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  • "Elhanan, Son of Shemariah":The Old Series and the Cairo Geniza
  • Eve Krakowski (bio)

The Cairo Geniza's scholarly origin story is well known. The most familiar version stars Solomon Schechter. In 1896 he discovered a page from the long-lost Hebrew version of Ben Sira, set sail for Cairo, emptied the repository from whence the page had come—a chamber in the Ben Ezra synagogue in which Jews had deposited their worn-out manuscripts for nearly a millennium—and removed its contents to Cambridge University, where they swiftly revolutionized the history of Judaism.

Of course, this is not really the whole story. To begin with, the chamber Schechter visited was not actually the Ben Ezra's medieval geniza but a recent reconstruction, built after the synagogue had been demolished in the late 1880s and its manuscripts removed (many of them to be sold off by dealers, which is how the Ben Sira fragment had made it to Cambridge in the first place). Schechter's famous pile of "disjecta membra" were the remnants, reduced and extensively damaged during this transition, that had been returned to the new synagogue building sometime after it went up in 1892—and that may have been mixed in with other fragments first deposited elsewhere.1 Moreover, Schechter was hardly the only scholar to seek the chamber out, only the most successful. Stefan Reif's A Jewish Archive in Old Cairo, Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman's Sacred Trash, and several important recent studies by Rebecca Jefferson have collectively brought the above facts to light, along with a phenomenally engaging cast of characters who preceded, collaborated with, and fought against Schechter in tracking down and deciphering Geniza manuscripts.2 [End Page 593]

Yet scrolling through the earliest volumes of the Jewish Quarterly Review in preparation for this forum, it was still startling to see a short "Note" by Adolf Neubauer in the October 1893 issue (three years before Schechter laid eyes on his famous fragment of Ben Sira!) titled "Elhanan, Son of Shemariah ben Elhanan."3 Elḥanan b. Shemarya is thoroughly familiar to all Geniza scholars as a Jewish communal leader in Fustat who appears repeatedly in the early eleventh-century Geniza record. As for Neubauer, he was a librarian and eventually a reader in rabbinics at Oxford, vividly remembered in Sacred Trash as the Geniza's main "discoverer" manqué.4 Between 1889 and 1892 he helped Oxford's Bodleian Library purchase from the Anglican priest and collector Greville Chester numerous lots of Hebrew manuscripts taken from the Ben Ezra synagogue, then in the midst of reconstruction.5

As these clues might suggest, Neubauer's note turned out to be Genizacentric. In fact it is, so far as I can tell, the first scholarly edition of a Geniza fragment: two sheets that Chester had sold the Bodleian the previous winter (during the 1891–92 season), bearing a partial copy of a letter sent by Sherira b. Ḥananya (gaon of the Iraqi yeshiva of Pumbedita in the late tenth century) to his loyalist Avraham b. Sahlān in Egypt, which praises both Elḥanan and his father Shemarya.6

It is easy to understand why this text had caught Neubauer's eye. He had recently published a collection of medieval Jewish chronicles, in which Shemarya featured prominently as one of the protagonists of the [End Page 594] volume's most captivating tale: Avraham ibn Da'ud's account of four learned Jews seized by pirates and ransomed in cities around the Mediterranean, where they established the first post-gaonic centers of rabbinic scholarship (a legend the Geniza eventually disproved).7 For Neubauer, encountering the then-obscure Shemarya in real time among the Bodleian's new manuscripts must have been thrilling, although the note's dry tone betrays little of the subject's excitement. Nor did Neubauer explain where the text had come from. But the following year he announced more forthrightly in JQR that the Bodleian Library had recently purchased numerous "fragments of Hebrew MSS., found in a Genizah at Cairo," from which he would begin to "regularly publish extracts in this Quarterly."8

This never happened, because Neubauer's (muted) enthusiasm...