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Archaeology'It's like you are sitting with him, watching how he works'

Mysterious trilingual Cairo Geniza vocab list found to be penned by Maimonides

Housed at Cambridge University’s Genizah Research Unit, crib sheet with words in Hebrew, Arabic and a Romance dialect gives a glimpse into renowned philosopher’s method of thinking

  • Part of the handwritten list of words attributed to Maimonides from the Cambridge University Genizah Research Unit. (courtesy Cambridge University/José Martínez Delgado)
    Part of the handwritten list of words attributed to Maimonides from the Cambridge University Genizah Research Unit. (courtesy Cambridge University/José Martínez Delgado)
  • José Martínez Delgado with other researchers examining papers from the Cairo Geniza in Cambridge University's Genizah Research Unit. (courtesy José Martínez Delgado)
    José Martínez Delgado with other researchers examining papers from the Cairo Geniza in Cambridge University's Genizah Research Unit. (courtesy José Martínez Delgado)
  • Prof. Solomon Schechter working on the contents of the Cairo Geniza that he brought back to Cambridge University,1898. (Courtesy of Michelle Paymar)
    Prof. Solomon Schechter working on the contents of the Cairo Geniza that he brought back to Cambridge University,1898. (Courtesy of Michelle Paymar)
  • Digitizing fragments from the Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)
    Digitizing fragments from the Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)
  • Maimonides (right) teaching students: Guide of the Perplexed, Barcelona, 1347 or 1348, by Moses Maimonides. (The Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen/ From the Yeshiva University Museum exhibition 'The Golden Path: Maimonides Across Eight Centuries')
    Maimonides (right) teaching students: Guide of the Perplexed, Barcelona, 1347 or 1348, by Moses Maimonides. (The Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen/ From the Yeshiva University Museum exhibition 'The Golden Path: Maimonides Across Eight Centuries')

Call it a 12th-century Duolingo. After recently rediscovering a 900-year-old scrap of paper once housed in the Cairo Geniza, researchers believe that famed Jewish philosopher Maimonides jotted himself down a tri-lingual vocabulary crib sheet.

Discovered at Cambridge University’s Genizah Research Unit, the vocab list includes words in Hebrew, Arabic and a Romance dialect possibly spoken in his hometown of Cordoba. The connection between this list and Maimonides, also known at the Rambam, was published in May by the university’s press office.

“It’s amazing, it feels like you are really there sitting with him and you are watching how he works,” explained Prof. José Martínez Delgado. The professor of Hebrew Language at the University of Granada, Spain, first made the connection that the fragment was written by Maimonides in August 2022.

Other researchers had studied the fragment before, but no one had attributed it to Maimonides. The fragment contains lists of words in four subjects: colors, flavors and aromas, actions and food.

Martínez Delgado was examining the fragment — whose author was previously unknown — when he suddenly had a eureka moment.

“On the two last words in the corner I saw some loops, and I said, ‘I’ve seen this face before!’” Martínez Delgado recalled. “For us philologists [someone who studies the history of languages], handwritten letters are like faces.”

Other experts, including Haifa University’s Amir Ashur, have confirmed that the writing likely belongs to Maimonides by comparing it to some 60 other handwritten fragments that were signed by Maimonides.

The most valuable hole in the wall

The vocabulary list is part of the university’s Cairo Geniza collection, which includes around 320,000 fragments of parchment and paper documents from a millennium of Jewish life in the Muslim metropolis, beginning in the 9th century CE. Jewish tradition holds that holy documents used for prayer or learning, especially those with the name of God, must be disposed of in a special manner, usually by burying them in a cemetery. Prior to burial, the items are collected and temporarily stored in Jewish communal areas such as synagogue back rooms.

Prof. Solomon Schechter working on the contents of the Cairo Geniza that he brought back to Cambridge University,1898. (Courtesy of Michelle Paymar)

For centuries, Cairo’s Jews simply stuffed such documents and others through a hole in the wall of the women’s section of the Ben Ezra synagogue and into a small room — known as a geniza, from the Hebrew word “to store.” They include religious texts, contracts, recipes, magic amulets and letters between businessmen involved in trade with India.

Egypt’s dry climate preserved the documents for hundreds of years until the geniza came to the attention of European scholars in 1896. Solomon Schechter, who was then the University of Cambridge’s professor of rabbinic literature (and later became chancellor of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary) convinced the Cairo Jewish community to let him remove around 200,000 of the documents and bring them back to England. Today, they are housed in Cambridge’s Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit.

Have you seen this ‘kuf’ before?

This scrap of paper was well-known to researchers before Martínez Delgado connected it to Maimonides. Martínez Delgado had found it around eight years ago while researching a book about the daily life of Andalusian Jews. The fragment had been included in a box with another manuscript he was studying, and he made a note to study it later.

Before him, Avi Shivtiel published an article that included an examination of the fragment in 2005, which focused on how medieval rabbis learned new languages.

Part of the handwritten list of words attributed to Maimonides from the Cambridge University Genizah Research Unit. (courtesy José Martínez Delgado)

Last year, when Martínez Delgado returned to his notes and looked again at the fragment, something about the handwriting of fragment T-S NS 38.79 caught his eye. The unique handwriting style made him immediately think of the similarities to Maimonides’ handwriting.

“I was shocked, because these texts were already published in 2007, and on the blog of the Genizah they were chatting about this fragment just a few weeks before,” he said. “I didn’t trust myself. I thought it cannot be possible, I must be confused. So I sent it to Amir Ashur, because he has a photographic memory. If you show him a manuscript, he can tell you the name of the scribe.”

Martínez Delgado sent the fragment along and asked Ashur who he thought the scribe could be, without revealing his hypothesis. Ashur replied immediately that he thought it was Maimonides.

Dr. Melonie Schmierer-Lee of the Genizah Research Unit has gone a step further, identifying a page of a Mishneh Torah, his magnum opus of Jewish Law, signed by Maimonides, which seems to have come from the same notebook as the glossary list, based on the size and type of paper.

A fragment of the Mishneh Torah signed by Maimonides that could be from the same notebook as the vocabulary list (courtesy Cambridge University/José Martínez Delgado)

It isn’t the first time that Martínez Delgado’s propensity for identifying handwriting made waves in the Jewish research world. Three years ago, he was examining the back side of a well-known poem from the Cairo Geniza, which is one of the only artifacts found that scholars know was written by a woman, the wife of Dunaš Ben Labraṭ. It has traveled extensively to exhibitions around the world as examples of early female literature in the Middle East. But scholars hadn’t examined the other side of the fragment closely, and when Martinez Delgado started studying it, he recognized another famous old friend: the handwriting of 11th-century poet-philosopher Shlomo Ibn Gvirol.

How do you say “wine-colored”?

Martínez Delgado and others are trying to understand what purpose the vocabulary list could have served for Maimonides. Some researchers wonder if it was a teaching aid, or maybe for writing a chapter of one of his books. Martínez Delgado’s personal theory is that Maimonides was writing it down as a hobby, either to learn a new language from a visiting rabbi, or to see what he could have remembered from a dialect he heard as a child in his hometown of Cordoba.

José Martínez Delgado, a professor of Hebrew Language in the Department of Semitic Languages at the University of Granada, Spain. (courtesy José Martínez Delgado)

In the 10th century, people in Andalusia in southern Spain, especially in the villages, spoke many different local dialects, which combined Spanish and other Romance languages in the region. As the Moor conquest of Spain proceeded, people in cities began using Arabic on a regular basis in order to obtain high-level positions with the local government. By the 11th century, most of these local dialects were dying out as Arabic became the major method of communication.

Perhaps Maimonides was trying to see how many words he remembered from his childhood, or perhaps he was working with a visiting rabbi to try to write down parts of the language before it disappeared for good.

Martínez Delgado asked Prof. Alberto Montaner Frutos of Zaragoza University, an expert in early Romance dialects in Spain, to explore the vocabulary lists. Frutos noticed that Maimonides is using different plurals for the words than the known Romance dialects. Maimonides is using plural grammatical forms possibly from Italian, and might demonstrate an influence from a visiting Italian scholar, a mistake, or misremembering the language he heard in his youth.

The lists are organized by subject and composed in clear, hierarchical order, explained Martínez Delgado. The list of colors, for example, starts with white and black, then moves to basic colors, and ends with descriptive colors, like “wine-colored.”

“All of us that have studied languages have made these glossaries with the translations, even I have kept these notebooks,” said Martínez Delgado, who learned Hebrew while completing his master’s degree at Hebrew University from 1997 to 2000.

Always practice safe research

Martínez Delgado loves these fragments that provide a window into Maimonides as a person, rather than just a revered leader. Another one of his favorite fragments from the Geniza is a signed poem that Maimonides wrote.

Maimonides (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
Maimonides (Wikimedia commons)

“It’s a very bad poem, because he’s not a poet, but that’s what was in fashion,” he said.

The fragments were written on cheap paper, which today is encased in plastic laminate to protect the fragments.

“We’re always working with these things cased in plastic, it’s like a condom, like a prophylactic for the fragment,” said Martínez Delgado.

He noted that especially with Maimonides’ fragments, the plastic casing is important because many people want to kiss the fragments, which would further contribute to their disintegration. While he appreciates the safety measures, he misses the ability to be able to experience the fragments more viscerally.

“I really missed knowing how the fragment smelled,” he said. “But then once, a researcher opened a box with a bunch of fragments [from the geniza that weren’t laminated] and let me smell them, and I realized the smell is horrible.”

Martínez Delgado is Catholic but became fascinated with Maimonides and the Jews of Andalusia because he grew up in Maimonides’ birthplace of Cordoba, Spain, and was fascinated by the religious history of his hometown.

He also loves the close-knit community of geniza researchers. Previously, they got to know each other very well, spending hours hovering over the ancient fragments in the Cambridge University library.

José Martínez Delgado with other researchers examining papers from the Cairo Geniza in Cambridge University’s Genizah Research Unit. (courtesy José Martínez Delgado)

Today, the vast majority of the geniza is digitized, allowing researchers to access it from their homes. Still, the Cairo geniza attracts a small, quirky group of dedicated researchers that often collaborate on research.

“It’s a paradise for researchers, because we’re not too many, but everyone is a specialist in one topic,” said Martínez Delgado. “If you have a question, the other person will stop his work to help you, it’s really a paradise.”

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