The Safed Genizah: Buried Manuscripts and Kabbalistic Philology in Seventeenth-Century Palestine

In: Philological Encounters
Avinoam J. Stillman Institut für Judaistik, Freie Universität Berlin Berlin Germany

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Many Jewish communities around the world have maintained a special site, known as a genizah, for discarding written materials. This article focuses on the genizah of the town of Safed in the Galilee. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Safed Genizah preserved Hebrew manuscripts written by Ḥayyim Vital (d. 1620), foremost student of the influential kabbalist Yitsḥaḳ Luria (d. 1572). These manuscripts were excavated and edited in the mid-seventeenth century and became authoritative texts in the history of Jewish esotericism. My study describes Vital’s burial of his manuscripts and the editorial efforts of the Jewish scholars who followed him, particularly Avraham Azulai (d. 1643) in Hebron and Ya‘akov Tsemaḥ (d. 1666) and his fellowship in Jerusalem. Through analysis of their rhetoric and scribal practices, I explore the ethical, philological, and material aspects of this chapter in the pre-history of Genizah research.


To this day, many Jews bury worn-out or unwanted texts, much as one would bury the dead. Some Jewish communities even maintain a special repository known as a genizah (pl. genizot) for discarding these written materials.1 We do not know exactly when this practice started. Early rabbinic literature already mandates the burial of sacred scriptures and other texts containing the names of God. Eventually, this reverence was extended to any text in Hebrew script, even those in vernacular languages. Genizot have been found across South-West Asia, North Africa, and Europe. They are often located near Jewish cemeteries, or within synagogues or other communal buildings.2

The most famous of all genizot is the Cairo Genizah, and for good reason: no other repository has so transformed our knowledge of pre-modern Jewish communities and their worlds.3 The Cairo Genizah contains poetry and philosophy, magic and law, business letters and biblical codices. The standard story of its “discovery” begins when the Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter unearthed a “hoard of Hebrew manuscripts” in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat in 1897.4 Subsequent researchers of the Cairo Genizah continued to cultivate a heroic self-image. One wrote as follows:

The difficulties attending the work of an archaeologist who has set himself the task of reconstructing the plan and the buildings of a town destroyed a thousand years ago are not surpassed by the difficulties that confront those scholars who endeavour to reconstruct a lost branch of Hebrew literature from the Genizah fragments now dispersed among a great number of libraries and collections.5

The oft-told tale of the Cairo Genizah thus begins in neglect and decay and resolves with discovery and recovery. In this telling, ancient documents of inestimable value moldered in the East, only to be redeemed by European researchers.

Recently, this story has been complicated by provenance researchers and cultural critics alike. As with comparable manuscript caches, like the Nag Hammadi Library or the Dead Sea Scrolls, the “find narrative” of the Cairo Genizah rehearses Orientalist tropes.6 Ella Shohat has reminded us that colonialism materially enabled the “discovery” of the Cairo Genizah, ending centuries of local custodianship and dislocating its contents.7 Rebecca Jefferson has meticulously shown how textual fragments attributed to the “Cairo Genizah” were unearthed by numerous agents at several sites.8 Beneath the singular “Cairo Genizah” hide a multiplicity of genizot; the lone scholar was always accompanied by fellow travelers and local informants.

Inspired by these critical interventions, I turn to a remarkable chapter in the pre-history of Genizah research. This article focuses on the genizah of the town of Safed in the Galilee and the kabbalists who extracted and redacted some of its texts in the seventeenth century. In so doing, I highlight genizot other than that of Cairo and emphasize the philological accomplishments of traditional Jewish scholars. The academic literature produced in Western universities has rarely taken notice of pre-modern or non-academic Jewish scholars who discovered, valued, and edited texts from genizot.9 This historiographical neglect robs us of the opportunity to learn from these Jewish scholars and their philological methods, intellectual institutions, and learned attitudes. My study of the Safed Genizah builds upon several Hebrew-language studies written both inside and outside of the university and contributes new evidence from the manuscripts themselves.10 I present the story of the Safed Genizah in a broader perspective, as a case study in the methods, ethics, and theologies of philology.11

The Contexts of the Safed Genizah

In the sixteenth century, Safed was the leading Jewish community in Palestine and well-connected to other Jewish centers in the Ottoman Empire and beyond.12 After 1492 and the expulsions from the Iberian Peninsula, many Sephardi Jews fled to Safed, where they cultivated a thriving textile industry. The Jews of Safed produced many handwritten texts which were preserved, copied, and circulated.