A deathbed will from medieval Cairo

In April 1143, a well off Egyptian woman made some out-of-the-ordinary requests from her deathbed.

Egypt (photo credit: Thinkstock)
(photo credit: Thinkstock)
Anyone who elects to leave instructions in a will obviously has something to bequeath that is worth recording. After S.D.
Goitein discovered numerous testaments in the Cairo Geniza, he published the texts of a number of wills in the Sefunot annual in their original Judaeo-Arabic with his Hebrew translation, and some appear in English in his five-volume work, A Mediterranean Society (i.e. see vol. 5:153-155 for the case below).
The wife of Abu Nasr, a highly successful merchant from Aleppo, made a deathbed statement in April, 1143. Her family, namely her parents and brother, all resided in the three-story house that she owned.
Two years earlier, this building had been given to her as a gift by her father, Abu ’l-Muna, who had been careful about legalizing the transfer and documented the transaction with the Muslim authorities. This gift included the clear condition that as long as he, his wife and son lived, they could never be evicted from the apartment on the third floor. He made certain to have his son-in-law present when this stipulation was made, so that it could not be changed or challenged at a later date. If the two men were to have a falling out, it would not be farfetched to imagine that Abu Nasr might attempt to be rid of his in-law’s presence.
As it turns out, the merchant traveled a great deal, so was probably absent as often as he was present.
His wife, Sitt al-Ahl, made an interesting and unusual request: Upon her demise, she refused to be separated from her family. As a result, she left instructions in her will for her burial “in this house,” most likely meaning in the garden behind it. She was unwilling to be the first one in her family to occupy a place in the cemetery and await the others.
However, if and when her mother, father or brother passed away, she left instructions for the removal of her body and its relocation to the cemetery together with the deceased family member.
Sitt al-Ahl also owned a maidservant who was purchased with funds she received from her mother. We see that both parents lavished gifts upon their daughter, ranging from an entire house to money for buying slaves. This particular maidservant had a daughter who, it turns out, belonged to Sitt al-Ahl’s mother.
Goitein tells us that this was not Sitt al-Ahl’s first marriage. The ailing woman had a young son named Musa from her first husband; the boy lived with and was cared for by his maternal grandmother. She was anxious to protect him and in order to ensure this arrangement, she named her son’s paternal uncle as his guardian. While the merchant was absent, his wife received a stipend of cash and wheat; In the will, she relinquished 20 percent of the cash and 33% of the wheat allotted her, which she stated was to be be allocated to her son.
As the homeowner, she also received rent from a second-floor tenant, and stipulated that this income should be paid to her mother when Abu Nasr was absent.
Sitt al-Ahl was also concerned with making a proper exit from the world, declaring that she was dissatisfied with the burial attire in her possession. A rather expensive alternate attire and coffin were to be purchased; Muslim wailers were to be hired. Perhaps she was not pleased with the quality of the local Jewish women who were professional keeners.
Lastly, she instructed her family to arrange for her then preschool aged son to wed her brother’s daughter, but no date was specified.
The witnesses at her bedside attested that she was sound of mind at this time. We do not know if they balked when she explained where she wanted to be buried, when she listed her expensive funeral plans or detailed her matchmaking manipulations. We do know that they respected her wishes and recorded them properly, and we assume that when she did pass away, her instructions were indeed carried out.
The author is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.