His Story/Her Story: Worrying from a distance

Even today, with the sophisticated modern technology available, there are miscommunication problems that arise as the result of long distances.

Cellular phones are displayed in a store 370 (R) (photo credit: Erik de Castro / Reuters)
Cellular phones are displayed in a store 370 (R)
(photo credit: Erik de Castro / Reuters)
Communication from a distance has always been a difficult obstacle to surmount. Even today, with the sophisticated modern technology available, there are miscommunication problems that arise as the result of long distances, not to mention time zones and miscalculations. When all is well, it is easier to deal with these challenges, but when a loved one is not in the best of health, geographical separations can create considerable stress.
In the Cairo Genizah collection, there is a letter that reflects precisely these concerns. In this instance, one individual is out of town – town being Old Cairo (Fustat) – while the other is there. As it turns out, the latter might not have known how to read, or might have been too ill to manage to read the letter sent to her. Thus, Bu al-Faraj asks that the letter be read to the recipient, a woman named Umm (mother of) Yosef.
In this case, the assigned reader was none other than Rabbi Elijah Ben-Zecharia, a judge who served alongside Maimonides’s son Abraham in the rabbinical court in the first half of the 13th century. There are a number of letters in the Cairo Genizah collection addressed to him, although interestingly enough, some that are intended for him are addressed to his sons instead, most likely due to modesty. For example, a mother living in Bilbays chose to turn to one of his sons when asking the judge to check on her own son, who had been sent to study in Fustat. Because she had not heard from him, she was terribly worried, but did not have the funds to travel there.
(She actually asked for charity in the same letter, since the judges also dealt with the distribution of these funds.) At any rate, this letter-writer was probably acquainted with the judge and felt comfortable enough making a direct request for him to read the letter to the mother-in-law of Shaykh al-Bayan al-Bakhtaj. Thus it seems that she had not only a son, but a married daughter as well. Historian S.D. Goitein thought perhaps that the writer was related to her, although Faraj does not refer to her as a cousin or relative of any sort. (He uses the term “sister,” in a phrase that was not uncommon, but it is clear from the information he presents that he is not her brother.) In the letter, he emphasizes that he has heard about her illness and refers to her in rather exalted terms, invoking her fame and praise and asking God to care for her in his absence. Not knowing how they were related leaves us wondering… However, Faraj makes it quite clear that not only is he worried about her, he loves her. This love seems to be reciprocal. He is extremely upset that he is so far away and unable to alleviate the situation. This man is tormented by the news he has received, and worries about her constantly; this, however, does not suffice to relieve his distress. His writing style is extremely personal, and his emotional suffering is heartfelt.
The writer mentions having met her at the synagogue. (Goitein assumed that he did not mean inside the synagogue itself, but rather somewhere in the compound, perhaps in an area in front of it or a courtyard that was part of the synagogue structure.) It is not clear if he met her there frequently, if that was the site of their initial acquaintance or the place where they had last met. Again, if they were relatives, one would assume they had met before that time and would both have been present at family-related events.
One also assumes that she was a widow: No husband is mentioned, and the love Faraj seems to harbor for her does not appear to be platonic; Joel Kraemer considered the man’s situation one of being unable to stop thinking about (or even loving) this woman.
Faraj lets his beloved know that if he could have come in person rather than send a note, he would have done so. Although we do not know precisely what ailed her or how serious her illness was, he tells her that she does not need a will; presumably he is informing her that she will survive this malady and soon be back on her feet. He sends greetings to the family, including children and one young lady, although no names are included here. Perhaps this young lady was also upset about Umm Yosef’s illness, for he refers to her having a heavy heart. This troubled and distressed gentleman closes his letter with best wishes for a long life for the judge; one can only hope that Umm Yosef enjoyed a long life as well.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and academic editor of the journal Nashim.