His/Her Story: On the verge of divorce

While in many ways Geniza society in medieval Cairo was far more tolerant and open than one would have expected, life was far from ideal for most of the women.

Anya and Daniel's wedding (photo credit: Courtesy)
Anya and Daniel's wedding
(photo credit: Courtesy)
While in many ways Geniza society in medieval Cairo was far more tolerant and open than one would have expected, life was far from ideal for most of the women.
Once the bride was entrusted to her spouse’s care, he had complete control over her unless specific conditions were listed in the marriage contract. Husbands could and would take their wives’ earnings for themselves, unless otherwise specified in her ketuba. While some husbands relied on their wives, especially when they were traveling for business purposes, others displayed mistrust and sought to control their every move.
Thus, a reading of TS 8 J 29 gives one insight into the friction that arose among a couple on the verge of divorce. It seems that this (unnamed) husband completely restricted his wife’s movement. Essentially, he never let her leave the house! This extreme behavior, whether based on jealousy, fanaticism or pure nastiness, could no longer be tolerated by Dafira, the daughter of Yefet, the cantor.
Once the matter reached the court, the husband must have considered the repercussions of losing his wife. Perhaps this meant a financial loss of some sort or most probably, at the very least, having to provide her with the me’uhar, or divorce payment, as long as it had been stipulated in the contract. We do not know how long these two had been married and how long this woman had been suffering from her husband’s extremely controlling behavior.
This agreement lists the places to which she now will be permitted to go. Her “freedom of movement” was still limited, but if her husband kept his word, her life was about to change and hopefully be considerably enhanced. According to the terms of this document, Dafira’s husband had to allow her access to numerous places. She was now permitted “entrance and exit to those places acceptable for Jewish women to go: to synagogue and to the bathhouse; to events in which one makes blessings either of joy or of condolence to the mourner; leaving in order to buy or sell flax; and he won’t prevent her either from going to her sister’s house to visit her and to see her whenever she wants. And he won’t prevent her sister from visiting either!” (The Judeo-Arabic original and its Hebrew translation appear in the Hebrew dissertation of Amir Ashur, “Engagement and Betrothal Documents from the Cairo Geniza,” Tel Aviv University, 2006, which he kindly sent me.) It is possible that she herself was enmeshed in some aspect of the textile industry, involving flax. Fathers of brides who had professions prior to their marriage often inserted clauses in the marriage contract giving these women the right to retain their earnings. This woman had to fight for the right to go to the synagogue to pray, to attend weddings and other joyous occasions, and to pay shiva (mourning period) calls. These are all mitzvot that men and women would fulfill constantly throughout their lives; they were not unusual or in the realm of special requests.
The bathhouse, as we know from historian Shelomo Dov Goitein, was the social meeting place for these women; married men were prohibited from relocating to a locale that did not have a bathhouse. Besides, the husbands were expected to provide their wives with the required entrance fee.
Lastly, whether or not this fellow cared for his sister-in-law, it is disheartening to learn that he had prevented his wife from visiting her sister, as well as her sister from visiting his wife. This man seems to have been heartless, cutting off his wife from her family, from other women, from participating in prayers, comforting mourners, celebrating at weddings and more. One can only hope that the change of heart that came about was not mere lip service. His wife’s life was destined to improve now that she was no longer a prisoner in her own home.
Perhaps her husband realized that the home environment in general would be more pleasant once his wife could join the community, her family and her friends, and participate in the public as well as private domains.
This was certainly the correct path toward achieving the shalom bayit, or peace in one’s home, that was the very purpose of this agreement.The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute and the academic editor of Nashim.