A Judeo-Arabic letter from 1053 first attracted the attention of Simha Assaf (who published it in Zion, along with a Hebrew translation, in 1946). A corrected edition, by Eliahu Ashtor, later appeared (in 1964 in Sefarad with a Spanish translation); S.J. Goitein also mentioned this letter a number of times in A Mediterranean Society. Each of these scholars was concerned with a different aspect of life in either Spain or Jerusalem.

In this particular letter, Shimon ben Israel, a Spanish Jew who had relocated to Jerusalem, wrote to his sister Belluta in Toledo. I surmise that Belluta must have been a widow not because Shimon addressed the letter to her rather than her husband, since letters between brothers and sisters were quite commonplace, but due to the fact that there was no mention of a husband. In addition, this sister seemed to be in charge of everything. Belluta had updated her brother regarding family news and informed him that she (not her husband and not she and her husband) was preparing her daughter Dona’s dowry.

Shimon began: “Oh my beloved sister, may God lengthen your life and I pray that God will enable me to receive your thanks lovingly.” Throughout the letter, Shimon was generous with blessings for his sister as he asked her to relay information to him, expressed deep love for his nephews and clearly missed his two sisters and brother in Spain.

However, this rather long letter contains more than a mere list of regards to family members together with a report on the failing health of their father, whom he attended day and night; it appears that Shimon played a role in a complicated communal affair.

There were two brothers who had married two sisters while still in Spain. One of the couples began a trek across Europe, encountering difficulties in Byzantine lands and eventually arriving in Ramle. Their financial state was disastrous, and by this time, they had four children to care for, Abu Zakri, Yusuf, Musa and Hilwa. It should be pointed out that at this time both Karaites and Rabbanites resided in Ramle. The complication concerning this family was that while en route, the parents had adopted the Karaite halacha, apparently not realizing that Karaites forbid the marriage of brothers to sisters.

According to Shimon, the letter writer, it was the women from Toledo residing in Ramle who publicly denounced one of the couples. Consequently, Ibrahim ibn Fadany and his family left town, relocating to the Karaite neighborhood in Jerusalem. To make a long story short, to avoid excommunication and/or being forced to divorce by the Karaites, the couple returned to the Rabbanite fold in which their marriage had taken place and therefore presented no problem. One divorces according to the law by which one marries, so this choice protected them and their family.

As can be seen, Spanish Jews immigrated to the Land of Israel where they built a community while judging and keeping tabs on one another; some of them were even maneuvering between the Karaite and Rabbanite congregations. Ibn Fadany’s Spanish wife was almost cut off from her family because her sister had married her husband’s brother and because a group of busybodies from Toledo living in Ramle had no compunctions about causing havoc in her and her family’s life.

She and her husband maneuvered themselves into a difficult position but found a solution to salvage their family. Thus we see Shimon, living in Jerusalem with his elderly and disabled father, relying upon his sister Balluta to keep him informed about those beloved family members he had left behind. Balluta was an able and reliable head of household; their strong brother-sister relationship was (as noted by Joel Kraemer) one of many manifested in these letters.

The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute and academic editor of the journal Nashim. She is currently a fellow in the School of Historical Studies at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies.

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