Is it ever appropriate or acceptable to call out and interrupt synagogue services? In the Middle Ages one can find this occurring in communities residing in Christian as well as Muslim countries. (See Menahem Ben-Sasson, The Calling Out to the Public in Synagogue in Islamic Lands in the Early Middle Ages, Hebrew, Knesset Ezra, 1995.) Examples of this behavior are recorded in various documents, especially in those from the 11th century found in Cairo Genizah. When the courts had not dealt with a pressing issue or when an individual felt that he or she had been neglected or dealt with unfairly, this tactic was considered to be acceptable.
S.D. Goitein thought that when women chose to disrupt the services, they did not speak for themselves, but rather had a man present their appeal to the congregation. Be that as it may, situations of this sort involving men as well as women and sometimes even children were revealed in public. No decisions or discussion ensued in the synagogue, but such incidents created pressure on the judges of the court. They realized that they had to deal with whatever matter had been aired in this manner. Goitein explained how this was carried out: “When the Torah scroll was taken out, the complainant would stand up on the reader’s platform and detain the reading of the Torah in order to bring his case before the congregation first” (Mediterranean Society, 2:324).
One of these cases involved two orphaned girls; the plea was in the first person, for the older sister spoke for herself and her baby sister. The two had continued living in their parents’ home (after their deaths) when their two older married sisters, possibly half-sisters, appeared and ejected them from their abode. Apparently there were two additional siblings, in this case older brothers, who would normally have been there to protect their younger sisters but were out of town at the time. Perhaps the married sisters planned their actions accordingly, knowing the brothers would have thwarted their plans.
At any rate, the two youngest girls were desperate and clearly in need of help and protection. They begged the congregation twice in the course of this plea not to forsake them! Their appeal was directed to God and to the congregation.
Individuals at the point of desperation with the Jewish courts often threatened to turn to non-Jewish courts. This threat was fairly effective as the Jewish court did not want to lose its power; if the threat was carried out, the law of the ruling kingdom would be final and would overrule any Jewish decision. It was preferable to deal internally with the problems of the community, and these girls or their adviser(s) inserted a comment suggesting this option. Should they go to a Muslim court despite “the ban”? They were referring to the Mount of Olives ban which, as Ben-Sasson explains, became necessary because of the frequency with which Jews were turning to the gentile courts. Thus a ban on anyone choosing this option was pronounced during a gathering on the Mount of Olives on the festival of Hoshana Raba. Despite this threat, individuals continued to appeal to non-Jewish courts.
These girls preferred to avoid that option, but intentionally brought up the prospect. “If we ‘sin,’ it will be the fault of those of you who hear our plea for help and do not carry out the laws of inheritance from the Torah pertaining to us.” They hoped that the children of the members of the congregation would be spared the experience of being orphaned.
The Torah emphasizes the duty to care for widows and orphans because they tend to be the weaker members of society. Widows with means could manage on their own, but orphans, and in this case children bereft of both parents, find themselves in an extremely weak position. Six siblings were fending for themselves after their parents died. The older brothers might have been seeking their fortune elsewhere; they do not appear to be seeking or offering help.
The two married sisters swooped down on the two younger ones, and seem to have behaved cruelly.
Even if the girls were their step-sisters, the two had no father, husband or brother in loco parentis to help them at this time. Their plea was presented to the congregation within 24 hours, most likely because with the girls were now homeless, the community had to find a viable solution to their predicament.
Hopefully, the parents had left instructions concerning the care of all their children, especially the two youngest girls.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and academic editor of the journal Nashim.