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Goitein, Shlomo Dov


GOITEIN, SHLOMO DOV (Fritz ; 1900–1985), Orientalist. Descended from a Hungarian family of rabbis, Goitein was born in Burgkunstadt, a small village in southern Germany. He acquired an extensive Jewish education before his student years at the University of Frankfurt (1918–23). There he studied Arabic and Islam with the scholar Josef *Horovitz, while continuing his talmudic training. Upon completing his doctoral dissertation, he fulfilled his long-time Zionist ambition to live in Palestine. He immigrated there in 1923, and, like so many other European university-trained immigrants, taught for four years at the Reali School in Haifa. In 1928, three years after the founding of the Hebrew University, he joined the faculty of the Institute of Oriental Studies there. He was appointed professor in 1947 and continued to teach at the Hebrew University until 1957, when he became professor of Arabic at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, until his retirement in 1971. In the same year he became a long-term member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he lived the remainder of his life.

From 1938–48 Goitein served the British Mandatory government in Palestine as senior education inspector. He maintained his early devotion to education in later years. In addition to his works in Arab and Judeo-Arabic studies, Goitein published works on biblical research, including Iyyunimba-Mikra (1958), and works on pedagogy, such as Hora'at ha-Tanakh (1942) on the teaching of Bible in elementary and secondary schools and Hora'at ha-Ivrit (1958). In his twenties, he composed a play based on the story of a famous Jewish woman in the court of one of the counts of medieval France, Pulcellina (1927). He also wrote and published Hebrew poems.

Goitein was a prolific scholar, whose output and influence should rightly be compared with that of his contemporary, Gershom *Scholem – with whom he made the journey from Germany to Palestine on the same boat in 1923. His bibliography (published by the Ben-Zvi Institute, second, expanded edition, 2000) contains 737 items.

Roughly speaking, three more or less distinct periods of Goitein's scholarly career can be discerned, though there was considerable overlap of subjects. During the first period, Goitein published a series of investigations of the religious institutions of Islam, such as prayer (Das Gebet im Qoran (1923), a summary of his German dissertation), and the Ramadan month of fasting, among others. The crowning achievement of his studies of early Islam was the publication of the fifth volume of al-Balādhurī's (9th century) historical work Ansābal-ashrāf (1936).

During the second period of his research, Goitein dealt primarily with the cultural legacy of the Jews of Yemen, a byproduct of his intensive contact with and ethnographic work among Yemenite Jews in Palestine. Among the results of this work were Jemenica, a collection of proverbs from central Yemen (1934; From the Land of Sheba, 1947) and the publication of the account by Ḥayyim Ḥabshush, who accompanied Joseph *Halevy, on his explorations in Yemen (Ar. text, 1941; Heb. tr., 1939). His studies of contemporary Yemenite Jewry, whom he considered the "most Jewish and most Arab of all Jews," had a profound influence on his research on medieval Arab Jewry as well.

In his third period, Goitein was mainly engaged in publishing documentary texts from the Cairo *Genizah, from which he derived conclusions about the history of the Jews in Mediterranean countries and about the general history of these texts. Many of his views about relations between Jews and Arabs had already begun to form earlier, in articles published in the 1930s and 1940s and in his popular book Jewsand Arabs – Their Contacts through the Ages (1955; 1974; reprinted with new preface by Mark R. Cohen, 2005). But from the 1950s on, he concentrated all his energies on researching the "historical documents" of the Genizah, a term he coined to differentiate the letters, legal documents, marriage contracts, bills of divorce, and lists from the literary material. In his work he continued and deepened the research begun earlier by such scholars as Jacob *Mann. Goitein went far beyond his predecessors, however, because he was a trained Arabist. He opened the door to the study of the mass of Judeo-Arabic documents from everyday life, something done only sporadically by those who came before him.

Goitein "discovered" the Genizah on a trip to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest in 1948, among the manuscripts that had previously belonged to the private collection of David *Kaufmann (1852–1899). A few years later in Cambridge and in Oxford he came upon legal documents from the Genizah relating to the then largely undocumented subject of the medieval India trade. He decided to research this topic and continued to work on it after his move to the United States in 1957. But, as he later wrote, he soon realized that to understand the world of the India merchants, he had first to survey the whole Mediterranean. This occupied him for the rest of his life, resulting in hundreds of articles and his magnum opus, A Mediterranean Society (5 volumes, 1967–88; Index volume 1993).

A Mediterranean Society is a masterpiece, comparable in European history to the work of Fernand Braudel on the Mediterranean during the early modern period (Goitein wrote that he did not read Braudel until he completed his own work). The first volume describes "economic foundations." Here the Jewish merchants and craftsmen of Egypt and other Mediterranean lands come forth, representing not just their ethnic and religious group, but also their economic class. Their activities are fully representative of the economic life of the majority Muslim population. Thanks to Goitein, the value of the Genizah as a source for Islamic history was therefore demonstrated. In the second volume, "The Community," we see especially inner Jewish life and also how a minority group viewed Muslim government. Even if diachronic factors prevailed in Jewish communal life, as Goitein maintained, a reflection of the environment is visible in many of the pages of this book, too. The "Family" takes centerstage in the third volume. Even this fundamental cell of Jewish life shows the imprint of the Islamic milieu, as Goitein himself saw. In "Daily Life" (vol. 4), Goitein surveyed material culture as reflected in the Genizah. His discussions of the city, domestic architecture, clothing, food, as well as other aspects of quotidian existence – similar to the "structures of everyday life" portrayed in the first volume of Braudel's Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme: xve – xviii siècle (1967) make this volume, like the one on economic foundations, as much a contribution to general as to Jewish history. In the final volume, "The Individual," Goitein writes a fascinating study of the mentalité of the Mediterranean Arabic-speaking Jew.

The period covered by A Mediterranean Society, roughly 1000 to 1250, was a particularly lenient period of Jewish history under Islam. Goitein wrote the entire work while living in the United States and conceded (in the introduction to vol. 2) that his experience living in open, capitalist America had had an impact on his reconstruction of life in the Genizah world. He was sometimes criticized for this and for being anachronistic (H.H. Ben-Sasson in Zion, 40 (1975)). His lasting achievement, however, is to have surveyed every aspect of life during this period, the most thoroughly documented period of medieval Jewish history, and to have laid the groundwork for students and other followers to expand upon the foundations he laid. Directly or by inspiration, Goitein trained most of the major senior scholars of the historical Genizah working in the field in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

No sooner did Goitein deliver the manuscript of the final volume of A Mediterranean Society to the publisher in December 1984 than he returned to the project with which he had begun his Genizah career, to the extensive notes and the more than 400 texts he had identified over the years related to the India trade. He died two months later, leaving the "India Book" to be completed by others. (Part One, containing roughly half of the opus, was edited by Mordechai Akiva Friedman for publication by the Ben-Zvi Institute.)

In 1980 Goitein was the recipient of the Harvey Prize of the Haifa Technion (jointly with Michael Rabin and Efraim Racker). Other awards included the Haskins Medal of the Medieval Academy of America, the Levi Della Vida Prize of the Gustave E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies (University of California), and, just two years before his death in 1985, a MacArthur Laureate Fellowship.

add. bibliography:

H.H. Ben-Sasson, in: Zion 40 (1975); M.R. Cohen, in: American Philosophical Society Yearbook (1987); idem, in: Middle Eastern Lectures No. 4 (Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University) (2001); S.D. Goitein, in: Religion in a Religious Age (1974); M.A. Friedman, in: Yedi'on ha-Igud ha-Olami le-Mada'ei ha-Yahadut, 26 (1986); idem, in: Sefunot, n.s. 20 (1991); J.L. Kraemer, in: Zemanim, 34–35 (1990); G. Libson, in: The Jewish Past Revisited: Reflections on Modern Jewish Historians (1998); S. Morag, in: Pe'amim, 22 (1985); S. Shaked, in: ibid.; A.L. Udovitch, Foreward to Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, vol. 5 (1988).

[Mark R. Cohen (2nd ed.)]

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