His Story/Her Story: A sister’s plea for help

A moving 11th century letter written by a sister in dire need of fraternal support to her brother.

Letters 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Handout )
Letters 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Handout )
A number of scholars have noted a moving letter written by the sister of a merchant who was suffering terribly in North Africa in the second half of the 11th century. The brother was Joshua the son of Ishmael Makhmori, but the sister’s name does not appear in the letter that she dictated. The general consensus is that during this period, the Jewish communities suffered due to the repercussions of Norman attacks; this particular woman was in dire need of fraternal support.
In her letter, written on 15 Elul, she explicitly stated that she has no one but God and her brother. She worried about him constantly and became frantic because no letters from him arrived for an entire year. When the mail carriers appeared, she would anxiously inquire if there was mail for her, and was disappointed time and again by the negative responses. At one point she learned from them that he was weak; this news created unbearable anxiety for her.
To cope with the stress, she took an oath which affected herself as well as her daughter. The two of them opted not to eat during the day, or to take a bath or to change their clothes until a letter arrived informing them that he was well. It seems that the expected letter never reached them, but there were passengers on board ships that arrived who had indeed seen her brother. By this means, she learned that her beloved sibling was alive and well, despite the total lack of communication from him.
This letter is filled with her strong sentiments for him, and lets him know more than once that aside from the Creator, she has no one but him. We assume that she was a widow who had a married daughter whose husband also traveled, for he was in Salerno the entire winter and returned home via Egyptian boats. These women were fending for themselves. The winter was difficult, since the price of wheat and coal had increased tremendously. This woman explained that she could not buy wheat for extended periods of time, so they had no bread to eat. She could not afford anything and was temporarily helped by a young man who gave her some cotton or flax to weave, which provided her with some income.
In order to survive, she went deeper into debt and saw no way whatsoever of improving her lot. She told her brother that she was the equivalent of a captive – thus his duty was to redeem her. Because he had the economic means, this would not cause him hardship. Her son-in-law suggested taking the young orphan girl living with her with him (either to ease his mother-in-law’s burden or to sell her).
Her neighbors told her to take loans; in this way, her debts accrued.
Couldn’t her brother, her flesh and blood, come to her rescue? Elsewhere in the letter, she described their misery in more detail: on Purim as well as on Passover, the two women barely had anything to cook for meals. She tried to relate to him to what depths of misery they had sunk, and made it clear that describing the situation was not at all equivalent to seeing it with one’s own eyes. Her brother, who helped the poor and needy elsewhere, should come to his sister’s rescue. Her situation was dire.
Of course, she was not telling him what to do, but his better judgment should guide his actions. After all, she was his sister, and how could a brother, albeit one out of town, leave his sister and niece to starve during difficult times?
She sent regards from her daughter and son-in-law, as well as from the scribe to whom the letter was dictated. She wished her brother well, dreamed of seeing him soon, of receiving letters from him and most important of all, of discovering that he had not abandoned the sibling who loved him dearly. If this brother had any feelings for his sister, he would surely send her funds to pay her debts (the sum of which is not mentioned), in addition to sending money and supplies so that she and her daughter could live respectably rather than suffering daily, and be able to have proper holiday meals.
Hopefully this sister was eventually able to bless her brother for his generosity and kindness, and perhaps the two were even reunited at long last.
The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute, and the academic editor of Nashim.