Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt

Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt

Mark R. Cohen
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    Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt
    Book Description:

    What was it like to be poor in the Middle Ages? In the past, the answer to this question came only from institutions and individuals who gave relief to the less fortunate. This book, by one of the top scholars in the field, is the first comprehensive book to study poverty in a premodern Jewish community--from the viewpoint of both the poor and those who provided for them.

    Mark Cohen mines the richest body of documents available on the matter: the papers of the Cairo Geniza. These documents, located in the Geniza, a hidden chamber for discarded papers situated in a medieval synagogue in Old Cairo, were preserved largely unharmed for more than nine centuries due to an ancient custom in Judaism that prohibited the destruction of pages of sacred writing. Based on these papers, the book provides abundant testimony about how one large and important medieval Jewish community dealt with the constant presence of poverty in its midst.

    Building on S. D. Goitein'sMediterranean Societyand inspired also by research on poverty and charity in medieval and early modern Europe, it provides a clear window onto the daily lives of the poor. It also illuminates private charity, a subject that has long been elusive to the medieval historian. In addition, Cohen's work functions as a detailed case study of an important phenomenon in human history. Cohen concludes that the relatively narrow gap between the poor and rich, and the precariousness of wealth in general, combined to make charity "one of the major agglutinates of Jewish associational life" during the medieval period.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2678-0
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. NOTE
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. 1-32)

    Poverty, understood in the usual sense of ‘destitution,’ was a permanent feature of the Middle Ages.” With these words, Michel Mollat opens his classic studyThe Poor in the Middle Ages.¹ Thanks in good measure to the scholarly leadership of Mollat beginning in the 1960s, the history of the poor has come to occupy an important place in the study of non-elites in premodern Europe, as part of the new social history—“history from below”—to which the French Annalistes and their heirs have contributed so much. The present book owes much to the work of these scholars as well...

    (pp. 33-71)

    I am dispatching this letter to the most illustrious elders, may God preserve them, to inform them that the bearer of this (letter) is a man who was healthy, working strenuously in order to “conceal” (li-yastura)² himself and his family, when Fate betrayed him and he became weak (ḍacīf al-ḥayil),³ such that anyone looking at him needs no explanation about his condition. In addition, debt (gharāma) and the poll tax (jizya) caught up with him. Whoever assists him with something with which he can maintain his way of life⁴ shall be deemed to have made an offering (to God). He...

  7. Chapter Two THE FOREIGN POOR
    (pp. 72-108)

    Not surprisingly, foreigners swelled the ranks of the indigent in medieval Egypt. Like the writer of the letter quoted above, most of these people had left families back home and lacked in their new locale that most important source of succor in traditional societies, the kinship group. To be separated from home and family meant to be especially vulnerable to destitution. An impoverished Jew, who had been sojourning in an Egyptian locale for two years seeking repayment of a debt, put it colorfully: “You know that I am alone and poor, here in the land of my exile, with neither...

    (pp. 109-129)

    As in islam, where captives constitute one of the eight classes of people to whom charity is due from the alms tax (zakāt; Sura 9:60); and as in Christianity, where aid to captives constitutes one of the six charitable acts ensuring salvation in the Gospel parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31–46); so too in Judaism, ransom of captives is considered a paramount charitable miṣva.¹ Though normally foreigners, Jewish captives who were brought to Egypt for ransom formed a group whose deservedness was unquestionable. Their need for charity was especially emphasized because their fate if not ransomed was slavery,...

  9. Chapter Four DEBT AND THE POLL TAX
    (pp. 130-138)

    Debt and poverty have gone hand in hand from time immemorial in different cultures. The Bible features the debtor in its precepts concerning charity: debts should be remitted every seventh year and loans should not be withheld from the needy.¹ Debt was a chronic affliction of the Christian poor in the European Middle Ages, “the poisonous remedy for poverty,” as Michel Mollat calls it.² Like captives, debtors constitute one of the eight categories in Islamic law to whom the poor-due is to be paid (Sura 9:60), and the Muslim is also enjoined to be patient with hard-pressed debtors, even to...

  10. Chapter Five WOMEN AND POVERTY
    (pp. 139-155)

    We have already encountered indigent women as foreigners, as captives, and as debtors. Here we address the problem of poor women in terms of their gender, asking to what extent Jewish women in medieval Egypt became victims of poverty by virtue of being women and what strategies they employed to deal with their plight. The Geniza provides ample opportunity to investigate these questions, particularly because through the letters preserved in this treasure trove we are able to hear the voices of women themselves. These kinds of data are almost entirely absent from Islamic historical sources, where—if we hear about...

    (pp. 156-173)

    Food and clothing, along with shelter are the necessities of life against which are measured the deficiencies of the poor in all cultures and at all times. Hunger and inadequate clothing are linked in ancient Egyptian, Hittite, and Assyrian writings, in the biblical prophets, in the Wisdom Literature, in the midrash, and in the Palestinian Targum.¹ Paralleling a passage in the midrash on Psalms, the Gospel of Matthew (25:31–46), in words attributed to Jesus, includes feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and other acts of charity among the acts that can avert the dreadful Last Judgment.² The Talmud, as...

    (pp. 174-188)

    Beggars or petitioners?¹ What can we say about the self-image of the poor? In other words, what social meaning—apart from the realities of poverty and the quest for charity—can we find in their letters of appeal? In order to answer this important question, we focus here on one very important type of letter of appeal, addressing the issue of form and its relation to function.

    Formally speaking we can distinguish in the most general terms between two types of letters of appeal: letters of recommendation and letters written by the poor themselves, whether in their own hand or...

  13. Chapter Eight CHARITY
    (pp. 189-242)

    Letters of appeal by or on behalf of needy people seeking private charity formed a major source for our discussion in previous chapters. We saw that these people to a large extent came from the ranks of the mastūr, those who normally led “concealed” lives.¹ In their need and in their wish to limit their shame, they turned privately to individuals or to officials in the community, rather than resort to collecting bread and other alms from the community’s public relief. The evidence of private charity embedded in these missives opens a window on an aspect of the general subject...

    (pp. 243-252)

    Poverty in the Geniza world was not the result of some sudden collapse in the economy or of some sudden overpopulation. It belongs to the longue durée, keeping in mind that the longue durée envisions continuities not just across time, but also across space, societies, and cultures—an enduring feature of the human condition that both Jewish and Christian scriptures already recognized. No one in the Middle Ages, further, thought of eradicating the malaise—it is only in more recent times that people have dreamed of solving, as opposed to salving, poverty. People in the Geniza world believed they had...

    (pp. 253-270)
    (pp. 271-277)
    (pp. 278-288)