Ancient Afghan papers shed light on Jewish life

JERUSALEM (AFP) - A cache of 1,000-year-old documents written by the Jewish community in Afghanistan and unveiled in Jerusalem on Thursday sheds unprecedented light on the mediaeval Jewish community in central Asia.

"This is the first time we have a large collection of documents representing the culture of the Jews who lived there" at the beginning of the 11th century, said academic director of the National Library of Israel, Professor Haggai Ben-Shammai.

The collection was discovered by chance in a cave inhabited by foxes some two years ago in northern Afghanistan.

The Afghan "Geniza," the Hebrew term for ritual Jewish disposal of documents with religious significance which cannot be thrown out but must be buried, contains hundreds of papers currently held by collectors and dealers around the world.

It was the farthest from Israel that such a discovery has been made, and the dry climate of the cave kept the papers in excellent condition.

The national library recently acquired 29 items from the cache from a dealer in Jerusalem, and on Thursday displayed them to the media.

Mr Ben-Shammai said the collection is rich with documents, some in Arabic and some in Hebrew script in the Judaeo-Persian dialect, which was prevalent at the time, and also in Hebrew and Arabic.

In addition to being the first ever documentation of the religious, cultural and commercial life of the Jewish community in a central location on the trade route between China and the West, it also contains yet unseen commentary by 10th century commentator Saadia Gaon on the book of Isaiah.

"Until now, we had no documents testifying to the presence of Jews" in this part of the Persian cultural domain, Mr Ben-Shammai said, adding that the library was preparing to make the documents available worldwide via the Internet.

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