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Cambridge University Library

Q&A Wednesday: The value of small things, with Oded Zinger

Mosseri VII.207.1
Mosseri VII.207.1: a short note by the court clerk to the judge.
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Oded Zinger
Wed 14 Jul 2021

Oded, what are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently working on several court notes (for example Mosseri VII.207.1 and Mosseri VII.189.2). Mosseri VII.207.1 is a small note written by the court clerk (probably Hillel b. Eli or Halfon b. Manasseh in his early years) to the judge. A woman presented a bill of divorce which appeared suspicious. It was dated according to the calendar of deeds (shetarot) though the writer claims that it was not the custom of the judge to use this type of dating, and the bill of divorce also lacked the legal formula on its verso that it was handed over to the wife. The clerk asks the judge to examine the bill of divorce lest a grave error take place. The matter was particularly sensitive, as the woman’s husband was absent (it was therefore possible that she had forged a bill of divorce to avoid being chained – becoming an agunah – forever). Mosseri VII.189.2 is a tiny piece of paper torn from an earlier document. On it, Halfon b. Manasseh writes that they searched the current court notebook (shimush) but could not find the entry they were looking for. The judge (nicknamed ‘the diadem’, so we know who he is) said that it must be in the older court notebook. This older court notebook was stored in the house of the addressee and apparently the latter was asked to find the entry in it. On the back of this tiny fragment is what is probably the answer: “write for her two skullcaps and a veil worth two dinars and a red skullcap worth half a dinar.” The entry consulted must have been a dowry list. These particular items were probably contested and the original record needed to be consulted.

So the court clerks were on the lookout for forgeries! What was it about this kind of fragment that piqued your interest?

The past year was quite difficult for me. For the first time I had a full teaching load of courses, and my wife and I had a new baby in September. That, along with COVID and its curses (online teaching being one!). With all this on my plate, I couldn’t focus on large research projects and found myself gravitating toward the examination of small things.

Scholars have often been drawn to the big and impressive items in the Genizah. They are generally easier to read, are full of content and reward protracted attention. However, the Genizah also contains a plethora of tiny fragments which are often of great interest, and in my current circumstances I have found myself very much enjoying looking at such small items which can be puzzled out in the more restricted research time I have. I have been working in particular on two sorts of notes - the first are small notes requesting assistance (usually of a financial nature) from women. Such small, often quite informal, notes make for an interesting comparison with the larger and more formal petitions that have been studied by my teacher Mark R. Cohen and by Marina Rustow. The second type of note is what I have been calling ‘court notes’ – tiny missives that Egyptian courts used in their everyday work. These are not the final product of legal work, like deeds or entries in the court notebook, but the midway products of the legal procedure. Despite being so small, the Mosseri notes convey a huge amount of information about how courts examined legal documents, how they used court notebooks and where such notebooks were stored.

How long do you think the court notebooks were kept for reference before being ‘genizah-ed’?

I do not know. There are dozens if not hundreds of single leaves and bifolia from court notebooks in the T-S collection, but no full court notebooks. Oxford holds one court notebook which is rather erratic, but our best-preserved sample, recording the working of the court for three months in 1156, comes from the Firkovich collection. This might be used to argue that full court notebooks were not thrown into the Genizah at all, or only once they completely fell apart. I simply do not know.

Is this part of a project you’re developing?

My interest in notes developed independently from any ‘project’ - I simply search for such documents for fun. This is probably why I do not have a rigorous definition for what a ‘note’ is (something small with not too much text on it?). However, once I realized that I enjoy figuring out these small riddles, I decided to focus on court notes and on notes of request for women, because they fit with my ongoing project(s) on the Jewish legal arena of medieval Egypt and on women’s letters and petitions, respectively. 

You mention riddles - is there a bit of guesswork to work out what’s going on?

There is always guesswork when reading documents. With tiny fragments the guesswork is greater because you have less text to build upon. History is an imaginative venture – we are not just counting beans or cataloguing evidence. I don’t know how you can write history from documents without using your imagination, but you do need to be aware (and keep your readers aware!) of which places you are ‘filling in’ with your imagination and make sure that this imagination is related to the evidence at hand. This is what I find so wonderful about working with documents.

How generous were the courts to women asking for assistance, in your opinion?

This is a question I have tackled in my dissertation and in the book I am currently working on. Gender is an important category, but social status is closely intertwined with it, so I do not think I can answer this question on ‘women’ in general. In the book, I show how important it was for a woman to have male relatives to make sure she receives good treatment by the court. Women who did not have such male relatives also had options, like turning to Muslim courts or petitioning the community or the Head of the Jews.

Are these notes you have been looking at connected to any other Genizah documents that you know of? Are the same individuals mentioned elsewhere?

The court notebooks do not mention the names of the parties involved, but the court personnel are certainly known. Hillel b. Eli, Halfon b. Manasseh and judges like ‘the diadem’ are well known to Genizah scholars.

Some of these petition-like notes are addressed to women. Can you tell us more about the women to whom these were addressed?

Petition-like notes to women often use a limited set of adjectives like ‘the modest, pious and righteous lady’ and it is impossible to identify them based on such descriptions. One longer letter is addressed to Sitt Futūn, but this is also not enough. More useful is a letter that asks another man to intercede on behalf of the writer with a prominent lady, ‘the mother of my lord, the Rayyis, Abū al-ʿAlā’. I still need to see if I can identify who this person is. It is certainly a point worth exploring, because in petitions to men it is often very clear who is the person being addressed. 

What I find interesting is that these missives of request employ features from the petition format but are quite different from formal petitions. I think there is a good reason why we do not find full blown petitions addressed to Jewish women, like we find addressed to Jewish men. Petitions are addressed to people with power (whether political, administrative, communal or financial). Women tended to have much less of such powers, and the way to approach them was different. But this is a topic I have only recently started thinking about, and I am perfectly willing to change my mind if examples of full-blown petitions to Jewish women start showing up. 

Thanks for your time, Oded!

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