Rabbis living in the Ottoman Empire during the 16th century seemed to be extremely concerned about the moral fiber of their communities, especially in the wake of the Expulsion from Spain.

In their opinion, widows, agunot (women “chained” to their marriages) and women separated from their husbands all presented threats to society. Who could monitor their morality and prevent them from becoming depraved and degenerate? A modesty committee was organized to guard morals, investigate problems that arose and punish transgressors. Its members did not always regard serious infractions appropriately, often overreacting when confronting petty misdemeanors. As Ruth Lamdan points out in A Separate People: Jewish Women in Palestine, Syria and Egypt in the Sixteenth Century (Brill, 2000), women needed to be extremely careful to avoid becoming the brunt of gossip; one’s marriage or prospective marital match might unexpectedly be at stake.

One responsum relates a testimony presented to Rabbi Hiyya Rofeh, in which an older woman was monitoring her neighbor, a man of dubious reputation who was already suspected of having committed adultery. This woman testified that she saw him sneak into the outhouse in the middle of the night; she suspected that he was engaged in a rendezvous with a married woman there. (How romantic!) This sleuth-like senior citizen first checked to see if that woman was at home; lo and behold, she was not! Upon making this discovery, she returned to the scene of the crime, pretending to enter the outhouse so she could listen; she heard the voice of the suspected adulterous woman. At this point, the witness ran home, but not before determining that the suspected male lover was also inside; he indeed took his leave as well. This was indubitably fodder for the gossipers.

Rabbi Yom-Tov Zahalon also had to determine cases of suspected adultery.

One case involved a husband who left town – and his wife – for some five or six years. According to the rumor mill, this abandoned wife was having sexual relations galore, with Jews as well as non-Jews (although no hard evidence was available). She was supposedly approached and reprimanded by neighbors and by rabbis. The following “evidence” was intended to serve as unquestionable proof: A Jew sought out his friend to come with him to witness the sinners. The two waited outside the house of a gentile, which the woman had entered.

Just before the men on the stake-out were about to give up on their mission, the “sinful woman” appeared along with the non-Jew, who openly embraced and kissed her. Her alleged lover then went to a neighbor’s to retrieve his horse and some personal items; he was overheard saying that he needed his raincoat. The self-appointed witnesses came to the conclusion that the raincoat had been spread out on the ground for the lovers’ use. Wasn’t this indisputable proof of adulterous behavior? Interestingly enough, the rabbi made no decision; he left it up to her husband how to proceed.

Elsewhere, a rabbi’s wife came under suspicion because she was seen entering a man’s house. This case actually passed from arbiter to arbiter, as each arrived at a different conclusion. The truth of the matter was that she had been there to borrow money! The Radbaz (Rabbi David ben Zimra) had to deal with the case of a single woman behaving outrageously, supposedly having sexual relations with more than one man. She became pregnant, gave birth to a son and named the child’s father, who did not deny his paternity. This recognition allowed the son to inherit from his father and recite the mourner’s kaddish after his father’s death. Apparently this fellow was a married man without children, because the rabbis also discussed the case from another angle: If he were to die, his wife would not have to contend with the levirate marriage laws because he had fathered a son.

Interestingly enough, here we have a single mother bearing an heir to her married lover, and relieving his wife of halachic complications should he die without having children with her. How the tongues must have wagged!

The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and the academic editor of the journal Nashim.

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