Navigate to History section

The European Genizah

Thousands of Hebrew manuscript fragments were discovered in Central Europe, where they had been used by Christians to bind books

Simcha Emanuel
December 23, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

The term “European Genizah” refers to thousands of individual pages that were torn out of Hebrew manuscripts centuries ago, and then used to bind books and cover archival files. Sometimes these pages were discovered by chance, and sometimes as a result of a systematic search. They were discovered mainly in Central Europe, in dozens of libraries, archives, and monasteries, and even among private possessions.

The European Genizah is not limited to Hebrew manuscripts. Tens of thousands of manuscripts in Latin, Greek, and other local languages were discarded as worthless throughout Europe, mainly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but also during the medieval era. They were then used by bookbinders and notaries in bindings, to cover files, and occasionally for other uses as well. An unwanted manuscript—whether because the ideas and opinions they contained had been invalidated, because better versions of the works had been published, or because newer and more beautiful manuscripts (or printed books) had been obtained—was removed from the shelves and sold to bookbinders. It goes without saying that ordinary folks had no interest in preserving manuscripts for which they no longer had any use, but even esteemed university libraries did not hesitate to discard thousands of manuscripts, some of which were purchased by craftsmen who used the parchment in bindings and to cover archival files. Parchment is a valuable material, easy to cut but hard to tear, and light (especially in comparison to the heavy wooden bindings that were common then). Therefore, bookbinders found much use for passé manuscripts that no one wished to read any longer. A handful of scholars understood by the middle of the sixteenth century that bookbinders were in possession of ancient manuscripts that should be rescued from their blades, but the phenomenon continued unabated for a long time and throughout Europe. Tens of thousands of such pages have been discovered recently in various countries, some in old bindings, and some in the covers of archival documents.

I will not presently address non-Hebrew manuscripts that have been discovered in book bindings, but I nevertheless note that even these contain, albeit infrequently, information of importance for Jewish history or the history of the Hebrew book. I cite three examples: The first is the remnant of a very old Hebrew manuscript that was discovered by chance within a Latin fragment used in a binding. The second is from a Marseille notary who bound his archival files in the early 1320s with a Latin document that he had written himself a short time before. By then, he no longer needed that document, so he excised and repurposed the parchment. The document contains the account of an investigation conducted by the Inquisition in Toulon, a city near Marseille, against a Jew suspected of helping an apostate Jew return to his original faith. It provides important information about the history of the Jews of that community during this period. The third consists of strips of outdated bills in Latin, which were used in England to bind newer bills. These strips contain information on loans made by English Jews to their Christian neighbors in the thirteenth century.

How did hundreds and thousands of Hebrew manuscripts come into the possession of Christian bookbinders? R. Joseph Yuspa Hahn Nordlingen writes: “most of the parchment books common nowadays came into Christian hands during persecutions.” A more explicit account is found in Megillat Winz, in a description of the pogrom against the Jews of Frankfurt in the year 1614. The author, an eyewitness to the pogrom, reports acts of plunder and clearly distinguishes between the fate of printed books—which were sentenced to destruction—and that of parchment manuscripts which were sold to the bookbinders:

The important sacred books [...] all printed and beautifully written, many of which were priceless [...], were scattered by the wicked on the road [...]. They lit a fire to do evil, and they burned the venerated books [...]. They divided the parchment books, new and old alike, among themselves. They were worth several thousand, more precious than jewels, but they sold them to a craftsman, to bind other books with them.

This writer’s words are corroborated in full by non-Jewish sources, and documentation from Frankfurt in those years record, in detail, that many Hebrew manuscripts were stolen from the city’s Jews during the pogrom and sold to bookbinders. Another example comes from the Western Hungarian city of Sopron. The city’s Jews were expelled in 1526, and in a petition submitted in 1528, the expellees complained that the townspeople demolished the synagogue and plundered their Hebrew books. Indeed, an examination of Hebrew and Latin fragments from book bindings demonstrates that from 1528 to 1548, local bookbinders used mainly fragments from Hebrew manuscripts, whereas in other years they used fragments of Latin manuscripts.

Similar findings emerge from a statistical analysis of hundreds of fragments from several Italian archives. These fragments cover archival files, so it is possible to date precisely when they were reused. Mauro Perani found, for example, that even though notaries in Bologna used manuscript pages throughout the sixteenth century, there was a dramatic rise, by hundreds of percentage points, in the use of Hebrew manuscripts in the immediate aftermath of the 1593 expulsion of the Jews from Bologna. In nearby Nonantola (c. 35km northwest of Bologna and 10km east of Modena), usage of Hebrew manuscripts increased significantly around 1630-1635—years during which the Christian censor confiscated the books of Modena’s Jews. These data clearly demonstrate that Hebrew manuscripts came into the possession of bookbinders and notaries by means of force.

In contrast to these testimonies, which are certainly accurate with regard to the location of the writers, Colette Sirat has advanced another explanation for the existence of the European Genizah. According to her, it is possible that the Jews themselves sold the manuscripts in their possession to bookbinders. It was mentioned earlier that in Christian society from the sixteenth century on, thousands of manuscripts were discarded as useless and worthless, and that bookbinders and notaries were just about the only people who exhibited any interest in them.

In Jewish society as well, starting in the sixteenth century, printed editions began to replace manuscripts on bookshelves, and manuscripts whose time had come were pushed to the margins. It is therefore possible that due to the major decline in the value of manuscripts, some members of the Jewish community voluntarily sold the valuable parchment pages of their manuscripts to bookbinders of their own free will, as was the custom among their Christian neighbors. A striking example is Sefer Ha-Ittur, published in Venice in 1608 from a manuscript. As soon as the printing was completed, the publishers took the manuscript, which ostensibly had already served its purpose, tore out its pages, and used them in the bindings of the copies of the Ittur, which were then rolling off the press.

It is worth noting another matter, which may support Sirat’s hypothesis: In parallel to the European Genizah, which was most common in the countries of Central Europe (as well as Spain), we find a similar phenomenon in some places in the Balkans and the East. Printing houses accumulated considerable quantities of unneeded and surplus printed pages, and bookbinders bought those pages on the cheap to use in their bindings. A detailed description of this practice in the sixteenth century is given by Rabbi Samuel de Medina:

The practice here in Salonika among the bookbinders is to make boards from the leftover pages and leaves from the printing presses, whether they contain commentaries and homilies or they contain part of the Torah, the Prophets, or the Writings. They do as follows: they paste leaves together […] until they resemble a thick board. Then they use this board to protect the bound books […] Moreover, they cut the boards into smaller pieces to protect smaller books, and they discard the small slices that they made while fitting the boards to the books.

There are numerous other attestations to this practice from the East, and it was generally accepted among Jewish bookbinders, who permitted themselves to reuse pages that they no longer needed. This permissive practice occasionally reached Central Europe. For instance, R. Jacob Emden (d. 1776) reports that he did so himself when he published his books. If this is how Jews treated the scraps of printed books, is it possible that they treated their manuscripts similarly?

Perhaps there is some truth to Sirat’s explanation, but it is certainly not sufficient on its own. As will be shown below, many fragments discovered in the European Genizah are from works that were never printed, and whose owners therefore had no reason to sell them voluntarily to bookbinders. It is hard to imagine that people were so eager to dispose of their manuscripts that they did not even note which of the works in their possession had already been printed and which had not. Moreover, the European Genizah also includes fragments of Torah scrolls; it is hard to believe that simple folk sold their Torah scrolls to bookbinders for profit.

It stands to reason that the historical truth lies somewhere between these two explanations. It seems that the Jews did not sell their manuscripts to bookbinders voluntarily; rather, the latter obtained them through force. Nevertheless, even within Jewish society—not only in the Christian society in which they lived—the status of manuscripts diminished noticeably during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Jews did not expend too much effort in this period to redeem Hebrew manuscripts from ruffians, who, for their part, understood that the Jews no longer considered these books to be so valuable and stopped trying to sell to them (unlike in prior centuries). The only people who still had interest in stolen manuscripts were bookbinders, who bought them for next to nothing.

The easiest manuscripts for bookbinders and notaries to use were written on parchment and in a relatively large format, a fact with far-reaching significance. Manuscripts of this sort generally contain classic works that are expected to remain on the bookshelf for a long time: Scripture and its commentaries, prayer books, the Talmud and its commentaries, and familiar halakhic works. Other works, which are generally rarer and thus more interesting, were usually not written in such magnificent manuscripts, and so they are not adequately represented in the European Genizah. Certainly, then, the Genizah does not contain drafts of works, letters and responsa in their authors’ handwriting, historical documents, or other informal writings that so abound in the Cairo Genizah. Ultimately, the European Genizah is not as fascinating and exciting as its Cairene counterpart, and the vast majority of it consists of works that have long been familiar to us; nevertheless, its significance is far from negligible.

The notaries’ raw material of choice—large-format parchment manuscripts—can seemingly explain something else as well. Sixteenth-century Italy was famously a meeting point of migrants from Iberia and Ashkenaz and natives of Italy; it could therefore be expected that the fragments found in Italian archives would reflect this situation. In fact, however, there are a disproportionate number of manuscripts in Ashkenazic scripts. The first (partial) summaries show that almost half of the fragments discovered in Italy are Ashkenazic, much higher than the ratio of Ashkenazic Jews among the Jews of Italy. As noted, this can be explained by the notaries’ preferences. Malachi Beit-Arié, who examined, at my request, the SfarData database of the Hebrew Paleography Project, found that the larger the manuscript format, the greater the likelihood that it is Ashkenazic. His examination incorporated all dated manuscripts written in Italian, Iberian, or Ashkenazic scripts throughout the Jewish world. These are the findings: among manuscripts with very small formats (101-200mm long), about one-sixth are Ashkenazic; among manuscripts with medium-sized formats (201-300mm), about a third are Ashkenazic; among large-format manuscripts (301-400mm), about one half are Ashkenazic; and among very large format manuscripts (>400mm long), about three quarters are Ashkenazic. The data show that an Italian notary seeking a large-format parchment Hebrew manuscript would find mainly Ashkenazic manuscripts. Thus, Genizah fragments discovered in Italy primarily represent the Ashkenazic library.

According to the present state of our knowledge, it is apparent that Hebrew manuscripts were used in Central Europe to bind books specifically, whereas in Italy they were utilized mainly to cover files of archival documents, and, only to a lesser extent, to bind books. Much rarer still was the use of manuscripts for other, occasionally bizarre, purposes. There is also evidence of such usage of non-Hebrew manuscripts. For example, an English scholar wrote in 1536 of Latin manuscripts that were taken from English monasteries and used to polish boots and candlesticks, sold in grocery stores, etc. Another scholar, from Denmark, wrote in 1701 about the systematic collection of “unnecessary” Latin manuscripts from cathedrals, for use as fuses to light fireworks at a royal wedding that took place in Copenhagen in 1634; about a Danish peasant who ripped out eleven illuminated pages of a manuscript to decorate his kitchen; of ancient manuscripts used by schoolchildren as notebooks, by tailors in their craft, and in other various and bizarre ways.

There is similar evidence—some from first-person accounts and some from stories whose reliability I do not know how to assess—about Latin manuscripts in other countries. Thus, for example, we hear of magnificent twelfth-century manuscripts being used by a French tailor at the beginning of the seventeenth century; of the writings of the first-century Roman historian Livy used in the manufacture of tennis rackets, also in seventeenth-century France; of a French shopkeeper during the Revolution using ancient manuscripts to wrap groceries; and of the librarian of a monastery library in Northern France who, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, tore thousands of pages out of manuscripts entrusted to him and sold them to shopkeepers. Another aspect of this phenomenon is the clipping of illustrations from ancient manuscripts in order to sell them, give them as gifts, display them in one’s home, or even paste them inside or on the binding of another manuscript. This was done as late as the early twentieth century, by reputable publishing houses who took pride in the fact that their printed books were bound in ancient parchment.

We likewise have evidence of the use of Hebrew manuscripts for other purposes, some of which is much earlier than the evidence about Latin manuscripts that I noted above. I will list four such uses here, but I emphasize that these are exceptions that do not even constitute one per mil of European Genizah fragments.

No. 1: The manufacture of shoes

In an elegy (qinah) composed in the aftermath of the First Crusade, the poet (who may have been R. Eliezer b. Joel ha-Levi—Ra’avyah) writes of Torah scrolls that were desecrated by the marauders (‘lepers’), who made them into tents and boot shafts.

Additional evidence of this, is recorded in a much later (c. sixteenth century) manuscript. The writer recounts:

Every Jew is obligated to redeem a book, tefilin, a mezuzah, or even one letter from a gentile, even if it costs several dinars, and even if he must be sold into slavery for the gentile to be paid, for this is a great mitzva […] I have been tested on this matter. I was an itinerant silk salesman to gentile tailors, and one day I found a single leaf from the Book of Kings. I offered thirty dinars to redeem it from him, but he did not give it to me, so I left. From that day on, I did not see any sign of blessing, because I did not redeem it from the gentile. Several years later, I was walking on the road, and I encountered a gentile shoemaker who had a book that he would slice and make into glue for shoes. When I saw it, I went, dejected and bitter, to my father, and told him what the shoemakers was doing to this book. I went with my father, and we redeemed the book from the gentile for fifteen dinars. From that day on, our labors are successful and profitable; we have seen a sign of blessing, and God has increased our quality a hundredfold.

R. Nathan Nata Hannover writes similarly in his description of the Khmelnytsky Massacres:

Scrolls of the Law were torn to pieces, and turned into boots and shoes for their feet […]. Other sacred books served to pave the streets. Some were used for kindling purposes, and others to stuff the barrels of their guns.

All of these attestations are literary, and I do not know of any such shoes that have survived to the present day. Consequently, I am unable to evaluate the scope of the use of Hebrew manuscripts in the footwear industry (and similar uses).

No. 2: Musical instruments

R. Meir of Rothenburg penned an elegy about the pogroms against German Jewry in the early thirteenth century. He writes as follows:

“I will cry out bitterly, weeping and groaning over the holy writings that were not spared from the flames […] The rite of Your Torah and scrolls was consumed, desecrated for drums, dancing, and the smithy through to the end of the scroll.”

Material reinforcement of R. Meir’s words has recently been discovered, albeit from a later period: in the library of the Mainz Landesmuseum, there is a single sheet from a book of haftarot, containing the passages from the Prophets read publicly after the weekly Torah portions of Pinhas through Ekev (the end of Numbers and the beginning of Deuteronomy, read during the summer months). The sheet is written as a scroll, with script on only one side—exactly as R. Meir of Rothenburg describes!—and four columns have been preserved. The sheet has been trimmed on all four sides to an almost circular shape; only the bottom edge is the sheet was cut straight. It is readily apparent that this sheet was used in a drum—the blank side of the sheet faced outward, and the marks of the percussionists’ blows are easily visible on this side. The written side faced inward. Three small squares of parchment have been excised from it, certainly so that the drum’s hoops could be passed through.

No. 3: Sculptures

This is attested in two sculptures that have been preserved to this day. The first, a statue of Mary and Jesus from c. 1350, is in a church in the south of Germany. Jesus’s two legs were wrapped in parchment from a Hebrew book, but at some point the parchment was removed, leaving only residual ink. Today, the Hebrew text that was written on the parchment can be read by means of a mirror, but it is too difficult to identify it from photographs, as the curvature of the leg skews the image. A thorough examination conducted by Ms. Margaretha Boockmann showed that the text on the right leg is the Psalms, and it stands to reason that the text on the left leg is from the same book. A similar discovery was made about another sculpture in Germany, also from the fourteenth century. This sculpture was also wrapped in parchment with Hebrew writing, in this case, from the siddur.

No. 4: Paintings

The only attestation I have to the use of Hebrew manuscripts for paintings—and for this purpose, specifically Torah scrolls, whose backs are blank, were used—is from the twentieth century. In 2011, painted portraits of the prior owners—a Nazi officer and his wife—were found in a condominium in Tubingen, Germany. The portraits had been painted on sheets that had been excised from a Torah scroll, which had certainly been looted from a European Jewish community. The portraits, which were given to a museum in Stuttgart, were loaned to the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, where they are exhibited.

There are certain similarities between the European Genizah and the Cairo Genizah, but there are more differences than commonalities. First of all, there is a terminological difference: the Cairo Genizah is indeed a genizah in the original sense, that is, the worn remnants of manuscripts that had been buried by their owners in order to protect their sanctity. With respect to the European Genizah, “genizah” is merely a borrowed term.

The difference between the two Genizot is much more fundamental, though. The Cairo Genizah disclosed a world that had gone all but extinct, for the libraries of Jewish communities from Egypt nearby countries—which contained prayer books, Talmud commentaries, halakhic works, thousands of letters and formal documents, and the list goes on—were almost all lost. Only a few complete manuscripts have reached us. For this reason, the Cairo Genizah sparked a bona fide revolution in certain disciplines within Jewish studies.

The European Genizah is entirely different. For the most part, its contents reflect the hundreds of manuscripts that have been preserved from that era. It therefore contains relatively few innovations. The European Genizah does, however, have a certain advantage. While the Cairo Genizah preserves the books that had reached a single city, the European Genizah contains the remnants of libraries from dozens of Jewish communities throughout Central Europe, and thus offers a comprehensive snapshot of the culture of Central European Jewry during the late medieval and early modern eras.

Both Genizot contain fragmentary and scattered manuscript remnants, so there has been a tendency among scholars to combine the remnants from both Genizot in one discussion. The confusion between the Cairo Genizah and the European Genizah causes various problems. Some refer to European Genizah fragments as though they are from the Cairo Genizah (and, much less frequently, Cairo Genizah fragments are cited as having been discovered in book bindings); some editors of critical editions are well aware of the difference between the two Genizot, yet they cite fragments of both Genizot with the same signs; some editors were careful to state that they are publishing fragments found in book bindings in the European Genizah, but habit has lulled scholars into erroneously thinking that they were working with Cairo Genizah fragments. An even more severe problem prevails in libraries that hold fragments from both the Cairo Genizah and the European Genizah, occasionally in the same file, which then contains Cairo Genizah Fragments and European Genizah fragments side by side. This is very misleading, and extreme caution is therefore in order: the Cairo Genizah and the European Genizah must be treated as two distinct phenomena.

Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out the unusual case of a Cairo Genizah fragment that found its way into the European Genizah. I am referring to Ms. New York, JTS Mic. 10719, which contains a fragment of the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 2a-b) in the familiar handwriting of R. Joseph Rosh Haseder, which is known from dozens of Cairo Genizah fragments. There is no doubt that this fragment originated in the Cairo Genizah, but amazingly, it was removed from the binding of a printed book—tractate Shabbat of the Constantinople (1583-1595) edition of the Babylonian Talmud. Apparently the book was bound in Egypt, and the bookbinder took a single page from the Cairo Genizah for his craft. Thus, this one page has the distinction of being part of both the Cairo Genizah and the European Genizah.

About a hundred years elapsed from the beginning of academic interest in the Scriptural fragments in book bindings until Jewish scholars began to publish fragments from the European Genizah. The first publication of which I am aware was in 1863, when six pages from a manuscript of the Babylonian Talmud were found in the Vienna Municipal Archives. Shortly thereafter, H. Jolowicz of Koenigsberg produced a critical edition of a fragment of Rashi’s commentary on Daniel and Ezra, which he had found in the binding of a book, and published it in a special volume in honor of Zunz’s seventieth birthday in 1864. Two years later, Jolowicz published another article containing variant readings of the Babylonian Talmud (tractates Makkot and Shevu’ot) from a fragment found in a book binding.

In the following years, the number of scholars who dealt with book binding fragments increased. Some dealt with fragments that came into their hands by chance, while others found fragments of works while preparing critical editions based on complete manuscripts. Other scholars, who during those years were diligently preparing catalogues of manuscript collections, incorporated manuscript fragments found in book bindings, devoting considerable attention to them.

The first fruits of the European Genizah were not plentiful, and the initial findings did not fire the imagination of scholars. Ultimately, during the years when the first fragments in book bindings were discovered, there were still thousands of complete manuscripts in Europe that had not been examined or catalogued. The scholars who devoted their efforts and energies to the study of manuscripts gave their attention, and rightfully so, to complete manuscripts, not to tiny fragments found in book bindings. It is no wonder, then, that even first-rate scholars did not take special interest in the shredded pages of the European Genizah. Even the discovery, at the end of the nineteenth century, of about three hundred fragments, including important remnants of several rare works, in Trier, Germany, did not generate the momentum befitting of the study of the European Genizah. It was during those very years that the Cairo Genizah with all of its vast treasures was discovered. The Cairo Genizah attracted the attention of scholars of Judaism, overshadowing the European Genizah and once again delaying its comprehensive study.

It was only many years later, in 1912, that the first comprehensive attempt was made to reveal all of the fragments hidden in the bindings of books found in a single library, and to describe them systematically. This project was undertaken at the Nationalbibliothek in Vienna at the initiative of J.N. Epstein and A.Z. Schwarz, and its impressive results—hundreds of fragments—were listed in an appendix to the catalogue of Hebrew manuscripts in that library. Another fifty years passed until additional catalogues were published, in the 1960s and 1970s, listing a considerable portion of the fragments found in the libraries of Germany and Hungary, and in other libraries of Austria. With those catalogues, the systematic description of known (at the time) manuscript fragments in those three countries was almost completed.

A new chapter in the history of the European Genizah began a few decades ago, with the joint project of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts at the Jewish National and University Library (now: The National Library of Israel) in Jerusalem and the Mishnah Project at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. This project began with the photographing and cataloguing of all known fragments in Germany and Austria, and it quickly morphed into a systematic search for additional fragments in dozens of libraries, monasteries, and archives throughout Central Europe.

These searches were unlike the searches undertaken twenty years earlier, by the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, to locate all Hebrew manuscripts scattered in hundreds of libraries around the world. This time, libraries and archives—most of which do not hold any complete Hebrew manuscripts—were asked to open the bindings of books and the covers of notarial documents in order to examine whether they contain fragments of Hebrew manuscripts, a process which could cause damage to the treasures in their care. Despite the difficulties, these searches yielded surprising results.

The greatest surprise came from Italy, where only a few fragments had come to light by then. In the 1970s and 1980s, several Italian and Israeli scholars, headed by the late Prof. Giuseppe (Joseph) Baruch Sermoneta, undertook a systematic examination of Italy’s archives. Upon Sermoneta’s passing, Prof. Mauro Perani continued the task vigorously. The findings in Italy exceeded all expectations. To date, over 6,000 fragments have been found in Italy, several times the number of fragments found in all of the other Central European countries, and the work is not yet completed. Only a small portion of the fragments found in Italy were used in bookbindings (the common practice in Germany, Austria, and Hungary), and most were used to cover archival files. The extensive survey of Italian archives in recent years has been described by Mauro Perani, who presented the achievements of the project as well as the difficulties it encountered.

The fragments found in several Italian archives, primarily those in which relatively few fragments were discovered, were described in a lengthy series of articles by the scholars who had been involved in their discovery. In recent years, there has been an attempt to describe the many fragments that have been found in archives with a richer yield of Hebrew manuscript fragments. The first fruits of these efforts—detailed catalogues of the hundreds of fragments found in several important archives—have been published in recent years. Additional catalogues are currently in various stages of preparation, and hopefully they will be published in the near future.

In the wake of the extraordinarily successful search from fragments in Italy, a similar project was initiated in Austria in the early 1990s. The goal of this project, which began as a joint effort between Prof. Ferdinand Dexinger of Vienna and Prof. Yaakov Sussmann of Jerusalem, is to prepare a complete list of binding fragments, photograph them, and catalogue them. In context of this project, presently headed by Prof. Martha Keil, more than 1,300 fragments have been documented (in addition to the hundreds of fragments preserved at the Nationalbibliothek in Vienna), and a sophisticated website, containing descriptions and images of the fragments, has been launched.

In recent years, Prof. Andreas Lehnardt of Mainz has toiled to find and catalogue Hebrew fragments on German soil, and through his strenuous efforts, he has found about a thousand fragments all over Germany. Lehnardt is working on cataloguing and describing the fragments, and he has already published numerous studies of them.

As a result of successful efforts in these three countries—Italy, Austria, and Germany—in recent years, many other scholars have joined the search for Hebrew fragments in a series of European countries. They, too, have discovered and catalogued many fragments. Images of the vast majority of fragments discovered in Europe have been brought together at the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Its staff even participates in the identification and cataloguing of those fragments. Thousands of fragments from all over Europe, including hundreds that have not yet been described in any of the printed catalogues, are now catalogued in the Institute’s computerized catalogue.

In 2007, Prof. Judith Olzsowy-Schlanger initiated the establishment of a single body to centralize all such efforts undertaken on European soil. This body, called “Books within Books: Hebrew Fragments in European Libraries,” has already brought about fruitful collaboration among all who work on the European Genizah, by creating uniform standards, to the extent possible, for cataloguing fragments, holding conferences, publishing, and more. The crown jewel of this body is the development of a central website that will host high-quality images and descriptions of each of the tens of thousands of European Genizah fragments, scattered across hundreds of libraries, archives, and monasteries throughout Europe. The site is still in its trial phase, but already now it hosts images and descriptions of thousands of fragments from many different states.

I mentioned above that most fragments discovered in the European Genizah come from works that were very prevalent in Central Europe at the end of the Middle Ages: Scripture and its commentaries, prayer books, the Talmud and its traditional commentaries, and familiar halakhic works. Most of these works were already available to us both in printed editions and in dozens of complete manuscripts. Thus, the European Genizah has not yielded much new material. Nevertheless, the Genizah makes novel contributions to a variety of disciplines.

No. 1: Lost Works

The European Genizah has preserved remnants of a considerable number of works that had been entirely lost, and which are not extant in a complete manuscript. Some of these works were already known to us from citations by medieval sages, and other works were altogether unknown before they were discovered in the European Genizah. I will note several examples of such works.

a) Rabbinic literature: Lost works from the classical rabbis (like Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai and Sifrei Zuta) were not found in the European Genizah, but another, pseudo-rabbinic, work was first discovered in this Genizah: the work that V. Aptowitzer dubbed Sefer Yerushalmi. The Ashkenazic sages of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries cite passages in the name of the Palestinian Talmud which are not found in the extant version of that Talmud. Thus, they must have had a version of the Palestinian Talmud that included small and large additions as well as deliberate changes. This Sefer Yerushalmi had never been found, and only recently, Yaakov Sussmann found several pages from that work—all from the same copy—scattered in various libraries in Germany.

b) Scriptural exegesis: The field of Scriptural exegesis has also benefited from the European Genizah. Several of new remnants from the Bible commentaries of French exegetes have been found in the European Genizah, but undoubtedly the most significant discovery thus far has been R. Joseph Qara’s Torah commentary. All scholars who dealt with the works of R. Joseph Qara concluded that his Bible commentary included the books of the Prophets and Writings, but not the Torah (aside from his well-known glosses to Rashi’s commentary). Recently, however, several pages of a Torah commentary have been found in several archives in Italy and identified as passages from a heretofore unknown commentary by R. Joseph Qara. His commentary to Psalms, also heretofore unknown, has apparently been discovered in the Archivio di Stato in Imola, Italy.

Remnants of several other Bible commentaries were recently published in the first volume of my Hidden Treasures. These commentaries include: a commentary on the Book of Judges that is either the first version of R. Joseph Qara’s commentary or the commentary of an anonymous sage who used R. Joseph Qara’s commentary; a commentary of one of Rashi’s grandsons to the Book of Ecclesiastes; the commentary of R. Menahem b. Shlomo (author of Sekhel Tov) on four of the scrolls—Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther; and a commentary of R. Elazar of Worms (author of Roqe’ah) to Psalms.

c) Commentaries on halakhic midrashim: Four pages of an early Ashkenazic commentary to Sifrei Numbers were found in the binding of a book in Selestat, Alsace. This commentary may have been composed at the end of the eleventh century, and it is the earliest extant commentary on the halakhic midrashim.

d) Talmud commentary: The works of the Tosafists are well-represented in the European Genizah, which also contains remnants of a number of new works, which had not survived in any manuscript. Among the works that have already been identified from Genizah fragments are the Tosafot of R. Samson b. Abraham of Sens to Tractate Bava Batra, which was found in the binding of a book in Jerusalem; an abridged version of the commentary of R. Samson of Sens to the Mishnaic order of Taharot (or perhaps another version of that commentary written by R. Samson himself), found in the Archivio di Stato of Bologna; the Tosafot of R. Meir of Rothenburg to Tractate Pesahim, found in Klosterneuburg (Austria); and others.

In my Hidden Treasures, remnants of additional Talmud commentaries appear: fragments of Sefer Hefetz on Tractates Bava Kamma and Bava Metzi’a; an Ashkenazic commentary to Tractate Bava Batra that systematically copies vast portions of R. Hananel’s commentary on that tractate; a commentary on Tractate Berakhot from a member of the Qalonymus family—apparently R. David b. Qalonymus of Münzenberg, who was active at the beginning of the thirteenth century—in the handwriting of the author himself; the commentary of R. Barukh b. Samuel of Mainz on Tractate Megilla; the Tosafot of R. Samson of Sens on Tractate Eruvin; and another version of the Tosafot of R. Isaiah Di Trani on several tractates.

e) Philology. Sefer Ha-Shorashim of Jonah ibn Janah has reached us by way of the translation of Judah ibn Tibbon, who mentions that two other translations of the work exist. Fragments of a fourth, heretofore unknown, translation of the book were found in the European Genizah, and they are scattered through various archives in Northern Italy.

f) Books from other fields of study. Remnants of books from many other fields of study have been discovered in the European Genizah, including: unknown medical works; the Hebrew original of two astrological works by Abraham ibn Ezra, which had been known only in their Latin translation; unknown philosophical works; early (and late seventeenth century) piyyutim (liturgical poems) that are not known from other sources; belles-lettres, such as a Hebrew translation of a French version of The Romance of Alexander (a translation that, according to Eli Yassif, “necessitates a new mapping of The History of Alexander the Great in Medieval Hebrew literature”) and other works in this vein; illuminated manuscripts; Hebrew-French glossaries of difficult words in Scripture; piyyutim with Old French translations; a Yiddish translation of one of the chronicles of the First Crusade; and so forth.

g) Historical documents. I have noted above that, in contrast to the Cairo Genizah, there are very few historical documents in the European Genizah. Nevertheless, occasionally such documents are indeed found in the European Genizah. The earliest is a marriage contract (ketubah) from Sicily, apparently from the early eleventh century. A number of other historical documents have been found, including: Provencal communal enactments (taqqanot) from 1313; ledgers of traders, bankers, and usurers; bills of sale of houses; wills; letters (including fragment of a letter sent to R. Isaac Luria—the Ari—while he was in Egypt); and more.

h) Lost printed books. Pages of rare printed books have also been found in book bindings, including fragments of a long list of print editions that have been lost and heretofore unknown. For example: pages of a Babylonian Talmud printed in Faro (Portugal) in 1497 (with the printer’s colophon that appears at the end of the tractate); pages of Targum Onqelos on the Torah, apparently also printed in Faro; the title page (only) of the sole copy of Baraita De-Rabbi Eliezer, printed in Safed in 1587; and still other books.

Additional unknown works are hidden amongst the torn pages of the Genizah, but experience has shown that great caution must be exercised before the finding of a new work can be announced. The fragmentary nature of the findings makes it very difficult to identify them, and it is easy to erroneously think that a particular fragment is the remnant of a heretofore unknown work, whereas it is in fact a fragment from a well-known work. This is what happened to a fragment that was supposedly the most important work discovered in the European Genizah: one page in the Berlin State Library that was identified as a new work on the laws of Miqva’ot, from the Tannaitic Era (!). The page was published in a special booklet in 1931, but several weeks later, the editor realized that he had erred; the new text was nothing but the last page of Sefer Mitzvot Qatan, one of the most common Tosafist halakhic works. There was nothing new about it. The editor quickly buried the booklet and even made a public announcement.

Many works have reached us from only one or two textual witnesses, so we are unable to emend the mistakes and lacunae in those witnesses. Here, too, the European Genizah, in its modest way, helps us ascertain the correct or complete texts. There are editors of critical editions who searched for fragments in the European Genizah that would help them in their work, and they used these fragments in the editions they published. Other fragments were published separately, as supplements to works that had already been printed, occasionally before the existence of a manuscript of the work became known. We shall cite several examples.

a) Several years ago, Vered Noam demonstrated that the Hebrew explanation of Megillat Ta’anit—the “Scholion”—was preserved in two distinct versions as well as a hybrid third version that was created when the two earlier versions were combined. The earliest manuscript of the hybrid version (Ms. Oxford, Bodleian Opp. Add. Fol. 55 [Neubauer 2421,10]) is from the European Genizah and was used for bookbinding during the years 1603-1605. Yoav Rosenthal found another fragment of the Scholion in the binding of a book in the library of St. Paul’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Austria; it is the earliest manuscript of one of the other versions.

b) Fragments from a single copy of Halakhot Pesuqot—the sole surviving Ashkenazic copy of the work—were found in several libraries in Austria. These fragments include contents that are missing from the printed version.

c) Fragments of the work Ve-hizhir were discovered in the Hungarian National Archives in Sopron, and these fragments supplement slightly the printed edition, which is based on the sole—and incomplete—manuscript.

d) R. Hai Gaon’s Sefer Ha-meqah Ve-hamimkar, which was composed in Arabic, was translated into Hebrew three times in the medieval era. One of the translations survives in a single manuscript (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Or. Qu. 685 [Steinschneider 160]), and the fragment of another copy is found in Vienna, Dominikanerkonvent, Cod. 149/119.

e) Several fragments (from different copies) of R. Hananel b. Hushiel’s commentary to the Babylonian Talmud have been discovered in Italian archives, including commentaries on tractates for which there is otherwise no complete manuscript. In the municipal archive in Pergola, I found a complete page from R. Hananel’s commentary to Tractate Qiddushin, which parallels another copy of the commentary, found in the Cairo Genizah. In the same archive, I found another fragment, of two consecutive pages (both pages were cut lengthwise, and less than one quarter of the text remains on each line of the first page), containing a commentary on Tractate Gittin 34a (end)-39b (beginning). The handwriting of these pages is different from that of the commentary on Tractate Qiddushin, but they are from R. Hananel’s commentary on Tractate Gittin, which has not yet been published.

f) Fragments of Sefer Ma’aseh Ha-Ge’onim were found in the Leipzig University Library, and they fill in a passage that is missing from the printed edition.

g) As is known, the commentary attributed to Rashi on the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Mo’ed Qatan, is not his, and Rashi’s “real” commentary on Mo’ed Qatan was published by Ephraim Kupfer based on Ms. Escorial. Remnants of three additional copies of the commentary are scattered around the world: one is in Cremona, Italy, another is in Brno, Czech Republic, and a third is in Los Angeles, US.

h) The commentary of R. Solomon b. Ha-yatom to Bavli Mo’ed Qatan was published from a single manuscript, and now fragments of an additional copy have been found in the environs of Modena.

i) I have found four pages of “Another Version” (“Shittah Aheret”) of R. Abraham Ibn Ezra’s commentary to the Twelve Minor Prophets in the Archivio di Stato di Modena. The pages include marginalia signed by “Z.E.V.”, and which incorporate passages from commentaries by Jonah ibn Janah, Judah ibn Balam, and other exegetes.

j) R. Eliezer of Metz’s Sefer Yere’im was published from a single manuscript, and now I have found, in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, a single page from another copy, which differs somewhat from the printed version, and a fragment from yet another copy of the work at the Innsbruck University Library.

k) Fragments of R. Eliezer b. Joel Halevi’s Avi Ha-ezri (Sefer Ra’avyah) have been found in several libraries and contain long passages that were omitted from the printed book.

l) There is one extant manuscript of the work Sinai, which contains responsa of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg edited by his brother Abraham. I have found four large pages from a second copy of the work in the Archivio di Stato in Bologna, and it seems that the complete manuscript was copied from this copy.

The examples cited above illustrate the importance of just a small portion of the fragments discovered in the European Genizah. But even those fragments which in and of themselves seem to contain nothing new contribute greatly to the study of Jewish history and culture. The European Genizah offers an original and heretofore unknown perspective on the book culture of the Jewish communities in Central Europe during the late medieval and early modern periods. The fragments can teach us, for example, which books the average community possessed; where scholars studied Talmud and Halakha, and where they studied grammar and the sciences. It is also possible to learn about Jewish settlement in the period under discussion: where there were communities that originated in Iberia, and where expatriates of Ashkenaz settled; where prayers were conducted according to the French rite, and where they were conducted according to the Ashkenazic rite; when books were confiscated; and so forth. It is nevertheless necessary to qualify such statements and acknowledge that page fragments cannot, in general, answer other important questions relevant to book culture, like: when and where was the book written? For whom? How many scribes collaborated to copy it? How extensive was the manuscript? Which works were contained therein? And additional questions like this.

A remarkable example of the possibilities inherent in the manuscript fragments used in bookbindings is offered by the catalogue of Latin manuscript fragments discovered in the Oxford Libraries. More than 2,000 (!) fragments that had been reused by that city’s bookbinders were found in those libraries, and through them it is possible to paint a clear picture of the intellectual life of sixteenth and seventeenth century Oxford. Thus, for example, it is possible to discern that manuscript fragments of works of canon law were found in the bindings of books published in very specific years—right after those works had themselves been printed, rendering the manuscripts useless. Manuscript fragments of early translations of Aristotle’s works were found in the bindings made in a later period, indicating that in those years new translations replaced the old ones (and the latter, which were no longer of any use, were sent to the bookbinders); and so forth.

Research of this sort is only possible under certain conditions. It can only be undertaken if there is a significant number of fragments from a particular place, and only if care was taken when the bindings were opened to meticulously record the book or archival file in which each of the fragments was found. A hasty removal of fragments from book bindings, without recording the volume in which each fragment was found, is liable to render such research impossible.

The conditions for such socio-cultural research are best met with respect to the pages discovered in Italian archives. Generally speaking, a substantial number of fragments are discovered in each of these archives, and it is easy to determine the exact year that the Hebrew manuscripts were used, based on the dates in the documents that the manuscripts were used to cover. A comprehensive study of the libraries of Mantuan Jewry was published several years ago. The study was based on other sources—the lists of books that the Jews of Mantua submitted to the censors for examination at the end of the sixteenth century. It would be instructive to compare the findings reached through the study of those book lists and the findings that would be obtained by analyzing the fragments found in the archives of Northern Italy.

The European Genizah is indeed an endless sea, and we will never be able to say that we have reached all of the Hebrew fragments hidden in book bindings. It will always be possible to find yet another fragment in some remote archive, or another page or two in some book binding. Additional fragments will undoubtedly continue to be discovered for decades, if not centuries, but although it is not our task to complete, neither are we free to desist from it.

The study of the European Genizah has taken giant steps forward in the past half century. In the mid-1900s, a few hundred Hebrew fragments, scattered all over Europe, were known. Blurry images of them could be found only at the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem. It is no surprise that only a few scholars studied these fragments, and consequently, only a small number of studies were devoted to them. We are now in a new era, and we can expect that within a few years, anyone in the world will be able to study tens of thousands of fragments, compare them to one another, piece together individual fragments and pages, and reveal the treasures concealed in the European Genizah.

An earlier version of this article appeared in “The European Genizah: Its Character and the History of Its Study,” Materia giudaica, no. 24 (2019), and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Simcha Emanuel is a Professor in the Department of Talmud at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. His main field of research is the Halachic literature in the Middle Ages.