His story her story: A letter from India

One of the many surprises this scholar encountered was the fact that many Jewish merchants set forth from Cairo (and Yemen) to India.

India Jews (photo credit: Ben G. Frank)
India Jews
(photo credit: Ben G. Frank)
The great Cairo Geniza scholar, S.D. Goitein, published an English translation of a wonderful letter in Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders (1973) that is well-known to scholars in the field. One of the many surprises this scholar encountered was the fact that many Jewish merchants set forth from Cairo (and Yemen) to India.
This was not an easy journey, for it entailed considerable expenses as well as dangers en route, nor could it be expedited quickly. As a result, some of these traders were away from their homes for extended periods of time.
This particular letter, which he titled “An India trader writes to his wife, ca. 1204,” reflects the tensions created in a household as the result of such a long absence. In addition, because one was never certain if one’s letter had arrived, misunderstandings might occur.
The trader presents himself as a loving and faithful husband, imploring his wife to be patient. He had encountered serious difficulties from the start: He lost all of his initial investment, presumably in a shipwreck, and miraculously survived. Thus, he had to borrow funds in order to buy merchandise and obviously needed to repay these loans. Moreover, it would be foolish on his part to return home after all these travails before he had profited handsomely.
Goitein includes an explanation about the language used by husbands and wives in their correspondences. While the third person (plural, masculine) was used for the sake of modesty and in case the letter should be read by someone else, this writer gradually slips into second person (singular, feminine) as he proceeds. In other words, he ignores the convention, most likely because he needed to feel he was talking directly to her.
This letter is unusual because of the amount of personal comments included and the justifications given by this spouse. Apparently, his wife had rebuked him in her last letter; he felt that he did not deserve this treatment and insisted that not only was he faithful to his wife, but he missed her terribly and was suffering as much as she. He claims to be thinking about her all the time, aware that his absence had created many problems: He could not buy her dresses or trinkets or food, and could not be with her physically. His heart belongs to her; she should not think otherwise for a moment.
One portion of the letter is rather humorous; Goitein titled it: “Drunk but pious,” almost a contradiction in terms. The trader confessed that he was constantly drinking, but was, nevertheless, behaving correctly, supposedly implying that he was not cavorting with prostitutes or the like. He also claimed to be fasting by day and praying by night, and was often given the honor of leading prayers. This odd description leaves one to wonder if he was intentionally being dramatic in order to impress his wife. Was he drinking without eating? How was he able to pray properly if he had been drinking all day? Was he hoping to impress her with this description? His piety seems to be canceled out by his rather odd behavior. Shouldn’t he have been seeking business by day? Why doesn’t he relate to her how successful he has been as a merchant? He mentions having made special efforts to procure a perfume called ambergris which he sent to his wife, presumably to be sold by her in Cairo for her needs. Clearly, his wife did not realize that it was extremely valuable and not to be underestimated. He later mentions sending other items such as nutmeg and goods from India and the Orient, that were either gifts or to be sold.
The trader mentioned that his wife had requested a writ of divorce (because he had been away for so long); his father-in-law had made the identical request.
While he did not deny that it was a reasonable action on their part, he hoped that his spouse would change her mind. He would comply with the request, but hoped that she would put the paper aside and think seriously about whether or not to use it: “May God inspire you with the right decision.”
This act, to leave a conditional divorce writ, was not unusual when a husband might be away for years on end. Thus the wife had the option of freeing herself and remarrying, rather than waiting and hoping she’d be able to manage until her husband’s return.
We don’t really know how this story turned out. Goitein the optimist decided that this letter had never been sent, but had accompanied the trader upon his return to Egypt, where the couple was reunited. Be that as it may, the stress created by such an absence was tangible for both husband and wife – in this case, with the latter in Egypt and the former in India.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute, and the academic editor of Nashim. She is currently on sabbatical.