1,000-year-old Bible might pave way for future of Egypt’s Jewish heritage

In order to study the manuscript, the professor took a sabbatical at the Herbert Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Moshe Der'i Synagogue in Cairo (photo credit: COURTESY OF YORAM MEITAL)
Moshe Der'i Synagogue in Cairo
For two millennia, Cairo was home to a thriving Jewish community. For centuries, the city’s Jewish neighborhood, or Harat al-Yahud, buzzed with thousands of people who belonged to one of the many synagogues in the area, including the famous Maimonides Synagogue, which was named after the renowned rabbi and physician when he moved to the city from Cordoba in the second half of the 12th century.
It was probably not far from there that a little over a century before Maimonides’s arrival, in the year 4788, or 1028 according to the Gregorian calendar, the scribe Zechariah Ben ‘Anan completed a masterpiece that had required him years of work: a copy of the Ketuvim, or Writings, the third part of the Tanach.
Almost a thousand years later, the superb manuscript might embody an unprecedented opportunity for the future of the Jewish heritage in Egypt, as Prof. Yoram Meital, a historian from the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told The Jerusalem Post.
Meital came across the manuscript wrapped in inexpensive white paper in 2017 during a study visit at the Moshe Der’i Synagogue in Cairo. An expert on modern Egypt, the academic has paid Israel’s neighboring country frequent visits. In the past few years, however, a number of circumstances have made him confident in the existence of a real opportunity for the future of Egyptian Jewish culture.
A page of the Zechariah Ben ‘Anan manuscript dating back to 1028, rediscovered in Cairo by Ben-Gurion University Prof. Yoram Meital. (Credit: Courtesy of Yoram Meital)
A page of the Zechariah Ben ‘Anan manuscript dating back to 1028, rediscovered in Cairo by Ben-Gurion University Prof. Yoram Meital. (Credit: Courtesy of Yoram Meital)
“Over the last seven years a significant shift has been taking place in the perception of the Jewish community’s past within the public discourse in Egypt and in the stand of the Egyptian government,” he explained.
“Moreover, about five years ago there was a change in what remains of the Jewish community in Egypt. Magda Haroun took the presidency of the community in Cairo and she came to the position with a vision that I completely identify with: safeguarding the local Jewish sites and artifacts and making part of them open and available for various usage including visits, cultural activities and studies,” Meital continued.
Since then, the BGU professor has been cooperating closely with Haroun and with the NGO Drop of Milk, led by Haroun and her deputy, Samy Ibrahim. Originally registered as a Jewish charitable organization in 1921, today Drop of Milk welcomes Egyptians of all religions supporting its mission of preserving the Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith dialogue and understanding.
It was during a trip to study and document Cairo’s synagogues and their artifacts that Meital found Zechariah Ben ‘Anan’s manuscript.
The professor explained that a short text documenting its existence was first published in 1905 by Richard Gottheil, a scholar in Semitic studies, who was conducting some research in Egypt.
“He did not have the time to properly examine the manuscript, but he did publish a brief description about it in the very same journal where I chose to publish my own article,” the professor told the Post, alluding to the English-language academic journal The Jewish Quarterly Review. Meital describes his conclusions about the document in the Winter 2020 issue.
The Moshe Der’i Synagogue, where the manuscript was uncovered, was not its original location. For centuries, the artifact was housed in the more ancient Dar Simha Synagogue belonging to the same community: the Karaites.
Unlike Rabbinic Jews, who hold that the Mishna and the Talmud are an expression of a tradition dating back to Moses, the Karaite sect rejects the Oral Law in its entirety and only upholds biblical statutes.
The group was founded in the 8th century and was especially numerous in Egypt.
As explained in the article in The Jewish Quarterly Review, until the beginning of the 20th century Harat al-Yahud featured two Karaite synagogues, along with 10 Sephardi and one Ashkenazi houses of worship.
Around that time, a growing number of Jewish families from all backgrounds chose to abandon its narrow alleys and busy streets in favor of a more modern residential neighborhood. Among them, many selected the Abbasiya neighborhood where the new Karaite synagogue, named after the medieval poet Moshe/Moussa Der’i, was inaugurated in 1933.
In 1935, the Karaite chief rabbi wrote down some notes about the manuscript, which were found among the pages.
Three decades later, when most of the Jews had already fled Egypt after the growing antagonism of the population ignited by the establishment of the State of Israel and the 1956 Suez Crisis, a fire damaged the Dar Simha Synagogue. What was left of its valuable books, manuscripts and scrolls were transferred to the Moshe Der’i Synagogue.
In 1981, a small team from Jerusalem’s Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts was allowed to visit Cairo after the 1979 peace treaty between the countries, and microfilmed the manuscript, documenting its existence for the last time.
“Unfortunately the technology available then was much less advanced than today and the result very poor,” Meital explained.
To study the manuscript, the professor took a sabbatical at the Herbert Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I focused on both the content and the form, including the corrections that were implemented on the biblical text,” he told the Post. “Moreover, the manuscript presents 12 extra pages with an index-like marking of the Massora [a collection of explanatory notes on the Bible], the names of the scribe and of the man who commissioned his work, something very rare.”
Meital highlighted that the rediscovery of the manuscript offers an important opportunity to shed light on the general project of restoring and bringing Jewish cultural heritage back to fruition, especially today when just a handful of Jews live in Cairo.
“Many ask us if it would not be better to transfer the artifacts from the country to another community. We respond that a cultural product should be preserved where it was created; acting otherwise would be immoral, besides illegal. We are already working to pursue our objective with the participation of Egyptians of all religions,” he said.
The professor acknowledged that not everyone in the country supports the project.
“We have two types of critics, Islamists who often hold antisemitic ideologies, and people who oppose our work in their struggle against the policy led by [Egyptian] President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi,” he said.
However, Meital added that Sisi himself has demonstrated his support for the vision Haroun and Drop of Milk are carrying out.
“The Egyptian president mentioned protecting the cultural heritage of minorities, including the Jewish minority, on at least three occasions, which in my opinion is a very bold and unprecedented move. Moreover, nothing had ever been done in the past which has the scope of what has been going on in the past three years, with the renovation of synagogues, the cleaning of cemeteries and the opportunities for us to collect the Judaica,” the expert pointed out.
The goal now is to create a functioning Jewish library in Cairo, with more than 10,000 volumes from the city’s synagogues. More than 5,000 have already been collected, cleaned and cataloged, and the location has already been selected: a building in the Sha’ar Hashamayim Synagogue compound, in the heart of Cairo.
“We have achieved all of this with almost no resources, if we had them, we could start tomorrow,” he said.
According to Meital, the ambition is to establish a functioning library open to scholars from all over the world and to all of those interested in Jewish culture and heritage, including the thousand or more students that every year choose to study Hebrew just in Cairo.
The Zechariah Ben ‘Anan manuscript, as well as many other priceless treasures documenting two millennia of Jewish history, will represent the crown jewel of the project.
“This artifact has been in the country for over a thousand years, generation after generation, surviving revolutions, violence, fires and much more. Why shouldn’t it have a future here?” the professor concluded.