The British Library's Hebrew manuscript collections include some 10,000 fragments of old Hebrew books and documents believed to be derived from the Genizah - a store room in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo.
Acquired by the British Museum at various points during the 19th and 20th centuries, the fragments contain documents, letters and religious and literary texts providing valuable insight into Jewish life in the Mediterranean World during the Middle Ages.
Autograph responsum of Maimonides from the Cairo Genizah, about the 12th century. Text in Judaeo-Arabic. [Or MS 5519B] © The British Library.
Genizah fragments were sold to the British Museum in the 1880s by the dealer Moses Shapira. However, the main and most significant collection, comprising some 4,000 fragments, was purchased in 1898 from W.S. Raffalovich, a dealer from Jerusalem (OR 5517 to OR 5566). From this collection came two autograph responsa of Maimonides (OR 5519A and OR 5519B).
Among the manuscripts acquired from Moses Gaster's estate in 1927 there were also some 3,000 fragments, comprising
- parts of 10th-11th century Bibles
- marriage and divorce documents
- responsa and
- fragments of Talmudic manuscripts.
Another important accession was made in 1968, when the Museum acquired the collection of Aron Wertheimer, son of Solomon Wertheimer (1866-1935), a well-known collector and supplier of Genizah fragments from Jerusalem.