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 her.

Unfortunately, we know neither the name of the scribe nor of this woman.

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 Studies.

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