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High-Tech Solution to Judaism's 'Mystery of the Century'

Mega-computer enlisted to unlock 1,000 year-old texts to study key developments in Judaism and relations with other nations and religions.
By Yoni Kempinski
First Publish: 5/28/2013, 2:44 AM

The Friedberg Genizah Project (FGP) unleashed the power of a powerful high performance computer in Tel Aviv University's labs to solve what some have called the "Jewish mystery of the century," breaking the codes of The Cairo Genizah. FGP, working with Tel Aviv University's Professors Lior Wolf and Nachum Deshwitz of the Blavatnik School of Computer Science, intend to decipher more than 200,000 ancient manuscripts discovered and retrieved over 100 years ago from the legendary Cairo Genizah.

The site, a sealed loft inside the ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo which functioned between the 8th and 17th centuries, was uncovered in 1895 by two Englishwomen. The vast collection of manuscripts found inside the crypt date back as far as 1,000 years ago and represent a remarkable millennium-long continuum of religious and regional history. Most of them were moved to Cambridge University, where they have been slowly deciphered by various scholars.

The find comprised the largest and most diverse collection of medieval manuscripts ever found. Generations of Jews had discarded various records and religious writings through access points in the loft because accepted Jewish practice forbids throwing away writing that includes the name of G-d or is from holy sources. Such a collection of discarded writings is called a Genizah, which means "stored" in Hebrew.

In addition to containing Jewish religious texts such as Biblical, Talmudic and later Rabbinic works (some in the writer's original handwriting - including Maimonides), the Genizah provides a detailed picture of the economic and cultural life of the North African and Eastern Mediterranean regions, especially during the 10th to 13th centuries. It even has pupil's school notebooks. Its documents reveal a wealth of information about this previously little known period in Jewish and general history. Documents describe relations between the members of the three major religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism- throughout the Middle East.

Until now if one wanted to research a specific manuscript, the researcher would have to locate and then visit the multiple locations throughout the world where the manuscripts were being held. Many times such efforts met with failure due to the complexity of finding one particular fragment when there are over 250,000 to search through. With the introduction of the Genizah project this slow and laborious process is now revolutionized.

The Friedberg Genizah Project established Genazim in 2006, to advance the Cairo Genizah's slow-moving documentation process with the equivalent of a quantum leap. To date, the project has successfully recorded and digitalized the vast majority the hundreds of thousands of retrieved fragments of pages, documents and books, using cutting edge digital photography.

Before this could happen, FGP had to negotiate arrangements with tens of leading universities around the globe, each of which had acquired various fragments of the stored documents over many decades. Today the herculean mission of creating copyright agreements with FGP has been concluded, and the universities have agreed to share their invaluable manuscript collections with the public. 

The high-resolution digital images, over 450,000 in total, of the manuscripts are, in a certain sense, "better" than the original manuscripts as they can be visually enhanced by computer-generated viewing tools and can be accessed worldwide through FGP's online research platform. By using this one-of-a-kind technology, the Genazim project is able to build a unique database that is accessible to serious researchers and the public alike.

Since its discovery 118 years ago, only a tiny portion of the fragments have been successfully matched up and reconfigured as they originally appeared. Today, in a few weeks’ time, the match-ups will have surged forward beyond anything thus far seen. Such an undertaking of the Cairo Genizah has never been accomplished before and with its completion will provide a boon to academic scholars and manuscript amateurs alike. 
The results of such an unprecedented undertaking can be seen through the renewed interest and vigor shown by researchers throughout the world who are eager to engage in the Genizah Project's newest project. Ancient mysteries of the past are coming back to life with renewed vigor rarely seen in the world of ancient manuscripts. Time is the sole remaining obstacle left between age-old mysteries and revelations on the verge of being discovered.

What kinds of revelations are anticipated?

Since the discovery of the Cairo Genizah archive in 1896 its contents have been quickly snatched up by prestigious academic bodies and private collectors. Hundreds of never before seen lost works have been discovered and have since been published, most times fragment by fragment. The scattering of the fragments in dispersed locations was often the cause for the never-ending nature of the publication process.

This was the case for instance with the famous book of Ben Sira from the second century BC, which until the discovery of the Genizah was known only by its Greek version. The first Fragments of the original Hebrew version were found in the Genizah and were published immediately with the discovery of the Genizah over a century ago, but over time more and more fragments have been discovered and published, with the last one being discovered just a few years ago.      

With the successful compilation of the automated 'Rejoining the Genizah' process, such century-long studies are finally coming to an end. The sophisticated software being used by the mega-computer will match fragments from a database of over 250,000, reconfiguring the original manuscript where they came from.

Over the last two years the project has managed to match such fragments to a response to special queries from different scholars, locating needles in the Genizah haystack, many times from opposite sides of the globe.

One such query recently came from the former head of the Genizah unit in the Cambridge University Library, Prof. Stefan Reif. While preparing for a publication a peculiar and interesting fragment from 11th century Hagadah (A Passover ritual book) located in the Cambridge Genizah collection, he applied to the Friedberg Genizah Project  with the request to asses and locate if there are any another fragments from this manuscript. Using the special software, within one day such a fragment was located thousands of kilometers away in New York.  Beforehand, such a process, if even possible, would have taken anywhere from weeks to decades.

With every passing day the Genizah project continues to document and piece together more and more bits of Jewish history and religious writings that have the potential to lead to unprecedented and unique insights into some of the biggest unsolved questions in modern Judaism today.