Behind the Headlines Life in Old Palestine
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Behind the Headlines Life in Old Palestine

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A vivid picture of life in Palestine in the period from the seventh to the 11th centuries emerges from a three-volume work, “Palestine During the First Moslem Period (634-1099),” just published by Tel Aviv University and the Ministry of Defense.

Written and compiled by Prof. Moshe Gil, of TAU’s Department of Jewish History, the book is based on an examination of 618 documents covering thousands of hand-written pages, from the 300,000 pages in 15,000 documents preserved in what is known as the Cairo Geniza.

They are a collection of papers dating mainly from the 11th century which had been stored in the Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, or old Cairo, the ancient capital of Egypt.

Prof. Gil took more than 600 of those documents, as well as Arab, Christian, Greek and Syrian sources, and put together his picture of life in Palestine some 800 years ago.


His work is said to be the most extensive study of the Geniza documents ever written. Volume one deals with the political and military events under the Moslem caliphates, from the conquest of Palestine by the Arabs to the Crusader conquest. It includes chapters on the legal status of Jews and Christians under Islam, and the treatment of the non-Moslem populations by the conquerors.

The two remaining volumes consist of translations of the 618 Geniza documents examined, from the original Judeao-Arabic to Hebrew, as well as commentaries on each.

Gil notes that “there is a certain lack of symmetry in the book, because we know almost nothing about Jewish life in the early period, while there are chronicles and church records of the Moslem and Christian communities. But thanks to the Geniza material, we have massive documentation on Jewish life in the 11th century.

The Geniza exists because of the Jewish belief that writing which contains the name of God should not be destroyed, but buried, like a human body. Thus, Sifrei Torah and prayer books are formally buried in special ceremonies till today.

Discarded writings were traditionally preserved in a Geniza (meaning a storehouse or archive) to await burial, which was usually carried out every seven years.

But for some reason, the writings in the Cairo Geniza were never buried. They accumulated some 900 years, until the late 19th century, when Judaica scholars discovered the material and began to buy portions of the collection.


In 1880, Solomon Schechter, Reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge University and later president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, acquired most of the remaining documents and sent them to Cambridge. Today, the Geniza writings are scattered around the world in more than 20 collections. Some of the ancient papers have recently been discovered still in store in Cairo.

Most of the Geniza consisted of literary works, including the earliest known texts of the Bible, the Talmud, and many prayer books. But there were also some 15,000 pages of letters, deeds, marriage certificates, and other legal documents which furnish the historian with a picture of daily life.

Many of these were community documents of the Yeshiva of Jerusalem, which had authority over the Jewish communities of Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, Syria and probably Sicily, south Italy, and the Byzantine lands.

They refer to conflicts in the community, appointments to public bodies, and financial aid to Jerusalem, which was dependent on aid from diaspora Jews.

In the 11th century, almost 90 percent of the Jews of the world lived in Moslem lands. As non-Moslems, neither Jews nor Christians enjoyed political rights, nor were they allowed to bear arms for their own defense.

Instead, they paid a poll tax to guarantee the security of their lives and property. All trades and professions were open to them, and Jews engaged in agriculture and in such crafts as weaving, dyeing and tanning, Others were secretaries and physicians.


The Geniza documents show that the Jews possessed a very strong communal organization. They had their own courts, and financed a wide range of community activities through a Jewish welfare system similar to the Moslem Waqf. Every Jewish community — some 30 throughout Palestine — owned properties that provided revenue for charity, education, and other social welfare activities.

Prof. Gil, who has been studying the Geniza for 15 years, sifted through all 15,000 documents to find the 618 on which he based his study. He is one of the very few scholars able to understand the language of the writings.

“Judeao-Arabic is an archaic language, closer to literary Arabic than to modern spoken Arabic,” he says. “It took me years of immersion in the material to understand it.” Gil is continuing his study of the Geniza documents and is now working on a history of the Jews in Babylonia during the early medieval period.

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