Working through some of the fragments found in that enormous repository of discarded Jewish manuscripts known as the Cairo Genizah, José Martínez Delgado—a scholar of Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic literature—found something that caught his eye:
I had the fragment listed in my notes as a small glossary, translating some Judeo-Arabic terms into a medieval Romance language. Just as I was about to close the window and move on to the next text, two words, fustaq (pistachio) and qastal (chestnut), winked at me from the bottom corner of the fragment as if I were a friend. It was like the old Grace Jones song: “Strange, I’ve seen that face before.”
I recognized the handwriting but I couldn’t quite believe who was winking at me through the window.
The script, Delgado and his colleagues concluded, was none other than that of Moses Maimonides, who was born in southern Spain (Andalusia) but spent most of his adult life in Egypt. There are about 60 other genizah fragments in his hand, but this is the only one in a Romance language.
What was Maimonides doing in making this little vocabulary list of colors, flavors and smells, actions, and foods? The terms aren’t arranged in alphabetical order but rather with a kind of intuitive or associative logic. In listing colors, Maimonides begins with black and white, moves on to primary colors and then to derivative ones (vinous, or wine colored), before proceeding to flavors and aromas. In doing so, he moves from sight to taste to smell.
I do think that we are seeing the writing of an idle Maimonides for the first time. This is not philosophy, medicine, law, or important correspondence. He is not thinking about the nature of God or the world or the welfare of his community; he is tinkering in a language we did not think he knew—and still do not know how well he knew.