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 to Libya.

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 work?

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.

The 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 writ!

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 left penniless?

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.

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