Sunday, September 25, 2011

Choosing a Bride in 13th Century Cairo

Choosing a bride in 13th-century Cairo

Aside from being isolated and beaten regularly, she had married an inconsiderate, heartless and selfish man.

In 1219, Shlomo ben Elijah, a scribe, bookseller and teacher, known as the Melammed, wrote to his aunt, Umm Da’ud, asking for her daughter’s hand. It was not unusual to marry one’s first cousin, and Shlomo, who earned his living as a cantor and teacher in the community of Bilbays (north of Cairo), was certain that the daughter of his father’s sister would be a desirable bride. The question was, of course, whether he would be a desirable groom.

Shlomo’s father was the eminent judge Elijah ben Zechariah, who served in the rabbinic court of Fustat (old Cairo) with Abraham, the son of Maimonides. Shlomo was Elijah’s favorite son despite the fact that his firstborn, Abu Zikri, was a doctor and a far more pleasant person.

At any rate, Shlomo informed his aunt that he would be happy to wed his cousin Sitt al-Yumn. If she accepted his proposal, he’d come to Cairo for the wedding but stay for no more than 10 days; because teachers were employed privately, it was too risky to be away any longer. Although he was often in debt, he offered any bride payment (mohar) desired. Because his aunt knew he was considered to be sickly, he emphasized twice that he was in good health.

Letters found among the Cairo Geniza documents thus far do not include any reply, but we know that Shlomo’s offer was rejected because his aunt later wrote a letter to his older brother describing her daughter’s wedding. She mentions the groom’s name (the Arabic equivalent of Nathaniel), but Shlomo’s name is not mentioned in the letter at all. The aunt described the lovely kiddush in which her brother, the judge, was seated at the dais together with other important members of the community.

So whom did Shlomo marry? Apparently he turned to his mother’s side of the family in Alexandria and successfully arranged to marry Sitt Ghazal, the daughter of his mother’s sister.

The huppa was held in Alexandria; the young and somewhat spoiled bride was then whisked off to Fustat. Her father died soon after and Sitt Ghazal was truly miserable. Unfortunately, Shlomo had no comprehension of her situation and as Arieh Leo Motzkin discovered [“A Thirteenth-Century Jewish Teacher in Cairo,” Journal of Jewish Studies 21 (1970): 49-64], he elected to beat his bride.

Her father’s brother had now assumed responsibility for his teenage niece and explained to Shlomo that the girl desperately needed consolation for her loss and a bit of tender loving care rather than beatings. A move to Alexandria was suggested, but the groom claimed this was not feasible because there were not enough students from good families there to pay his salary.

Uncle Abu’l Barakat tried to persuade Shlomo to employ common sense, compassion and a bit of psychology in order to help improve this horrible domestic situation. He begged the groom not to ruin his niece’s life and tried to encourage her directly via letters. However, it turned out that Sitt Ghazal had more than ample reason to be depressed. Aside from being isolated and beaten regularly, she had married an inconsiderate, heartless and selfish man.

To add to her troubles, Shlomo’s wife miscarried in the fifth month of her pregnancy; when she finally gave birth to a daughter, the infant died at the age of three months. Her husband was convinced that she was feigning illness in order to avoid work. The description of her that he himself provides reflects the seriousness of her mental health: she ceased to wear any makeup or even comb her hair. Shlomo was oblivious to the fact that his wife was unable to cope with all the losses she has sustained on her own; apathy was a direct result. Unfortunately, there was no happy end (or even divorce papers) for this couple, or at least, nothing more has been discovered thus far in the Cairo Geniza documents.

Renée Levine Melammed 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.

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