave his wife back in Bamiyan in order to go live in Razny, and he defends himself in the letter. And so, a nearly millennium old human interest story.

From the evidence, the people associated with the documents seem to have known not only Judeo-Persian and Hebrew, but also Arabic, which may point to recent origins in Babylonia. Regardless, from the small sample that was shown, there is no doubt that the collection is extremely important for reconstructing the history and texture of life of c. eleventh century Afghani Jewry.

The problem of course is that nothing can really be published until the collection is purchased. And here one begins to wonder about matters that Shaked did not discuss: Have some of the dealers been feeding off of the media hype and inflating the prices beyond reason? There is no doubt that there are serious potential buyers out there interested in purchasing these truly important documents and making them available to scholars. But generally, buyers with the serious funds needed for a collection of this sort are not dumb, and they are not interested in paying far beyond the reasonable value. No doubt, antiquity dealers have a right to charge a handsome sum for a valuable collection, but it must be within reason.  They should know that sales of this type are based essentially on trust. And let us not forget, they too have a responsibility to preserve the heritage reflected in the documents by making them available for research.  If the documents are to finally reach scholars, it will take a dealer, or a group of dealers prepared to negotiate in good faith. There is simply no other way.

UPDATE: See Avraham Yoskovich’s comment in the comments section for a review of Haggai Ben-Shammai’s “companion” lecture at the National Library on Tuesday, May 1, 2012.