His Story/Her Story: A complicated married life

In a collection of Maimonides’s responsa published by Joshua Blau, a complicated life unfolds.

An Ultra-orthodox couple at their wedding in Bnei Brak. (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
An Ultra-orthodox couple at their wedding in Bnei Brak.
One of these responsa – which Blau published in the original Judeo-Arabic along with his own Hebrew translation (Vol 1. No. 15; original found in Copenhagen, Simonsen Library B 29) – recounts the case of a married woman who lost her husband as well as her son, and subsequently remarried. Unfortunately this was not a successful union, and the wife suffered for years; the two apparently quarreled incessantly. The means she chose to deal with the situation was to redeem herself in order to force him to grant her a divorce. (See Mordechai Akiva Friedman, “The Ransom-Divorce Proceedings in Mediaeval Practice,” Israel Oriental Studies 61 (1976).) Redemption meant that she would have to give up the later installment of the marriage gift due her (called the delayed payment) and her marriage contract.
Husband No. 2 was not pleased with her decision to force him to grant her a divorce; as a matter of fact, this act infuriated him. So he picked himself up and moved away to the countryside, where he fell ill and died unexpectedly.
His widow informed the court that her husband had not granted her the divorce writ, although her delayed payment and marriage contract had indeed been liquidated on the condition that he grant her a divorce. The court told her she was not entitled to anything because she had redeemed herself; thus her marriage contract was no longer available to her.
Because she had never actually received the divorce writ, these circumstances were out of the ordinary.
The husband owned some property, but had also left some debts, and his debtors demanded that payment be taken from his estate. The Jewish court ruled that his land should be sold in order to pay the aforementioned debts. After the debtors had been paid from the sale of the deceased’s property and the remainder of the estate was divided among various family members, the deceased’s wife received nothing at all.
In the meantime, this woman was fortunate enough to find a suitor interested in marrying her. This man approached the court requesting permission to wed her, but was told that he could not. As far as the court was concerned, she was a “killer wife,” a woman who had buried two husbands – as though she had been responsible for their deaths.
Avraham Grossman analyzed the whole notion of a wife twice widowed being considered dangerous (see Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe, 2004, pp. 262-72). This scholar uncovered situations in which very young girls, usually orphans whose mothers were desperate, were wed to much older men. These brides could easily become widowed twice, since they had married at such a young age. Likewise, upheavals such as pogroms, forced conversions and the like incurred unexpected losses of life; a woman losing a second husband due to these circumstances would not be a rare occurrence. Were the women actually responsible for the men’s fate? Were they doomed to remain widows permanently, forbidden to wed because of some superstitions or ungrounded fears? In this case, as we have seen, the widow was in terrible financial straits. She had not inherited anything, and in order to redeem herself, she had forfeited the delayed payment (which she normally would have received after being widowed or if her husband had initiated a divorce) and her marriage contract; both would have served to keep her afloat financially. This poor woman was really in a bind, for she had no way to support herself. She had hoped to get a bona fide divorce, but it had never materialized, and she had lost all of what was due her as a widow or divorcee. The husband died before they divorced, so she was unable to inherit anything after his death. Remarrying was an excellent option, because then the new husband would provide for her.
After this dilemma was described to Maimonides, the possibility that this woman might approach a gentile court, in this case a Muslim one, arose. This option was clearly an undesirable one. If a qadi ruled differently regarding the property division or her marital status or any of the other problematic issues involved, it would be embarrassing to the beit din – and it would also be binding. This is precisely why the parties needed a respected scholar to rule on the matter.
The questions posed to this rabbi reflect different fears and interests. For example, what did the redemption on the wife’s part mean regarding her status and the property that had been already divided up? Maimonides did not actually answer this query, but chose to focus on the charge that she was a “killer wife” and thus unable to remarry. This, according to Grossman, was one of Maimonides’s crusades, to wipe out these irrational notions. In his response, he simply provided the means for this couple to wed: get two witnesses, arrange the betrothal, and draw up the marriage contract afterward, in the court where the ceremony would take place. He specifically stated that in this instance, one should be lenient so as not to make matters worse. According to Grossman, by opposing the notion of a “killer wife,” Maimonides enabled an inestimable number of women to remarry and maintain families rather than suffer social ostracism and be left to fend for themselves.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and the academic editor of the journal Nashim.