Sculpture of Yehuda Halevi and (right) a letter from the scholar to Halfon about redeeming a captive Jewish woman..
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION OF THE SYNDICS OF CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY/FRIEDBERG)
One of the many exciting developments that resulted from the discovery of the Cairo Geniza concerns material detailing the life of the eminent Spanish poet Yehuda Halevi.
While the majority of the documents in the Geniza are related to the Jews residing in Fustat, they are not limited to this locale or its inhabitants. As it turns out, these Egyptian Jews not only engaged in a significant amount of travel, but were in constant contact with their brethren in other communities.
At the same time, they were not the only ones on the move; many individuals passed through Egypt for personal or professional reasons, and sometimes because they were emigrating.
While it is well-known that Halevi eventually left Spain and opted for the Land of Israel as his final destination, these documents help trace some of his movements and activities.
S.D. Goitein began publishing autographs (documents in the poet’s own handwriting) as early as 1955 (see, for example, the Hebrew journal Tarbiz 25); and in 2001 Moshe Gil and Ezra Fleischer published an entire book, also in Hebrew, devoted to Halevi and his circle.
To round out the picture, while organizing material for the “India Book,” Goitein and Mordechai Akiva Friedman uncovered numerous documents from the 12th century concerning an eminent contemporary of his, Halfon ben Netanel Halevi, as well as the relationship between him and the Spanish poet. (See India Book, IV/A Halfon and Judah Ha-Levi: The Lives of a Merchant Scholar and a Poet Laureate According to the Cairo Geniza Documents, 2013; Hebrew).
A few of these documents are letters that discuss collecting money for redeeming captives, who were often brought by their captors to stations on the border, to a market of sorts. Captives were usually sold at the going rate of three for 100 dinars, that is to say 331⁄3 dinars per individual. Since the captives’ families as well as their communities rarely had sufficient funds for redemption, they needed to appeal to outsiders as they strove to meet the demand.
In this case, Yehuda Halevi was actively seeking financial aid in order to redeem a female captive, who unfortunately remains nameless. Her age is also a bit of a mystery, although one assumes from the wording in the texts that she is youthful and single, especially because her father is involved in the collection of funds. If she had been married, her husband would have been designated.
As a matter of fact, in many of the marriage contracts during this period, a clause was included obligating the husband to redeem his wife with his own funds if she were to be taken captive, and to take her back into his household, no questions asked (providing he was not of priestly descent).
At any rate, Halevi and Halfon were trying to amass the required sum for this captive.
Halfon, an Egyptian Jew, had arrived in Andalucia in southern Spain in 1138; during this appeal, he seems to have been in Lucena, the site of the well-known Spanish yeshiva. His colleague Halevi was in Toledo, whereas the captive was probably being held somewhere nearby.
Goitein surmised that this young lady was most likely traveling with a caravan that had set out from some locale in Muslim Spain. Her fate seems to reflect the 12th-century Spanish political reality: This land was in the midst of turmoil. Christian nobility and warriors were systematically wiping out the Muslim kingdoms, as their reconquest of Spain (the Reconquista) proceeded apace. The city of Toledo had already been conquered in 1086; the tensions between the two competing rules would not be officially completed until the fall of Granada in 1492.
Thus this Jewish traveler appears to have been captured by Christian conquerers, and her potential saviors needed to move quickly. In the first letter written by the poet to Halfon, in August 1138, he mentions having committed himself to contributing 2⁄3 of a dinar to the cause, but notes that his colleague has to help as well.
Halevi, a respected physician, turns to Halfon because he was a well-respected public leader with excellent connections.
Although a wealthy person could theoretically redeem a captive on his or her own, this was not the case here. A deadline had been set by the captors – namely, the end of the month of Tishrei – and time was of the essence.
In a second letter, one learns that Halfon had already promised to contribute a dinar and the community of Malaga had pledged six; four dinars were arriving from another source, while Jews from the city of Toledo had donated 10. The hope was that in Lucena, the Jewish center of Muslim Spain, Halfon would succeed in collecting another 10 dinars, but a suggestion was made to ask the captive’s father to travel from Lucena to Granada in order to seek additional funds. Whichever path they chose, they needed to hurry.
Who was this poor soul? Why was she traveling on such dangerous roads, in a land where two religious powers were engaged in battle? How long had she been in the hands of her captors? Would she be damaged goods upon return? Did Halevi and Halfon manage to free her in time for the holidays? Where was she being held, and under what conditions; was she with other captives or on her own? What we do know is that if the ransom funds did not materialize in time, her fate was not promising: The captors might force her to convert or might sell her as a slave. Nevertheless, since the best profit to be made was by means of a direct sale and because the Christians had learned the Jewish community always did its utmost to fulfill the mitzva of redeeming a captive, Yehuda Halevi and his colleague Halfon most likely succeeded in their mission. The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and academic editor of the journal Nashim.
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