His/Her Story: He said

The collection of Maimonides’s responsa that was published in its original Judeo-Arabic contains some wonderful material for the historian.

Torah scroll 521 (photo credit: Stockbyte)
Torah scroll 521
(photo credit: Stockbyte)
The collection of Maimonides’s responsa that was published in its original Judeo-Arabic along with a Hebrew translation by Joshua Blau contains some wonderful material for the historian. The first volume (of four, 1957-1986) has a responsum, numbered 45, with a question presented by a man living in Egypt in the second half of the 12th century. Because responsa are not dated, we can only approximate when it was written, which would be between 1135 and 1204, the period when Maimonides, or Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, lived in Fustat, Egypt.
This anonymous fellow (questioners’ identities are not revealed) presumably approached the court with a query concerning his wife. He mentioned that at some point during their marriage, he “happened to take a trip in connection with personal matters and for business reasons, and he was absent from his city on and off for four years.” (My translation.) We have no idea what his profession was; it sounds as though he might have been a businessman but there is no proof of this one way or the other.
Upon his return, he learned that that his brother-in-law, his wife’s brother, was running a Talmud Torah and was rather surprised to discover that his wife was teaching together with her brother. The husband explained to the court that he was responsible for initiating his wife’s education, having taught her some Torah; she apparently filled in the gaps in his absence.
This new arrangement upset him tremendously because, he claimed, of the demands of modesty and the inappropriate behavior her activities entailed: the fathers of her pupils would be apt to talk to her, a married woman. When his wife heard his objection, she elected not to fulfill any of her wifely duties (baking, cooking, cleaning, washing), and insisted upon continuing to teach from dawn until dusk. Her husband complained that he now had no alternative but to pay for these services and was sick and tired of the situation, to which he had been subjected for the past four years! He then pointed out why he was loath to divorce his wife: she owned property adjacent to that of his mother and sister-in-law which she might not bequeath to their mutual sons after a divorce. After all, if she were to remarry, he could not control the fate of this property. At this point, the husband revealed the fact that her ketuba (marriage contract) contained what had become a fairly standard clause in marriage contracts in Geniza society, namely, the “monogamy clause” (a term coined by Mordechai Akiva Friedman).
This clause prevented him from taking a second wife and from consorting with a handmaiden, should his wife object. If the husband ignored her objection, he had to grant his wife a bill of divorce along with the delayed marriage payment, even if he preferred not to divorce her. (The mohar or bride payment made by the groom was divided into two: an early payment usually made at the engagement or at the wedding, and a delayed payment to protect the wife in case her husband died or divorced her.) What is the question posed here? What does this man hope to gain by turning to the court, which requested of Maimonides to serve as the decisor in this case? He wanted to know if he could have permission to marry a second wife without forgoing the first, in order to safeguard her property for their sons.
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon informed this man that he could not marry a second wife without the explicit permission of the first or unless he divorced her and paid the delayed payment. However, he had the right, as her husband, to prevent her from teaching; in this matter, the court would back him fully and even prevent her from teaching and put obstacles in her way. A serious attempt would be made to alter the wife’s behavior and encourage her to “behave properly toward her husband.”
Maimonides’s ruling was based on the information provided by the petitioner, who, as we can see, was not granted the permission he sought, but rather provided with a means of changing the existing situation within the bounds of Halacha.
(Stay tuned for the next installment: “She Said.”)
The writer 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.