Monday, January 2, 2012

New fantastic find

Amidst the endless crises of the Middle East, the most significant events for the Jewish people are sometimes overlooked, their full importance only realized months or years later.

This was the case with the initial unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and may well prove to be the case with a recent archeological discovery in Afghanistan: an ancient genizah of reportedly immense significance.

A genizah is a repository for documents which, according to Jewish law, cannot be disposed of except by burial, usually because they contain the name of God, which is considered too sacred to be burned. They are of enormous importance to the study of Jewish history, since they often preserve documents of great importance.

In addition, because a community often used the same site as a genizah over a long period of time, the documents contained therein will be from many different time periods, providing insight into different historical periods in a single find, which is often unusual in archeology.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the find has already aroused a firestorm of interest in the academic world.

“We know today about a couple of findings,” Haggai Ben-Shammai, Professor Emeritus of Arabic Language and Literature at Hebrew University was quoted as saying. “In all, in my opinion, there are about 150 fragments. It may be the tip of the iceberg.”

The scrolls... date from around 1,000 years ago and are in Arabic, Judeo-Arabic and ancient Persian.

Texts said to be found include an unknown history of the ancient kingdom of Judea, passages from the book of Isaiah and some of the works of Rabbi Saadia Gaon, a medieval sage.

The first of these finds has the potential to be a truly epochal discovery. Outside of the Bible, we have no extensive histories of the Judean kingdom, and for the Hellenistic era we have only one: that of Josephus, which has long been regarded as problematic by scholars.

The other reported finds are hardly of less importance. Fragments of Isaiah from a thousand years ago could shed new light on the history of the Tanach and its transmission, and many of the works of Saadia Gaon - the founder of Jewish philosophy - have been lost. Should these newly found works contain be previously unknown, they could completely revolutionize the study of Jewish history and theology.

This proved to be the case after the discovery of the Cairo Geniza, which contained documents that permanently changed our understanding of Jewish history. Most famously, Maimonides' "Epistle to Yemen," which gave new insight into the great theologian's views on messianism and into the previously obscure history of the Jews of Yemen.

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