The Friedberg Genizah Project
Section of letter with signature 
of Rav Yosef Karo; 
16th Century (CUL)

Image: Section of letter with signature of Rav Yosef Karo, 16th Century; Cambridge University Library T-S 13J24.28


he Cairo Genizah contains hundreds of thousands of pages of treatises and documents – texts of the Bible and commentaries, biblical and rabbinic dictionaries, halakhic works, poetry and prayer, philosophical and polemic treatises, deeds, documents, official and personal letters, in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic and Arabic, Judeo-Persian and Yiddish, dating from before the eighth century until the fifteenth century and later.

Accessing the treasures of the Cairo Genizah, however, used to be a great challenge for scholars in this field of study. Since the discovery of the Cairo Genizah at the beginning of the twentieth century and until about the mid-sixties of that century, the only way to research a Genizah fragment was to travel to the library where it was located in order to look at it there. In addition, a lack of a comprehensive catalogue of these documents made it difficult for a scholar to know whether other pages of the same manuscript existed someplace else at another library. Even after the 1960s, when microfilms of Cairo Genizah manuscripts became available, the images were often not sufficient and there was no easy way of magnifying or otherwise changing the parameters of the image to see it more clearly.

In December 1997, Neil Danzig delivered a lecture at the 29th Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies in Boston, addressing the challenges Cairo Genizah studies faced due to lack of a comprehensive catalogue, manuscript dispersion and the difficulty of accessing documents in respective libraries. Inspired by Danzig’s talk, Albert Dov Friedberg envisioned a project that would have the entire Genizah corpus transcribed, published, and made accessible to every researcher, free of charge and without having to travel. He thought that the project would go a long way to open new fields of academic endeavor and stimulate new interest in Judeo-Arabic studies – a subject that, due to the lack of easily available material and the lack of familiarity with the language, had become the province of only a handful of scholars. Lastly, the idea that many lost medieval works would be resurrected strongly appealed to him; he considered it a charitable effort of the highest order towards these scholars. Friedberg took immediate action by asking Yaakov Elman (YU) and Lawrence H. Schiffman (NYU), scholars with whom he had shared scholarly interest in Rabbinics, and Neil Danzig (JTS), an expert in geonim studies and the person who had sparked his interest in the project, to set the outline for a possible “Genizah Publication Project” while assuring his financial support.

Between March 7 to 9, 1999, some of the world’s foremost Genizah experts gathered at the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, NYU, to discuss the first steps of the project. Friedberg’s initial goal was to publish as much material from the Cairo Genizah as possible, focusing on classical Jewish texts, primarily biblical commentaries, philosophy/theology, midrashim, responsa, and talmudic commentaries, as well as rabbinic texts that might provide better readings than those extant in Ashkenaz.

The participants of the meeting decided that the aim of bringing Genizah texts to a published format should be reached in three steps: correctly identifying and assigning the fragments, transcribing the texts, and making the material accessible. During the meeting, Stefan Reif introduced a novel idea, that of digitizing the entire corpus while doing away with much of the transcription effort. The idea had great appeal but the nascent technology was still too costly to implement. Friedberg suggested waiting until the technology became more widely used and costs would drop. With Reif’s suggestion, the germ of what would become the final project was planted at that meeting.

The "Friedberg Genizah Project" (FGP) was officially launched in May 1999. Led by Neil Danzig, Yaakov Elman, and Lawrence H. Schiffman as Directors, FGP started off at NYU, with a project team in the US and Israel.

Directors: Neil Danzig (JTS), Yaakov Elman (YU), Lawrence H. Schiffman (NYU)
Coordinator: Reuven Rubelow
Cataloguing: Tamar Leiter
Manager of Computer Operations: Richard T. White
Advisory Board: Stefan Reif (T-S, Cambridge), M. Ben-Sasson (HU)1, H. Ben-Shammai (Ben-Zvi)2, M.A.
Friedman (Tel-Aviv), M. Kahana (HU), M. Cohen (Princeton)
Institutions: Taylor-Schechter/Cambridge, Ben-Zvi Institute, Princeton University, JTS, JNUL, YU
- M. Kahana (HU) for Midrashic texts
- M.A. Friedman (Tel-Aviv) for Judeo-Arabic legal texts
- A. Maman (HU) for grammatical works

1 Prof. Menachem Ben-Sasson
2 Prof. Haggai Ben-Shammai

In 2002, FGP moved to the University of Waterloo, as James A. Diamond became one of the FGP directors and introduced the FGP to Waterloo’s IT department. ZKarron New Media had been contracted to create a database for the Project and a website was set up ( However, with time the computational needs of FGP increased – reflecting the overall complexity and growth of the project.

Reuven Rubelow managed the overall project from its inception, including the agreement with the directors on a timeline and budget.

"This project could never have gotten off the ground without the extraordinarily diligent, conscientious, dedicated and diplomatic efforts of Reuven Rubelow. We owe him an eternal debt of gratitude."(Albert D. Friedberg)

What started off as a five-year, one-million-dollar project, expanded to more than four times the timeframe and twenty times the amount, as the scope of the enterprise widened in the early 2000s: digitizing the entire Genizah material, completing a web-based "union catalogue" of all fragments, and transcribing and translating especially the Judeo-Arabic ones.

(a) Digitization
In the 1990s, the disc drives to store images had been expensive and had much smaller capacity; hundreds would have been needed to house all the images. Also, the internet was slow and images took a long time to download.

However, with the advent of significant technological advances in the field of high resolution digital photography in the beginning of the twenty-first century, and the availability of steadily increasing internet bandwidth, the FGP moved to implement the idea first suggested at the meeting held in New York in March 1999 to photograph with a high resolution digital camera every single Cairo Genizah manuscript, and make it accessible to the world online.

FGP presented this plan to a number of prestigious university libraries, and some recognized the offer for what it was – an historic opportunity to both preserve their precious manuscripts in digital form, as well as share them with the entire academic world.
The participation of institutions such as JTS and Cambridge paved the way for similar partnerships with the rest of the world's university libraries in possession of Cairo Genizah collections.

(b) Union Catalogue
While a shelfmark is supposed to be a unique identifier of a Genizah fragment, libraries would often change shelfmarks when reorganizing their inventory. Fragments would move to different locations and therefore also shelfmarks. Different encoding systems were used by different libraries. And finally, Genizah scholars, when mentioning a fragment in their publications, often used to refer to it not through its shelfmark but by mentioning the corresponding entry number in some published catalogue, or by citing a research publication in which it was discussed. A better way to track down and identify manuscripts was needed. The answer came in the way of a "union catalogue".

The FGP digital union catalogue would provide a complete accounting of all Genizah fragments from collections all over the world. Included in this database would be a flexible search engine to enable scholars to collate scattered fragments and conduct research on them, as well as a wide variety of searches in all the languages of the Genizah.

Incorporating the existing cataloguing data was about getting permission to use the printed catalogues to create an electronic version. The first contracts for digitizing were signed with JTS, who gave permission for the Danzig and Lieberman catalogues, and Cambridge, who gave permission for their fourteen catalogues.

Jay Rovner, Manuscript Bibliographer at the JTS Library, explained:

This "required us to compile several inventory lists. These would be multifunctional and interwoven into the overall project: 1) they would serve as the master list by which we could know of the existence and location of each and every fragment and – in cases where several pieces, not always from the same manuscript, had been placed in the same sleeve (housing) – tally the number of pieces in the sleeve, 2) they could be manipulated into both brief lists and more detailed ones so that the photographer and this assistants could record each volume, and more, the recto and verso of every fragment, as they had been shot, and 3) they would serve as the nucleus of the cataloguing project, and thence, of access to the descriptions in the catalogue records."

At the prodding of the FGP and funded by it, about 25 teams (including individual scholars) set out in their work to create this union catalogue plus a bibliography. By 2004, they had catalogued 42,300 records, in addition to 10 Cambridge computerized catalogues (24,400 records) and 6 additional computerized catalogues (2,200 records). 6,800 transcriptions; 800 new translations; 23,000 bibliographical items; 4,000 (in process of adding 20,000 JTS) digitized images; 167,000 computerized lists of shelf-marks.

The Jewish National and University Library (JNUL) completed the digitizing of the JNUL Genizah collection and prepared the hand-list for this collection in electronic version.

Again with funding from FGP, the University of Cambridge Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit completed a three-volume bibliography encompassing the manuscripts in its possession. This bibliography contained some 120,000 bibliographical references, covering all professional periodicals and books published since the end of the nineteenth century and up to 2004. These references were uploaded to FGP databases and made available online. In order to cover such references for all other Genizah collections, a Bibliography Team was established, whose main mission was to check all publications (mainly in Hebrew) until 2004 for mentions of non-Cambridge or Westminster fragments, and to complete the Cambridge Bibliographies checking a few periodicals that were not processed by Cambridge.

(c) Transcriptions
Equally important was the effort to produce transcriptions of Genizah fragments. The transcriptions, used in conjunction with the catalogue, would make it possible for those interested in particular subjects to investigate and integrate all relevant texts into their work.

FGP therefore set up several units to work on specific areas of Genizah transcription, and, when appropriate as in the case of Judeo-Arabic texts, translations. These included units devoted to the entire Talmudic corpus (Mishnah, Tosefta, Babylonian Talmud, Jerusalem Talmud, Rif), Midrash Halakhah, Midrash Aggadah, Judeo-Arabic halakhic compendia, Judeo-Arabic grammatical and lexical texts, Judeo-Arabic philosophical and polemic texts, liturgical texts, court and economic documents, and geonic responsa. These units were located at Hebrew University, Makhon Ben Zvi, Ben-Gurion University, Tel Aviv University, Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and Princeton University.

Conducted by teams working either directly for FGP, or for universities with which FGP held agreements, the study identified, catalogued, transcribed, translated, and amassed bibliographical data on the Genizah manuscripts.

Ben-Zvi Institute
The Center conducted three projects: (1) Judeo-Arabic halakhic literature, (2) Judeo-Arabic biblical exegesis, and (3) Judeo-Arabic philosophical, theological, and polemical works.

Princeton University
Project on Medieval Documents in Judeo-Arabic (conducted by Mark Cohen). Under FGP funding, Princeton computerized several thousand transcriptions of historical documents from the Cairo Genizah documents. These documents, mostly unpublished, were originally transcribed by S.D. Goitein and copies of his transcriptions are found in the “S.D. Goitein Genizah Research Lab at Princeton.” They keyboarded Goitein's typed texts, edited them, and provided them with brief catalogue-headers.

Hebrew University
- Halakhic Midrashim (by Menahem Kahana).
- Philological Texts, primarily in Judeo-Arabic (by Aharon Maman).

Tel Aviv University
Judeo-Arabic Documents and Response (by Mordechai A. Friedman). This group undertook the decipherment, translation, and brief annotation of the Genizah Judeo-Arabic responsa literature from the geonic period and the classical Genizah period as well as other legal texts: Judeo-Arabic responsa dealing with commercial law, documents and some responsa associated with engagement and betrothal, responsa of Abraham Maimonides and his contemporaries.

Jerusalem National and University Library (JNUL)
Genizah Cataloguing (by Ezra Chwat). This group completed an updated catalogue of the Genizah fragments of rabbinic manuscripts in Oxford's Bodleian Library and, for the Oriental Department of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, a catalogue of the David Kaufman collection in Budapest.
- Documents from the Late Middle Ages (by Avraham David). This group completed Cairo Genizah documents of the Late Middle Ages (from the second half of the fifteenth century to the first half of the seventeenth century).

Bar-Ilan University
Aggadic Midrashim (by Chaim Milikovsky), with two primary goals: (1) the preparation of a database/catalogue of Genizah fragments of Midrash Aggadah; and (2) the transcription of fragments of Midrash Aggadah from all collections of Genizah material.

FGP also published in print the results of its work, catalogues as well as texts. One of the many outputs of this endeavor has been the FGP annual publication devoted to Genizah texts and studies, Ginzei Qedem. Ginzei Qedem uses the term “Genizah texts and studies” in the widest sense of the term – fragments of literary works and documents from genizot in Cairo and elsewhere – including all the relevant disciplines – history, literature (including piyyut), language, biblical studies and exegesis, Talmud and Rabbinics, magic, etc. The purpose of Ginzei Qedem is to provide a specialized venue for scholarly publications in this area. Younger scholars are particularly encouraged to participate alongside their more established colleagues. Its first volume was published in 2005.

In 2005:
Directors: Menahem Ben-Sasson, Haggai Ben-Shammai, James Diamond
President: Reuven Rubelow
Transcriptions: Uri Ehrlich, Abraham David, Paul Mandel
Cataloguing: Ezra Chwat
Genizah scholars actively involved in the project: Stefan Reif (T-S Cambridge), Yaakov Sussmann (HU), Haggai Ben-Shammai, Sarah Stroumsa, David Sklare (Ben-Zvi), Mark Cohen (Princeton), Menahem Kahana (HU), Mordechai A. Friedman (Tel Aviv), Aharon Maman (HU), Chaim Milikovsky (Bar Ilan)

By 2005, FGP was confronted with technical challenges: The computer system developed for the Genizah material failed to process and digest the vast information streaming in different channels to one homogenous and comprehensive database. In August 2005, following a special session on the Friedberg Genizah Project at the 14th World Congress of Jewish Studies, Reuven Rubelow, Menahem Ben-Sasson and Haggai Ben-Shammai met with Yaacov Choueka.

Yaacov Choueka, then emeritus professor of computer sciences at Bar Ilan University, evaluated the situation and offered solutions in his report to the FGP directors in November 2005. Entitled “The Project New Phase: A Design and an Action Plan”, Yaacov Choueka laid out in one chapter his computerizational vision for the FGP. He highlighted the most urgent mission of compiling a complete Genizah inventory: a list of all Genizah collections and a list of all the Genizah shelfmarks.

As the FGP Chief Computerization Scientist, Yaacov Choueka established a computerization unit based in Jerusalem, called "Genazim", comprising of programmers and consultants, to create the software and algorithms that are the heart of FGP's Online Research Platform. The team continues to date to upload digital images of manuscripts and academic research material and maintain the computerized database.

Shelfmark (2.0)
In order to recognize and cite fragments unambiguously by using code-names, it was necessary to first build a computerized list of all shelfmarks encompassing all Genizah manuscripts found in different locations worldwide. Each and every unit of information relevant to any particular manuscript could then be attached to this shelfmark.
The computer team ensured that a formal unique shelfmark was determined for every physical manuscript, and that all other variants or “alternate” names are recognized by the computer and attached to the formal one.
This task of recognizing a shelfmark through any of its numerous variants and attaching it to the intended formal shelfmark, even before processing the data associated with it, was complex and caused a great amount of work in most computerization tasks in which Genazim was involved. In order to solve this problem, the team introduced the concept of a fixed FGP number.

List of Libraries and Collections (2.0)
In order to begin the computerization agenda, the Genazim team needed a comprehensive list of libraries, institutions and private collections in possession of Genizah manuscripts. This list was the blueprint by which FGP's Computerization Unit planned its activities in inventory compilation and digital imaging tasks.

Inventories (2.0)
One of the aims the Computerization Unit wished to achieve was to get an accurate, updated and comprehensive computerized inventory of all shelfmarks in a given collection.
The Genazim team made the necessary contacts with the library authorities urging them to create accurate inventories and offering to cover their expenses. Libraries that did not have the human resources needed for this task were assigned a person from FGP. In all these cases, the received inventories went through a series of sophisticated computerized as well as manual analyses in order to check for the consistency, integrity, non-ambiguity and completeness of the inventory and the data therein. Hundreds of errors and inconsistencies were found in such lists.
In other cases, when an agreement for digitizing the collection was quickly reached, the team skipped the inventory step, building the inventory from the actual images, these being, of course, the ultimate level of authenticity.

Images (2.0)
Scattered as they were among private collections and university libraries throughout Europe and North America, a scholar wishing to research a set of specific manuscripts had to travel to various locations around the world – a costly and time-consuming inconvenience.
By using a powerful viewer, a user can magnify the image (to the maximum extent), change its contrast, brightness, colors, etc. – thus making fragments that were thought to be illegible – readable once again. The Genazim further refined the digitization process by introducing a process that allowed over a thousand images to be taken a day.

Catalogues (2.0)
The most obvious source of data to be attached to shelfmarks is the published catalogues of Genizah collections or of Hebrew manuscripts in general that also mention Genizah-related material.

Website (2.0)
The purpose of the FGP website was an interface through which users would be able to explore all the data on the Genizah fragments. By the end of 2007, nearly 90,000 images from 17 Genizah collections were displayed on the website. (This number represented about 16% from the total number of Genizah images that were available at the end of the project.) The site preserves images of the Genizah fragments accompanied by extensive information such as identifications, catalogue records and bibliographic data, etc.

In April 2008, the different sites of an inventory of the Genizah Collections, a Catalogues Site and a Bibliography Site were merged and went online as one single website. The release of a fully operational version of its online research platform was a landmark.

Over time, an increasing number of tools were added to the website.

A crucial step was achieved when FGP succeeded in developing a complex program capable of analyzing the handwriting in the images of two different fragments and asserting the probability that both were written by the same scribe (and so, perhaps, originate from the same manuscript).

At the end of 2008, in collaboration with Lior Wolf and Nachum Deshwitz of Tel Aviv University’s Blavatnik School of Computer Science, Roni Choueka, the son of Yaacov Choueka who joined the unit as a Genizah advisor and algorithms developer, decided to tackle a major problem in Genizah research, namely, how to join fragments of documents from different locations.

Once it was possible to compare two images of handwritten fragments and determine the probability that they were written by the same scribe, they realized that it could be done not just on a by-request basis.

"Why not try to match every Genizah image to every other to solve this problem once and for all, rather than when a scholar is seeking help with a particular fragment?" Yaacov Choueka reasoned. "We had to do a lot of preparation because this is a gigantic operation, matching each of about 350,000 images to each other – the other 100,000 cannot be matched – requiring about 15 billion comparisons done by computer."

Such a task was only possible thanks to a network of hundreds of supercomputers. During June 2013, twenty CPU's from the Computing Lab at Tel Aviv University ran together continuously for 37 days (the equivalent of some 18,000 computing hours), and the task was accomplished. Four terabytes of output were generated in the process.

Using facial recognition technology, the program allows the platform’s users to search for "joins," probable match-ups of fragments. The computer can almost instantaneously search through billions of possible pairings and suggest between 10 and 20 highly probable pairings.

Several other tools were developed over time, such as:
Jigsaw – When trying to test a hypothesis about the possibility of joining 4 or 5 fragments, say, into one folio, a researcher may invoke the function “Jigsaw,” giving it the numbers of these fragments’ images. The images will then be displayed on his (preferably large) screen, where he can rotate or move any of them in an effort to fit them physically together, as in a real puzzle. If satisfied, he can then store the final image on the website.

Word-Spotting – This tool makes it possible to locate Genizah fragments that contain a given word not only in fragments that have been manually transcribed but in any Genizah fragment, by searching for the image of the word rather than for its textual representation. The user highlights a search word in the image of a given fragment, and the program will then scan the digital images of the entire Genizah collection, to locate and retrieve fragments that contain an image similar to the one highlighted. In November 2012, a function for displaying all of the physical data of a fragment was introduced, together with the option to query all this data through the Advanced Search module.

Apart from the Cairo Genizah site, further websites were added:
In 2014, the Judeo-Arabic Corpus including 110 Judeo-Arabic works and a bibliography containing about 1,500 records was launched. The Sussmann Catalogue also went online, a digital version of the “Thesaurus of Talmudic Manuscripts,” a comprehensive catalogue of all manuscripts of Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmud Yerushalmi, Talmud Bavli and Rif as well as the Nahum Collection website with manuscripts from the Yemenite Genizah collected by Yehuda Levi Nahum.

An online, digitized repository of the entire Babylonian Talmud called "Hachi Garsinan" Talmud Bavli Variants site went online in March 2016. Developers have described this site as a revolution in Talmud study. “Hachi Garsinan” contains high-quality digital images of all original text-witnesses, accompanied by precise transcriptions of the text in the image.
The project aims to include all known textual variants of the Babylonian Talmud. It allows researchers, scholars and students to easily compare any different texts side by side. There are different visualization options such as a parallel display of witnesses in columns, or different kinds of synoptic displays (a "classic", a more "dynamic" or a "simpler" display). Not only can scholars choose which witnesses should be subject to comparison, but they can even let the system know specifically what kinds of differences between the versions should be highlighted – and, in what way.
Menahem Kahana repeatedly praised the precision of this project's transcriptions. Further, the users can also check the transcriptions themselves by using a tool that shows images side by side with their transcriptions – and each word of the text can easily be spotted in the image, and vice versa.
Some of the most renown Talmudic scholars in Israel, among them Menachem Katz and Chaim Milikowsky, led the "Hachi Garsinan" project alongside Yaacov Choueka. At its inception, Choueka described this endeavor as an "extremely ambitious, complex, costly and demanding task, which, if implemented successfully, may well bring a completely new horizon to Talmudic studies and a nove approach to the very concept of variant-readings projects." And indeed, this site has revolutionized Talmud study. Scholars and students alike are enabled to perform critical assessments of all the witnesses with just a few clicks via the internet, without having to search for or travel to certain editions or manuscripts. As with all the websites of the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society, the "Hachi Garsinan" including its cutting-edge technology, too, is accessible to everybody free of charge.

Subsequently, the Yad HaRambam site was launched, featuring a synoptic edition of Maimonides' great book Mishneh Torah according to early printings and manuscripts, accompanied by hundreds of commentaries and novellae written on this work.

Albert D. Friedberg thanks "Yaacov Choueka, who had the vision of a master architect and the depth of an accomplished Talmid chacham. May his memory be blessed."

In 2018, the FJMS Mahadura Website went online, containing a wide range of manuscripts, and putting at the disposal of researchers a powerful tool for transcribing manuscripts and creating advanced computerized synopses. The technology of the “Hachi Garsinan” site, especially the tools assisting the transcription process word after word and line by line as well as the presentations of variants in comparison, can be applied for any composition, not only the Babylonian Talmud. The Mahadura platform therefore evolved into a most valuable (open) scholarship community that continuously creates and maintains a portal of digital editions from a variety of research areas. Users apply the tools for their manuscript studies and publish online the results of their work.

To date, 229,289 Genizah shelfmarks, comprising 739,593 images, are available through FGP – the "Cairo Genizah" site. In other words, images of at least 95% of all known Genizah shelfmarks worldwide are accessible online today through the Friedberg Genizah Project (December 2020).

Together with the "Hachi Garsinan","Yad HaRambam", "Nahum Collection", "Judeo-Arabic" and "Mahadura" sites over 906,000 images with more than 104,000 transcriptions as well as over 10,000 joins (December 2020) are displayed and available to everyone through these platforms.

Numerous scholars and professionals are responsible for bringing these huge projects to fruition. A forthcoming website will name the contributors, describe their specific activities and give pertinent biographical information. The same can be said with respect to the publications that were spawned from this project and funded directly by FGP. For now, though admittedly brief and inadequate, existing links must suffice.

In 2017, a joint venture between the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society (FJMS) and the National Library of Israel (NLI) was announced according to which the projects affiliated with the FJMS, cluding the above-mentioned websites, will be gradually integrated into the NLI's technological nfrastructure.

The ambitious goals of "The International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts" ("Ktiv"), a joint effort of the NLI and FGP, are to digitally preserve and provide open access to multispectral, high quality digitized versions of all 100,000 Hebrew manuscripts thought to exist throughout the world. (, English Ktiv is the only initiative in the world that presents all known Hebrew manuscripts in one place, and which will enable searching and researching this global collection centrally and easily.

The Friedberg Genizah Project, which was intended to restore awareness of the importance of the Genizah to the general and Jewish scholarly worlds, and, not least important, to attract junior potential scholars to specialize in or utilize this important source for Jewish and general history, has now found a new home at the NLI.

"Our agreement assures that this work, to which I have dedicated so much of my concern and resources, will continue to grow, develop, and be preserved into the future" (Albert D. Friedberg).