His/Her Story: A mixed marriage in ancient Egypt

The discovery of documents from Elephantine revealed two sets of family archives that provide insight into Jewish life in this community.

November 24, 2011 13:38
3 minute read.
Torah scroll.

Torah scroll 521. (photo credit: Stockbyte)


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The discovery of documents from Elephantine revealed two sets of family archives that provide insight into Jewish life in this community.

One archive belongs to Mibtahiah, probably the first Jewish woman whose life is documented (476-416 BCE; see column “A landed woman,” April 1). The second archive belongs to Annania Ben- Azaria, an attendant in the temple who was responsible for its upkeep.Annania did not marry a Jewish woman, but rather an Egyptian handmaiden named Tamat. Intermarriages were not unusual in this society; the Egyptian spouse often assimilated into the Jewish community. (Mibtahiah’s second husband adopted a Hebrew name.) At any rate, Tamat, the daughter of Patu, belonged to Meshullam Ben-Zachor, a wealthy Jew.

Interestingly enough, the maidservant’s and the temple employee’s relationship was not recorded formally until she gave birth to a son, Palti, in the mid-fifth century BCE. The marriage contract was drawn up by Annania and Meshullam. Bezalel Porten explains that the numerous erasures and corrections in the document point to a drawn-out negotiation between the two, but the final result was even-handed. Meshullam remained her master, whereas Annania had paternal rights as long as the couple remained married. No bride-price was paid; the dowry consisted of her clothes. If one of them died, the other would inherit all the common property. If they divorced, her son would return to her master (see Porten, “The status of the handmaiden Tamat,” Israel Law Review 2 [1995]).

Annania purchased a house near the king’s treasury, opposite the temple.

In 443 BCE, Tamat bore a second child, this time a girl, Yehoyshama.

Her father gave her a room in this house, presumably upon her engagement to a Jew named Annani Ben-Haggai; in the document confirming this gift, it is stressed that the property should be passed on to the couple’s children. Keep in mind the fact that technically this bride was, as was her mother, still the master’s property.

In 427, Meshullam drew up a conditional release contract for both mother and daughter, granting them manumission following the death of their master. In return, both women agreed to continue serving him and his son Zachor. Meshullam also adopted the women, making Zachor and Yehoyshama siblings.

In 410, Zachor negotiated with his future brother-in-law and provided his sister with a substantial dowry containing valuable property. Each side had the right, as was customary, to initiate divorce; the conditions regarding return of bride payment and divorce payments were spelled out. In case of either spouse’s death, inheritance rights were recorded as well.

In 404, Annania presented his daughter with a document stating that his property would be divided and allotted to her in stages, with ownership dependent upon the care she provided for him until his death. Two years later, she received a wedding gift from him, only 18 years late. In order to keep their property in the family, Annaia and Tamat sold the rest of their house to their son-in-law.

This family had complicated dealings. To begin with, the master maintained control over his maidservant and her daughter until his death, freeing them only after he was no longer present. The handmaiden, an Egyptian working for a Jew, married a wealthy Jew who was employed in the temple built by the Jews of Elephantine, where they worshiped the Hebrew god Yahu alongside two female deities. Her union with him became legal once she produced a son, although her daughter is more prominent in the archive. This daughter also married a Jew and entered the union with a more impressive dowry than her mother had, for after all, she had a Jewish father and had inherited a Jewish adopted brother who was generous toward her. By the time her parents died, Tamat’s daughter had received or inherited substantial property.

We are left to wonder about the archive of the following generation, the grandchildren of the temple clerk and his Egyptian maidservant.

The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute, as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.

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