Jewish Trash Reconstructs Medieval Life

Thousands of fragments of centuries-old Jewish texts, from shopping lists to historical documents, are being joined together using new software. The savvy collector of ArtKabinett network knows the value of modern technology for ancient research. The scraps of the Cairo Genizah being cataloged include a letter from a wife complaining about her husband and a rabbinical judge’s authorization of the kosher status of cheese sold by a Jerusalem grocer. The software, developed by Tel Aviv University professors Lior Wolf and Nachum Dershowitz, is analyzing texts that span about 1,000 years of Middle East history. The algorithm program adapts facial recognition technology to identify similar handwriting on documents which are then sorted into digital loose-leaf binders. “The computer found thousands of items running for a week,” Dershowitz said in a telephone interview. “Then it took months for the scholars to look at it and decide if the computer was correct.” A fragment, posted on the Friedberg Genizah Project website, from the complaining wife dates from the 15th or 16th century and details her husband’s absence from home and his plans to travel to Turkey. “You will also adversely affect the fortunes of your adult daughter, Rachel,” the wife says, “who is a beautiful, fine and modest woman, for people will draw attention to the fact that a scribe of character and seniority has abandoned his wife and daughters for a number of years, preferring to travel to distant parts, and has apparently gone out of his mind.” ‘Revolting Activities’ There is another marriage document dating from 1047 that outlines conditions the groom agrees to in order to wed: “I shall associate with good men and not corrupt ones. I shall not bring home licentious individuals, buffoons, frivolous men, and good-for-nothings. I shall not enter the home of anyone attracted to licentious behavior, to corruption and to revolting activities.” The website also includes a note handwritten by Jewish scholar Maimonides, otherwise known as Moses ben Maimon or the Rambam. The note requests that tax owed by friends be paid by a Jewish community. More than 1,000 pairs of pages joined by the algorithm have been confirmed by scholars since the computer started its scanning about two years ago, Dershowitz added. About 10,000 new images come in every month and the digital reconstructions are added to the Friedberg website. Lior and Dershowitz plan to have the algorithm working continually by early next year. Ancient Synagogue A genizah is a storage room where copies of respected texts with scribal errors or physical damage are kept until they can be ritually buried. The Cairo Genizah is a collection of more than 200,000 fragmentary Jewish texts, many of which were stored in the loft of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in the Egyptian city. The documents began to surface in the second half of the 19th century. One of the most interesting “joins” made by the computer software was the matching up of two different pages of a work by 10th-century scholar Saadia Gaon, Dershowitz said. The pages were his explanation of the commandments, he added. The software has also matched up trade documents which allow scholars to piece together discoveries about ancient trade to India, the professor added. Wolf and Dershowitz are now also trying to identify similarities between fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, sections of which are on display at Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book. The museum, in a project with Google recently made entire scrolls accessible online. The Friedberg Genizah project attempts to put all these ancient fragments on line, and can be accessed via this link.