Rare: A Remnant of One of the Oldest Yom Kippur Prayer Books in the World

A glimpse at a remnant from an 11th century prayer book discovered in the Cairo Genizah

Dr. Yoel Finkelman
Yom Kippur prayer book fragment, the National Library of Israel collections

The Cairo Genizah is one of the most important sources for understanding Jewish culture, religion, economy and literature in the Middle Ages and in the modern era. It contains hundreds of thousands of Jewish documents and parts of documents discovered in a synagogue in Fustat (the ancient city of Cairo). Some of these are holy books; others are letters, and a few business and legal documents can also be found in the collection.

Among the documents found in the Genizah is part of a page preserved from an early Yom Kippur prayer book.

Among the treasures in the Genizah, is a fragment of a page from an ancient Yom Kippur mahzor.

The prayer book was written in the late 11th or early 12th century by a scribe named Hillel ben Eli, a cantor from Baghdad who immigrated to Egypt and worked as the official scribe of the Cairo rabbinical court. Many examples of certificates in his handwriting can be found in the Cairo Genizah, due to the communal position he held between 1066 and 1108. He is one of the most important scribes whose writings are found in the Genizah. The prayer book which this fragment comes from is the oldest in the Library’s collections and one of the oldest in the entire world. The Library is also in possession of more complete manuscripts of festival prayer books, but they were only written hundreds of years later.

“Please answer my whisper”

On one side of the page is a paragraph from the piyut (liturgical hymn or poem) of Rabbi Eliezer Kalir (one of the greatest poets in Jewish history) named Et Lachashi Aneh Na (“Please Answer My Whisper”). In the third line, one can make out the Hebrew words [Honi] hamulat kodesh, umehallelim behadarat [kodesh] (“[My riches] are holy noise, and they praise in [holy] splendor”). On the other side are prayers connected to the Yom Kippur service in the Temple.

It is fascinating to discover that nearly a thousand years ago, Jews gathered in synagogues and recited prayers so similar to the ones we recite today, with piyutim from poets we are familiar with from our own prayers.

This item is featured in “A Look at the Jewish Year,” a series presented by the National Library of Israel in collaboration with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, which provides insights into the Jewish calendar and holidays through the lens of the National Library of Israel’s world-leading collection of Jewish manuscripts, books, printed materials and more.

The project also includes source sheets with questions and links to additional materials that can be used to help lead group discussions and activities or enriched personal reflection.


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