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Notes from Limmud 2004

Women's Lives As Reflected by the Cairo Geniza Documents

Renee Melammed

[Context: A geniza is, in Judaism, a repository for documents containing Divine Names, as Divine Names cannot be discarded along with household waste. When full, the contents of the geniza are buried. In the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo in the Middle Ages, however, they went overboard and put everything written in their geniza instead of throwing it out - and never buried it, thus creating an invaluable resource for modern scholars into life in Mediaeval Cairo.

Women in society

The first thing that comes out of looking at these documents is that this was a very mobile society, for Jews. There was a high level of contact with the world outside - this is not the Dark Ages here. Men went off to India and Yemen and North Africa on business.

So where were the women? In the home, making trousseaux, jewellery and teaching embroidery to young girls, but also working as doctors (including one eye doctor), Bible teachers, agents for wares, cleaners, for the חברה קדישה [burial society] - they had money or assets; can they be independent - by getting gifts from their fathers and and dowry. [The meaning is not clear in my notes, sorry.] But there were also women who owned business - mills, etc - and owning slaves. There were also women appearing in court. They had to be announced when they appeared in court, because in Muslim society women did not get out much and weren't known. But there were nevertheless one or two who were not announced because they were well known. The courts referred to here were Jewish ones - there was no civil court. Occasionally if matters got out of hand someone might threaten to take their case to the Muslim court.


Women travelled, though not as merchants. The older women, the kadira - the most important woman in the family - would travel if they had important information they were afraid to write down. There was no postal service; delivery of letters (which were written in the third person) just meant giving them to traders to take - who could not be trusted for sensitive information. Women also went on pilgrimages.

A trip to India necessitated two years or more; more in case of shipwreck and having to earn their way back. Men could be separated from their wives for a very long time. Dr Melammed cited letters from a trader to his wife from whom he has been separated on this account for years; after many years she wrote to him requesting a get [bill of divorcement], but then, after handing her letter to a trader and having it stowed amongst his goods on his ship, reconsidered, and wrote another letter telling her husband to ignore the first one. (He responded by sending her the get but asking her not to use it.)

Not everyone who could read could write. Those with money or who were not literate could use a scribe. Scribe-written letters could also be from people who could write, just not nicely, or who just wanted to get someone else to do the job. Though there is one letter from a man to his sister telling her to read such-and-such books, in various languages, so she at least was well-educated. It is possible to tell when someone wrote a letter themselves from their language - less flowery than the scribes'.

The economic angle

The poor were taken care of. Two times a week they got צדקה (charity) outside the synagogue. The queue for צדקה was mixed - occasionally a shidduch (match) came out of it.

One woman who had been taken captive in Israel and came down to Egypt used עיקוב תפילה (`Iquv Tefillah). This term denotes the right of people who thought their case was not being taken care of by the Beth Din [court of Jewish law] to stand up in public in the synagogue, and it address it to the community. This women had been captured by Crusaders and later ransomed, but this did not solve her problems - she had no proper clothing, or means of sustenance for her son. She got up at the front of the women's gallery to make her request, so she could be seen (interestingly, seen, not heard!).

Dr Melammed also gave examples of the problems of education of children.

Dr Melammed cited a Geniza fragment that was thought to be a poem by Dunash ben Labrat, the paytan (liturgical poet) best known today (well, to me at least) for the זמירה [Sabbath table hymn] דרור יקרא [Dror Yikra]. Then, some years later, a second fragment was found which made it clear it was actually written by Dunash's wife. The language of the poem shows she was as well educated, and as good a poet as her husband - it is very erudite, with lots of Biblical allusions. Then, some years later again, a third fragment was found, which explained the poem as being from her to him because he was leaving her and going to Spain. (I don't know what the upshot was, but Encyclopaedia Judaica says he "probably" lived for a time in Córdoba.)

Wills and donations

Dr Melammed read a letter which I can cite in full here, as I found it on the web. This website also lists other letters illustrating the lives of women in mediaeval Cairo; the last text was also quoted by Dr Melammed.

This in to inform you, my lady, dear sister - may God accept me as a ransom for you - that I have become seriously ill with little hope for recovery, and I have dreams indicating that my end is near.

My lady, my most urgent request of you, if God, the exalted, indeed decrees my death, is that you take care of my little daughter and make efforts to give her an education, although I know well that I am asking you for something unreasonable, as there is not enough money - by my father - for support, let alone for formal instruction. However, she has a model in our saintly mother. Do not let her appear in public, and do not neglect her Sudanese nurse, Sa'ada, and her son, and do not separate them from her, for she is fond of her and I have willed the Sudanese nurse to her.

However, the younger slave girl, Afaf, shall be given to Sitt al-Sirr [the woman's older daughter] - but nothing else - and this only after our debts to Abu Sa'd and others have been paid. Cursed be he who acts against my dying wish.

[I say this], for I have noticed more than once that you like the elder one more than the younger one; however, you know well that I took an oath more than once - and the last one in her presence - that I shall not will anything to Sitt al-Sirr, for reasons that I cannot mention, but which you know.

My lady, let Abu `l-Barakat - may I be his ransom - come and treat me, for I am in a very serious condition

Please do not act against anything I have mentioned to you. Cursed be he who separates the old servant from my younger daughter by selling her or otherwise.

My lady, only God knows how I wrote these lines!

Wills were fairly common (amongst women).

Another example: A mother who wished for her son Ibrahim to have the honour of reading מגילת אסתר [the Book of Esther] in public on Purim, for which she had donated a large amount, 40 silver dirhams, to the synagogue. But the synagogue wanted to use the money instead for paying the travel costs of Prince Yosha, a dignitary visiting their village, rather than for the purpose in aid of which she donated it. Her husband said he would in no way interfere with the decision.

In the late ninth century lived Wuhsha Al-Dallala (her first name means "the desired one", her surname "the merchant"). She was an ousider; her father came from Alexandria. She was a free agent. There are more documents about her than anyone else in the Geniza. She dealt with large amounts of money. She had a husband, by whom she had one daughter, but then divorced him and did not marry again - which choice gave her the most independence in her lifestyle. She took a lover, Hassan of Ashkelon; she didn't want to marry him, though, because she loaned him money and he hadn't paid her back.

After she got pregnant by him, she worried about her new son being accepted by the community. So the rabbi said he would come with someone else as witnesses to her chamber and surprise her lover to confirm he was the father! (Note: the child was not a ממזר [mamzer, bastard] merely because the son was born out of wedlock. ממזרות [bastardy] in Jewish law results specifically from an adulterous union with a married person, and Wuhsha was unmarried.)

This affair really bothered some of the community. The president of the Palestinian synagogue threw her out on this account on Yom Kippur - the day you are supposed to forgive those you have offended, and pray for forgiveness for your sins, and on which the prayers specifically permit praying with sinners! But in her will she left them money anyway. Dr Melammed thinks this was to make fools of them rather than because had had patched up with them.

In Wuhsha's will she willed to her brother one hundred dinars. This is a lot, bearing in mind two dinars of gold is a monthly income for two modest people. (She had another brother who had died earlier, and his partner tried to steal his goods; she went to court to get it back - one hundred camels worth!)

Her will also goes on to name sundry other extremely expensive items, such as a ring worth sixty-four dinars, clothes worth fifty dinars for her sister, etc etc. She willed her bed and bedlinen. This isn't as petty as it sounds - it would all have been hand-embroidered, and would have been valuable.

After all her beneficiaries had been named, her will states this left three hundred dinars cash which were ready with her and sixty with Lady Ikhtiar (a name deriving from mukhtar - the chosen one).

She also plans for what should happen to the money if her son dies before he reaches majority - but gives not one penny to his father, Hassan of Ashkelon! On the contrary, she plans to pass on his debt of eighty dinars! There is nothing for her daughter from the first marriage either.

Then she talks about the funeral, which is to be magnificent, like something you would expect in New Orleans. Fifty dinars for her funeral and her shrouds, which she then specified; and payment for the pallbearers and cantors who would walk behind her coffin singing according to her rank.

She gives specifications for the מלמד [melammed, teacher] for her son. She says to teach him according to what is appropriate for him to know. By which she means she doesn't want him to become a rabbi, but an educated tradesman.


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