On March 24th Adath will host an event as part of the One Book One Jewish Community program. The book this year is The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas, an historical novel of the ancient storeroom in Fustat that yielded immense information about Judaism and the medieval world. Whenever I finish historical fiction, I like to check and see which aspects of the book are real and which are made up.
It just so happens that I had recently read Sacred Trash, a non-fiction account of the Cairo Geniza (the attic in the Ben Ezra synagogue used to store worn out texts), so the real-life characters in Lukas’s novel were fresh in my mind, but one aspect that intrigued me was his reference to a legendary Ezra Scroll, a Torah scroll produced by the Biblical Ezra, which is a perfect copy, free of any mistakes and hidden in the synagogue.
What follows is not really a spoiler for the book, but if you want to avoid any advance knowledge of the novel you might want to stop reading.
I had never heard of the Ezra Scroll before, but I thought it sounded similar to the story of the Cairo Codex, a possibly 9th century copy of the Prophets thought to be the oldest Masoretic text in existence. The book was the property of the Karaite community in Cairo and kept in a different synagogue, but has since disappeared. Facsimile copies exist and the original is thought to be kept in a locked room of the National Library in Israel, but no one has seen it in decades.
In fact, Lukas’s inspiration for the scroll came from a footnote to a scholarly article about Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the article, but I did find some clues about the legend. In 1905 Richard Gottheil published an article about Hebrew manuscripts in Cairo other than the ones found in the Geniza. In a footnote he mentions that “[t]he so-called Ezra-scroll in the Fostat Synagogue is, of course, only a pious superstition.”
Why would there be a legendary Torah attributed to Ezra, and what would be its significance? In the Bible, Ezra is called a priest but also a “confirmed scribe of the Torah” (Ezra 7:12) who “brought the Torah before the congregation, from man to woman and all who could hear with understanding.” (Nehemiah 8:2) It stands to reason that Ezra produced a Torah scroll which may have survived from antiquity, and apparently the congregation in Old Cairo claimed to have it.
The possibility of an Ezra Scroll seems to gain some support from a line in the Mishna which states that on the intermediate festival days one is not allowed to write sacred books or “correct one letter, even in the scroll of Ezra.” (Moed Katan 3:4) The problem with this translation is that it may be based on a mistake in the text. The printed edition of the Mishna has the word “Ezra”, but the Kaufman Manuscript, the oldest complete manuscript of the text, has the similar-sounding word “Azarah”, courtyard.
The Scroll of the Azarah would be the Temple Scroll which either was read by the High Priest on Yom Kippur, or was used as an authoritative edition so that other versions could be copied from it. Perhaps the legend of the Ezra Scroll derived from this textual error.
It says something about the People of the Book that the Ben Ezra congregation would possess a tale of a perfect Torah. Our greatest treasure is not gold or silver but rather truth. We constantly strive for the correct text, the best version of our story. Maybe one day we will find it, maybe we won’t, but as Lukas’s novel shows, the search is often the most exciting part.