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El Geniza Print E-mail
Nov 20, 2009 at 02:01 AM

A "genizeh" (Hebrew, pl. "genizot") is a generic term meaning storage room, archive or burial place. Traditionally, worn out or old copies of the Torah are not permitted to be destroyed -- instead they are stored permanently in a resting place. This practice invokes all the three meanings of the term genizeh.

The Ben Ezra synagogue was originally a Coptic church, purchased by the jews for 20,000 dinars in 882 CE; it thus became a synagogue and a genizeh, where in the 18th C. during renovations approximately 250,000 manuscripts or written records, including copies of the Torah, were discovered. Hence it became known an El Geniza -- the archive and burial place of old written materials.

This practice, and the concept of the genizeh, has cultural and even biological dimensions. We put information in libraries, and valuable old information in archives. But the biological analogy of archiving is the storing of sequences of data in the chromosome, in DNA. These considerations raise different and fascinating questions about the nature of the burial practice, the purposes of burial mounds. They mark and preserve, in effect, ancestral remains. Old manuscripts, properly speaking, can be though of as analogous to vessels containing the DNA of a culture, a people, a community. The practice of aligning burial places to astronomical objects or events is a way of establishing a permanent connection with the departed, and also a path for the ancestor to reach, or re-reach, a place among the stars.

An interesting if somewhat morbid side question is how long in the burial of human remains DNA, the code for replication, is present. In the case of cremation, for instance, the high heat destroys all biological tissue, with the possible exception, in some cases, that a tooth or partial tooth may remain, and this will contain DNA. "Ashes to ashes," it is said, but are all ashes equal? 

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