The Singapore Genizah project is a collaborative effort to gather, find, and catalog religious books and texts brought by the first generations of Jews to Singapore. The project started in August 2022 and is led by Israeli scholar Mordy Miller.
The first Jews arrived in Singapore in the early 19th century, mainly from Iraq and India. Prominent families included the Sassoon, Benjamin, Reuven, Meyer, Elias, Ezekiel, Frankel, Ellison and Manasseh families. These early Jewish settlers worked as traders, merchants, and bankers.
Discovery of the Genizah
While attending an evening service at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, Miller found an old book printed in Baghdad in the early 19th century. Upon closer inspection, he noticed that the book contained handwritten notes about the Jews who used it. The leadership of the Jewish community encouraged Miller to lead the Genizah project.
Chief Rabbi of Singapore Mordechai Abergel, alongside Rabbi Nethanel Rivni, also supported Miller’s project. Miller was tasked with searching for books scattered across the Maghain Aboth and Chesed El synagogues.
To date, Miller and his team have gathered approximately 700 books, including prayer books for holidays and high holidays, poetry and songbooks, Halachic books, and many Kabbalah books, such as the Zohar. At the moment, the earliest books found in the collection date back to 1833 from Italy, printed by the Eliezer Menachem Ottolenghi printing house. Many of the books were printed in Baghdad and Livorno, as well as Bombay, Calcutta, London, and Warsaw.
Many books bear handwritten notes from their owners in Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew, and Arabic. Some books have stamps that show where the book travelled, providing insight into the book’s journey. For example, books that belong to the Penang Jewish community, Rangoon Burma, and the Indian Jewish community.
The Singapore Genizah project has led to the discovery of numerous notable books and items, shedding light on the history of the Jewish community not only in Singapore but also in other parts of the world.
One interesting finding is a collection of books printed by Rabbi Isaac Farhi (1779-1853), which provides insight into Farhi’s journey around the globe in his final years.
Another interesting item is a book dedicated to David Marshall, Singapore’s first Prime Minister.
There is also a book called Li L’yeshu’a (לי לישועה), which features the author’s (Rabbi Yeshua Ha’Levi, 1836-1906) writing and autograph presented to the author’s brother, Rabbi Yehuda Ha’Levi. It was written in Lisbon and is a commentary on the Talmud, the Jewish Testament, Maimonides, and other texts.
The project has also uncovered prayer books printed at the University of Oxford by Professor Moses Gaster. These books have prayers for the success of the royal family in England. One of them, printed in 1936, was revised to include two blessings for the coronation of King Edward VIII and King George VI.
Additionally, the team found a book printed in Livorno in 1948 with the Magen David symbol to celebrate the establishment of the state of Israel that same year. This book was printed by the Bilporti brothers.
Another interesting discovery is a book by the Ben Ish Chai (Yosef Hayyim) called Rav Pe’alim (רב פעלים), which has a section describing the opening ceremony of the Chesed-el synagogue. The chapter is titled “Beit-Tefilah” (the house of prayer) and thanks Sir Manasseh Meyer for the printing of the book.
Handwritten Notes and Stamps
Many books in the Singapore Genizah project have handwritten notes from the owners, written in Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew, and Arabic. Some books also have stamps showing where they travelled, providing valuable information about their journey.
Deciphering handwritten notes has been challenging since many were written in Solitero, a cursive form of the Hebrew alphabet. The Genizah Project team is currently working on deciphering these notes to learn more about their authors and recipients.
Miller is writing a book, supported by the Jewish Welfare Board, about the Singapore Genizah project and its major findings. The book will include a history of the Jewish books in Singapore, a catalogue of the books discovered in the Genizah, visuals and explanations of significant discoveries, and an index of the names of book owners or individuals mentioned in them.
The Singapore Genizah project was led by Israeli academic Mordy Miller, with Fernanda Tan from NTU, Professor Ian McGonigle, Professor Tamas Makany, Ariel Kohelet, Yosef Yitzhak Rivni, Ben Benjamen, Batsheva Hersch, Laurence Harel, and Laura Lau.
Mordy Miller, the founder of “Shalom Point” in Singapore, is passionate about Jewish culture and spirituality. Through diverse educational programs, he fosters dialogue and understanding. Mordy’s upcoming Ph.D. dissertation delves into the interplay between Kabbalah and political ideology in contemporary Jewish Orthodoxy. He leads the Singapore Genizah Project, preserving ancient Jewish manuscripts in Southeast Asia. Join Mordy on this transformative journey at Shalom Point as we bridge gaps and explore Jewish traditions.