A t the end of the 11th century, the head of Egyptian Jewry, David ben Daniel,
received a request for help, a letter written in extremely eloquent Hebrew that
reflected an impressive level of learning on the part of the letter writer. The
letter was written for a woman and composed in the first person (except where
modesty or convention dictated otherwise). The petitioner was an incredibly poor
soul, who could never have afforded the fee of a professional letter writer.
Thus one assumes that a rabbi or learned scholar took pity upon her when he
realized how dire her situation was and composed it for
Unfortunately, we know neither the name of the scribe nor of this
However, we hear her voice throughout the letter, whether in
simple phrases or buried in the numerous biblical references and quotations that
create the aforementioned eloquence. (See a translation with comments by Mark R.
Cohen, The Voice of the Poor in the Middle Ages, 2005, pp. 52-53.) This document
is catalogued in Cambridge as TS13J13.16.
THE PETITION begins with three
biblical citations blessing the recipient of the letter and bestowing upon him
the appropriate honors (translations from the JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, 1999):
“May the Lord answer you in time of trouble, the name of Jacob’s God keep you
safe” (Psalms 20:2); “May He send you help from the sanctuary, and sustain you
from Zion” (Psalms 20:3); “He cares about the poor and needy; He brings the
needy deliverance” (Psalms 72:13).
This is followed by a list of the
honors and superlatives used for a great scholar like the Nagid which include
master, teacher, holy crown. A blessing follows: God should protect him and
sustain him and in particular, reward him with the emergence from his loins of
sons to fill his place and the place of his righteous forefathers, and, of
course, he is to be blessed with a long and pleasant life.
Now to the
gist of the letter, which is written in the first person, as this woman relays
her tale of woe: “Your poor maidservant, wretched and forlorn, woeful, ridden
with worry and at death’s doorstep due to my transgressions. I plead before you
so you can hear the words of your maidservant ‘because my sighs are many and my
heart is sick’ [Lamentations 1:22].
Because I am by myself, I have no
one, no son or daughter, no brother or sister and ‘wander like a lone bird on
the roof’ [Psalms 102:8]. As my crimes and transgressions multiplied, I became
deathly ill (on my nose) and this plague struck; my face was rotted and eaten
away; the illness spreads as do my difficulties. I am unable to work. ‘I am
naked and thirsty and lacking everything’ (Deuteronomy 28:48) and helpless;
(Deut. 28:32) ‘no one is watching over me, even if I die now.’” LEPROSY, WHICH
is not mentioned directly, but rather in a modest metaphor, is, as in the Bible,
associated with one’s transgressions. Miriam was punished with leprosy because
she committed the sin of slander. This poor woman is assuming that she herself
is responsible for her decaying state of health. The term “maidservant” or slave
reflects her modesty, for this anonymous suffering soul considered herself to be
a servant of God.
Her description of the leprosy as it progressed is
heartrending. She is completely alone; her sense of despondency is described in
contemporary as well as in biblical terms.
At this point, she asks for
mercy and kindness, and quotes from Job 22:28: “‘You will decree and it will be
fulfilled, and light will shine upon your affairs.’ May my lord command that
charity be done everywhere that our lord desires.”
She is, as Cohen
points out, requesting that he issue a special document, a pledge supporting her
as a charity recipient. Because it has the Nagid’s backing, this ruling
guaranteed she would not be turned away as she wandered among the Jewish
communities. She begs him not to leave her empty-handed and concludes with a
blessing from Genesis 28:3-4 and Daniel 6:26: “May God Almighty bless you and
make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May He
grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring;” “may your well-being
abound” and increase forever and for all eternity. Amen.
The author is a
professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute and is currently a fellow
in the School of Historical Studies at the Princeton Institute of Advanced