A number of scholars have noted a moving letter written by the sister of a
merchant who was suffering terribly in North Africa in the second half of the
11th century. The brother was Joshua the son of Ishmael Makhmori, but the
sister’s name does not appear in the letter that she dictated. The general
consensus is that during this period, the Jewish communities suffered due to the
repercussions of Norman attacks; this particular woman was in dire need of
In her letter, written on 15 Elul, she explicitly
stated that she has no one but God and her brother. She worried about him
constantly and became frantic because no letters from him arrived for an entire
year. When the mail carriers appeared, she would anxiously inquire if there was
mail for her, and was disappointed time and again by the negative responses. At
one point she learned from them that he was weak; this news created unbearable
anxiety for her.
To cope with the stress, she took an oath which affected
herself as well as her daughter. The two of them opted not to eat during the
day, or to take a bath or to change their clothes until a letter arrived
informing them that he was well. It seems that the expected letter never reached
them, but there were passengers on board ships that arrived who had indeed seen
her brother. By this means, she learned that her beloved sibling was alive and
well, despite the total lack of communication from him.
This letter is
filled with her strong sentiments for him, and lets him know more than once that
aside from the Creator, she has no one but him. We assume that she was a widow
who had a married daughter whose husband also traveled, for he was in Salerno
the entire winter and returned home via Egyptian boats. These women were fending
for themselves. The winter was difficult, since the price of wheat and coal had
increased tremendously. This woman explained that she could not buy wheat for
extended periods of time, so they had no bread to eat. She could not afford
anything and was temporarily helped by a young man who gave her some cotton or
flax to weave, which provided her with some income.
In order to survive,
she went deeper into debt and saw no way whatsoever of improving her lot. She
told her brother that she was the equivalent of a captive – thus his duty was to
redeem her. Because he had the economic means, this would not cause him
hardship. Her son-in-law suggested taking the young orphan girl living with her
with him (either to ease his mother-in-law’s burden or to sell her).
neighbors told her to take loans; in this way, her debts
Couldn’t her brother, her flesh and blood, come to her rescue?
Elsewhere in the letter, she described their misery in more detail: on Purim as
well as on Passover, the two women barely had anything to cook for meals. She
tried to relate to him to what depths of misery they had sunk, and made it clear
that describing the situation was not at all equivalent to seeing it with one’s
own eyes. Her brother, who helped the poor and needy elsewhere, should come to
his sister’s rescue. Her situation was dire.
Of course, she was not
telling him what to do, but his better judgment should guide his actions. After
all, she was his sister, and how could a brother, albeit one out of town, leave
his sister and niece to starve during difficult times?
She sent regards from her
daughter and son-in-law, as well as from the scribe to whom the letter was
dictated. She wished her brother well, dreamed of seeing him soon, of receiving
letters from him and most important of all, of discovering that he had not
abandoned the sibling who loved him dearly. If this brother had any feelings for
his sister, he would surely send her funds to pay her debts (the sum of which is
not mentioned), in addition to sending money and supplies so that she and her
daughter could live respectably rather than suffering daily, and be able to have
proper holiday meals.
Hopefully this sister was eventually able to bless
her brother for his generosity and kindness, and perhaps the two were even
reunited at long last. The author is a professor of Jewish history at the
Schechter Institute, and the academic editor of Nashim.
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