In July 2017, Israeli historian Yoram Meital stumbled upon a handwritten 1028 CE biblical codex that was lying abandoned on a dusty shelf in a Cairo synagogue. Wrapped in simple white paper of the sort one finds on tables in cheap eateries, at 616 pages, the Zechariah Ben ‘Anan Manuscript is one of the era’s most complete and preserved examples of the “Writings,” the third and concluding section of the Hebrew Bible. It had been lost to scholars for almost 40 years.
Discovered by Meital in the Karaite Moussa Der’i Synagogue, the Zechariah Ben ‘Anan Manuscript (ZBAM) was previously documented in various publications by modern biblical scholars, from a 1905 Jewish Quarterly Review article by leading expert Richard Gottheil through to microfilms of the manuscript done by a team of Israelis from the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in June 1981.
The scholars left notes within the texts, and even published their findings. Then, as the Jewish community increasingly lost its members, the priceless manuscript, too, disappeared.
After decades of trips to Egypt for his academic publications as a professor at Ben-Gurion University, in July 2017 Meital was in Cairo as a private scholar taking part in a Jewish community project headed by the Drop of Milk organization to document the city’s many synagogues — and seeking fodder for an upcoming book.
His trip to the 1933 Moussa Der’i Synagogue, a monumental structure built at the height of the community’s wealth and power, was meant to record its impressive architecture — built in the shape of a four-horned altar — and its many stained-glass windows and other ornamentation.
The ongoing documentation project reflects a window of opportunity to record Egypt’s Jewish heritage that has opened since the rise of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in 2014 and the 2013 election of current Cairo Jewish community head Magda Haroun, who also heads Drop of Milk. The Cairo Jewish community now numbers only a handful of Jews, but according to Egyptian law has control over community assets and artifacts, said Meital.
In recent years, efforts have increased to document, preserve, and eventually showcase Egypt’s Jewish heritage, as illustrated by the emotional February 14 re-inauguration of the renovated Alexandria synagogue, as well as important work in crumbling Jewish cemeteries.
“In Egypt nothing can take place without a very bold green light coming from the top of the pyramid and we highly commend the government support,” said Meital.
As Meital recounted in the recently published Jewish Quarterly Review article, “A Thousand-Year-Old Biblical Manuscript Rediscovered in Cairo: The Future of the Egyptian Jewish Past,” the discovery left the historian “overwhelmed.”
“It would be difficult to remain indifferent to the beauty of this manuscript,” wrote Meital.
In a stroke of scholarly luck, the colophon, or book’s imprint, includes the name of the scribe, Zechariah Ben ‘Anan, and the person who commissioned it, as well as its date of completion. These are rare and important details, emphasized historian Meital, and show the provenance of the work, as well as the wealth and philanthropy of the family who presumably donated the text to the local synagogue for communal study.
Based on notes left by Ben ‘Anan, we know it was completed in the Jewish year 4788, which corresponds to the Gregorian year 1028. (Interestingly, when the manuscript was examined almost 900 years later, a scholar, writing in pencil, made the calculation of how old it was based on his Jewish year back in 1927.) According to Ben ‘Anan’s notes, we also see his computations of how many verses he wrote, and that it was once part of a complete Hebrew Bible — the other two sections of which are gone without a trace.
The manuscript Meital found not only holds the complete Writings, but also another 12 pages of mesorah, or commentary on the biblical text, including notes on the trope, or tune in which it is to be read, and nikud, or vowel and consonantal vocalization of the words. This system of little dots and lines overlaid on the biblical text indicates how the ancient Hebrew words should sound (Hebrew is written without vowels). The system was established by a group of Jewish scholars living in Tiberias near the Sea of Galilee circa 750-950 CE.
“Everything that has to do with grammar and punctuation of ancient Hebrew is based on this school,” said Meital. “When they developed a system of writing and created a school for how to correctly read the Bible, it was a dramatic shift because since then, our Bible was born and developed.”
The Cairo manuscript, written just after the writing system’s codification, is one of the earliest known examples of the Tiberias school, which trained famous scribes in the 9-11th centuries, including Ben ‘Anan.
The biblical text itself is written in block letters in reddish-brown ink, whereas the mesorah was inked in black. At some point in its history, most likely circa 1930, it was bound in red paper. Each 36 centimeter x 30 centimeter (14 inch x 12 inch) page includes the vocalized biblical text, trope, and mesorah, which are mostly arranged in three columns of 18 rows. In the Psalms and other poetry, the arrangement shifts to two columns. Here and there are corrections to the text, which are done by another scribe, either through scraping off the original lines from the parchment and redoing them, or through parchment patches with the correct wording.
There is some divergence in the ZBAM Writings from what is standard in Hebrew Bibles today. The Book of Chronicles appears as one continuous book, rather than two sections, and the book leads the Writings instead of concluding them. Likewise, the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah are joined as one account.
Towards future conservation of the Jewish past
The ZBAM was venerated by the once flourishing Karaite community for hundreds of years. The Karaite reject the Oral Torah’s layers of interpretation, which they believe removes the worshiper from the biblical text.
Despite historically wretched storage conditions, only a few dozen pages are damaged. Prior to its dusty shelf in the Moussa Der’i Synagogue the ZBAM was housed with other (now missing) precious manuscripts and Torah scrolls at the Dar Simcha Synagogue until 1967. In both synagogues, it was considered holy and used as an amulet of sorts by the congregations.
The congregations, said Meital, “crowned this text with beliefs that made this text kind of holy. They used to use it for for study as well as asking blessings.”
Scholar Gottheil, outraged, described the storage conditions that he witnessed in 1905: “In the worst possible state are the manuscripts kept in the Ark and in the two side-cupboards of the Karaite Synagogue at Cairo. The only one that is preserved with a little care is the Codex of Moses ben Asher. A wooden box with a glass cover has been provided; into this the pages of the MS. have been stuffed: the word is no exaggeration; the box is not large enough, and the pages must be fitted to its size!”
Since its discovery, the manuscript has been stored at an undisclosed “safe location.” The next step, said Meital, is to turn a two-story building at Cairo’s central Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue compound into a library for Jewish heritage. He hopes that the Drop of Milk organization will be able to find enough funding to complete a necessary renovation and climate control modernization of the building to open the library by summer 2020.
“We intend to take this space, to renovate it, and to open a library that will have two collections — one is something like 10,000-12,000 volumes that we already collected in Cairo and the second floor will be devoted to rare documents and manuscripts,” said Meital.
“The jewel in the crown is the Ben ‘Anan manuscript,” he said.