Ancient Jewish manuscripts, from Taliban caves to Israel

Scholars excited about find, one attributed to Babylonian rabbi

04 January, 17:00

(ANSAmed) - JERUSALEM, JANUARY 4 - One thousand years after they were written by highly-educated Jews who had made their home in a remote area on the edges of the Silk Route for trade-related purposes, a cache of Jewish manuscripts were presented to the press yesterday by officials from Israel's National Library. Some of the manuscripts are private documents, while others have religious overtones. The officials said that the manuscripts would be photographed using advanced technological means as soon as possible and then made available on the web. A veil of mystery still hangs over the exact circumstances enabling the Israeli institute to get hold of the manuscripts, which were found a few years ago in caves in northeastern Afghanistan in an area used by the Taliban. The region is said to be an especially dry one, which made it possible to conserve the manuscripts written on paper possibly of Chinese origins.

Media outlets have given credence to the version claiming that foxes first dug into the ravine where hundreds of Jewish manuscripts had been kept for centuries, and that the cache later ended up in the hands of antiquities dealers. The National Library of Israel has purchased 29 for the time being and is negotiating for others. One of the institute's experts, Professor Haggai Ben-Shammai, said that some of the manuscripts were written in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic words in Hebrew script) and Judeo-Persian (Persian words in Hebrew script). Others were instead written in an unusual form of Hebrew used in Baghdad in those times, which later disappeared. ''If it is counterfeit,'' Professor Ben-Shammai added, ''then the counterfeiter must have been an ingenious, erudite individual.'' The manuscripts show that the authors came from a wide variety of communities, including Aleppo (Syria) and Egypt. Several of the documents bear a date of the Islamic calendar, with the oldest dating back to February 1005.

Scholars who have tried their hand at deciphering have therefore now come into direct contact with an entirely unknown Jewish community, who evidently expressed themselves in Arabic and Persian. That said, a Hebrew grammar also surfaced along the sheets of paper. The most important manuscript is attributed to the rabbi of Egyptian origins Saadia Gaon, who went down in history books for having translated the main Jewish texts into Arabic and for running an important rabbinic school in Babylon, the Sura Academy. (ANSAmed).

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