We tend to think of people who lived a millennia or so ago as not quite people, or at least not quite people like us. Their daily lives, their working assumptions, their surroundings, their horizons all seem so impossible to imagine realistically that we cannot identify with them. Even the documents that have come down to us from them, when translated from their languages to ours, seem impossibly stilted, flowery, inaccessible.
That’s certainly true of the Jews who lived in Cairo during the time when Maimonides was the pre-eminent decisor of Jewish law (as well as the many other things that he somehow managed to shoehorn into his days) there.
But a little more than 100 years ago, in Cairo, a genizah — that is, a place where books and other material that could not be destroyed because they contained the name of God, but could no longer be used because they’d become too used, broken, or damaged — was plumbed and some of its contents removed. The documents in it were a jumbled mess — they’d been put there under the general working theory of out of sight, out of mind — but they have proven to contain treasures for scholars, insights into not only the community’s intellectual and spiritual life, but also its daily, domestic, actual life, over the course of about 1,000 years.
It’s been a source of intellectual discovery and delight for scholars in the field of social history.
On Saturday night, Dr. Eve Krakowski of Passaic, an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, will talk about Maimonides and the mikvah for Congregation Rinat Yisrael. (See box.)
Dr. Krakowski’s academic focus is on women, girls, and family life in Egypt about 1,000 years or so ago, give or take, of course; she is able to work with the riches in the genizah, and put it in the context of the more formal history of that time and place.
“This talk is based on an article I published last year in the Jewish Quarterly Review,” she said. “I started working on it because I thought it was incredibly captivating; it turned out to have more underlying content than I thought it would.” As so often happens both to academics and to people idly googling for answers to odd questions, she fell down a rabbit hole.
The story she’ll tell at Rinat is about Maimonides.
Today, Maimonides — the Rambam — is known as one of the greatest of Jewish philosophers, the nearly mythic Spanish-born early medieval physician who lived in Cairo, treated the great sultan Saladin, and still had time to write the Mishneh Torah and Guide of the Perplexed.
In his own time, the great jurist and sage — who was not called with Maimonides or the Rambam until centuries after his death, who in his time was HaRav Moshe ben Maimon or Musa bin Maymun — was a posek, a decisor who answered question for his own community, and for the lesser intellects who punted questions asked to them up to him.
“Very famously, among his collected shailot and teshuvot” — the questions and answers — “there is a decree, an edict, a takanah, saying that women in Egypt had to start observing the laws of niddah and mikvah immersion” — of family purity — “properly, or all the judges in Egypt — and he was in charge of the judges — would arrange that they would have to forfeit their marriage payments.” This had to do with what women could take out of a marriage should they get divorced.
The takanah’s fame is widespread among scholars, Dr. Krakowski clarified, not to the public, even the Orthodox public. She is Orthodox, and she also is a historian; here, she is speaking as a historian. “It is well known to historians as an anecdote about Maimonides’ leadership,” she said. “He was complaining that instead of going to the mikvah, women are having another woman pour water over them. Scholars have understood this either as being about rabbinic women in Egypt being influenced by Karaite women, or as there being a mass rebellion about having to go to the mikvah any more.
“I believe that neither of those ideas is even remotely true.”
Her article, “Maimonides’ Menstrual Reform in Egypt,” and therefore her talk, will explore what she considers to be the real reason for the edict.
Her first (and so far only, but that will not remain true for long) book, “Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt: Women’s Adolescence, Jewish Law, and Ordinary Culture,” published by Princeton University Press in 2018, won many awards, including the National Jewish Book Award in women’s studies.
She also writes shorter, more accessible stories; in one of them, she said, she tells the story of a wealthy woman whose will languished in the genizah for centuries. Khulla bat Shabbat owned some property. “This will is especially interesting because it describes this woman’s strong wishes that her property be left for specific types of tzedaka and not others,” Dr. Krakowski said. “The men who witnessed it tried to persuade her to leave some of her money to restore a volume of the Torah owned by the community, but she refused and insisted that it should be used instead to help the poor.”
Khulla owned shares in three buildings; one with her sister and two with her brothers. She also owned a male slave — that was fairly unusual, Dr. Krakowski said, and “suggests this woman may have been directly involved in overseas business, because male slaves were usually highly trained and literate men who worked for their owners as business agents.” Khulla directed that the slave be sold, and the profits divided in half. “Half should be used for the pilgrimage to Dammuh — a beit ha-knesset near Fustat that Jews believed had been founded by Moshe Rabbeinu — and the other half should remain with the court. It would be used “for someone who dies without anything or for someone who gets arrested because of the poll tax and doesn’t have the means to free himself.”
Although Khulla directed that her slave be sold, she also acknowledged that she owed him two dinars; she also owed other family members 12 dinars collectively. She directed her brothers to pay that sum out of the profits of her estate.
That was not what the men who led the community wanted her to do with her money, but she didn’t care.
This is less a narrative than it is a slice of real life as it was lived long ago and far away. “That is what a social historian does,” Dr. Krakowski said. (To be clear, neither long ago nor far away is necessary to a social historian; using primary sources to reconstruct real life is necessary.)
“The genizah gives you an incredible insight into everyday life that no other Jewish source in this period does,” she said. “And it is really up there among medieval sources in general. And I’m drawn to it because I am interested in everyday life.”
Who: Dr. Eve Krakowski of Princeton
What: Will talk on Zoom about Maimonides and the mikvah — including not only the conclusions she rejects but the one she reaches
When: On Saturday night at 8:30
For whom: Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck
How to get the link: Go to Rinat’s website — www.rinat.org/adultednews — and scroll till you see it. The link’s on that page.