Revealed: How Chanukah Was Celebrated a Thousand Years Ago

We collected a few greetings and well-wishes for the holiday that were found in the ancient Cairo Geniza

A letter written in Judeo-Arabic reads "Bada al-ayyam al-sharifa (These days the honorable ones), al-mukhtazah al-mahawdeh b-elnasim (well-known and recognized for miracles)... He who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time…"

Even though it is not one of the biblical Jewish holidays, the festival of Chanukah held an important place for the Jews of medieval Cairo who wrote a majority of the documents in the Cairo Geniza. This famous collection of ancient Jewish manuscript fragments was originally stored in Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue. It contained around 300,000 items, some of them over a thousand years old.

The Geniza reveals that even in the Middle Ages, the Jews of Cairo (then known as Fustat) would send Chanukah letters and greetings to one another. One such greeting contained a variation of a well-known Chanukah blessing which is still in use today: “He who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days and in this month, will perform miracles and wonders for us and for your people”. We have collected a few more greetings and wishes that can be found in the Cairo Geniza to share with you this holiday season.

Part of a letter in Judeo-Arabic. The author sends greetings to the addressee and other relatives. “Afchal al-salam” (peace be upon him), and wishes to send his peace (‘salami’) “Le-lamuli (to my master) al-Sheich Ya’qub Shatz, al-Sheich Taher, ve-seir al-sahab (and the rest of the members).”

 

One of these dates to the mid-11th century: an invitation sent by a man to an honored friend for a Chanukah event: “…that we shall meet tomorrow in the synagogue.” He added, “God will put the days of Chanukah upon him and all that he has, as a sign of good and a sign of blessing.”

 

“God will put the days of Chanukah upon him and all that he has, as a sign of good and a sign of blessing.”

 

Another fragment of a letter, written in Judeo-Arabic, reads, “Bada al-ayyam al-sharifa (During these honorable days), al-mukhtazah al-mahawdeh b-elnasim (well-known and recognized for miracles)…He who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time…”

 

“Bada al-ayyam al-sharifa al-mukhtazah al-mahawdeh b-elnasim…” (During these honorable days well-known and recognized for miracles…)

It was a great sin to allow anyone to spend the holiday alone, without family. In a letter sent by a man by the name of Yosef to one of his relatives, he wrote: “V-ana akool anani etzel el-eichem alei el-Chanukah (and I say that I will come to you in honor of Chanukah).”

 

“V-ana akool anani etzel el-eichem alei el-Chanukah” (And I say that I will come to you in honor of Chanukah).”

 

Happy Chanukah!

 

The first two letters are currently part of the Cambridge University collections – TS10J 14.9 & TS8J22.7. The third is located at the JTS Library- ENANS 2.5. The letter which mentions the Chanukah family visit is part of the Lewis-Gibson Collection, LIT2.140

 

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Cairo Genizah - A Micro History

The Ben Ezra Synagogue was built thousands of years ago in Fustat, the heart of ancient Cairo, and still stands today. In this synagogue was a special room in which the Jews of Fustat deposited their worn and torn writings - Jewish liturgy, marriage ketubot, divorce gets, court documents, private letters, and more. This page is dedicated to those people and their lives – who they married and when, with whom they feuded, what they cooked for shabbat, where they lived, what synagogue they prayed in, and which synagogue they swore they'd never step foot in.

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