The life of a merchant in the Middle Ages was often a difficult one – journeying around the world, often in dangerous circumstances, seeking to buy and sell goods. It could be a long and stressful trip, not only for the merchant but also for his family. This can be seen in the letter written by a Jewish merchant to his wife around the year 1204.
This letter is one of the 300,000 documents that is part of the Cairo Geniza – a collection of written materials dating back to the ninth-century, which were kept in a storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat or Old Cairo, Egypt. For historians, these writings – which range from religious works to business contracts, have provided an invaluable look at the lives of the Jewish community in the medieval Middle East.
We do not know the name of the merchant or his wife, but he had spent some time living and doing business from the city of Aden in India. The merchant is responding to one of her letters, in which she has apparently told him of her dissatisfaction and even asks for her divorce. Early on, he replies that he doesn’t deserve her harsh criticism:
I swear by God, I do not believe that the heart of anyone traveling away from his wife has remained like mine, all the time and during all the years – from the moment of our separation to the very hour of writing this letter – so constantly thinking of you and yearning after you and regretting to be unable to provide you with what I so much desire: your legal rights on every Sabbath and holiday, and to fulfill all your wishes, great and small, with regard to dresses or food or anything else. And you write about me as if I had forgotten you and would not remember you had it not been for your rebukes, and as if, had you not warned me that the public world reprove me, I would not have thought of you. Put this out of your mind and do not impute such things to me. And if what you think or say about my dedication to you is the product of your mind, believing the words of rebuke will increase my yearning – no, in such a way God will not let me reach the fulfillment of my hope, although in my heart there is twice as much as I am able to write. But he is able to have us both reach compensation for our sufferings and then, when we shall be saved, we shall remember in what situation we are now.
He notes that she has written to him, and had her father write to him as well, asking for a divorce – “to set you free” – and he gives her his answer:
Now, if this is your wish, I cannot blame you. For the waiting has been long. And I do not know whether the Creator will grant relief immediately so that I can come home, or whether matters will take time, for I cannot come home with nothing. Therefore I resolve to issue a writ which sets you free. Not the matter is in your hand. If you wish separation from me, accept the bill of repudiation and you are free. But if this is not your decision and not your desire, do not lose these long years waiting: perhaps relief is at hand and you will regret at a time when regret will be of no avail.
And please do not blame me, for I never neglected you from the time when those things happened and made an effort to save you and me from people talking and impairing my honor. The refusal was on your side, not mine. I do not know whether this is your decision or that of someone else, but after all this, please do not say, you or someone else: this is our reward from him and our recompense. All day long I have a lonely heart and am pained by our separation. I feel that pain while writing these lines. But the choice is with you; the decision is in your hand: if you wish to carry the matter through, do so; if you wish to leave things as they are, do so. But do not act after the first impulse. Ask the advice of good people and act as you think will be the best for you. May God inspire you with the right decision.
Shelomo Dov Goitien, the modern editor of this letter, believes that the merchant ultimately returned back to Egypt. If she had accepted the repudiation, he would have stayed in Aden. Goitien concludes, “thus the long years of suffering had not been in vain. The India traveler was finally united with his wife.”
You can read the full text of this letter and many others in Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders, translated by S.D. Goitien and published by Princeton University Press in 1973.
Material Culture in the Geniza Society – a lecture by Miriam Frenkel