Saturday, July 20, 2013

Judeana Jones and the Fifth Question


   Judeana Jones and the Fifth Question

By Steven Plaut


     The following is not a political story.  It is, in my opinion, one of the most intriguing scoops in recent Jewish history.  What I am about to relate to you is based almost entirely on the story with the title "Judeana Jones" that appears in the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon from July 19, 2013.   Nothing I am about to relate is my own original work or research.  I am simply summarizing for you in English the gist of the story and I think you will agree with me that it just might top the drama of the saga of Two-Gun Cohen (see ).


     The story is about two collectors and researchers of ancient Jewish print books, who stumbled upon the existence of what may be one of the richest and oldest collections of ancient Jewish hand-written manuscripts.  These had been preserved in a cave in Afghanistan.  The documents were in a "Geniza" or storage/disposal area that once served a Jewish community in Afghanistan.  The better-known Geniza of Cairo has long served as one of the richest sources of original materials on ancient Judaic practice and writing.  Only a tiny number of materials have been obtained from the Afghan Geniza and the little that has been appears to be priceless and downright incredible.


      Moshe Rosenfeld is a collector and dealer in ancient Jewish books living in Jerusalem, the Judeana Jones of our story.  He is an expert on, and has published a small encyclopedia about, all the books in print that use the Hebrew alphabet.  I emphasize the alphabet because his archive is not limited to books in the Hebrew language.  Over the centuries other hybrid languages developed, where a non-Jewish language would be transcribed and written in Hebrew letters by Jews living in the countries where it was spoken.  The best known is of course Yiddish, which is largely a dialect of German mixed with some Hebrew words and written in Hebrew letters.  [Many people do not know that there are/were OTHER Yiddish-like languages based on other languages besides German.  There was a Judeo-Persian written in Hebrew letters, a Judeo-Tatar, a Judeo-Provincial language based on the Provence dialect in France, a Judeo-Venetian, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), and others.  Some of these are still spoken; my father-in-law grew up in a house where Ladino was spoken.] 


     Rosenfeld's partner in his enterprise is an elderly soft-spoken scholar named Isaiah Winograd.  In the spring of 1988 Rosenfeld was giving a lecture in Petach Tikva about ancient Jewish manuscripts.  At its end, a member of the audience approached him and showed him a yellowing photograph of a parchment document.   He told Rosenfeld that he was a Jewish diamond merchant based in Dallas, Texas.  A week earlier an "Arab" from Afghanistan (he probably meant a Muslim) had approached him and showed him photographs of a number of old documents, some torn or damaged, and had asked the diamond merchant if he was interested in buying them.  The man wanted Rosenfeld to indicate whether they looked genuine and had any commercial value.   He said he was about to return to Texas after Passover and wanted to know if this was something worth pursuing.


   The Texan further explained that the Afghan he had met had told him that a large collection of such documents and scraps had been discovered in an old burial cave in the northeastern province of Afghanistan.  It sounded like a Geniza somewhat similar to the famous one discovered in Cairo.  Centuries ago, Afghanistan was under the rule of Persian emperors and had a significant Jewish population, although today there are supposedly only two Jews left in the country.


   Anyway, in 1998, the year this begins, Afghanistan was in large part but not in whole under the rule of the Taliban.  But it was well before the 9-11 attacks and the Taliban was not yet the target for Western anti-terror fury.  The northeastern section of Afghanistan, that close to the border with Tajikistan, was controlled by a non-Taliban tribe.


    When showed the photo of the fragment, Rosenfeld knew at once that it was a genuine ancient Jewish manuscript, and the story surrounding it convinced him that the collection of documents was genuine and of incredible value, not just from a Jewish historic point of view but also from a commercial one.  He considered going to Afghanistan itself but was told by those who know that this would be suicide. 


   The Texan returned home and the Afghan he had spoken to connected him with the head chief of the Khakimi tribe, which controls the section of Afghanistan where the cave and its documents were reported to be.  The Israelis began to negotiate a rendezvous some place in Europe for purposes of purchasing the documents from the cave.  Plans were interrupted when a major earthquake hit Afghanistan a few days later.  But as a result the Khakimis were even more desperate for cash and seemed more forthcoming.   They offered a suitcase full of the documents in exchange for a plane loaded with grain and other foods.    


    Rosenfeld recruited a private-sector security agency run by two Israeli ex-intelligence officers.  They uncovered more information and found a contact person from the Khakimi tribe, who said he could get the documents to the Tajik border with an armed escort.  But the tribe's price had changed.  Now they wanted a plane full of weapons, and everyone understood that the Americans and much of the rest of the world would never tolerate such an idea.  Nevertheless, Rosenfeld and his team went to Tajikistan and attempted to make contacts from there with the tribe.  But in 1999 the president of Tajikistan was assassinated and other violence was breaking out there.  The original Afghan who had approached the diamond merchant showed up again in Texas, and new plans were made to rendezvous with him, but the FBI suspected he might be a terrorist and warned the Rosenfeld people off.


    By early 2001communications and negotiations were being conducted with the Khakimis for a new rendezvous in Europe to sell them.  A meeting finally took place in the summer in a London hotel.  The Afghans had brought with them some "sample" documents.  When the Israelis saw one in particular they could not contain their excitement, and the Afghans, being shrewd hagglers, sensed it and upped the ante.  And when I tell you what they saw, you will understand their inability to restrain themselves.  Besides that document, the Afghans also showed them an ancient Jewish prayerbook, which the Israelis photographed.  It is one of the oldest ever discovered.


     The bazaar haggling continued and they agreed to meet a few weeks later to complete the transaction.   Before they could do so, bin Laden and his terrorists attacked the United States and the Taliban became the enemy of the civilized world.  Is this starting to sound like a Spielberg production?   Contacts ended.  Only a small number of the documents had been seen and photographed.


     What became of the rest is not known.  On the one hand, the Taliban are Islamofascist fanatics and are all too willing to obliterate anything attesting to ancient Jewish life and culture.  On the other hand, they must have figured out that the documents have commercial value.  Recently an Iranian Jewish merchant in the UK is said to have purchased one of the Afghan manuscripts for $400,000.  


     The story of the Afghan Geniza was kept secret and was revealed to only a small number of people.  In December 2011, Ehud Yaari, an Israeli television commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, broadcast a story about the existence of the Afghan Geniza, but got many of the details wrong.  Only in the past few weeks have Rosenfeld and his people decided to go public and reveal their attempts to get the documents and tell what they know about the story.    


      Ah, but I left you hanging a few paragraphs back.  What was that incredible document that was seen by the Israelis in the London hotel over which they were unable to contain their excitement?


     It was what appears to be the oldest Passover Haggadah ever discovered.  And what gave it away was the Fifth Question.




     As you of course know, Passover Seders begin with the asking of the Four Questions.  The basis for this tradition goes all the way back to the Mishna itself, which was redacted in the early second century.  What most people do not know is that in the Mishna, the "questions" for the Seder are actually the FIVE Questions.  The fifth question, as related in the Pesachim tractate of the Talmud, page 116A, is this:  "On all other nights we eat meat roasted, stewed or boiled, but on this night, roast only."  This refers to the Passover sacrifice, a roasting of meat, as it was conducted in the Temple services.   At the time of the Talmud and for a while afterwards, this fifth question was still included in the Seder.  At the time of the "Gaon" Scholars in Babylonia, an era that began in 589, it was ruled that it is inappropriate to ask this fifth question because it is prohibited to conduct such a Passover sacrifice outside of the Temple and the Temple has been destroyed.  So the question was dropped.  Maimonides and others also later endorsed the dropping of it.




    That means it is so old, at the latest from the ninth century, that it was written BEFORE word of the rulings by the Gaon scholars against inclusion of the question had reached the Jewish community in remote Afghanistan.





Finally, as a side note not really related to any of the above, let me say that I personally do not like the Indiana Jones movie series and wish that Steven Spielberg would try to make some movies for grownups (besides Schindler's List).  I do hand it to Spielberg that he managed to create a figure of such epic excitement by splicing together two of the most boring things on the planet.  Lots of people consider archeology the most boring discipline one can learn in a university (although I suppose the above saga shows how wrong they can be, and - in any case - as an economist who am I to speak?), and everyone agrees that Indiana is the most boring state in the United States.  But the splicing produced Indiana Jones, from which we now have Judeana Jones! 





2.  Anti-Semitic Atheist Zealots:



'Exclusionary Religious Symbol': Atheist Group Battles Planned Holocaust Memorial's Inclusion of the Star of David

Jul. 18, 2013 9:00pm Billy Hallowell

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), an atheist-activist non-profit, is known for going after perceived violations of the separation of church and state. This in mind, the organization has a new target: a Holocaust memorial.

The group is combating the inclusion of a Star of David in a proposed statehouse monument that is being planned in Ohio. Its leaders' opposition to the religious symbol is rooted in the belief that it would violate the separation of church and state.

The FFRF holds that the inclusion of the star, which is associated with Judaism, would be problematic, although non-theist leaders said they have no problem with including a Holocaust museum at the capitol.

Atheists first noted their opposition in a June 14 letter that was sent to Richard Finan, chair of the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, the Columbus Dispatch reports.

"Permitting one permanent sectarian and exclusionary religious symbol…would create the legal precedent, for instance, to place an equally large or larger permanent Latin cross on Capitol grounds," Don Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-presidents — and husband and wife — wrote in the letter (read it here).

A press release published on the organization's website notes that architect Daniel Libeskind purposefully included the star, while other designs that almost made the cut did not have any religious sentiment included; the group noted that it was possible to select an entirely non-religious option. Despite Libeskind's contention that "one cannot separate the Holocaust from the star," the FFRF firmly disagreed.

"The monument could resemble numerous powerful war memorials across the U.S. which do not use any sectarian images, including the national World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial," the letter continued. "Each is secular in nature and without religious reference, which offends no one and is respected by all."

The organization contends that non-Jewish groups, including homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, the disabled and others are left out by the inclusion of the star. In the end, though, the board approved the design on Thursday, despite the FFRF's intense opposition.

Interestingly, the FFRF claims that Finan, a former state senator in Ohio, ended up expressing doubt over the star's inclusion in the design after he received the letter. Following the monument's approval, the politician allegedly stepped down from the board.


3.  As you probably heard, Helen Thomas, the anti-Semitic White House correspondent before whom no mirror was safe, just got herself recycled.  I did not catch what the cause of death was, but I suspect Dorothy's house dropped down on her from the cyclone.

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