In May 1896, on returning from a trip to Cairo, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson — Scottish twin sisters and self-taught maverick scholars — brought home to Cambridge a few Hebrew fragments and showed them to their eccentric friend Solomon Schechter, Cambridge’s reader in rabbinics. Much to his astonishment, the savant recognized one stained leaf as belonging to the Hebrew original of the apocryphal, epigrammatic second-century BCE book of Ben Sira (later known by its Latin name, Ecclesiasticus). The work had been known only from its Greek and Syriac translations; no copy of the Hebrew original had been seen for almost a thousand years.

In fevered excitement, Schechter set off to Cairo on a secret mission to the source of the remarkable manuscript. Aided by his charismatic force of personality, and not a little baksheesh, he was at last admitted into the synagogue’s geniza. Undaunted by legends that the place was protected from prying eyes by curses or scorpions or poisonous vipers, he clambered up a ladder and crawled through a hole in the women’s gallery and into a room haphazardly filled with moldering manuscripts undisturbed for generations.