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Ancient Hebrew manuscripts discovered in Afghanistan

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
January 4th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A cache of Hebrew documents has been discovered in Afghanistan's northeast region, a Taliban stronghold. The manuscripts, discovered in caves prove the first evidence of Jewish communities living in the devoutly Muslim country 1,000 years ago.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The documents include biblical commentaries, personal letters and financial records. Israel's National Library unveiled the documents after being purchased from private dealers.

The collection is being heralded as one of the greatest Jewish archives ever found. Dubbed the "Afghan Genizah," Genizah is a Hebrew term that loosely translates as "storage." The phrase refers to a storeroom adjacent to a synagogue, or Jewish cemetery where Hebrew-language books and papers are kept.

As Jewish law forbids any writings containing the formal names of God to be thrown away, the documents are either buried or stashed away. Scholars are now researching the fascinating details into the lives of early Jewish communities in ancient Persia.

The dry, shady caves helped preserve the documents, which were identified using carbon-dating technology and by the use of the unique Judeo-Persian language. The documents include writings in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judea-Arabic and the unique Judeo-Persian language from that era.

Haggai Ben-Shammai, the National Library's academic director, said the documents related to the "Yiddish of Persian Jews," saying the manuscripts included mentions of distinctly Jewish names and evidence of their commercial activities along the "Silk road" connecting Europe and the East.

It remains unclear how the ancient manuscripts emerged. Ben-Shammai said the library was contacted by various antiquities dealers who got their hands on them.

The library has purchased just 29 out of hundreds of the documents believed to be located around the world last month, after long negotiations with antiquities dealers, as they arrived in Israel last week.

The library declined to say how much it paid for the collection. The library hopes to purchase more in the future and doesn't wish to drive up prices.

Ben-Shammai said it was too early to compare the cache to the Cairo Genizah, which is storage of documents found in a synagogue in the late 1800s that included thousands of historically important documents.

Ben-Shammai says it would take a long time to sift through the findings from Afghanistan. The documents are highly significant, as no other Hebrew writings had even been found so far from the Holy Land.

The Jewish community in the region at that time lived largely like others in the Muslim world, as a "tolerated minority." Afghanistan's Jewish community numbered as many as 40,000 in the late 19th century, after Persian Jews fled forced conversion.

In the middle of the 20th Century, only about 5,000 Jews remained, and most emigrated after Israel's creation in 1948.

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