His/Her Story: A landed woman

From the Elephantine archives, the first historical documentation of a Jewish woman.

Religions woman hiding her face 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Religions woman hiding her face 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In the sixth century BCE, a large military camp was set up in Elephantine by the Persian rulers who had conquered Egypt. This “city of ivories” was located on a small island in the Nile opposite Syene (Aswan), the site of their civil administrative capital. Persian soldiers and mercenaries served in the army; we know that Jewish regiments comprised part of these mercenary troops needed to protect this southern exposure from foreign attacks and to supervise trade and taxation there. Jewish soldiers were permitted to raise families and to engage in business.
Life for the Jews of Elephantine was quite different from that of their brethren returning to settle in the Land of Israel: They had not been exposed to the ideas being propounded by Ezra and Nehemiah, and they had built their own temple in which two local goddesses were worshiped alongside Yahu, the God of Judah.
In the late 19th century, various archives from Elephantine were discovered, transcribed and translated from the original Aramaic. When property was passed on or decisions were made in court that concerned property, the papyri upon which these legal activities were recorded were retained by the owner. The Jewish woman Mibtahiah’s archive contains 10 documents found in superb condition; they reveal surprising details concerning her life and the options available to Jewish women in this settlement.
A glance at these papyri reveals that Mibtahiah’s father, Mahsiah, was involved in numerous negotiations concerning land ownership and the rights of his children.
Mibtahiah was born in 476 BCE and died in 416. She was married twice, and had two sons from her second marriage. At 17, she received a gift of a house from her father in honor of her first marriage. This house was conveniently adjacent to that of the groom.
Mahsiah was very clear about his daughter’s rights, declaring that the house remains hers even after his death and granting her the right to decide how and what to do with her property. An unusually large number (12) of witnesses signed this document, including two sons and a grandson, to prevent them from claiming ownership at a later date.
On the same day in 459, he added a second document clarifying his sonin- law’s rights and obligations concerning the property. According to Bezalel Porten, the expert on Aramaic papyrology and Elephantine, this husband seems to have died before any children were born. As a result, the house remained hers and she inherited his house as well.
In 449, a document was drawn up to legalize Mibtahiah’s union with an Egyptian (non-Jewish) architect named Eshor, later to be identified by the Jewish name Natan. One might have expected her to negotiate on her own, but Porten explains that the Aramaic scribes insisted upon this format. The bride had amassed an impressive dowry, and could leave the marriage with whatever she brought in. In case of either’s death, the surviving spouse inherits the other’s property. Eshor could not suddenly announce that he had another wife and children without facing a fine. In addition, either spouse could initiate a divorce by publicly repudiating the other, a highly unusual stipulation to be found in any Jewish society.
Meanwhile, Mibtahiah amassed more property, another house from her father, this time as a gesture to repay a third of a loan to her. When Mibtahiah died, her two sons shared her houses and her slaves. Her father strove to protect his daughter’s ownership rights and despite a claim made on them, he succeeded.
Mibtahiah never exercised her option to divorce and seemed to have had good relationships with her father and both husbands. This independent homeowner who could afford to accept a symbolic return of a loan to her father might well be the first Jewish woman for whom we have original documentation.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute, academic editor of the journal NASHIM and the author of numerous articles and books on Jewish women.