His story/her story: 12th-century worries

As can be seen from a particular letter dated to the 1120s, distance was only one factor in the stressful lives of merchants and their families.

Letters 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Handout )
Letters 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Handout )
Brothers and sisters in Geniza society often had strong connections to one another, especially since sibling relationships generally lasted longer than other familial ties.
When one of them was out of town, they corresponded and displayed a strong sense of responsibility for one another. When a distance was created between the two, worries were added to those of everyday medieval life.
As can be seen from this particular letter dated to the 1120s, distance was only one factor in the stressful lives of these merchants and their families.
The daughter of a Baghdadi cantor named Hillel b. Ali was living in Fustat (Old Cairo). She dictated this letter to her husband, Halfon b. Menashe Halevi, who sent it to her brother, Abu al-Hassan Ali b. Hillel. The sister’s name does not appear here, but her concerns and worries come through loud and clear.
The letter begins with an expression of her feelings, as she missed her brother terribly since the day of their separation. She told him it was impossible for her to include all of her feelings in such a brief missive; she prayed to God to protect him, help his efforts succeed and spare him difficulties. She wanted to be assured that he would be safe and sound, and that she would not be confronted with bad tidings about him or his situation.
She then mentioned that after visiting a grave, a young man fell ill and was still in serious condition. The suddenness of illness and the uncertainly of life are themes she brings up throughout the letter.
As part of her update, the sister informed her sibling that on the previous Friday, a certain Jew who had a fairly high position with the local ruler, the Fatimid vizier Al-Ma’mun al-Bata’ihi (1121-1125), was fired. The vizier refused to allow him to remain in Cairo; as he was no longer allowed to show his face in the city, he was sent to Fustat. She commented that there were more things she would like to share with him, but did not feel it was appropriate to do so in a letter.
The aforementioned news reached her when she was very distracted, for the boys were ill. Apparently this was an ongoing situation, for she said her brother knew about these health issues.
At this point, she told her brother that her heart was divided in half, literally split “up and down,” and if she did not fear being chastised by Abu al-Hassan, she wouldn’t even have revealed one iota regarding these developments to him. Moreover, she was worried that her brother was not keeping her in the loop. “Don’t hide anything from me,” update me, tell me about your children and whoever is with you, she beseeched him. We worry about you endlessly.
Then, as was common in family letters, she changed the subject to business-related matters. The family seems to have run out of fabric, whose length she mentioned along with the silk merchant who was banging on her door. He was owed 9.5 dirhams; if they had the ability to pay him, they would not have left the silk behind, and she would not be bothering him about it in a letter.
This sister was caught between protecting her brother, and involving him by sharing her concerns and worries. “Please make an effort to send the dirhams post haste so that we can redeem the silk,” she wrote; she hoped to have it ready for him soon.
Without explaining to whom she referred, because her brother clearly knew, she mentioned the “woman.” Who was she? A prisoner? A family member? Unclear, but if he would send 6.5 dirhams, they could redeem her with these funds.
If he needed anything, he should give his family the honor of fulfilling his needs.
Most importantly, “do not stop informing us of your news continuously, so as to keep our hearts quiet.”
In the margin, warm regards were sent to his wife, his children, Abu Almana and his brother. She also added regards from various women (who might have been other sisters), and his brother-in-law.
His servant missed him greatly and in another margin, an addition included the blessing of this servant for him and his children, and the most heartfelt wishes. This servant seems to have been incredibly fond of her brother, for he sent warm regards to his son, too. He also asked the brother to write the condolence letter he had promised him in Hebrew, and to send it quickly. His sister also commented they were all suffering from the presence of someone’s wife, who did nothing but cry day and night.
The very end of the letter is illegible, but on the reverse side, the addressee is named with his sister’s blessing: “My brother and master Al Hassan Ali b. Hillel the Baghdadi cantor of blessed memory, from his esteemed sister, may I be an atonement for him… may the Lord give him a long life and sustain his loving kindness and faith.”
What a lovely way to bless one’s brother! ■ The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and the academic editor of the journal Nashim.