A woman in medieval Egypt sent her assessment of a young man’s situation to a
relative of hers, most likely the young man’s mother, who lived in Tripoli,
Libya. It seems that she was supposed to be responsible for this fellow while he
was in Cairo.
The communication between the women had been problematic,
because the previous letter sent by the Egyptian woman never arrived at its
destination. In addition, the kinswoman stated she hadn’t received
anything from these relatives since she left, presumably after a visit she made
This woman was distressed because her relative blamed her for
her son’s unusual behavior. Considering the fact that he was a grown man and old
enough to make his own decisions, whether or not they were commendable, this
seems to have been somewhat unfair. The unnamed author of the letter is certain
she was not to blame. She explained that the aforesaid son’s actions were
neither bad nor reprehensible, but clearly out of the ordinary.
The fellow had
taken ill and must have been living on his own, and could no longer care for
himself. As a result, he took a young orphaned girl into his abode to serve him.
We don’t have an inkling here as to any additional details: How long was she in
his service? How old was she (and how old was he?) Was he satisfied with her
We do learn, however, that at some point he elected to marry this young
girl. She had no father to fend for her in betrothal or marriage negotiations,
and most likely did not have a dowry (unless the community had provided one for
her). We have no idea as to what kind of relationship this couple had. Perhaps
this fellow rallied healthwise; perchance he was attracted to her. A match of
this sort most likely involved few, if any, expenses for this groom.
orphan apparently continued in her capacity as caretaker, whether her former
employer/current spouse was ill or healthy. We have no idea as to what his
financial state was; there is no hint of this whatsoever. The composer of the
letter, who might have been his aunt, did include some interesting information.
The husband had included a condition, presumably in the marriage contract: If
and when he decided to return home to Libya, he would present her with a divorce
Why would he include such a condition? Was he ashamed of having married a
young girl with no social standing in the community? Did he prefer to marry a
local girl if and when he returned home? Did he consider an Egyptian Jewish
woman to be less desirable than a Libyan? Did he think about the repercussions
of this particular condition? What would happen to this woman after he abandoned
her? Did the contract include the standard divorce payment so she would not be
Had his family heard about this arrangement? Was it concerned
about appearances? Were his actions reprehensible in their eyes? The Egyptian
woman thought not, but she most certainly did not applaud such a tactic. She
then presented this fellow’s family with another piece of information that he
had neglected to tell them. (Perhaps he could not correspond because of illness;
perhaps he preferred not to enlighten his family with details of his life for
reasons of his own.) The wife became pregnant and gave birth to a son, but
unfortunately the child died. If he had survived, might the baby’s father have
been more compassionate towards his mother?
The woman sending the letter did not
want to be involved in these affairs, and was merely updating the family in
Tripoli. She informed them that when these developments occurred, she herself
was rather ill. Besides, the bottom line was that their son was responsible for
his own actions; it was unfair of them to place the blame on her! She declared
emphatically: “Did I marry him off to my own daughter?” If that had been the
case, it would have been a completely different story; her responsibility would
have been clear.
Unfortunately, we do not know the fate of this poor
orphaned girl, taken into service, most likely wed out of convenience, whose
husband made it possible to divorce her if and when the spirit moved him to
return home. We do not know if his whereabouts depended upon his health and if
restored, if he would then set forth for Libya.
Or was he involved in a
business that might require him to remain in Cairo? Did this poor woman give
birth to any more children? Or was she left as a destitute orphan whose status
was now that of a divorcée?
The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the
Schechter Institute in Jerusalem and academic editor of the gender and Jewish
women’s studies journal Nashim.