Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman
June 1999

Saving Jewish Books

The respect for books and their ability to transmit knowledge is a very important part of our tradition. At some point a book gets worn through use or it turns yellow and becomes fragile. When the books contains shamot, then we bury them.

During the past few weeks of the shamot, collection project I found items that have no business being buried. Some of the items are amusing; for example : a plastic coin, empty bags and a child's drawing. I found books that still smelled fresh. I found books that I immediately saved and put into the Library collections.

Benjamin of Tudela (Rabbi Benjamin ben Yonah), 1163-1173, one of the most famous Jewish travelers, describes the Jews of Cairo in approximately the year 1166, as being wealthy. Many also had the gift of learning and great minds. Jews were active in many commercial enterprises and were frequent purchasers of books. When the books and documents were no longer useful they were placed into a store room (or Geniza). These documents and books were preserved because of the dry climate. Because the shamas often thought it would bring bad luck, they preserved shamot.

The first non-residents who managed to visit the Cairo geniza were Simon van Geldern in 1752 Abraham Firkowitch, and Jacob Safire. Firkowitch, a Russian, collected and sold ancient manuscripts from his visit to Egypt in the 1840's. Some of the documents were sold to the Russian Imperial Library *1*. In 1896, with money secured from Charles Taylor, the Master of St. John's College, Solomon Schechter. sailed from Egypt with the task of securing the documents for the library in Cambridge.

Some of the more famous documents discovered in the Cairo geniza were, the Hebrew text of Ben Sira, the Damascus covenant, teshuvot of Hai Gaon, and leaves from the Jerusalem Talmud that cleared up some difficulties in the previous standard-printed texts.

What does the Cairo Geniza have to do with Shamot today? We are too quick to produce documents and too quick to discard documents. The HTC Library has even put in display cases materials that were found in discard piles.

The Library collects materials for their ability to transmit knowledge from one person to another. Sometimes the value of an object is in the content or text and sometimes it the object itself as an artifact. For example a birkhon (bencher) is more valuable with a name imprinted than without. A book is more valuable with an autograph of the author than one bought new. A single Maxwell House Haggadah is less valuable than a collection that spans the 64 years they have been produced. *2*

The HTC Library has a special collection of Birkhonim. The collection serves as a record of thesimhas that are imprinted on the covers and gives people an idea of the variety of books people have given out. The collection has been used to find a zemer that is not in most of our Ashkanzi zemirot books. One book was used to show the continuity of the HTC community. We displayed a picture of an early supporter alongside of birkhonim from his descendants. I have found someone who used the same birkhon for her bat mitzvah and wedding. (She did change the color and the cover inscription.) Some include special messages for the guests. Instead of collecting rebbe cards, what if we had a collection of benchers from the weddings of famous rabbis?

A modest proposal

We should educate the public to be careful and not create shamot needlessly. Photocopying of texts that will eventually need burial should be done judicially. Books and manuscripts (i.e. Sefrei Torahs, tephillen, etc.) should not be buried if someone else could use them or collect them. Even a pasul sefer Torah would be welcome in our Library collections. Let's pass books that are no longer needed to those who could still learn from them.

If you need an expert to determine if the object, document, or book has value to others, do not hesitate to call me or another librarian.

After preparing the above column I received word that three fires were set in synagogues in Sacremento, CA. One synagogue lost its library of 5000 and 300 video tapes. Federal and local investigators were quickly on the scene, but have not come up with any suspects.



1. This is the same library that holds the Leningrad Bible Manuscript. Firkowitch is the dealer who sold the manuscript to the library, which is now called, The Russian National Library. See the Librarian's Lobby of March 1998.

2. Maxwell House Haggadot have changed over the years. In the 1920's they were a lot plainer than the ones from the 1990's. The ones from 1998 and 1999 have color covers and a crisper layout than the ones from the 1980's.


Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities.   Visit our web site to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby may be found at: http://home.earthlink.net/~DDStuhlman/liblob.htm.

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Last revised November 7, 2005