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A genizah (or geniza; Hebrew: "storage"; plural: genizot or genizoth or genizahs) is the store-room or depository in a synagogue (or cemetery), usually specifically for worn-out Hebrew-language books and papers on religious topics that were stored there before they could receive a proper cemetery burial, it being forbidden to throw away writings containing the name of God (even personal letters and legal contracts could open with an invocation of God). In practice, genizot also contained writings of a secular nature, with or without the customary opening invocation, and also contained writings in other languages that use the Hebrew alphabet (Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Spanish, Yiddish).

This custom also included the periodic solemn gathering of the contents of the geniza, which were then buried in the cemetery or "bet ḥayyim." Synagogues in Jerusalemmarker buried the contents of their genizot every seventh year, as well as during a year of drought, believing that this would bring rain. This custom is associated with the far older practice of burying a great or good man with a "sefer" which has become "pasul" (unfit for use through illegibility or old age). In Morocco, in Algiers, in Turkey, and even in Egypt, such paper-interments had been practiced.

By far, the best-known genizah, which is famous for both its size and spectacular contents, is the Cairo Geniza, discovered in 1864 by Jacob Saphir, and chiefly studied by Solomon Schechter and Shlomo Dov Goitein.

References to genizah in the Talmud

The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 115a) directs that holy writings in other than the Hebrew language require "genizah," that is, preservation. In Pesachim 118b, "bet genizah" = "treasury." In Pesachim 56a Hezekiah hides ("ganaz") a medical work; in Shabbat 115a R. Gamaliel orders that the Targum to the Book of Job should be hidden ("yigganez") under the "nidbak" (layer of stones). In Shabbat 30b, there is a reference to those rabbis who sought to categorize the books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs as heretical; this occurred before the canonization of the Hebrew Bible, when disputes flared over which books should be considered Biblical. The same thing occurs in Shabbat 13b in regard to the Book of Ezekiel, and in Pesachim 62 in regard to the Book of Genealogies.

In the medieval era

In medieval times, Hebrew scraps and papers that were relegated to the genizah were known as shemot or "names," because their sanctity and consequent claim to preservation were held to depend on their containing the "names" of God. In addition to papers, articles connected with the ritual, such as tzitzit, lulavim, and sprigs of myrtle, are similarly stored.

According to folklore, these scraps were used to hide the famed Golem of Prague, whose body is claimed to lie in the genizah of the Altneushulmarker in Prague.

In the 21st century

In their book The Jesus Family Tomb, Charles Pellegrino and Simcha Jacobovici report that the Talpiot Tombmarker (which they claim is the real burying place of Jesus and his family), has been transformed into a genizah by the Jerusalemmarker rabbinical authorities.


  1. Webster's Third New International Dictionary, 1961

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