Jewish Women’s Lives in the Muslim World

Part I: Marriage

Reprinted from Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, edited by Judith Baskin, 1991, with permission of the Wayne State University Press.

Jewish Women in the Cairo Genizah

Study of the documents of the Cairo Genizah has provided modern scholars with an abundance of information on Jewish society and institutions under Islam. A genizah is a place where unusable sacred writings were stored in order to preserve them from desecration. The treasure trove of late antique and medieval documents which were deposited in the genizah (repository for old books and papers, which might contain shemot, divine names) of the synagogue of Rabbanite Jews on Forstat, a suburb of Cairo, has been known to scholars since early modern times. While much of the material has a religious or literary character, the Cairo Genizah also included a huge quantity of discarded secular writings such as official, business, learned, and private correspondence, court records, contracts, and other legal documents.

The letters that this genizah preserves come from almost every country of the Islamic Jewish world; most are written in Arabic, the language of Jewish everyday life in this milieu. Among the legal documents are marriage contracts, which often enumerate all of the dresses, ornaments, and furniture brought into the marriage by the bride, providing a material gauge of a given community’s standard of living.

Islamic Social Norms, Jewish Social Realities

The genizah documents are most relevant to Jewish life in the Islamic world from the ninth to twelfth centuries, a period when conditions tended to be peaceful and prosperous. Jews did not have the full rights of Moslems, but, like Christians, they were tolerated and protected from persecution so long as they paid a substantial tax. Many of these Mediterranean Jews were involved in trade, and their undertakings often involved overseas travel.…

Social life was strongly influenced by Islamic norms. Thus, polygamy was not uncommon, and while Jewish women of prosperous families were not literally isolated in women’s quarters (as were Moslem women of comparable social status), community norms dictated that women’s place was in the home. The twelfth century traveler Petachia of Ratisbon wrote of the Jewish community in Baghdad, “Nobody sees there any women, nor does anybody go into the house of his friend, lest he should see the wife of his neighbor. But he knocks with a tin knocker, and the other comes forth and speaks to him.”

The observation of the prominent medieval sage Maimonides (1135-1204) that “there is nothing more beautiful for a wife than sitting in the corner of her house, as it is written, ‘The most honored place for a princess is inside (Psalms 45:14),” reflects the high degrees of Jewish acculturation to Islamic custom. Maimonides, however, did allow that a woman is not a prisoner to be prevented from going and coming, although he also suggested that outside visits to family and friends should not exceed one or two a month. In fact, however, a Jewish woman usually insisted on her freedom of movement, and many genizah accounts of marital squabbles make this an explicit right for the wife if reconciliation is to be achieved.

Early Marriage Determined a Young Woman’s Life

The marriage her parents arranged for her when she was thirteen or fourteen, usually to a considerably older man, would determine the course of a young woman’s life. The community, following Talmudic norms, took it for granted that marriage was the natural state for both men and women. A sermon found in the genizahexplains that the wife is a wall around her husband, bringing atonement for his sins and peace to his domicile. And marriage, the text continues, preserves a man from sin and, through sons who study Torah and fulfill the commandments, ensures physical and spiritual continuity…

The first preference for a spouse—generally a first cousin or other suitable relative—was intended to preserve prosperity within the extended family, while also offering security and familiarity to the young bride. Marrying outside the family, however, was an opportunity for merchant families to widen their connections and enhance their strength.

It was not uncommon for marriages to be arranged between young men in Persia and young girls from Syria or Egypt, to strengthen business ties between two trading house by establishing family alliances. Sometimes young businessmen from abroad would endeavor to marry into a successful local family as a way of establishing a foothold and eventually attaining a prominent position in the new country….

Nor were all marriages contracted on purely economic grounds; there was often an effort to marry a girl from a scholarly family in the expectation that she would produce “sons studying the Torah.”

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