Home Shelomo Dov Goitein Princeton Geniza Project

from: American Philosophical Society Year Book 1987
Eulogy by Prof. Mark R. Cohen, Princeton University


(3 April 1900 - February 1985)

Shelomo Dov Goitein - educator, Arabist, historian, Jewish ethnographer, master of the thousands of documents from the Cairo Geniza, and greatest expositor of Jewish life in the Islamic Middle Ages - died in Princeton on February 6, 1985. The many tributes published since then attest to the impact he had on his own and on the current generation of scholars. At the time of his death, Professor Goitein had just completed and sent to the publisher the manuscript of the fifth volume of his magnum opus, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. With some six hundred publications to his credit, this great scholar nevertheless took special pleasure in knowing that the major work, which had taken much longer than originally planned, was behind him. In 1967, upon the appearance of the first volume, he had announced his intention to produce a total of three. Over the years, three had grown into six; the sixth, entirely devoted to indices, was in an advanced state of preparation at the time of his death and will be published in due course.

Goitein was born in 1900 in the little village of Burgkundstadt in southern Germany, the child of a rabbinic family. He had both a thorough Jewish and secular education. His university years, 1918-1923, were spent at the University of Frankfurt, where he studied Arabic and Islam under Joseph Horovitz, while continuing his Talmudic training with a private teacher. In 1923, upon completing his doctoral dissertation on the subject "Prayer in the Qur'an," Goitein fulfilled his long-held ambition to emigrate to Palestine, where he planned to work as a teacher, living in a youth village. Instead, like many other immigrants with European university training, he found employment in secondary education, teaching in the Reali School in Haifa.

He remained an educator for the rest of his life. In 1928 he joined the faculty of the new Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which had opened its doors in 1925, and became its first instructor in Islamic studies. While the world of scholarship and the university dominated the rest of his career, he retained his original interest in the education of the young, publishing books on the teaching of Hebrew and the Bible and serving as senior education officer for the British Mandatory Government in Palestine, a post he held from 1938 to 1948.

Shortly after joining the faculty of the Hebrew University Goitein began to do field work among the Yemenites, a research endeavor that intensified with the mass migration to Israel of the bulk of the remaining Jews of Yemen following the establishment of the State. He published works on their Arabic dialect and their way of life. Indeed this early ethnographic work among what he called "those most Jewish and most Arab of all Jews" would profoundly influence Goitein's study of the life of the medieval Jewish communities reflected in the Geniza documents.

Goitein "discovered" the Geniza on a trip to Budapest in 1948. While there he had the opportunity to examine Geniza papers that had once belonged to the collection of the late nineteenth-century scholar, David Kaufmann. Thus began a preoccupation that would last for the rest of his life with these fascinating letters, legal records, marriage contracts, business accounts, and other documents that reveal daily life in the medieval Mediterranean Islamic world.

Upon his move to the United States in 1957 to take up a position at the University of Pennsylvania, Goitein was already deeply committed to Geniza research. At the time, he was concentrating on Geniza documents relating to the India trade. Soon, however, he transferred his energies to what he considered propaedeutic: a survey of the entire corpus of Geniza documents (today estimated to number about 15,000 fragments). This bore fruit in hundreds of publications, of which A Mediterranean Society is the summa.

In this work and in scores upon scores of articles in which he published and interpreted hundreds of Geniza texts, Goitein broke new ground in every respect. He described in fine and often intimate detail the economic activities, communal organization, family life, material civilization, and mentality of the Arabic-speaking Jews of medieval Islam during the tenth to thirteenth centuries. Moreover, with his deep understanding of Islamic society, he pioneered the notion of the Geniza as a source for Islamic as well as Jewish history. Thanks to Goitein, Islamic scholars today generally recognize that they can find information in the Geniza about medieval Islamic economic and social history that is not disclosed in the traditional Arabic historical sources.

As a teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, as a writer, as a speaker at countless learned conferences, and as someone ever willing to help others with their research, Goitein influenced many aspiring scholars to follow his path. I offer the following anecdotes from my own experience to illustrate his way with students. I first met Professor Goitein in 1972, a year after he had retired from university teaching. He had taken up his residence in Princeton and the affiliation with the Institute for Advanced Study that was to last the rest of his life. I came to him as a doctoral student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, sent by my mentor, the Jewish historian, Gerson D. Cohen, to discuss possible dissertation topics using the Geniza. Only days before my first journey to Goitein's home in Princeton, I acquired a copy of the newly published second volume of A Mediterranean Society. Filled with anticipation and anxious to appear informed, I devoured the book, hunting for topics that Goitein had not entirely exhausted. I came up with about a dozen possibilities. Goitein received me warmly upon my arrival. After some conversation, he recommended that I undertake a study of the origins of the office of the Nagid, the territorial religious and administrative head of the Jews in the Fatimid empire. I was perplexed. That was one topic I had not considered. "Haven't you exhausted this subject in your new volume of Mediterranean Society?" I asked. "No," he quickly replied, "what I wrote there is only a sketch. There is much more to be done."

Four years later, driving Professor Goitein home from New York following my dissertation defense (he had graciously agreed to serve as an outside reader and advisor), he asked me to compile for his private use an index of all the places in my thesis where I had differed with, revised, refined, or gone beyond his own published findings. That was the greatest compliment and encouragement a student could hope to receive from a teacher. And it taught me an additional lesson: One should always be prepared to modify one's conclusions on the basis of others' well-founded revisions of one's work. Goitein followed this rule in all his scholarly writing, constantly correcting mistakes of decipherment and constantly revising his interpretations of texts as he gained more experience reading the Geniza. This, as much as anything else, is part of the cherished legacy of this great master.

Just a few weeks before his death, Goitein had returned energetically to the files of notes and edited texts relating to the medieval India trade, the project he had deferred until he could conclude the more comprehensive overview of the Geniza. Visiting him at his home a few days before the sad event, I found him bristling with excitement about returning to full-time labors on the topic that had initiated his career as a Geniza scholar. He died the way he had lived: actively and enthusiastically mining nuggets of history from old and fascinating texts.