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The Covenanters of Damascus; A Hitherto Unknown Jewish Sect   By:

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The Covenanters of Damascus;

A Hitherto Unknown Jewish Sect

George Foot Moore

Harvard University

Harvard Theological Review

Vol. 4, No. 3

July, 1911


The Covenanters Of Damascus; A Hitherto Unknown Jewish Sect Footnotes


Among the Hebrew manuscripts recovered in 1896 from the Genizah of an old synagogue at Fostat, near Cairo, and now in the Cambridge University Library, England, were found eight leaves of a Hebrew manuscript which proved to be fragments of a book containing the teaching of a peculiar Jewish sect; a single leaf of a second manuscript, in part parallel to the first, in part supplementing it, was also discovered. These texts Professor Schechter has now published, with a translation and commentary, in the first volume of his Documents of Jewish Sectaries .(1) The longer and older of the manuscripts (A) is, in the opinion of the editor, probably of the tenth century; the other (B), of the eleventh or twelfth.

What remains of the book may be divided into two parts. Pages 1 8 of A, and the single leaf of B, contain exhortations and warnings addressed to members of the sect, for which a ground and motive are often sought in the history of the Jewish people or of the sect itself, together with severe strictures upon such as have lapsed from the sound teaching, and polemics against the doctrine and practice of other bodies of Jews. The second part, pages 9 16, sets forth the constitution and government of the community, and its distinctive interpretation and application of the law, what may be called sectarian halakah .

Neither part is complete; the manuscript is mutilated and defective at the end, there is apparently a gap between the first and second parts, and it may be questioned whether the original beginning of the work is preserved. The lack of methodical arrangement in the contents leads Dr. Schechter to surmise that what we have in our hands is only a compilation of extracts from a larger work, put together with little regard for completeness or order. An orderly disposition, according to our notions of order, is not, however, so constant a characteristic of Jewish literature as to make this inference very convincing.

Manuscript A was evidently written by a negligent scribe, perhaps after a poor or badly preserved copy; B, which represents a somewhat different recension of the work, exhibits, so far as it goes, a superior text. When it is added that both manuscripts are in many places defaced or torn, it may be imagined that the decipherment and interpretation present serious difficulties, and that, after all the pains which Dr. Schechter has spent upon the task, many uncertainties remain. Facsimiles of a page of each manuscript are given; but in view of the condition of the text a photographic reproduction of the whole is indispensable.

The legal part of the book, so far as the text is fairly well preserved, is not exceptionally difficult; the rules are in general clearly defined, and if in the peculiar institutions of the sect there are many things we do not fully understand, this is due more to the brevity with which its organization is described and to the mutilation of the text than to lack of clearness in the description itself. The attempt to make out something of the history and relations of the sect from the first part of the book is, on the other hand, beset by many difficulties. What history is found there is not told for the sake of history, but used to point admonitions or emphasize warnings; and, after the manner of the apocalyptic literature, historical persons and events are referred to in roundabout phrases which envelop them in an affected mystery... Continue reading book >>

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