The Afghan Genizah

The Afghan Genizah

About the Afghan Genizah

A rare collection of hundreds of documents from the 11th to the 13th century was discovered in an area of present day Afghanistan. The collection is the largest of its kind, consisting of about 250 documents representing virtually the only evidence of a once-thriving community.

In 2013, the National Library of Israel procured a portion of this rare treasure, following great efforts to preserve the Afghan Genizah collection for future generations.

The collection, comprised of approximately 250 pages dating to the early 11th century, constitutes the largest body of original materials from the region prior to the modern era. It represents virtually the only primary source for information about this once-thriving Jewish community, as well as the region's Islamic and Persian cultures prior to the Mongol invasion.

This acquisition has been made possible through the generous support of the William Davidson Foundation and the Haim and Hanna Salomon Fund.

The 11th-13th century documents provide unprecedented access to the day-to-day life, society, and economy of Jews along the Silk Road, the ancient highway which once linked Europe and China.

These texts flesh out our understanding of the lives of the eleventh-century Abu Netzer family of Jewish traders living in and around the city of Bamiyan, a once-bustling commercial center located on the Silk Road. A fragment of Tractate Avoda Zara from the Mishnah represents the earliest evidence of a rabbinic text found in Persian-speaking lands to the East of the traditional rabbinic center in Babylonia. A full 27 pages of a bound merchant's account book offers a look into the economic realities of an ancient and sparsely studied community. The collection, written in Persian, Arabic, Aramaic, and Judeo-Persian also includes legal documents, liturgy, poetry, texts of Jewish law, a historical chronicle, and Biblical passages.

Another portion of the collection contains documents dating from the early 13th century, chronicling the broader Islamic culture on the eve of the devastating Mongol conquests of 1221. As a result of the destruction wrought by Genghis Khan and his army, we have had almost no documentation of the Persian and Arabic culture and language of the region – until now.

Many items in the collection had been part of a local administrator's archive, and contain administrative documents and fragments of religious and literary works, mainly in Persian. This material provides an unparalleled view onto the workings of local government administration, politics, and law in this far-flung region.

Scholars who have had a chance to examine the material have enthused about its importance. Though later Muslim scholars have written histories of the Islamic dynasties who reigned over the region, this singular collection of primary sources can shed light on uncharted areas of research including economics, geography, and social and political history.

Glimpses from the Afghan Genizah

It is clear that the scribe of this Mishnah was deft in his craft: In dense hand writing, while remaning entirely coherent, the scribe copied the Seder Nezikin regarding idol worship from the Mishnah. The scribe differentiated sentences with a colon, for two possible reasons: first, it is a commonly used mechanism in scripture; and second, in order to use as much of the page he had at hand. 

Not a lot has survived from this nearly 1000 year old page, and yet, we can identify that it is a part of a copy of the Book of Proverbs (chapters 22-23).

This is an interesting siddur for Shabbat. On the first page presented here, the Kiddush for Shabbat ends with a special wording taken from the book of Nehemiah, chapter 9, verse 14: "And madest known unto them Thy holy Sabbath, and didst command them commandments, and statutes, and a law, by the hand of Moses Thy servant" (Trans. 1917 JPS).

This is an uncommon ending to the prayer and is an example of the small, yet significant differences within the Afghan Siddurim of the 11th-13th centuries.

The text presented here is written in Jewish Persian (Persian written in Hebrew letters) and it contains commentaries for verses 21-22 from Leviticus 11. The verses that survived the passage of time are part of a Halakhic discussion regarding the kosher slaughtering of animals. Much of the writing is either missing or faded, and we can only decipher a few words here and there.