This Day in Jewish History / A Scholar Who Ignored the Cairo Geniza Is Born

Adolf Neubauer wrote about the Cairo Geniza early on, but it was a rival who brought the collection to Europe.

March 11, 1831 is the birthdate of Adolf Neubauer, one of the great researchers of Hebrew literature of the 19th century.

As the resident expert on Hebrew manuscripts at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Neubauer was notable for creating a comprehensive catalog of such works, an effort on which he labored for 18 years. He is also remembered, however, for deciding to forgo an effort to bring the bulk of the contents of the Cairo Geniza to Oxford, yielding what he termed “a lot of worthless rubbish” to his Cambridge rival Solomon Schechter.

Adolf Neubauer was born in Nagybiccse, in Upper Hungary (today the town of Bytca, Slovakia) to Jacob Neubauer and the former Amalie Langfeld. He received a solid Jewish education from both his father and a cousin, Moses Neubauer, before heading off to Prague for training with Solomon Judah Leib Rapoport, a rabbi who was also a proponent of a critical approach to Hebrew texts. Neubauer studied as well as the Universities of Prague and of Munich.

Neubauer moved to Paris in 1857, where he pursued scholarly research at the Bibliotheque Nationale when he wasn’t off on working trips to inspect manuscript collections in other countries. He also held a position for several years in the Austrian consulate in Jerusalem. An 1864 visit to St. Petersburg, where he studied the Firkovich collection of Karaite manuscripts, led to a book on the subject; other books – he published a total of 20, as well as some 300 articles - included one on the geography of the Holy Land as presented in the Talmud and other post-biblical Hebrew works, and one on Hebrew verse.

In 1868, Neubauer, having relocated to England, took up a position at the Bodleian, assigned the task of cataloging its Hebrew manuscripts. That yielded a comprehensive volume, covering 2,602 separate manuscripts, published in 1886.

As early as 1894, in a professional journal, Neubauer described the potential historical value of the geniza – a storehouse for old Hebrew manuscripts – in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo. And he did acquire for Oxford several thousand fragments from what turned out to be the collection that in the 20th century transformed the study of medieval Jewry. Nonetheless, it was Schechter – a sometimes friend, more frequently competitor - who journeyed to Cairo and came back with nearly 200,000 fragments of scrolls, contracts, letters, prayerbooks and the like for the University of Cambridge.

Neubauer and Schechter both came into possession of valuable pages from the geniza of what were then the earliest known Hebrew copies of the Apocryphal work Ben-Sira (later surpassed in age by Dead Sea Scroll versions from a millennium earlier), and in this case, it was Neubauer who first published his findings – while Schechter was busy arranging to bring the larger haul back to England.

Mathilde Schechter, the scholar’s wife, described Neubauer - who was known as “Old Nob” among his colleagues - in an unpublished memoir (quoted by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole in their book “Sacred Trash”) as vain and as very stingy, but acknowledged that “we really were very fond of him.” She also recorded that, after her husband proudly announced his identification of a page of Ben-Sira, Neubauer “could not forgive Dr. Schechter.”

Neubauer received an appointment at Oxford’s new Oriental School in 1884, while continuing to work at the Bodleian Library. He retired in 1900, when his eyesight failed him. Never having married, he moved in with his nephew Adolf Buchler, later the principal of Jews’ College, in London. He died in that city on April 6, 1907.

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