Thursday, January 19, 2012

Medieval Jewish manuscripts discovered in Afghanistan include an unknown work by Saadia Gaon

Complete article

This much is known: rare, medieval Jewish manuscripts have been discovered along the fabled Silk Road in Afghanistan and are for sale.

Are they authentic? Scholars who have examined them say they are.

The rest — who found them, where they came from, whether there are more to unearth — remains a mystery.

But the discovery of the 200 or more documents, some in good condition and others crumpled or in fragments, has excited academic interest around the world.

“For the first time we have concrete evidence of Jewish existence (in Afghanistan), not only in the material sense of tombstones or household artifacts, but documents that (tell us) about the spiritual world of the people who lived there 1,000 years ago,” says Haggai Ben-Shammai, academic director of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem...

Many of the pages are torn from books and are in a variety of languages, including Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian, both written in Hebrew script. They include biblical commentaries, books of Jewish law, liturgical poems, previously unknown work by Saadia Gaon, one of the most influential thinkers of the Middle Ages, as well as business letters and trading documents, such as deeds of sale.

“I have no doubt these are genuine,” says Shaul Shaked, professor emeritus at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The pages will be of particular interest to those who study the development of languages such as Judeo-Persian. Jewish communities tended to preserve forms of speech typical of earlier periods.

The documents describe a Jewish community that lived, permanently or temporarily, in a trading station between the Muslim conquest and the Mongol invasion. “We had some idea there were Jewish communities in Afghanistan, but this is the first time we have original documents written by them,” say Shaked, an expert in Judeo-Persian.

It was a turbulent period, he says, when a sect known as the Karaite — which rejected the Talmudic or rabbinic tradition and accepted only the Torah as holy scripture — was active...

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