The world of Jewish women in the Islamic middle ages is revealed to us through a treasure trove of primary source material found in Cairo at the end of the nineteenth century. A genizah is a storage room for discarded books and written materials. Jews do not destroy anything with God’s name written on it; such pieces of parchment and paper are usually buried. In medieval Cairo, this custom was extended to anything written in Hebrew, but instead of being buried, such items were stored in a genizah in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fostat (Old Cairo), where most of the Jews lived; the arid conditions preserved them.
The rediscovery of the Cairo Genizah, as it came to be called, by Solomon Schechter (1847–1915), in 1896 opened to scholars the possibility to piece together not only the life of the intellectuals, the rabbis, and the rich, but also the everyday life of common people.
Since the Islamic Empire was conceived to be a religious community, there was officially no place in it for non-believers. However, by special arrangement, those peoples who possessed a holy scripture were given the rights of domicile, personal safety, and religious practice in exchange for special taxes and second class citizenship. Their religious activities and institutions were their own concern, and as long as they paid their taxes and behaved properly, the Muslim government left them alone. This internal autonomy enabled the Jews under Islamic rule to continue a Jewish way of life, which was, however, ultimately very much influenced by the dominant civilization.
The world of women as reflected in the documents of the Genizah is pieced together from religious documents relating to the life cycle, family and community activities, and Jewish court records.
Marriage was a given, and it was a religious duty to have children. But in an economically-minded society, women entered marriage with as much economic clout as their biological family could provide. From the ketubbot (marriage contracts) we learn that each married woman was expected to engage in some kind of work in addition to running her household. The ketubbah also listed the items that a woman brought into the marriage; these items remained hers. The economic classes of society are revealed here. There were upper classes, business people and professionals, urban craftspeople, laborers, and peasants. The marriage list could included houses, jewelry (carefully itemized and described), clothing, books, bedding, and even cash. These items were collected years in advance and the jewelry in particular was often handed down through the generations. This safeguarded the woman’s economic independence and provided for her old age, if she were to be widowed(for she did not inherit from her husband), or divorced.
A particularly interesting item that could be found in a ketubbah was slaves, who kept a milder form of Judaism. The Genizah society used slaves for personal service, with female slaves used for domestic help to do the work shunned by free women. Slaves also enabled the Jewish women to engage in income-earning work. Women made contracts for slaves as well as for other business transactions. A particular act of piety was the manumission of slaves, and women left wills freeing their female slaves, who then usually completed their conversion to Judaism. There did not seem to be any stigma attached to these freed slaves who married easily into the Jewish community.
No two ketubbot are identical, reflecting the realities of life. They were the economic foundations of the marriages. They also contained traditional clauses such as one stipulating that no second wife could be taken without the permission of the first wife, nor a female slave without the wife’s approval; and giving the wife the right to choose the place of residence or at least to be consulted on this very important topic. Nothing is mentioned about conjugal relations since these were regulated by Jewish law and custom. Court records attest to the fact that there existed marital strife over all kinds of issues, with women defending their rights and knowledgeable about them. Lists of fines imposed on husbands who stepped out of line were also recorded.
Jewish court records are another source of information on women. This is where manumissions of slaves were filed, as were claims of husbands illegally taking a wife’s earnings. Contracts of sales attest to the kind of work women did. The fields of activity were often within the world of women, but not exclusively so. Some women were listed as ‘bridecombers’ (the hairdressers of the time) but on closer reading it seems that they were more like caterers of weddings. There were midwives and medical practitioners, teachers of women’s crafts as well as teachers of reading, writing and Torah. Most popular for women was the field of textiles. Women wove and spun at home, and women brokers came to buy the finished products. This was a convenient arrangement in the segregated society of medieval Cairo. The female brokers then sold their collected goods, some becoming quite wealthy and important in the community as they made loans, bought property, and gave charity.
Community records contain lists of both recipients of charity and contributors. Women headed charity drives, especially for the upkeep of synagogues. Women bought honors for the men in their lives such as sons, brothers, and husbands. The honors could include reciting a section of the Torah or leading part of the liturgy. Women also donated Torah scrolls, oil for the lamps, prayer books and books of scholarship. They even donated houses and apartments for synagogue use which could then be used for their rental value or as part of the synagogue complex, which might include a hospital, an inn, or a school..
The Genizah contains letters written by husbands to rabbis complaining that their wives donated too much money to charity, claiming that the money belonged to the family. The rabbis inevitably replied that as long as the basic elements that the wife was responsible for were covered—such as child care, house cleaning, laundry, and food preparation—the money earned by the woman belonged to her and she could therefore spend it as she wished.
Most charity, however, was private and personal. Women gave bread and clothing, and visited the sick bringing nourishing soups. Everyone knew who was needy, and rather than have women, in particular, beg, charity was given in as honorable a way as possible. Thus there were women, especially widows, who served as synagogue caretakers and mikveh caretakers. The two main synagogues of Fostat, the Palestinian (Ben Ezra) and the Iraqi, both had a khadima, the female equivalent of khadim, or beadle.
Women went to the synagogue, each of which had a women’s gallery known as bayt al-nisa, ‘house of women’. This gallery was reached by a staircase that led up from a special women’s entrance which faced a side street, and not from the main entrance which was for the men. Perhaps it was hoped that this type of construction would preclude the habit of talking and socializing that has been a problem in the synagogue since its inception. Socializing took place both before and after prayers in the synagogue courtyard, which was a central feature of the medieval synagogue all over the Middle East. Women prayed and their social class determined the quality of their education, which in turn determined whether they could read the prayer books and the Torah reading and follow the services. There is no evidence of spiritual material created by or for women, comparable to that written in European communities. There is no vernacular ‘women’s version’ of the Torah reading in Judeo-Arabic, similar to the Judeo-German vernacular of Europe in the Ze’enah U-re’enah (Tsenerene). Nor was there a woman prayer leader.
Scholars surmise that Jewish women could read at least the basics of Hebrew, since there is evidence of hiring instructors to teach orphan girls. If such care was taken with orphans, it is to be presumed that the higher social classes did as much for their own daughters, who were probably tutored at home, although there is evidence of classes composed entirely of girls and of teachers who were women.
Although Jews tend to acculturate to the larger community in which they find themselves, Judaism’s treatment of women was markedly different from that which prevailed in Islam. Women lived in their own world and socialized with other women, but segregation did not mean seclusion. Middle and upper class Jewish women were never confined in a harem as were Muslim women of similar economic and social status. Although polygyny was allowed in Jewish law, and practiced by most middle and upper class Muslims, the majority of the Jewish marriages were monogamous. The exceptions seemed to be mainly for reasons of procreation (the couple was childless but the husband did not want to divorce the wife). Although segregated in the synagogue, women still attended, unlike Muslim women, who no longer prayed in mosques at this period of time.
Not only did women come to the synagogue to pray and socialize, but they could appeal to the synagogue community as a court of appeal. Therefore those who had not received satisfaction for their claims by regular legal procedure could interrupt public prayer and even stop the service until their complaint was heard by the whole community. Both men and women could do this. The interruption would take place on the Sabbath, when the Torah was taken out of the ark. Women could either have a man representing them read the complaint in the men’s section or they could speak out themselves from the gallery. In response to such an appeal, the heads of the congregation would promise that the case would be heard by the Jewish court and set a date for the hearing on the spot. Only when the complainant was satisfied could the synagogue service continue.
Another item related to the court and synagogue involved oath taking, a necessity decreed by the court in certain circumstances. Taking an oath was regarded with awe and fear, and the ceremony was held in the synagogue. The Torah scroll was removed from the ark and draped in black; a bier and a shofar were brought in as reminders of judgment and death. If a woman was to take an oath, she did so in the men’s section, while holding the Torah scroll.
The Cairo Genizah reveals a vibrant Jewish society within a vibrant Muslim world. The shattering of that world by the invading Mongols in the thirteenth century and again a century later marked the beginning of the major decline of Arab civilization. As the Muslim world changed, so did the smaller Jewish world within it. The Jews were shattered internally too, by the dual tragedies of the Spanish Expulsion (1492) and the false messiah Shabbetai Zevi (1626–1676) in the seventeenth century.
The world of women, within the circumference of the Jewish world, declined spiritually to such an extent that many went to the synagogue only on Yom Kippur. It also declined economically to the extent that most women dropped out of sight in this sphere of life, their focus becoming exclusively the family and the life cycle. This was to remain the case until the modernization of the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in the early nineteenth century.
Goitein, S.D., A Mediterranean Society: the Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Genizah. Berkeley and Los Angeles; Volume I. Economic Foundations, 1967; Volume II. The Community, 1971; Volume III. The Family, 1978; Volume IV. Daily Life, 1983; Volume V. The Individual, 1988; Volume VI. Cumulative Indices, 1994.
This is the most outstanding in-depth study of the Cairo Genizah by the leading scholar in the field.
Reguer, Sara, “The World of Women,” In The Jewish of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times, edited by R. Simon, M. Laskier, S. Reguer. New York: 2003.
General view of pre-modern Middle Eastern women and their move into modernity.