A 900-year-old glossary handwritten by Maimonides has been discovered by a team from the University of Cambridge who were researching a trove of ancient documents from a storehouse in Cairo. However, unlike any other document of its kind, it is written in the local Romance language, the regional precursor to Spanish.
Jewish law forbids discarding fragments of writing from holy literature. Instead, worn-out or disfigured writing is stored in a designated area called a genizah (meaning ‘to hide’ or to ‘put away’), either in a synagogue or cemetery before proper cemetery burial.
The largest and most prominent genizah is in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat or Old Cairo, Egypt. Discovered at the end of the 19th-Century, some 400,000 Jewish manuscript fragments and Fatimid administrative documents were stored there, spanning the entire period of Middle-Eastern, North African, and Andalusian Jewish history between the 6th and 19th centuries CE. They comprise the largest and most diverse collection of medieval manuscripts in the world, representing the history of one of the most important and prosperous Jewish communities of the Mediterranean world. The texts are written in various languages, especially Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic, mainly on vellum, paper, papyrus, and cloth.
The genizah fragments have now been archived in various libraries around the world. The Taylor-Schechter collection at Cambridge is the largest, by far, single collection, with nearly 193,000 fragments.
Around 60 fragments, handwritten by Maimonides, have been found in the Cairo Genizah manuscripts. The Jewish scholar is also known as Moses ben Maimon and the acronym Rambam. He was a Sephardic philosopher who became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. Born in Córdoba in 1138, he worked as a rabbi, physician, and philosopher in Morocco and Egypt. He died in Egypt in 1204.
Most are written in Maimonides’ customary Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic language written with the Hebrew alphabet). His writings include letters, legal rulings, and early drafts of his important works. However, José Martínez Delgado, a visiting professor to Cambridge University Library’s Genizah Research Unit from the Department of Semitic Studies at the University of Granada, discovered one fragment containing a glossary of basic terms relating to herbs, basic foods, and colors. The document’s author – designated T-S NS 163.57 – was unknown at the time. However, in 2022, Delgado and Amir Ashur at Tel Aviv University confirmed that this was Maimonides’s handwriting.
“Something about the handwriting in these Cambridge fragments seemed familiar,” Delgado said. “At last, I realized what I was looking at. I had seen this handwriting before. I quickly sent a message to my friend Amir Ashur.
When writing the list, Maimonides included a translation into Romance, an evolving dialect version of Latin that is a precursor to what would eventually become modern-day Spanish dialects and language. It is believed he wrote the glossary later in his life, sometime between 1168, when he arrived in Egypt, and 1204, the year of his death.
“I did not say what I was thinking,” Delgado said. “I just asked him to look at the fragment, too. Then came confirmation of my suspicions. Amir had seen what I had seen. We were looking at Maimonides’ handwriting, in some sort of Romance dialect.”
“The sequence of the words is interesting, as we are seeing him ‘at work’, writing a progression of words that make sense to him. The terms do not follow alphabetical order – they are arranged logically by basic associations (bread, water) and opposites (white, black). The category of colors (white, black, blue, red, green, yellow, purple) ends in ‘light’ and ‘dark’ and then moves to flavors and aromas. The connection between these is presumably the senses, moving from sight to taste to smell.
“The list of foods moves from basic foods (bread, water) to vegetables, to edible seeds (wheat, chickpea), to seeded fruits (olive, fig), to dried fruits/nuts (acorn, pistachio), to foods from other natural products (milk, honey). The list of actions first describes the basic actions undertaken by all animals (eat, sleep), then moves to actions, feelings, and emotions that are more specific to people. Interestingly, although the words are in a Romance dialect, the plurals are Italian, so it is a very mixed text.
As a Maimonides manuscript in the Romance language is unprecedented, Delgado suggested his choice of language.
“As to why he was collecting the words?” Delgado said. “He was a physician with students, so perhaps he was gathering the terms for a medical or educational reason, or testing himself on his vocabulary!”
Dr. Melonie Schmierer-Lee, Research Associate at the Genizah Research Institute, said: “The Cairo Genizah fragments have been in Cambridge for over 120 years, but the work of cataloging and interpreting them is still ongoing.
“Each discovery like this builds on our knowledge of Egypt in the Middle Ages and the lives of Jews living in Islamic lands. It is a treasure trove for historians, but for many people, it also represents a tangible link to the heritage of the Jewish community and its religious traditions. The Littman Genizah Educational Programme aims to make the manuscripts available to new audiences, from schools to adult learners. I will never tire of seeing people’s excitement and emotion when they see these manuscripts in person.”