I recently read the one-volume synopsis of SD Goitein’s five-volume masterwork summarizing Goitein’s research in the Cairo Geniza. A geniza is a synagogue’s repository of worn-out texts. In the Jewish tradition it is forbidden to dispose of texts that mention the name of God; and ordinary legal documents, business documents, and personal letters often mentioned the deity. The Cairo Geniza is a trove of documents holding evidence about the daily life in the Jewish community of medieval Cairo between the 10th and 13th centuries.
A Mediterranean Society, edited and abridged by Jacob Lassner, portrays the texture of life of that time for Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and the surrounding world which was linked by commercial and communal bonds.
Topics include the family, social life, education, business, community organization, and law. Christian and Jewish minorities were largely self-governing with respect to civil law, family law, and social services and well-integrated with respect to residential patterns and business dealings. In the 11th and 12th centuries, conditions were more stable; later on, as the surrounding society declined, the Jews experienced economic hardship and persecution.
Following Peterme’s train of thought, one of the things that stands out most about the Geniza world is the efforts of the Jewish community to take care of people in need. The community ran a multi-layered charitable system, providing food and clothing on a daily and weekly basis, and making longer-term provisions to house refugees, to educate orphan children, to support the marriage of orphan girls and to ransom of captives at a time when piracy and war-related kidnapping was endemic.
Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar and leader of the Egyptian community in the late 12th century wrote that the best way to bring someone out of poverty was to give them the tools to be self-sufficient. But that perspective did not get in the way of ongoing, systematic efforts to feed the hungry and house the homeless.
Another notable thing is the vibrancy of economic life. Janet Abu Lughod wrote an birds-eye view of the world economic system between 1250 and 1350, describing a trade system that tied together Europe, the Muslim world, and the East. Goitein portrays the day-to-day reality of that system for the people who lived it; weddings scheduled for early Spring so merchants can leave in time to catch the favorable winds to India; marital troubles and divorces among couples who were separated by travel most of the time.
Goitein counted 450 occupations mentioned in the Geniza, which is the largest number of job categories in any pre-modern city. Jews participated in an array of activities including manufacturing: textiles, metals, glass, pottery, paper; construction; agriculture (flax, wheat, olives); trade; civil service, medicine, education. Jews in Medieval Egypt participated in most sectors of the economy; often in business partnerships with Muslims and Christians. The situation was quite unlike medieval Europe, where Jews were forbidden from owning land and participating in trade guilds, leaving finance among the few ways to make a living. Unfortunately, Lassner condensed Goitein’s sections on economic life more than the other sections of the book, assuming that readers would find it dull. Not this reader. I may eventually have to find and read that volume of the Goitein series.
The Geniza provides a tantalizing window on the social life of the time. Pilgrimages were quite popular, although less reverant than the purist clergy wished. A ruling was issued regarding one of the more popular pilgrimage sites,
- All should attend solely for devotion. No merrymaking will be tolerated
- Marionette shows and similar entertainments are not permitted
- No beer should be brewed there
- No visitor should be accompanied by a gentile or an apostate
- No woman should be admitted except when accompanied by a father, husband, brother, or an adult son, unless she is a very old woman.
- Making a noise by hitting something with a bang or clapping hands is disapproved
- No instrumental music
- No dancing
Clearly, people were having a lot of fun doing all of the things the clergy didn’t approve of!
The divorce rate was quite high; as evidenced by the number of second and subsequent marriages found in Geniza documents. Goitein attributes the divorce rate to the custom to marry women off when very young to men they didn’t know, and to the prevalence of travel that kept couples apart for months and years at a time.
The figure of Moses Maimonides occurs frequently in the book’s pages. Maimonides is most famous as philosopher who incorporated the rationalism of Greek philosophy into the revelation-based monotheistic Jewish tradition. In the Jewish tradition, Maimonides reputation rests on his work as as a commentator and jurist; he was one of the leaders in the medieval project to organize the vast textual sprawl of the Talmud into a systematic legal code.
In Goitein, however, Maimonides makes frequent appearances as a communal leader; making judgements that are often fair and wise. For example, a judge in a town refused to allow a twice-widowed woman to remarry, because of a custom that considered a twice-widowed woman a “killer wife.” Maimonides ruled that the couple should marry before two witnesses (legal according to Jewish law), and should then have this marriage ratified by the court. In another example, a cantor newly appointed to a town protested to Maimonides that his congregation enjoyed non-traditional poems inserted into the liturgy; Maimonides replied that the addition was improper, but keeping the poems was prefereable to the strife that would accompany an attempt to prohibit them.
However, Maimonides’ judgements sometimes reflect the stricter social norms of Morocco, where his family lived before emigrating to Egypt. For example, Maimonides bans games of chance that were popular on the sabbath in Egypt, and favors wife-beating, which was apparently more socially acceptable in Morocco than in Egypt.
The book reads rather like a collection of encyclopedia entries, on the family, judicial system, communal structure, and other topics related to the life in the Geniza community. If you’re interested in the subject of the book, you’ll enjoy it. If you’re lukewarm on the topic, the book doesn’t have spine-tingling plot twists or insightful arguments; just rich portraits of a distant world.