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Throwback Thursday: Three Glimpses of ‘Those behind the Veil’ in the Mosseri Collection

Mosseri II.163.3
A son describes his abandoned mother’s predicament, almenut ḥayyut, in an historical document from the Mosseri Collection, Mosseri II.163.3.
Author: 
Melonie Schmierer-Lee
Thu 9 Dec 2021

Our Throwback Thursday this week is taken from issue 63 of the printed edition of Genizah Fragments, published in April 2012, by Oded Zinger:

One of the pleasures of Genizah research in Cambridge is the way one stumbles across fascinating human stories while leafing through the Collection. Though my dissertation research revolves around marital disputes in the Genizah, when examining some of the documentary material in the recently-acquired Mosseri Collection in the Genizah Research Unit in the summer of 2011, I could not resist the lure of also reading any petitions involving widows and ‘agunot that caught my eye. Such documents are precious for offering a glimpse of the lives and voices of medieval Jewish women, about whom information is sorely lacking in sources outside the Genizah.
In order to ensure a positive response, petitions often combined a literary flourish with a tale of woe so as to both capture the attention of the addressee and to reach his heart. This combination is apparent in the opening of a letter written by a son through which we hear at second-hand of his mother’s predicament, abandoned by her husband while pregnant:
Everything lost was present before its loss, but what I have lost was not present for even a single day. For he abandoned me in ‘the darkness of the bowels’ (an Arabic expression, ‘before I was born’) and abandoned my mother ‘a widow of the living’ (2 Samuel 20:3). And it was not just this bad situation, but she also gave him possession of precious objects from what she had brought into the marriage in the ketubba, both gold and silver... (Mosseri II.163.3)
Women relinquishing their monetary rights to their husbands, and husbands running away and leaving their wives ‘agunot were not uncommon occurrences in Genizah society. The combination of the two was truly devastating for women and their children. A widow’s beautifully-written petition reveals to us an interesting self-assessment of her predicament:
Were your servant to describe her situation and the state of the orphans that are ‘on her neck’, it would take too long. Your lofty presence knows what hardship men endure these days, and how they cannot make ends meet. How then can those behind a veil, who do not know their right hand from their left? (Mosseri IV.57, ll. 7–10)
By portraying herself as helpless, the widow asserts the social hierarchy between her and the communal leader. In this way, she obliges him ‘to act his role’ and assist her. This ‘instrument of weakness’ was common in Genizah petitions. The petition continues by reminding the benefactor politely but firmly that the orphans’ father was his client for many years and it is now his responsibility to take care of them when their father is dead, further demonstrating the importance of patronage in Genizah society.
The last petition, apparently to Abraham Maimonides (1186–1237), is of a widow who lived in ‘a small upper apartment of a ruin, which time has dishevelled, with no closet, no vestibule, no solid wall, no standing roof’. The apartment belonged to the communal pious foundation (heqdesh) and the monthly rent had recently increased from two dirhams to three and a half (still a very small sum). The widow, who has a son who ‘leaves in the morning and does not come back until evening’, declares that she has no love for the apartment itself but ‘when she sits in her house she hears the cantor in the synagogue saying qadosh, barukh and qaddish’ (Mosseri IV.88). She therefore asks not to be removed from the apartment so that she can continue to obtain blessing through its proximity to the synagogue. While her experience of the sacred may seem to be of outmost passivity (sitting at home and enjoying the sound of prayers flowing into the wall-less ruin), it is clear how important it was for her and to what length she was willing to go to retain it. This mixture of passivity and initiative is a rare hint of women’s spirituality in Genizah society.

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