In the sixth century BCE, a large military camp was set up in Elephantine by the
Persian rulers who had conquered Egypt. This “city of ivories” was located on a
small island in the Nile opposite Syene (Aswan), the site of their civil
administrative capital. Persian soldiers and mercenaries served in the army; we
know that Jewish regiments comprised part of these mercenary troops needed to
protect this southern exposure from foreign attacks and to supervise trade and
taxation there. Jewish soldiers were permitted to raise families and to engage
Life for the Jews of Elephantine was quite different from
that of their brethren returning to settle in the Land of Israel: They had not
been exposed to the ideas being propounded by Ezra and Nehemiah, and they had
built their own temple in which two local goddesses were worshiped alongside
Yahu, the God of Judah.
In the late 19th century, various archives from
Elephantine were discovered, transcribed and translated from the original
Aramaic. When property was passed on or decisions were made in court that
concerned property, the papyri upon which these legal activities were recorded
were retained by the owner. The Jewish woman Mibtahiah’s archive contains 10
documents found in superb condition; they reveal surprising details concerning
her life and the options available to Jewish women in this settlement.
glance at these papyri reveals that Mibtahiah’s father, Mahsiah, was involved in
numerous negotiations concerning land ownership and the rights of his
Mibtahiah was born in 476 BCE and died in 416. She was married
twice, and had two sons from her second marriage. At 17, she received a gift of
a house from her father in honor of her first marriage. This house was
conveniently adjacent to that of the groom.
Mahsiah was very clear about
his daughter’s rights, declaring that the house remains hers even after his
death and granting her the right to decide how and what to do with her property.
An unusually large number (12) of witnesses signed this document, including two
sons and a grandson, to prevent them from claiming ownership at a later
On the same day in 459, he added a second document clarifying his
sonin- law’s rights and obligations concerning the property. According to
Bezalel Porten, the expert on Aramaic papyrology and Elephantine, this husband
seems to have died before any children were born. As a result, the house
remained hers and she inherited his house as well.
In 449, a document was
drawn up to legalize Mibtahiah’s union with an Egyptian (non-Jewish) architect
named Eshor, later to be identified by the Jewish name Natan. One might have
expected her to negotiate on her own, but Porten explains that the Aramaic
scribes insisted upon this format. The bride had amassed an impressive dowry,
and could leave the marriage with whatever she brought in. In case of either’s
death, the surviving spouse inherits the other’s property. Eshor could not
suddenly announce that he had another wife and children without facing a fine.
In addition, either spouse could initiate a divorce by publicly repudiating the
other, a highly unusual stipulation to be found in any Jewish
Meanwhile, Mibtahiah amassed more property, another house from
her father, this time as a gesture to repay a third of a loan to her. When
Mibtahiah died, her two sons shared her houses and her slaves. Her father strove
to protect his daughter’s ownership rights and despite a claim made on them, he
Mibtahiah never exercised her option to divorce and seemed to
have had good relationships with her father and both husbands. This independent
homeowner who could afford to accept a symbolic return of a loan to her father
might well be the first Jewish woman for whom we have original
The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at
the Schechter Institute, academic editor of the journal NASHIM and the author of
numerous articles and books on Jewish women.