Scrolls raise questions as to Afghan Jewish history

Scholar hopes findings might shed light on medieval merchants.

January 2, 2012 21:49
2 minute read.
Archeological dig [illustrative]

Archeological dig 300. (photo credit: Assaf Peretz/courtesy of IAA)


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An Afghan shepherd enters a wolves den perched high in the mountains of Samangan province looking for a sheep that went astray.

Inside, he doesn’t find what he is looking for, but just as he is about to leave he notices something strange: Pieces of old parchment lie strewn on the dirt floor.

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So goes one of the stories behind the recent discovery of about 150 manuscripts and artifacts in a remote cave that belonged to a medieval Jewish community.

“But there are several and they are always the same about shepherds looking for sheep,” admitted Prof. Haggai Ben-Shammai of the Hebrew University on Sunday.

“Who knows how they were really found?” Scholars are currently in the early stages of poring over the texts dating from the 11th century and written in Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian.

“They have dates so we can date them precisely,” said Prof. Shaul Shaked of the Hebrew University.

“There’s no doubt that they are authentic. They correspond with similar findings from the past.”

The expert in ancient Persian languages said the scrolls included an ancient copy of the book of Jeremiah; hitherto unknown scholarly works by the medieval sage Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon; personal poems of loss and mourning and even bookkeeping records that could teach us about everyday life in the community.

“The person who wrote it, a Jewish merchant, keeps track of who owed him how much,” said Shaked.

He added that the texts show the community may have been Karaite, a sect of Judaism which strictly adheres to the bible rather than the Talmud and other later Jewish texts, and name several early Karaite leaders.

Channel 2, which first reported the find on Friday, likened the discovery in Afghanistan to that of the find in the Cairo geniza, but scholars say such a comparison is exaggerated.

The number of documents, about 150, is tiny when compared to the hundreds of thousands found in the Egyptian synagogues.

Furthermore, they are in various stages of decay.

Many are illegible fragments that suffered the ravages of time. But Shaked believes the Afghani scrolls may be “the tip of the iceberg.”

He said there may be many more findings in that part of the world that would provide valuable information about ancient Jewish communities.

Prof. Robert Eisenman, a noted scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls, hopes such findings might shed light on the Rhadanites, a group of early medieval Jewish merchants who set up an expansive trade network that connected Europe and Asia. He said the Jewish community that penned the documents found in Afghanistan might be a “left over” of the Rhadanites, which had mostly disappeared by the 11th century. Moreover, he said such discoveries might teach us about the historical origins of peoples in Central Asia.

“In Afghanistan and northern Pakistan they all say they are the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel and I never knew what they were talking about,” said Eisenman, who visited the country in the ’60s. “If this was part of a Jewish permanent settlement then to my mind it reinforces the mythology that the 10 Lost Tribes were in that part of the world.”

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